Professional practice and knowledgeable action in turbulent times: rediscovering mètis

Chapter forthcoming in: J. Higgs, D. Tasker, N. Patten, & J. Orrell (Eds.), Shaping wise futures: a shared responsibility. Leiden: Brill.

Abstract

There are many ways of describing and categorising the forms of knowledge bound up in professional practice. Some approaches use the language and constructs of empirical psychology to focus on how knowledge may be represented in the mind, and how it may be learned and applied. Other approaches draw inspiration from philosophy, preferring its accounts of how knowledge ought to be. Or sociology, and its careful descriptions of how knowledge is created by real people in complex institutions. All of these perspectives have merits and it is likely that real progress is to be made by finding and forming more of their connections. In this chapter, I tap into some relatively recent writing about a very old epistemic tradition, briefly revisiting Aristotle’s depiction of epistêmê, téchnê and phrónêsis, before adding and arguing for a fourth conception of knowledgeable action: mètis. On some accounts, mètis is everywhere in ancient Greek culture, yet the species of “cunning intelligence” it names is neither very visible, nor widely applauded. My aim is to remedy this ignorance, assist in the rediscovery and rehabilitation of mètis and show how it may be just what we need when looking for wiser ways of surviving – and even flourishing – in turbulent times.

Notes & quotes

I’m grateful to Joy Higgs and colleagues for an opportunity to write about something that’s intrigued me since I first read about it in a paper by Alain Wisner, 25 years ago: the concept of mètis.

“An essential concept is clearly shown here: the difference between the prescribed
work (the task) and the real work (the activity) linked to the concrete difficulties of the
situation, to their perception by the operator, to the strategies he adopts to satisfy the
demands of the work and, in particular, to the hazards. As Dejours (1993) wrote, one
cannot avoid considering the creative aspect of any work activity. This is an intelligence
of practice, a ‘metis’, the crafty intelligence already distinguished in ancient Greek
vocabulary (Detienne and Vernant 1974).” (Wisner, 1995, p597)

I’ve used the task – activity distinction in a lot of my work on design for learning. In this chapter, I explore some of the ideas associated with mètis itself. The following excerpts give a flavour of the argument. Let me know if you’d like a copy of the full text.

Extracts from the chapter

It is in the nature of turbulent times that doubts arise about the kinds of capabilities that will be of most value in navigating and shaping uncertain futures. In universities, for example, we periodically check the relevance of our courses and their alignment with workplace and community needs. Gaining a sharper understanding of valued capabilities can prove useful as a way of improving course, curriculum and assessment design. More careful attention to the nature of workplace skills and knowledge has informed the development of richer ideas about the attributes that make university graduates more employable. Among other things, such work has added a list of important “soft skills” to complement graduates’ mastery of specialist technical knowledge. The intellectual coherence and robustness of research and practical development work in this broad area is quite variable. For example, the difficulty of translating ideas between workplace vernaculars and psychologically-plausible accounts of knowing and learning is exacerbated by the lack of relevant expertise among many of those who shape university curricula. This makes it all the more important to strengthen our shared understanding of the capabilities education should be seeking to foster. Moreover, we need to look well beyond the narrow desiderata for employability and workplace productivity. Educating new professionals so that they can play knowledgeable roles, with other citizens, actively engaging in responses to major social and environmental challenges, is also vitally important. Working with others to find ethical transitions to more sustainable ways of living depends upon a wider and deeper set of capabilities …

In this chapter, I explain and provide an argument for the Greek concept of mètis. Some well-established accounts of knowledge and ways of knowing have traced routes back to Ancient Greek philosophy to find and repurpose three key terms: epistêmê, téchnê and phrónêsis.

Epistêmê involves abstract generalisations and can be positioned as the core of scientific ways of knowing. Téchnê refers to technical know-how: knowing how to get things done. Phrónêsis is practical wisdom, derived from social practice and imbued with moral purpose. All three can play a part in understanding wisdom and wise living practices – the topic(s) at the heart of this book. The rediscovery of a fourth term – mètis – can be credited to two French scholars of Greek literature, culture and myth: Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Mètis can be translated narrowly as a form of “wily intelligence”, archetypally displayed in hunting and fishing. It is strongly associated with Odysseus/Ulysses and the skills of the seafarer that are needed and tested in turbulent waters: mètis allows the sailor to outwit a malevolent storm and avoid disaster. Detienne & Vernant (1974/1991) make a bolder claim: that mètis is foundational. It is needed to engage with epistêmê, téchnê and phrónêsis.

The idea of mètis has been explored more recently by de Certeau (1988), Baumard (1999) and Mentz (2015). It has not been picked up widely in writing about education: exceptions being Lynch & Greaves (2016) and Markauskaite & Goodyear (2017), who mention it in passing. McKenna (2019) finds a place for mètis in thinking about the many contradictions encountered in organisational life.

The chapter proceeds as follows. I start by providing a short working definition of mètis and then, with the help of selected authors, elaborate on the core ideas – ideas that might be generative in thinking about education for professional practice and the shaping of wise futures. I locate mètis in relation to some existing terms used widely in the literature on ways of knowing: particularly epistêmê, téchnê and phrónêsis. I then turn to the main text on mètis: Michel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant’s Les Ruses de l’Intelligence: La Mètis des Grecs (1974). This wide-ranging exploration of early Greek literature and culture appeared in English translation in the 1980s, though most of the writing in English about mètis has been by Francophone authors. Detienne & Vernant explore, explain and elaborate on mètis by examining the wider semantic field which it inhabits. My summary is aimed at demonstrating the particular relevance of mètis for thinking about themes of professional work and wise living in a changing world. [The theme of the book.]

After that, I draw on more recent work by three authors who have used mètis in writing about: management, organisations and tacit knowledge (Baumard, 1994, 1999); tactics in the practices of everyday life (de Certeau, 1988) and workplace studies and ergonomics (Wisner, 1995a & b). The fourth author appearing in this section is Steve Mentz (2015), who combines an examination of mètis with an analysis of contemporary ecological challenges to argue, among other things, for a much more dynamic conception of the circumstances within which knowledgeable action is needed.

Finally, I explore some implications for professional knowledge and action. My sense is that there are many areas ripe for exploration, but I have focussed on what may be two aspects of a common challenge: (i) the framing (or “building”) of complex problems faced by professionals and their clients and (ii) marshalling the resources needed to fight for more sustainable ways of living and working.

In its title and content, the chapter dwells on the motif of “turbulent times”, which I take from Mentz (2015) and from Pitman & Kinsella (2019). Pitman and Kinsella have provided us with a thoroughgoing account of phrónêsis in professional practice (see especially Kinsella & Pitman, 2012). In their 2019 chapter, Pitman & Kinsella use the term “turbulent times” to refer quite broadly to contemporary contexts for professional work in which neoliberal economics and managerialist regimes of accountability have been eroding professional autonomy and making it harder to exercise professional responsibility in the service of clients’ best interests. This moral foundation is, they argue, a distinguishing feature of phrónêsis. As will become clear, in this chapter, drawing particularly on the imagery and arguments of Mentz, I use “turbulent times” with a greater sense of drama, uncertainty, volatility and threat. On this view, we need to supplement phrónêsis with mètis, to equip ourselves, our colleagues, and those who rely upon us, against various forms of shipwreck.

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Mètis is often glossed as a form of intelligence that is “wily”, “cunning” or “crafty”. It relies on the use of tricks to outwit a stronger or more capable opponent. On this reading, it is not a heroic virtue. Indeed, it would be disparaged by those who claim to love a “fair fight” on a “level playing field” and who denounce subterfuge. The redemption of mètis is quite straightforward, once one recognises this “fair play” framing of competition as a rhetorical device used by those who are accustomed to bringing superior resources to what is billed as a “fair fight” and/or by those who have no skin in the game. … There are, of course, occasions when joint subscription to a clear set of rules is important. But there are also many situations in which people are struggling to find a way forward in much less well-defined circumstances, where they are not matched evenly against well-behaved forces. Mentz (2015) makes the point most sharply by using the example of sailors’ skills in moments of threatened shipwreck – mètis as “skilled, tool-driven work … in which human actors modify and engage with a threatening and dynamic environment” (p77). The threats may not be so intense or overpowering in everyday workplaces, but the need to act smartly isn’t hard to find. For example, McKenna (2019) sees a role for mètis when managers in complex organisations are trying to reconcile competing, distorting pressures: such as the need to protect workers’ well-being in times of rampant cost-reduction.

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… On a first pass, we might say that what mètis adds [to epistêmê, téchnê and phrónêsis] is the ability to orchestrate these other ways of knowing, to outplay superior forces.  

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In exploring the many contexts in which mètis can be found, and valued, Detienne & Vernant do not restrict themselves to tales of gods and heroes. They find mètis at work, and of value, among hunters and fishers – whose qualities include “agility, suppleness, swiftness, mobility … [and] dissimulation, the art of seeing without being seen” (p30), vigilance and “a keen eye” (p31) – as well as among the animals hunted, including the fish …

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In sum, we can understand mètis as embodied intelligence in action: fit for uncertain times, ambiguous spaces and unequal competitions. In thinking about professional work, we can see mètis, more narrowly, as a resource for resolving – or side-stepping – the tensions and contradictions that arise in organisations that are being shaped by complex, competitive forces (McKenna, 2019). We can also see it more broadly as an inspiration for tackling much larger social, political and environmental challenges.

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Many recent accounts of the capabilities citizens will require if they are to play active roles in social innovation – working together to create more sustainable ways of living – emphasise the skills and dispositions needed to participate in complex, collaborative, inquiry-rich design (Yelavich & Adams, 2014; Manzini, 2015; Cottam, 2019; Costanza-Chock, 2020). The distribution of skills in such work can vary, with professionals and other experts taking greater or lesser roles (Goodyear, 2019). Drawing upon the idea of mètis, we can now take this a little further, building in some provision for the forms of dynamism that flow from conflict and environmental change. In short, many social innovations generate opposition from powerful interest groups jealous of their privileges. Few processes of social innovation unfold against the static background of an unchanging world. Identifying the workings of privilege, and improvising ways of resisting its powers, can only take us so far. Beyond that, successful innovation involves strategizing – and needs all the talents associated with mètis if entrenched powers are to be out-witted. Similarly, as Mentz (2015) argued, we no longer have the luxury of time, or a static world: stories imbued with mètis provide equipment for thinking in the midst of ecological catastrophe.  

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What does this mean for our conceptions of professional practice and its ways of knowing? For one thing, it promotes ways of framing the world, and the problems arising in professional work, that refuse to accept rigid notions of what is possible. But this is arguing for something that is much more than a critical reflex. Seeing the world, in Mentz’s terms, as Blue, not just Green, watery as well as sedimented, means learning to thrive in fluid, turbulent, sometimes alarming, situations – where judicious application of mètis can beat overwhelming odds and seize opportunities to save or make what we truly value. Using a different metaphor, this involves an ontological trick: refusing to see rigidities, and acting with others to make the most of uncertain times. 

To be clear, none of this absolves professionals from acting in line with the best of what is known about recurrent problems of practice – episteme and téchnê remain as relevant as ever. Nor does it mean we should extinguish phrónêsis: that “beacon of light, hope, and belief” in a morally-directed professional practice that puts the long-term needs of clients and society first (Kinsella & Pitman, 2012, p166). Rather, mètis can help animate epistêmêtéchnê and phrónêsis with the tactical prowess needed to take on the powerful, and win.   

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