Metis: the other kind of technological knowledge

We recently discovered a site of P2P-oriented psychotherapists, with a book review on the instrumental logic and reason that defines ‘state-based thinking’, and also points to a suppressed alternative: Metis.

First, a word about the book:Â (James Scott, Seeing Like A State, Yale UP)

The book “traces the emergence of the state’s need to first map and then regulate and bring onto its books, aspects of society that had otherwise escaped the reach of its administrative and legal grasp.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the definition of property rights via surveying and cadastral maps enabled the state to better enforce taxation (and conscription). Contemporary practices of inheritance and ownership were legible locally, but because of their vernacular language and diversity of incompatible measurements, tended to be invisible to the state. Through unified measurements, notably the metre, kilograms, and hectare, plus uniform map scaling and standardized legal language used in its documentation, and registration of property, the state grasped previously local knowledge, for instance about who owned what, and made it global, i.e. legible to the state.

Scott shows how, from these beginnings, through the globalizing of local vernacular knowledge, the infrastructure of the modern state grew, in a sense became the state. While we benefit from many such developments, Scott lists numerous state initiatives entered into with the best of intentions that due to hubris ended in tragedy or failure.

One of his contentions is that states often feel driven to colonize areas of daily life that are perceived as wild or which elude their jurisdiction. The mapping and measuring this entails generates categories of territory that can be manipulated centrally.”

The review continues with the contrast between Metis and Techne, and how the latter destroys the former:

In Seeing Like A State, Scott introduces the notion of Me๊tis, local practical knowledge, in contradistinction to Techne, technocratic, or scientific knowledge. M๊etis is the sort of practical ability needed to fly a kite, or a glider, ride a bicycle, drive a card, fly a glider, make love, care for a baby, or sustain a working alliance with a client. Me๊tis is experiential knowledge and it is almost always local. M๊etis is that subtle, intuitive perception that there is something significant being left out a client’s story. It is ‘the ability and experience necessary to influence the outcome—to improve the odds in a particular instance’. (p318) as for example in navigation, which to be successful requires responsiveness and improvisation and skillfully judged iterations of trial and error.

…the context of m๊etis is characteristically “situations which are transient, shifting disconcerting and ambiguous, situations that do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation or rigorous logic.” p320

Only by grasping the potential achievement and range of m๊etis is it possible to appreciate the valuable knowledge that high-modernist schemes deprive themselves of when they simply impose their plans. One reason m๊tis is denigrated, particularly in the hegemonic imperium of scientific knowledge, is that its findings are practical, opportune, and contextual rather than integrated into the general conventions of scientific discourse.’p323

‘M๊etis ‘is the mode of reasoning most appropriate to complex material and social tasks where the uncertainties are so daunting that we must trust our experienced intuition and feel our way.’p327

M๊etis knowledge is often so implicit and automatic that its bearer is at a loss to explain it. p329

M๊etis far from being rigid and monolithic, is plastic local and divergent. It is in fact the idiosyncrasies of m๊etis, its contextualness and its fragmentation that make it so permeable, so open to new ideas. M๊etis has no doctrine or centralized training; each practitioner has his or her own angle. In economic terms the market for m๊etis is often one of nearly perfect competition, and local monopolies are likely to be broken from below and outside. If a new technique works it is likely to find a clientele. p332

However despite its intrinsic value, as Scott reminds us throughout Seeing Like A State, m๊etis is constantly being eroded or denigrated or destroyed. The diffusion of modernity over the last 200 or more years has seen progress overwhelmingly shaped and driven by the antithesis of M๊etis, Techne.

Techne, as Scott argues, is a ‘characteristic of self-contained systems of reasoning in which findings may be logically derived from the initial assumptions. To the degree that the form of knowledge satisfies these conditions, to that degree is it impersonal, uniform and completely impervious to context’. p320 .

‘It would be a serious error to believe that the destruction of metis was merely the inadvertent and necessary by-product of economic progress. The destruction of m๊tis and its replacement by standardized formulas legible only from the center is virtually inscribed in the activities of both the state and large-scale bureaucratic capitalism‘. p325″