Cunning Intelligence: The Wiley Craftsman and Practical Knowledge

Reza Negarestani would have you believe the human animal is done, finished, a natural creature that has seen its day, the last of a breed of natural and cunning intelligence born of organic necessity and a long progression of evolutionary interactions that have in our time come to a singular point of climax awaiting the next player on the stage of temporal succession: the artificial mind. Reza asks: “If the activity we call thinking is realized by such and such functional capacities and if these capacities or activities can be analyzed in terms of their realizers—or specific conditions, processes, and mechanisms required for their realization—then would it be possible to reconstruct or artificially realize such functions? … Or more simply, if thinking is such and such and if it is materialized in thus and so mechanisms and processes, then how can it be reformed and rematerialized in something else?”  He’ll explain:

“This is the question that shapes the field of artificial general intelligence as a program that seeks to integrate the intelligibility of different dimensions of thinking in its full perceptual, conceptual, and intentional complexity under one ideal task: designing a machine that has at the very least the complete package of human cognitive abilities with all capacities such abilities imply (diverse and comprehensive learning, different modalities and levels of knowledge and knowledge-use, reasoning, deliberation, belief formation independent of current perception, competencies enabled by different levels of semantic complexity as specialized and context-sensitive modes of computation, and so on).”1 (my italics)

The answer to “how can it be reformed and rematerialized in something else?” is the task of “designing a machine that has at the very least the complete package of human cognitive abilities with all capacities such abilities imply”. Reza joins all those posthuman and transhumanists who seek to escape the human, to exit the organic ties of natural and cunning reason, merge with our latest convergence technologies, begin that process of leaving the animal behind and becoming other, becoming machine. I don’t single him out as an individual, only that his thought clarifies a specific kernel of a new type of reason that he’s discovered in the heritage of Kant. If anything its helping me to understand many of the differences in philosophical perspectives over the past two thousand years still reside in the age old battle between the intelligible and the sensible, empirical and intuitionist, etc. modes of speculation. For him this new form should no longer be bound to the sensible or cunning animality of natural reason, but should be registered in a a-animal form of machinic intelligence divorced from intentionality…. a pure knowledge machine based on functional and computational models of mathematical and algorithmic complexity (levels of abstraction): autonomous, auto-adapting, and self-modifying.

One thing I’m convinced is that Reza is not so much wrong, as wrongheaded in his approach – as was Kant and others were before him, in wanting to overturn or displace natural reason and cunning intelligence without incorporating the power of their ancient heritage in practical knowledge and pragmatic wisdom. There is something wrong with this overthrow of tens of thousands of years of the growth of intelligence with its environmental and evolutionary pressures as if it were of little or no use for constructing machinic intelligence. Whatever these engineers, scientists, and philosophers might think they are constructing it will not be based on human intelligence, but will be something else, something other… I keep asking myself if there might not be an accommodation of modes of reason, a plurality of forms of intelligence that might be incorporated into such a modeling or construction set? Why must it be one form only? Why reduce it to cognitive and normative modes of intelligence based on spurious philosophies rather than facticity and factual empirical data of human intelligence in theory and practice? Why have humans sought to escape animality, and reason based on it? What is the bottom line in such thinking as this that seeks to escape and exit the animal base of intelligence, to bask in the light of anorganic bliss or machinic design divorced from its organic roots? Does all this come down to a displaced spiritualism under the guise of rational secular thought? Rather than a heaven beyond, we storm the reality studio and incarnate in a beyond of machinic life? Is this a displace theo-ontology, a theological secularism for the 21st Century? These are the questions I want to understand, which lead back to metaphysical not science as the root of such scientific or philosophical endeavors.

The Wiley Trickster: Greek Cunning and Practical Knowledge

In ancient Greece there was a form of practical knowledge in contrast to its cousin the more formal, deductive, epistemic knowledge of the philosophers. The term mētis, which descends from classical Greek and denotes the knowledge that can come only from practical experience.2 The anarchist writers (Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, Proudhon) who consistently emphasize the role of mutuality as opposed to imperative, hierarchical coordination in the creation of social order follow this same wiley cunning of the Greeks. Their understanding of the term “mutuality” covers some, but not all, of the same ground  covered by the term “mētis.”3

Following the illuminating studies of Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, we can find in the Greek concept of mētis a means of comparing the forms of knowledge embedded in local experience with the more general, abstract knowledge deployed by the state and its technical agencies. 4 The concept comes to us from the ancient Greeks. Odysseus was frequently praised for having mētis in abundance and for using it to outwit his enemies and make his way home. Mētis is typically translated into English as “cunning” or “cunning intelligence.” While not wrong, this translation fails to do justice to the range of knowledge and skills represented by mētis. Broadly understood, mētis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment. Odysseus’s mētis was in evidence, not only in his deceiving of Circe, the Cyclops, and Polyphemus and in binding himself to the mast to avoid the Sirens, but also in holding his men together, in repairing his ship, and in improvising tactics to get his men out of one tight spot after another. The emphasis is both on Odysseus’s ability to adapt successfully to a constantly shifting situation and on his capacity to understand, and hence outwit, his human and divine adversaries.4

Mētis is most applicable to broadly similar but never precisely identical situations requiring a quick and practiced adaptation that becomes almost second nature to the practitioner. The skills of mētis may well involve rules of thumb, but such rules are largely acquired through practice (often in formal apprenticeship) and a developed feel or knack for strategy. Mētis resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and nonrepeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply. In a sense, mētis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote. Knowing how and when to apply the rules of thumb in a concrete situation is the essence of mētis. The subtleties of application are important precisely because mētis is most valuable in settings that are mutable, indeterminant (some facts are unknown), and particular.5

There is not doubt that mētis is a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behavior which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience acquired over years of practice and apprenticeship to trades, etc.. It is applied to situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations that take a hand/eye coordination rather than a formal intelligence or cognition. How to sail, fly a kite, shear sheep, drive a car, or ride a bicycle all rely on mētis. One of the truth of mêtis is that it requires activity training rather than book learning. Teaching someone how to farm land from a book is almost impossible, with all the subtle inflections of day to day changes, nuances, temperature, climate, rain, sun, heat, cold variations that take place and enforce moment to moment changes in approach, technique, evaluations, etc. Things that would be difficult to teach in a class. Husbandry and other subjects taught in school for agriculture are usually the technical aspects of equipment, feed, chemicals etc. rather than the hands on practical knowledge of actually farming. Same thing for a fireman, policeman, carpenter, pipefitter, plumber, electrician, steel-worker, etc.. All trades and crafts require mētis rather than the typical formal knowledge of theory.

So one wonders what we will lose in our shift to the types of general artificial intelligence that Negarestani and many of the posthuman engineers, developers, AI experts have planned which will see such practical knowledge as just natural cunning and animal intelligence to be sloughed off and replaced with this more refined theoretical general artificial intelligence? I have a feeling we will be losing much more than we gain, and that these scientists will be surprised as well that their super intelligent machines work great at puzzles like Go and Chess, but would suffer defeat in farming the earth. Maybe it is our cunning and our crafty wiliness that has kept our species alive and well on planet earth for so long rather than those like Kant and his progeny that seek to escape this ancient mode of being.

Much of the world of mētis that we have lost is the all but inevitable result of industrialization and the division of labor. And much of this loss was experienced as a liberation from toil and drudgery. But it would be a serious error to believe that the destruction of mētis was merely the inadvertent and necessary by-product of economic progress. The destruction of mētis 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. (Scott, pp. 335-336)

The genius of modern mass-production methods, Frederick Taylor, saw the issue of destroying mētis and turning a resistant, quasi autonomous, artisan population into more suitable units, or “factory hands,” with great clarity. “Under scientific management… the managers assume … the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, formulae. . . . Thus all of the planning which under the old system was done by the workmen, must of necessity under the new system be done by management in accordance with the law of science.” 78 In the Taylorized factory, only the factory manager had the knowledge and command of the whole process, and the worker was reduced to the execution of a small, often minute, part of the overall process. The result was often remarkably efficient, as in the early Ford plants; it was always, however, a great boon to control and profit. (Scott, pp. 336-337).

As Scott remarks “universalist claims seem inherent in the way in which rationalist knowledge is pursued. Although I am no philosopher of knowledge, there seems to be no door in this epistemic edifice through which mētis or practical knowledge could enter on its own terms. It is this imperialism that is troubling.” As Pascal wrote, the great failure of rationalism is “not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognize any other’.  By contrast, mētis does not put all its eggs in one basket; it makes no claim to universality and in this sense is pluralistic. (Scott, p. 340).

Negarestani and others scientists, engineers, scholars etc. seek to suborn the human project of optimized intelligence to a notion of the Good, saying that any “form of intelligence that wills the good must emancipate itself from whatever or whoever has given rise to it. And those species that can recognize the good must not obstruct but rather expedite the realization of an intelligence that, even though it acknowledges them as integral to the intelligibility of its history, nevertheless won’t be impeded by them.” (here) What he is saying is simple, he is appealing to those reluctant humans who do not see the future of his machine based intelligence and artificial world as obstructionists. He seeks to instill a new ethos and normativity to – as he says, “expedite the task” of creating this superior intelligence, an imposed utopian of the “good,” our good (Law from Above). Such impositions smell of tyranny and chains. Such Promethean projects seem happily and merrily ready to wipe out human natural intelligence and cunning and to replace it with machinic enslavement to a higher order reason, a general artificial intelligence. For all his talk of emancipation, it seems to be emancipation only for that machinic (algorithmic) intelligence whose mission or task has nothing to do with the human. Shall we call this the real alien invasion? Humans have become nothing more than parasites, a utility in the hands of machinic intelligence, a stop-gap on the way to emancipation not of humanity, but of intelligence from humanity. What of those who obstruct and oppose it? What of them? Will humanity once left behind by these vast machines be rendered useless? What then?


  1. Negarestani, Reza. What Is Philosophy? Part Two: Programs and Realizabilities. © 2016 e-flux.
  2. Vernant, Jean-Pierre; Detienne, Marcel. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society University of Chicago Press (June 18, 1991)
  3. Scott, James C. (1998-03-30). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St) (pp. 6-7). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. ibid., p. 313
  5. ibid., p. 315-316
  6. ibid., p. 316

6 thoughts on “Cunning Intelligence: The Wiley Craftsman and Practical Knowledge

  1. I will just note that all working AI is mētis, black art, heuristics. Symbolic stuff is scaffolding. What’s funny is that Reza & Co. have mistaken the scaffolding for the building and that what they’re building is not even that. It’s just scenic design.

    As one of my professors said: “Formalism means nothing. It’s just shared vocabulary’.

    The first AI passing the Turing test would probably ask ‘why do you hate yourself so much, Dave ?’

    Liked by 3 people

  2. S.C;

    Thanks much for sharing about metis. Very relevant to a lot of the reading I’ve been doing lately about forms of knowledge that aren’t of the ‘logical’ bent –i.e; phronesis and metis. Metis is the street smart knowledge that’s downplayed today in favor of the methodical and analytical. Your post will be added to my metis file. Long live James Bond and metis! :>)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yea, been reading Vernant’s and Ditenne’s book on cunning and the one by Smith again… a part of me thinks that we’ve just disparaged certain forms of reason over others at the expense of their viability due to this whole metaphysical notion of escaping or transcending the flesh, the organic… Our whole philosophical heritage is based up to Nietzsche, Deleuze, and others on Transcendence rather than immanence and embeddedness in the organic. Reza and his ilk seek to develop machinic life beyond the organic as the next step in Platonic transcendence… I think we’ll lose too much.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s