Tekhne, or techne, is derived from the Greek term technê, meaning art, craft, technique, or skill, and plays an important role in Ancient Greek philosophy (in, for instance, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle) where it is most often opposed to epistêmê, meaning knowledge. The legacy of the various Greek philosophical negotiations with, and distinctions between, technê and epistêmê leave a lasting mark on European thought and knowledge from the medieval period through to the early modern period and into modern philosophy from Emmanuel Kant onwards up to and including 20th-century phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger) and its subsequent legacy, particularly in French philosophy. So, for instance, in Plato’s Protagoras, the myth of Epimetheus and Prometheus describes the latter’s theft of the technê of fire as a result of the former’s forgetfulness with regard to the bestowal of attributes to human beings. Here technê emerges as skill or technique but also as a more general founding moment of humankind’s technical and technological capacities. In The Republic Plato opposes the knowledge of reality and truth (of ideal forms) to the representational status of dramatic poetry (as a technê poietike or productive technique) and by extension to arts and literature in general. In this context the latter have a degraded status in relation to knowledge or truth, and this sets the stage for attempts that will be made by later philosophy to distance itself from aesthetic form or literary discourse. In Aristotle technê emerges within the distinction between art as productive technique and theoretical knowledge on the one hand (theoria) and action on the other (praxis). Aristotle’s distinctions have an influential afterlife in the medieval period and into the early modern, in particular in Emmanuel Kant’s definition of art as a skill or capacity for the production of things. The legacy of this long negotiation of Greek technê as art, productive technique, technical skill, or technology finds its way into 20th-century German phenomenology; in Edmund Husserl’s account of the rise of the scientific worldview and instrumental rationality in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1938) and in Martin Heidegger’s discourse on technological modernity, art, and the philosophical-poetic saying of being as it is developed from the 1930s onwards. The legacy of German phenomenological thinking relating to tekhne, understood as a fundamental dimension of both artistic and technological production, has a particularly strong afterlife in post–World War II French structuralism, poststructuralism, and contemporary philosophy. The influence of Husserl’s understanding of technicity can be traced directly in various ways into the work of, for instance, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Similarly, both Husserlian and Heideggerian discourse on tekhne find their way in the thinking of technology, ecotechnicity, and technics of contemporary philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy’s discourse on the technicity of art yields an affirmation of the irreducible plurality of aesthetic techniques and, in particular, a reorientation of possible ways of understanding the place of literature in the age of digital information technology.
In the early 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that Western modernity was “disenchanted.” He meant that modernity was defined by the growth of rationalization, which evacuated the shared spiritual meanings and purposes that had characterized premodern societies oriented toward supernatural worldviews. Rather than relying on “mysterious, incalculable forces,” Weber maintained that modernity relied on reason, science, and bureaucracies to manage existence. Weber’s disenchantment paradigm influenced thinkers throughout the 20th century, but since the turn of the 21st century, it has been substantially revised. Critics note that traditional “enchanted” worldviews continued to thrive within modernity, and varieties of specifically modern “re-enchantments” arose as well, consistent with the rational, secular, and consumerist currents of the modern world. Critics also observe that the paradigm was too one-sided in its stress on rationalization as the guiding principle of modernity. The paradigm’s binary opposition between reason and the irrational, or the dialectical transformation of the former into the latter, have been largely replaced by an emphasis on the complementary nature of reason and the imagination. (Indeed, contrary to Weber’s assertion, the imagination itself is now perceived as a “mysterious, incalculable force” within modernity, appealing to the secular and the religious alike.) The new paradigm highlights the intertwined nature of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, reason and the imagination, disenchantment and enchantment. Modernity is characterized less by outright disenchantment than by “disenchanted enchantment.”