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- Man’s Relation to Technology: A Brief History
- Technology and Biological Anthropology
- Technology and Social/Cultural Anthropology
- The STS Approach
- Philosophical Anthropology and the Philosophy of Technology
- Classical Philosophical Anthropology
- Philosophy of Technology
- The Continental Approach to the Philosophy of Technology
- The Analytic Approach to the Philosophy of Technology
- Recent Developments: Bridging the Gap
- Conclusion and Future Directions
The term technology is derived from the Greek word techné. The Greek word refers to all forms of skillful, rule-based mastery in any field of human praxis, originally encompassing both arts (like painting, sculpture, writing, and the like) and craftsmanship (like carpentry, shipbuilding, architecture, and the like). The Roman culture uses the Latin word arts for these domains. Accordingly the medieval terminology distinguishes between the seven free arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music, astronomy) and the mechanical arts (e.g., agriculture, architecture, tailoring), thus prefiguring the later distinction between arts (as linked to the study of humans and the humanities) and technology (as linked to engineering and the study and science of nature).
The modern word technology finally refers either to procedures and skillful application of sciences for the production of industrial or manual products or to the products of these processes themselves. In this sense, technology nowadays encompasses only a part of the original Greek definition. The place of technology as being on the one hand a product of humans (being thus rooted in human anthropology and human tool usage), and being on the other hand based on a solid scientific understanding of the laws of nature (modern technology), can be seen as the two key features of contemporary and recent approaches to analyze and understand technology. Technology is then in one respect as old as humankind: Many approaches in anthropology thus refer to the general structure of technology in all of human history and relate it to the biological condition of humans. But recent anthropological thinking also reflects on the specific details of modern technology. It has often been argued that there is a structural difference between modern, science-based technology and older forms of craftsmanship of ancient or medieval types of technology. Therefore, a central question for modern anthropology is to analyze the consequences modern technology has for our picture of humankind: how to define man in the age of technology.
Man’s Relation to Technology: A Brief History
Reflection about the anthropological function of technology is probably as old as human self-reflection itself, since the ability to use tools and create cultural products has always been seen as a unique human feature, distinguishing humankind from most other animals (see also the next section on biological anthropology). But an analysis of technology was not at the center of political, social, anthropological, or philosophical thoughts before the development of the modern natural sciences and their counterpart, modern technology. Following Carl Mitcham (1994) one can roughly distinguish three approaches to technology before the 20th century, encompassing many topics that later became essential parts of contemporary discussions about technology (p. 275). The three approaches are as follows:
- In the ancient world, technology is looked at with certain skepticism. The use of tools is seen as necessary for survival, but also regarded as dangerous, since it might lead to human hubris and might raise the envy and anger of the gods. In this sense, mythological thinking envisions technology as, for example, stolen from the gods (the myth of Prometheus), and thus not properly belonging to humans. The extensive use of technology is often seen as leading to megalomaniac fantasies or unjustified overstepping of religious and ethical boundaries (e.g., myth of the Tower of Babel, myth of Icarus). Philosophical reflection, however, acknowledges the value of technology for an otherwise defenseless human being. Already Plato anticipates a central thought of modern anthropology: Human beings are poorly equipped for survival in nature. They need to compensate for this lack by developing skills of rational thinking and the usage of tools (this idea later becomes a central thesis of the famous anthropology of Arnold Gehlen ). But the emphasis in ancient philosophical anthropology lies not so much on man’s capacities to invent technology, but on man’s moral character (exemplified by ancient wisdom or medieval religiosity). The usage of technical knowledge should thus be kept within strict ethical boundaries.
- In the hierarchy of knowledge, ethical wisdom is regarded in principle as higher than and superior to technological skills. Socrates points to the question that we should not only seek knowledge about how to do certain things (technical knowledge), but rather about whether we should perform certain actions (ethical knowledge); this idea can also be found in the medieval distinction between the (superior form of a) life in contemplation (vita contemplativa) and the (lower) life in active involvement (vita activa). Ancient and medieval technology is thus embedded in an anthropological vision, in which human virtues play an important role. Different forms of virtues are combined in the original crafts, as opposed to the later, modern differentiation of these virtues: In craftmanship one can find a union of economical virtues (e.g., efficient usage of limited resources), technical virtues (creating new entities that did not exist before), and often also aesthetic virtues (a sense of beauty that adds an aesthetic component to these newly created entities going beyond the modern idea that “form follows function”). In the Greek world, these three skills are combined in the realm of poiesis, while in modernity they are separated in the three domains of economy, technology, and art—each relatively independent of the others (Hösle, 2004, p. 366).
- A profound change in the evaluation of technology emerges with modernity, a position that Mitcham (1994) summarizes as Enlightenment optimism. Already in the writings of Francis Bacon (1620), the new science of nature and its application to experimental and technological research is highly welcomed. Progress in technology is seen as very beneficial to humankind, as it may lead to the cure of diseases, mastery over nature, and a constant progress toward a more human society. Many utopian writings mark the beginning of early modern thoughts in which technology is seen as essential in leading to a brighter future for humankind (e.g., Thomas More’s Utopia , J. V. Andreae’s Christianopolis , F. Bacon’s New Atlantis ). In a similar line of thought, Enlightenment thinkers defend science and modern technology against attacks from religious conservatism, pointing at the beneficial consequences of technological and scientific progress.
- A countermovement to the Enlightenment is Romanticism, which accordingly has a different view on technology, referred to by Mitcham (1994) as Romantic uneasiness. Again, the central thought is an anthropological perspective in which man is seen as being good by nature, while it is civilization that poses the danger of alienating man from nature and from his fellow man, focusing only on his rational capacities and suppressing his emotional and social skills. Already Vico (1709) opposed Cartesian rationalism and feared that the new interest in science would lead to a neglect of traditional humanistic education. Rousseau’s critique of modern societies then became influential, seeing an advancement of knowledge and science, but a decay of virtues and immediacy (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences; Rousseau, 1750). With the age of industrialism, the negative social consequences of modern labor work become the scope of interest of social theorists, leading up to Marx’s famous analysis of modern societies (see subsequent section on cultural and sociological anthropology). In opposition to the positive utopias centered on technology in early modernity, the 20th century then sees the literary success of pessimistic dystopias, in which often technological means of suppression or control play an important role (e.g., already in M. W. Schelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus  and later in H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau , A. Huxley’s Brave New World , George Orwell’s 1984 , and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 ).
The tension between approaches praising the benefits of technology (in the spirit of the Enlightenment) and approaches focusing on negative consequences (in the spirit of Romanticism) still forms the background of most of the contemporary philosophical and anthropological debate; this debate circles around an understanding of modern technology, often rooted in the different “cultures” of the humanities and the sciences. It can be regarded as being a particularly vivid opposition at the beginning of the 20th century, that only later gave room for more detailed and balanced accounts of technology (some classics of the debate being Snow, 1959; McDermott, 1969).
Recent contributions toward a deeper understanding of the usage and development of technology stem from such different disciplines as biology, sociology, philosophical anthropology, metaphysics, ethics, theory of science, and religious worldviews. This research paper aims at a brief overview of important topics in the debate over technology during the 20th century to the present time. Three anthropological perspectives will be distinguished, depending on the main focus of anthropological interest. This will start with a brief summary of the biological anthropological perspective on technology, move on to those theories which focus more on social or cultural aspects, and conclude with more general philosophical anthropologies. This research paper is thus not chronologically organized, but tries to identify common themes of the debate, even though sometimes the topics might overlap (e.g., the case of Gehlen, a philosophical anthropologist who starts from a biological perspective and then moves on toward a more social view on technology).
Technology and Biological Anthropology
In contemporary anthropology, technology becomes a central issue for at least two different reasons:
- From a biological perspective the usage of tools is regarded (next to the development of language and a cognitive rational apparatus) as one of the key features of humanization. Biological anthropology thus initially focuses on the differences and similarities of tool usage in humans and animals, trying to understand the role technology plays in general for an understanding of humans’ biological and social nature. With the focus on human evolution, attention is often drawn to the question of which role technology played at the beginning of humankind.
- While in this way always being a part of human culture, technology becomes arguably one of the single most influential key features of society only in modernity. According to Max Weber, science, technology, and economy form the “superstructure” of modernity, while they all share a common “rationality” (mainly of means-ends reasoning in economy and technology). The experience of the powers and dangers of modern technology (as in industrialized labor work, medical progress, nuclear energy and weapon technology, environmental problems due to pollution, and extensive usage of resources, etc.) has triggered many social, political, and philosophical reflections that—in opposition to biological anthropology—aim primarily at understanding the specifics of modern
Let us look at these two tendencies in turn, starting with the biological perspective, before moving to the social or cultural anthropology of technology.
Biological anthropologists are interested in the role technology played during humanization, and they attempt to give evolutionary accounts of the development of tool usage and technology and compare tool usage in man with tool usage in other animals. The development of technology has often been regarded as an evolutionarily necessary form of adaption or compensation. Since most of man’s organs are less developed than those of other species, he needed to compensate for this disadvantage in the evolutionary struggle for life (see Gehlen, 1980). Initially the usage of tools was considered a unique human feature, distinguishing the genus Homo from other animals (Oakley, 1957), but research on tool usage in different animals, especially chimpanzees, led to a more or less complete revision of this thesis (Schaik, Deaner, & Merrill, 1999).
Nowadays, many examples of tool usage in the animal kingdom are known (Beck, 1980). For example, chimpanzees use sticks to fish for termites, and elephants have been described as having a remarkable capacity for tool usage. Even though tool usage must thus be regarded as more common among animals, attention still needs to be drawn to the specifics of man’s tool usage, which arguably in scope and quality goes beyond what is known from the animal kingdom. It has been pointed out that our biological anatomy offers us several advantages for an extended usage of tools: walking erectly frees the two hands, which can then be used for other purposes. Furthermore, the position of the human thumb and short straight finger are of great benefit, especially in making and using stone tools (Ambrose, 2001). Still debated, however, is whether social and technological developments go hand in hand or whether one of the two factors is prior.
Even though many anthropologists tended to see social behaviors and cultural revolutions mostly as a consequence of a change in tool usage or a development of new technologies, it has also occasionally been argued that the development of social skills precedes the development of technical skills (e.g., in joint group hunting). It has additionally been acknowledged that chimpanzees also pass over some of their technical knowledge through the mechanism of learning and establishing cultural “traditions” that resemble, to some extent, human traditions (Wrangham, 1994; Laland, 2009). But there seems to be a specific difference in human and primate learning, namely in the fact that human children learn tool usage mainly via imitation and by simply copying a shown behavior, even if it is not the most efficient solution to a given problem. Opposed to this, chimpanzees seem to learn through a process called emulation, which implies that they diverge from the paradigmatic solution that has been “taught” to them. It has been argued that learning through imitation has been selected in humans, even though it is a less flexible strategy, because it is a more social strategy of learning (Tomasello, 1999, p. 28). In this way, biological anthropology mirrors a debate in social anthropology about the role of technology; this can be seen either as a driving force born out of necessity that calls for social changes (technical determinism), or as highly mediated or even constructed by culture (social constructivism).
Technology and Social/Cultural Anthropology
As already mentioned, technology was identified early on as a key feature of modern society (Misa, Brey, & Feenberg, 2004). Many studies have been written about the impact of modern technology on society, focusing mainly on the industrial revolution (e.g., Haferkamp, 1992; Pressnell, 1960; Smelser, 1969) or on the more recent revolution of the information society (e.g., Castells, 1999; Nora, 1980), as well as on the impact of technological change on traditional societies.
The analyses of Karl Marx and the Frankfurt School are influential, not only in trying to grasp the role of modern technology in society, but also in hinting on potential anthropological roots of technology and their essential interrelation with social aspects of the human condition. Marx insisted that the study of technology holds the highest relevance for human sciences, since it reveals the way humans deal with nature and sustain life (Marx, 1938). An essential feature of man’s nature is that he has to work in order to sustain his life, that he is the “toolmaking animal” or—as he has later been called—the Homo faber. Marx analyzes the role of technology in Chapter 13 of his first volume of Das Kapital. He argues that the division of labor becomes fostered through machines, which at the same time replace more and more traditional manpower and can furthermore be operated by less skilled employees, thus leading to very bad labor conditions for the working class. Technology in general is, however, still greeted as an option to make humans’ lives easier; it is mainly the social distribution of the possession of the means of production that Marx regards as problematic. (Also later thinkers, inspired by Marxian thought, tend to see technology as an important means toward establishing a better future.) On the other hand, at the same time, technology is seen as rooted in man’s will to dominate nature.
Following this later insight in particular, Theodor Adorno argues that Western civilization has developed powerful tools to ensure its self-preservation against nature. Technical rationality is regarded as the exercise of strategic power to dominate (external) nature, but it is at the same time also leading to a suppression of the inner nature of man (Adorno, 1979). The main strategy of this rationality is quantification, which lies at the heart of the mathematical-scientific interpretation of nature and the development of modern technology. At the same time it brings forth a type of rationality, which leads to a selfmutilation. The will to exercise power becomes the main feature of modern rationality, thus leading to a dialectic that turns the noble aims of the Age of Enlightenment into a morality of humankind that is its very opposite: A new barbaric system of oppression and dictatorship arises, using technology for totalitarian purposes.
While Adorno seeks redemption mainly in the arts (Adorno, 1999), seeming to promise the possibility of a completely different kind of subjectivity, Jürgen Habermas (1971) tries to propose an antidote; this does not lie outside of modern-Enlightenment rationality, but rather returns to its original intention. Habermas argues with Marx and Adorno, asserting that technological knowledge has its anthropological roots in the will to dominate nature and therefore serves a strategic interest of man. With this, man is not only Homo faber but also a social animal. Besides the strategic means-end rationality he also possesses a communicative rationality, aimed at defining common moral values and engaging in discourse over ethically acceptable principles of actions. In thus distinguishing two types of rationality, Habermas tries to incorporate much of the German tradition of cognitivistic ethics into his approach. It is important for Habermas that technology be brought under the control of democratic decision-making processes; his discourse ethics has thus helped to inspire ideas of participatory technology assessment.
Outside the Frankfurt School, technology has not been at the center of social and cultural anthropology, as has been often complained (Pfaffenberger, 1988, 1992). Langdon Winner (1986) coined the term technological somnambulism to refer to those theories that neglect the social dimension of technology. According to this dominant tradition, the human-technology relation is “too obvious” to merit serious reflection. Technology is seen as an independent factor of the material and social world, one that forms a relatively autonomous realm of ethically neutral tools to acquire human ends. But already Winner argues that technology is essentially social and is shaped by cultural conditions and underlying value decisions. He claims in a famous article (Winner, 1980) that Long Island’s low bridges were intentionally built in a way that would keep buses away, making it more difficult for the poor, and mainly the black population, to reach the island. Even though this particular claim has been challenged, Winner seems to be correct in pointing out that value decisions play a role in creating technology, and that the social value system leaves its trace in technological artifacts.
The STS Approach
In line with this renewed interest in social issues, a new field of studies related to technology emerged in the 1980s, focusing explicitly on this neglected relation between society and technology: the so-called STS approach. Having been labeled the “turn to technology” (Woolgar, 1991), science and technology studies (STS) analyzes society’s impact on science and technology, and science and technology’s impact on society. Several writers draw attention to the social shaping of technology. An influential author is Bruno Latour, who contributed to both the initial appeal to social constructivism (that he later gave up) and the development of the actor-network theory; both are at the center of the debate about the theoretical underpinnings of STS.
Woolgar and Latour employ a social-constructivist perspective in their early case study on the production of scientific results, in which they analyze scientists’ attempt to establish and accumulate recognition and credibility of their research through the “cycle of credibility” (Latour, 1979). The main idea of social constructivism is the attempt to interpret alleged objective “facts” in the social world as being socially constructed, so that knowledge of the world and its interpretation depends on social mechanisms and cannot be traced back to objective facts (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). In this sense technology is also not an objective, independent given, but shaped by social ideas and societal interpretations.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Latour became one of the main proponents of the actor-network theory (Latour, 2005); this is also attractive to scholars who reject social constructivism, since it can be combined with the idea that not all of technology is socially constructed. The social-constructive interpretation of this theory aims to develop a framework in which society and nature, or society and technology, are not separated. The idea of technology as a sociotechnical system implies that agent and tool form a unity, which cannot be explained completely by referring to one of the two elements in isolation. According to this idea, technological artifacts dispose over some form of agency and can be—to some extent—regarded as actants. This ascription of intentionality and agency to technical systems is, however, highly debated. The debate between realism and social constructivism has thus not been settled.
Philosophical Anthropology and the Philosophy of Technology
Research in philosophical anthropology peaked in early 20th-century Germany, discussed in the next section. But outside of anthropological discussions, the topic of technology became an important issue for philosophy, so in this brief overview, important contributions and themes of the continental and analytic tradition will be discussed next. Finally, more recent developments and topics in the philosophy of technology will be sketched that do not try to revitalize a philosophical anthropology, but that nevertheless do touch in one way or another on anthropological perspectives on technology.
Classical Philosophical Anthropology
Classical philosophical anthropology was mainly interested in understanding the essence of human nature and often draws specific attention to the role of technology. Important contributions came from Gehlen, Plessner, and Scheler during the first half of the 20th century. The attempt to link technology to a biological interpretation of man in Gehlen’s early works especially deserves attention. Given his biological constitution, man must be seen as deficient by nature (Mängelwesen), since he is not endowed with instinctive routines and is not adapted well to a specific natural environment, but rather is open to the world (weltoffen). He compensates for this deficiency with the help of his mental capacities and tool usage. Gehlen interprets human language and human institutions as relief mechanisms (Entlastungen) that help him to interpret and organize the plentitude of impressions (the sensory overload, Reizüberflutung) that he is exposed to. Most technologies can thus be regarded to be either organ-amplification (Organverstärkung) or organ-replacement (Organersatz) (Gehlen, 1988). In Man in the Age of Technology (1980), Gehlen focuses more on sociological perspectives of technology. He identifies two essential cultural breaks marking principle changes in humans’ world interpretation and social organization, both of which are linked to technological developments: (1) the neolithic revolution of sedentism, marking the passage from a hunter’s culture to a society of agriculture and cattle breeding, and (2) the industrial revolution in modernity (Gehlen, 1980).
Scheler also analyzes man’s rational capacities from a biological perspective, but he concludes that a purely naturalistic approach does not render justice to our selfunderstanding. The human ways of sustaining life are from an often inefficient biological perspective. Therefore, it must be pointed out that the main function of human knowledge is not only to strategically ensure humans’ own survival, but also to be directed toward the discovery of moral values and toward the process of self-education (Bildung). Humans not only live in an environment, but also reflect on their place in the world—a capacity that marks a fundamental difference between humans and animals (Scheler, 1961).
This type of philosophical anthropology came to a certain end when the main interest of philosophers shifted from understanding “man” to understanding “society” during the 1960s. With the recent developments of sociobiology, philosophers have taken a renewed interest in the linkage between biological and cultural interpretations of man. Let us look at some tendencies of later research in the philosophy of technology.
Philosophy of Technology
If we look at a philosophical interpretation of technology, we find the first origins of a discipline of the philosophy of technology by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century (see Kapp, 1877, and Dessauer, 1933). During the first half of the 20th century, the philosophical analysis of technology can, roughly speaking, be divided into two main schools of thought: the continental, often skeptical approach, and the analytical, often optimistic approach. As with all such very generic typologies, this distinction likewise does not claim to be more than an approximation, while the general tendency of recent research seems precisely to be to overcome this gap and to aim for a convergence or crossfertilization of these two approaches. Therefore, what follows is an ideal-type distinction that tries to make some of the basic ideas of these two approaches more visible and aims at understanding their more general features.
The continental approach originally focused on a humanities-centered perspective on technology, its (mainly negative) consequences for society, and its rootedness in a problematic feature of human anthropology (the will to power), and finally tried to understand technology as such (its “essence”). The analytic approach, on the other hand, originally focused on a more science-based understanding of technology, its (mostly beneficial) potential for the progress of societies, and its rootedness in a rational (scientific) way to approach nature, and it finally tried to look not at technology as such but at specific problems or specific types of technologies.
The Continental Approach to the Philosophy of Technology
In the continental philosophy of technology, technology is often interpreted as closely linked to a certain form of consciousness, a form of approaching nature (and also human interaction) from a perspective that is rooted in a scientific understanding of the world, which itself is rooted in the will to dominate nature. This approach is seen to replace or at least to endanger a value-based approach to reality. In this sense, Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology regards science and technology as a mere abstraction from the fullfledged real experience of the world we live in. In this way, the sphere of technical knowledge is limited and needs to be guided by value decisions, which do not have their basis in scientific or technical knowledge, but stem from our ethical knowledge of our life-world.
While technology is not at the center of Husserl’s interest, José Ortega y Gasset (1914/1961) was one of the first philosophers who aimed at a deeper understanding of the relation between human nature and technology. Rejecting Husserl’s later emphasis on the transcendental subject, he insists that human nature can only be understood by the formula “I am I plus my circumstances.” Philosophy can thus neither start from the isolated subject (as in idealism), nor can it interpret everything from the perspective of the material conditions (as in materialism). Rather, it must find a middle ground. The essence of humans is for Ortega not determined by nature; this distinguishes humans from plants or animals or from physical objects—all having a defined, specific given nature. Man must determine his own nature by himself by way of the creative imagination. Technology is interpreted as the material realization of this self-image; it is a projection of an inner invention into nature. According to Ortega, technology evolved in three phases: It started as a collection of accidental findings of means toward ends by pure chance. In a later state, these findings became traditions and skills that were passed on to the next generation. Modern technology marks a radical difference, since it is based on a systematic scientific approach, which forms the third phase. This approach, however, tends to become the dominant mode of thinking, so that man’s creative capacity for imagination (which is at the heart of man’s very essence) is in danger of being replaced or losing its importance (Ortega y Gasset, 1914/1961).
Martin Heidegger’s (1977) analysis of technology in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” is also very influential. His philosophy aims at understanding the notion of being, which—so claims Heidegger—has been misinterpreted or neglected by traditional European philosophy. Since man is the only known being that can ask for the meaning of being, Heidegger’s analysis in Sein und Zeit starts from an interpretation of the existence of such a being (Da-sein). Even though his book is meant to be an exercise in philosophical (fundamental) ontology, it offers many anthropological insights about the specific human form of existence, in which the knowledge and the denial of one’s own mortality form essential human features.
In his later work, Heidegger (1977) understands technology as a specific form of disclosing reality. Asked for the essence of technology, people usually refer to it as a means to achieve an end (instrumental definition), or they define technology as an essential human activity (anthropological definition). Even though Heidegger admits that these definitions are “correct,” they do not disclose the essential truth about technology for two reasons. Essentially, (1) technology is not a tool for achieving an end, but rather the perspective under which everything that exists is seen only as a potential resource to achieve an (external) end. Furthermore, (2) this disclosure of reality is not a human-directed practice: Humans are driven objects rather than being themselves the active subjects. According to these conclusions, the instrumental and the anthropological definitions of technology do not capture the whole truth of technology. Let us look at these two points in turn, as follows:
- The essence of technology lies, according to Heidegger, in its capacity to disclose reality (entbergen) under a very specific, limited perspective. This perspective reduces everything to a potential object for manipulation, a resource (Bestand) for further activity. Technology is thus a way to disclose something hidden. Following his analysis of the Greek word for truth (aletheia) as referring to something undisclosed, he sees thus a “truth” at work, under which reality presents itself as a mere collection of resources for external purposes, rid of all inner logic and teleology that was so prominent in traditional understandings of nature. Heidegger points at the different ways in which a river is seen by a poet in an artwork (Kunstwerk), on the one hand, and, on the other hand, in which the same river is seen by an engineer as a potential resource for energy generation in a power plant (Kraftwerk).
- Heidegger then goes on to claim that opposed to the image of man being in control of technology and using it for his purposes, he should rather be seen as being provoked (herausgefordert) by this coming to pass. Heidegger clearly wants to reject the optimistic idea of “man being in control” through the help of modern technology and, rather, revert it to its opposite: man being driven by a force greater than himself. He calls this driving force the essence of technology, the en-framing (Ge-stell) that prompts humans to look at nature under the idea of its usability. In doing so, man is in highest danger, but not because of potential hazards or specific negative consequence of modern technology. The danger is, rather, that he loses sight of understanding nature in a different way and that he might finally end up understanding also himself and other humans only as potential “resources” or potential material for manipulation and instrumentalization. Heidegger suspects that art might be a potential antidote to this development: In Greek, techne originally encompassed also the production of beautiful objects in art. Thus, a deeper understanding of technology might reveal its relation to art and might point to the fact that art offers a potential answer to the challenge that modern technology poses to human self-understanding.
Certainly, Heidegger’s contribution to the modern philosophy of technology lies more in highlighting this essential dimension of technology as a threat, rather than in elaborating strategies to counter these inherent dangers. Heidegger’s article is arguably the single most influential essay written in the philosophy of technology, although his mannered, often dark language allows for different interpretations and often lacks the clarity of philosophical contributions from the analytical school. But the idea that “technology” and technological rationality is a limited form of looking at reality—one that is in strong need of a countervision, and that might further lead to a deformation of intersubjective human relations and that finally affects human self-understanding—has ever since been a prominent topic in different thinkers from Adorno and Marcuse to Jürgen Habermas, as illustrated earlier. This idea has often been linked with an ethical concern: Modern technology calls for new ethical guidelines, and despite some beneficial consequence, poses a potential threat to human existence. Much of this ethical debate about modern technology was triggered by its potential to radically destroy human life, be it through nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons or by consequences of environmental pollution and climate change.
Heidegger’s pupil Hans Jonas (1984) was one of the first philosophers to emphasize the need for a specific “ethics for the age of technology,” feeling that modern technology urges us to radically reconsider our ethical intuitions in order to meet the new challenges. Nevertheless, based on humans’ anthropological need to seek protection against nature, classical technology never fully reached this aim. Nature remained always more powerful than men, and the consequences of human actions were mostly not far-reaching. Traditional ethics could therefore focus on the “near and dear.” Modern technology, however, radically changes the picture: Its scope is unknown in premodern times; its consequences and potential dangers could be fatal, far-reaching, and irreversible. Focusing on the environmental problems of modern societies with, as the darkest perspective, the possible extinction of humankind, Jonas suggests broadening the scope of our ethical obligations: If our actions are more far-reaching than ever before in the history of humankind, we need to acquire a new ethical countervision. Jonas finds this remedy in the anthropological feature of our feelings of responsibility. Responsibility often expresses an asymmetrical relation, as in parents who feel responsible to care for their children. The old ethical intuition to derive obligations from the rights of free and conscious individuals, able to participate in argumentation and democratic decisions, seems to be too narrow to account for most environmental problems: Future generations are not yet born, animals and nature cannot in the same sense be regarded as having rights, as has been established in previous ethical approaches to the idea of universal human rights. But obligations may also stem from the idea of responsibility, from the idea that something has been given into our care.
The Analytic Approach to the Philosophy of Technology
Analytic philosophy is rooted in the quest for clear conceptualization, sound argumentation, and scientific precision. For early analytical philosophy in the Vienna Circle, the mathematical nature of scientific knowledge could serve as a role model for knowledge as such: hence, the need for and the extended usage of logical formalization within analytic philosophy. Skeptical of the quest to address the essence of things like “the technology” in general, analytic philosophers very often focus on concrete problems linked to very specific technologies. Even though many thinkers in the line of logical positivism thus greeted scientific knowledge as the highest form of knowledge, this did not always lead to an unbalanced embrace of technology. In Bertrand Russell (1951), we find a skeptical attitude toward the social benefits of technology, especially if it is linked with totalitarian ideology. Thus, he stresses the importance of democratic education; if placed in a democratic context and applied in well-defined careful steps, technology is, however, beneficial for progress in a way in which Karl Popper (1957) typically advertises as piecemeal social engineering. Important early contributions to an analytic philosophy of technology stem further from Mario Bunge (1979), whose ideas closely link to the program of logical empiricism and oppose the “romantic wailings about the alleged evils of technology” (p. 68).
Recent Developments: Bridging the Gap
Even though this distinction between humanities’ philosophy of technology and engineering’s philosophy of technology (Mitcham, 1994) marks the background of the philosophical discussion on technology in the early 20th century, the debate soon moved beyond this opposition. Three tendencies seem to be of importance.
First, continental philosophy was moving away from the attempt to come up with metaphysical, religious, or anthropological answers to the big questions. With the emergence of postmodernism, the alleged end of the “big stories” was proclaimed, thus making a metaphysical approach less fashionable. Appealing to ontology (as in Heidegger), to metaphysics, or to religious ideals (as in Jonas) seemed less promising. Even though early continental philosophy was very critical with regard to strategic rationality and technology, it has been criticized by postmodernism as not moving radically beyond the central modernistic Western ideal of a rational philosophical synthesis or universal world interpretation.
Second, the focus within the philosophy of technology moved toward a renewed interest in looking at concrete technologies and the challenges they pose for analytical and ethical reflection, a movement that has been called the empirical turn in the philosophy of technology (Kroes, 2001).
Third, different attempts were soon made to bridge the gap between the two camps. In post-world-war Germany, the Society of German Engineers (VDI) established a dialogue about the responsibilities of scientists and engineers, addressing topics and worries of the humanities. The experience of the massive and systematic use of technology for organized mass murder during the holocaust and the development of technology for modern warfare, including the development of the nuclear bomb, raised issues about the responsibilities of engineers. The debate of the VDI meetings resulted in a series of important publications on the philosophy of technology (Rapp, 1981); these must be recognized as an important attempt to synthesize different strands of philosophical thinking, even though it can be asked how far the VDI school was really successful in transcending its engineering-philosophical origins (Mitcham, 1994, p. 71).
Along a similar line, authors have tried to combine the phenomenological approach with American pragmatism, thus bridging insights of a more continental and a more analytical tradition. Common to phenomenology and pragmatism is the idea of the priority of praxis over theory and thus the tendency not to see technology as applied science but, rather, science as a purified or abstract form of (technological) praxis. Following the works of John Dewey, thinkers like Paul T. Durbin (1992), Larry Hickman (1990), and Don Ihde (1979) have tried to establish a pragmatist phenomenological approach to technology. The insights of Don Ihde that each technology either extends human bodily experience (e.g., the microscope) or calls for human interpretations (e.g., the thermometer) are of particular anthropological interest. If technology amplifies our experience, then it always does so at the cost of a reduction: In highlighting or amplifying certain aspects of reality, it makes invisible other aspects of this very same reality (as in an ultrasonic picture) (Ihde, 1979). The way technology thus “mediates” our interpretation of the world, and our actions within it, has been a further object of extended research (e.g., Verbeek, 2005).
A further attempt to bridge humanist and engineering tradition has been made by Carl Mitcham (1994), who nevertheless tries to defend the priority of the humanist perspective, but at the same time develops an analytic framework that should serve for further investigation within the philosophy of technology. He distinguishes among technology as object (tools), as type of knowledge, as activity, and as volition (expression of man’s intention or will). The 1980s and 1990s saw an increased interest, especially in the analyses of the first three aspects of this distinction.
With regard to the fourth aspect, ethical issues have been a central topic for many philosophers of technology, ranging from debates about the responsibility of scientists and engineers, medical and bioethics, business ethics, technology assessment, risk assessment and decision under uncertainty, to environmental ethics. Two of these fields are of particular interest from an anthropological perspective: In environmental ethics, those theories might shed light on anthropological questions seeking to interpret the environmental crisis as essentially rooted in human nature. It has been argued that it is a human tendency to value short-term (individual) interests more highly than long-term (collective) interests, thus putting a pessimistic neo-Hobbesian anthropology in the middle of the debate. According to Garrett Hardin (1968), it is this very human tendency (together with a mismatch in the growth of the human population that exceeds the growth of the supply of the food or other resources) that leads to the “tragedy of the commons.” Research in game theory and environmental sociobiology indicates the possibility of holding a more optimistic view of the development of cooperative strategies in humans (Axelrod, 1984), though the issue is still debated and there is room for a more pessimistic perspective, as has been defended early on by some sociobiologists (Dawkins, 1978) or recently by some philosophers (Gardiner, 2001).
In the ethical debate on transhumanism, finally, many links can be found to classical anthropological questions about the essence of man (e.g., Baillie, 2005; Fukuyama, 2004). The central debated question is whether it is morally allowed, forbidden, or even demanded from us to enhance our human capacities through new technologies, ranging from short-term nonevasive ways (like taking performanceenhancing drugs) to fundamental irreversible changes (like genetic engineering). While bioconservativists argue against an extended usage of enhancement technologies, transhumanists point to the potential benefits of these new options. It is reasonable to assume that these issues will be with us as technology advances and opens new possibilities to alter the human condition. This opens a radical new challenge to anthropology, which until recently dedicated itself to understanding the given human nature, while it now has to face the normative question of which we should choose as our future nature, once technology offers radical new options of changing human nature (e.g., as by slowing down or even stopping the process of aging). It seems that the anthropology of the future must take into consideration, more and more, normative claims and it must reach out to incorporate ethics to prepare itself for the challenges modern technology poses.
Conclusion and Future Directions
Looking at recent tendencies in research, it can be argued that the initial focus on linking technology with a universal, philosophical anthropological vision, also rooted in biological knowledge, was one of the key achievements of early philosophical anthropology in the works of Gehlen and others. What made these anthropologies remarkable was their attempt to bring together the different traditions of anthropological thought, ranging from philosophy to sociology and biology. A turn toward a more social perspective was established first by Gehlen himself, the Frankfurt school, and later STS studies, sometimes leading away from or even lacking both an underlying philosophical vision and an interest in our biological nature. Very recently, however, sociologists and philosophers have shown an increased interest in biology (as is visible in the ever-growing numbers of publications in sociobiology and the philosophy of biology). This increased attention has not yet led to a revival of an interest in the links between anthropology and technology. But in order to understand man—both in his evolutionary origins and (maybe even more) in his current historical situation—it seems to demand attention to man’s amazing capacity to develop technology.
It can reasonably be argued that what is thus needed is a new vision of how to synthesize the different fields of biological, social, and cultural anthropology. It seems that after the empirical turn to gather extended details over the biological and social aspects of technology, there is now a call for a new philosophical turn, seeking a new discourse synthesis. Many classical questions of anthropology will tend to remain unanswered, if academic research remains focused only on disciplinary perspectives, which always look at only a part of the whole picture. It is certainly true that man is a social animal, that he has biological roots and that he can ask ethical and philosophical questions about the good and about his place in this universe. The disciplinary separations in biology, sociology, and philosophy (to name just a few) tend, however, to distract from the fact that man in reality is a unity, meaning that a true answer to the most fundamental question of anthropology (What is man?) calls for a plausible combination of these approaches. To synthesize the different aspects of our knowledge about our own human nature is certainly far from being an easy task, but it seems more needed than ever.
But if this is not yet a big enough challenge, there is even a second aspect that makes the quest for a synthesis even more challenging. It seems that a new anthropological vision of humankind must answer a question that classical anthropology has not been dealing with: If technology soon allows us to alter our very nature, then we must know not only what the human condition is, but also what the human condition should be.
Ethics might again enter anthropological reflection, as has been hinted at already by early thinkers such as Scheler and Jonas. Recent attempts to place man in the middle of both a normative vision of ideals, on the one side, and against a profound overview of our descriptive knowledge about our essence, on the other side (as in the voluminous attempt at a synthesis in Hösle, 2004), deserve attention, as they might be the first steps toward a renewed synthetic anthropology that tries to bridge the gaps among the different disciplines. A deepened understanding of technology must be a central part of these efforts, since the way we use tools and produce artifacts is one of the remarkable features of humankind—a feature in much need of guidance by descriptive knowledge and ethical wisdom, especially in our age in which technology (of which humans have been the subject) is about to discover the condition humana as its potential object in a way more radical than ever before.
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