Understanding the Shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: A Discussion of Techne
How are we to understand that the things of our world are the shadows which Plato speaks of in his allegory of the Cave? From the allegory, we can understand that our “shared knowledge” is the legacy to which we are indebted for the ways in which we come to interpret and to understand the things of our world and ourselves. This interpretation and understanding is what comes to constitute our world-view, and from this world-view our “lifestyle”. Human beings are the ‘indebted’ creatures, and part of this indebtedness is to the ‘shared knowledge’ of our Caves.
What is meant by technology in these writings is how the things of our world are revealed to us (their truth), and how we think they are constituted (what we think they are, what we think their “essence” is). Technology determines our ways of knowing i.e. the language and behaviors/actions (the ethics, for lack of a better term) that allow the things of our world to appear around us in the particular way that they do and which gives to those things their particular being and significance, and our sense of understanding of that being and significance. Atomic weapons and particle accelerators, computers and hand phones are the most obvious examples of how the things about us have come to be understood through the shared knowledge that has resulted from the particular ways of knowing as they were used and understood by our ancestors. But what does it mean to call these things ‘shadows’ and how can our disposition and comportment towards the things about us be an ‘enchainment’ towards and within them?
The Shadows of our Everydayness
All aspects of our lives are caught up in matrices or webs of meaning and concern, many of which are quite complex and also quite unknown to us. That they are unknown to us does not matter to us as we do not need to know all of or all about what we deal with in our everyday lives. The things of our world do not get to arrive and are not meant to arrive to us in their essence. The kinds of things that are revealed to us in our everyday lives, our lives in our Caves, are done so through the practices of technology, or more precisely, the techne of technology: things are ‘disposables’ for us; they are the ‘resources’ which we use (our “know-how” and our “being at home in”) to achieve our desired ends. The things do not get to stand as ‘objects’ for us, in our common understanding of the term ‘objects’. Our lives are ordered so that the things about us are ordered and await our use for our further ordering (disposables). This is what techne is; this is our ‘knowing our way about or within something’, and this understanding of techne goes back to Plato and Aristotle. It was understood as ‘know how’ or what we understand as technique, and it is also a ‘knowing one’s way about and within something’.
When we walk into our study rooms in the morning and see the computers on our desks, that computer is revealed to us as ‘resource’. It awaits our turning it on so that we may get its things, its data, ‘in order’ so that the things it is associated with (our daily tasks, our social network connections, etc.) may be brought into order. The things on the computer, its ‘information’, await our command for their transformation, distribution and movement about. The data on the computer is a ‘resource’ that awaits our commands in order to be ‘disposed’, transformed, distributed and moved about in the manners which we desire. This ‘know how’ on our part in dealing with the computer was called techne by the Greeks. We do not need to know what the computer is in its essence, for if we gave ourselves to this thinking about the computer, this would interfere with the efficiency of the computer in bringing about the ends for which it was designed (See the writing on “The computer does not impose…” in another section of this blog). But for the Greeks, techne and its products or results were always for another and in another i.e. when the architect designed the house, he designed it for someone else to live in (although he could design a house for himself, his work or concern is primarily designing buildings for others).
The uncanny thing regarding our disposition towards the things that are in our world is that those things are not allowed to and do not intrude into our worlds unless they do not operate with their usual efficiency and bring about their usual desired results. I am only conscious of the hardware and software of the computer when it breaks down, when Microsoft doesn’t work! When I look about the condo I am living in, I see that it too is ‘a machine for living in’ (according to the philosopher Martin Heidegger). The condo patiently awaits its tenant—whoever they are or might be—for their use of it in ordering their lives. The coffee mug on the shelf, the remote for the TV to update myself on the morning’s news, the breakfast cereal, the toothbrush in the bathroom all exist as resources to be used to get me ready for my day. These things, like the TV and the toothbrush, are supposed to disappear into our use of them; they are supposed to be there for us only insofar as they are useful without any impediment or any careful scrutiny. Their existence is banal and interchangeable: they have no reality for us as particular entities or things. Even should I say “This is my toothbrush” and no one else is to use it, even should the toothbrush have a cute Hello Kitty design on the handle, the toothbrush itself remains, in itself, anonymous and interchangeable. In other words, it does not exist for me as an object but only in so far as it can be ordered in bringing about the result (brushing my teeth) so that I may get on with my day’s main concern. Today’s breakfast cereal tastes exactly like yesterday’s and mine is exactly like that sold to someone in Jakarta or in Moscow. (The MacDonalds Big Mac might be the strongest relatable example of this banality and interchangeability; it will be the same no matter which Big Mac and which MacDonalds it is ordered from in any location in the world whether in Hong Kong or in New York: it is the essence of fast food that we do not think about it). This banality and interchangeability is what makes them what they are. It is their banality and interchangeability that gives them their status as resource. They are no one’s because they are everyone’s. Their nature is to only have a general nature, a nature that is exhausted in their impersonal usefulness to any one of us. Or, to relate it more directly to Plato’s allegory of the Cave, all these things are things the being of which fails to gather the many conditions of their coming to presence. They are the “shadows” of what they really are and it is exactly this “shadowness” that we require; the meaningfulness and the significance of the things must remain on the surface, it must have no depth. The marginal differences between the things is of no matter. One toothbrush is like all the rest. The important thing is that the differences, to the extent that they do not interfere with the thing’s usefulness to us, do not intrude on our use of them.
This banality and interchangeability of the things about us are not just accidents, not just matters of chance, and they are not just the unfortunate (or fortunate) features of living in a society rich enough to mass-produce these things: they are essential features of our need for these entities to readily disappear into our use of them. Our practical behaviour, our cognitions and cognitive activities, are given over to ordering for the sake of ordering (see the writings on the principle of reason or the logos of the techne + logos). The more easily and quickly a thing can be thoughtlessly taken up into its particular task of ordering, the more efficient it is. If we were to pay explicit attention to the tools/things that we use, that is, if we were to treat the tools/things as any more than merely shadows, this would distract us from the job that the tool/thing is meant to perform and make the successful completion of the task less likely. Reflection would make us “inefficient” and less “productive”. The things are made so that they may disappear in our use of them. The less we pay attention to the particular thing whatever that particular thing may be, the more efficiently we carry on with the tasks we have inherited from the social practices of our societies (our Caves) that are our “shared knowledge” and have come to make us who and what we are as well as those entities/things about us. How we see a child, a tree, a road has been pre-determined for us.
Our drive to ordering or commandeering for the sake of ordering or domination, “the essence of technology”, will seek to remove anything that impedes such ordering or commandeering, even God. Our drive to conquer chance or contingency, to secure the ordering and commandeering of the things of Nature for our own ends, to make of ourselves the masters of all things that are, has led to the disappearance of God or the gods.
Technology seeks to produce things that efface or hide their own conditions of production. We come to view ourselves as “unconditional”, as distinct selves, and all of our practices/actions are as relations of “condition” and “convenience” which, in turn, determine the decisions that we make towards things and towards others in our lives. Technology’s convenience and efficiency requires that we view our world and the other human beings in it as “shadows” or as disposables/resources. There is nothing in our lives that is not beyond the conditional and “bargains” i.e. our ability to negotiate a ‘contract’, to ‘make a deal’.
Caught up as we are in our everyday world of technological praxis, availing ourselves of the disposables/resources of the things which we bring to presence and use within our practical activities, neither the practices nor the things announce themselves as dependent for their being on the coming together of several material and conceptual events. The successful deployment of a TV remote or a hand phone requires that I am able to forget about them and about the conceptual “framing” or com-posing that makes them what they are. My ability to give myself over fully to the practices within which these entities function depends on my being able to “skip over” these entities or tools, and to “skip over” the practices/actions themselves. I must look past them without noticing them: they must not resist or become obtrusive to my consciousness or my actions. My being-in-the-practices, my “doing”, not my reflection upon the practices and things, is the mark of their full value for me and for us. The “good” of our practices is their ability to consume us, to obliterate any thought of how they have come to be for us, to make of ourselves an orderly part of the ordering of what there is i.e. a disposable resource. The most successful technology obliterates even ourselves as human beings as a condition of what gets done. The getting-it-done is all. This getting-it-done is our “enchainment” within the Caves that constitute our social practices. It requires an incredible and uncanny ability to not think, or, in other words, not to be fully human, and it constitutes our enslavement to technology.
Another triter example to help us understand how technology determines our actions and relations to each other is with the writer John Green. While Mr. Green has certainly “hit the mark” with his discussions of Aristotle’s hamartia in his popular online videos, he misunderstands Aristotle’s analysis of the ‘slavish’ behaviour of most human beings in relation to the technites or artisans of society in his critique of Aristotle’s understanding of freedom which Aristotle provides in his Nicomachean Ethics. Mr. Green is, undoubtedly, a techne, and his writings have enchanted many young people into a love of reading (including my own children). But in order for Mr. Green’s writings to reach my children, somewhere men and women must work the midnight shift on the printing presses to meet the deadlines imposed by others who wish to get his books to print and to the market. These workers are not Disney’s seven dwarves who whistle while they work nor are they Santa’s elves. They are engaged in the ‘slavish’ behaviour which has been determined by the technites in order to meet the ‘needs’ or ‘uses’ of our society, in this case, the love of Mr. Green’s books. Mr. Green is not a William Blake who sees his work from its inception as idea to the completion and perfection of its production. Mr. Green must rely on others, for another and in another, in order for his works to reach his audience. In the allegory of the Cave, Mr. Green is among the artisans who create the artifacts and tend the fire that lights up the shadows that constitute the walls of the Cave. This lighting, the works reaching his audience, requires the “slavish behaviour” of other human beings in order to bring it about.
When I look out my window and see the foreign workers of Singapore building the condominium next door, I see that these workers are ‘enslaved’ to the ends put forward in the blueprint of the “architect”. “Architect” is a combination of the two Greeks words: “arche” meaning ‘first’ or ‘primary’ and ‘techne’, the “artisan” who is the source of the ideas or ‘know how’ for the design of the condominium. The completion of the condominium is ‘in another’ or ‘through another’, and its use is ‘for another’, someone other than the architect herself. The workers are not free to go outside of the design of the techne, the plan in the blueprint. Their behaviour is ‘slavish’ in the words of Aristotle; it is the techne who enjoys the freedom to create even though she may be limited by the possibilities of the materials used to construct the building, etc.
The technites are the keepers of the fire in Plato’s allegory. They are the social and artistic engineers of today’s world. The enchainment of the prisoners in the Cave is their necessary slavish behaviour towards the “shadows” produced by these artisans and engineers who are themselves enchained by their viewing within technology: techne + logos. True freedom for human beings consists in establishing the proper relationship towards technology and the world-view which it constructs. The establishing of this comportment towards technology is a most difficult, painful journey and experience. More on this relationship later.