TECHNICS, ETHICS,  AND THE QUESTION Of PHENOMENOLOGY

 
Rafael Capurro
  

 

 
 
This paper was originally published in Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (ed.): Morality within the Life- and Social World. Analecta Husserliana, Vol. XXII, Dordrecht: Reidel 1987, pp. 475-481. 

 
 

Preliminary Remarks

Husserl's "Life-world" points on the one hand to an open pre-scientific horizon of experience, and can be considered as a formal "a priori," and has on the other hand a historical character as it points to a world shaped by man. The concept of "life-world" is therefore a starting point from which the unity of human culture can be reflected, and which, at the same time, implies the thematization of concrete historico-cultural formations (1). The "life-world" is always our "life-world."

Husserl characterizes our life-world as one dominated by the tradition of scientific objectivity. This tradition is closely interrelated to the world shaped by modern technology, which is in fact the dominating feature not only of one particular culture, but o the life-world of modern-day man. Technology is not simply applied science but has its own roots and characteristics. This is an assertion which the modern philosophy of technology quotes repeatedly (2). Our life-world has often been characterized as a "technical culture." (3)

In the first part of this paper, I shall consider the paradigm of the technical culture as it is analyzed by modern philosophy. This analysis is based upon three postulates which have recently been radically questioned by the Belgian philosopher Gilbert Hottois. (4). In the second part, I shall explain Hottois' "a-logical" approach to technics (not technology!). Finally I shall make sobe critical remarks concerning the relationship between technics, ethics, and the question of phenomenology.
  

1. The paradigm of the technical culture

In modern philosophy a distinction is usually made between the present shape of technics and its medieval and ancient characteristics. We are aware of the all-embracing, in some cases almost "totalitarian" character of modern technics, as expressed for instance in the idea that it has unlimited power over nature, over matter, and over ourselves. From this point of view, it may even seem possible to overcome death. Of course, questions like the meaning of human life without death (and birth?), the structure of a "deathless" society, the experiences of being "young" or "old" (individually and collectively), the concepts of evolution and time, etc. re not usually brought to light.

The paradigm of modern technics seems to have its roots in the discovery of subjectivity in the age of Enlightenment, when the duality between subject and object was conceived as the opposition of a "capsule-likee" subjectivity and "external" objects. These "external objects" were soon called "objective reality," which became a term of reference for modern theory, i.e., science, and modern action, i.e., technology. This view of the origins of modern technics is often related to the cultural history of Europe. It seems as if "homo technologicus" would be a specific European phenomenon, which is now able to fascinate mankind.

The discussions between "optimists" and "pessimists" concerning the paradigm of a technical culture is particularly acute at present as the blessings of technics seem to be indissolubly linked to catastrophic side-effects. (5) There is also a search for mediation within this paradigm which is based upon the following postulates:

1) Modern technuics (or technology: both concepts being in many languages indistinctly used) is a phenomenon which belongs to the human world. It is not, for instance, a product of cosmic-biological evolution. This is the anthropological postulate.
2) As a human product, modern technics can be considered to be an instrument which can be used to dominate nature. This is the instrumental postulate.
3) Modern technics can be theoretical understood, although the theory of technics (as a parallel to the theory of science) is still in its inititial stages. this is the theoretical postulate.

The significance of these postulates is stressed in different ways by the main modern schools of thought. Marxists, for instance, emphasize the anthrpological postulate and consider technics to be something determined by society. (6) The accentuation of the instrumental postulate has alead to the controversy between socio-technocratic (e.g. Schelsky) and socio-critical models (e.g. Habermas). (7) Under the influence of the analytical currents, technology should be theoretically grasped in a way similar to (but not identical with) the way in which science has been comprehended. (8)

Gilbert Hotttois has questioned these three leading postulates in his recent book Signs and Technics (Le signe et la technique) (Hottois 1984). In the following section I intend to analyze some of his viewpoints.

2. Hottois' "a-logical" approach to technics

In his preface, Jacques Ellul criticizes the formula "technical culture" as being misleading and superficial, because it suggests that classical thinking and technics can exist in harmony which is in fact true only on the face of things; what lies behind is mostly ignorance and banality (Hottois 1984, 8). Modern thinking on technics even uses indistinctly the terms "technology" and "technics" without reflecting on the relationship between "technics" and "logos." The analysis of this relationship constitutes, according to Ellul, the central point of Hottois' study.

And, in fact, according to Hottois, the negation of the radical difference between technics and "logos" (or "symbol") is one of the fundamental illusions of twentieth century philosophy (Hottois 1984, 115).

Although some eminent thinkers, M. Heidegger, for instance, have stressed the necessity of giving reflection on technics a central role, modern philosophy is mainly concerned with language, and that, as Hottois explained in a former work (9), in an inflationary way indeed. Hottois sees this inflation as a kind of defence mechanism on the part of philosophy (or, better, of philosophers!) against the overwhelming influence of technics in the modern world. Philosophers seem to have little or nothing to say regarding the technical world. What role does technics play in a language-oriented philosophy? Hottois answers this question by considring some main features of the prevailing anthropologistic philosophy.

Whereas early philosophical thinking was centred in God, Nature, Matter, etc., modern philosophy, which is some 300 years old, is mainly concerned with man. Within this horizon technics is seen as a part of human culture and, more precisely, as an instrument. This view originated in the following ideas. Nature has produced something extraordinary to itself, viz., man. Man's "essence," consists of language and values. Human culture can be defined as the "cultivation" of these elements. Philosophy, from Plato to Heidegger, has stressed the significance and interconnectedness of these elements. The cultivation of language leads to science, and to its application: modern technology. Philosophy, on its part, has remained within "the golden prison of language" (Hottois 1984, 46). Anglo-Saxon and Franco-German thinking meet on this point. But as Hottois ads, something, namely technics, is pushing man away from his essence. Philosophy's answer to this challenge has been to enscribe technics within the anthropologistic paradigm by considering it as an instrument for the fulfilment of mankind. Messianic visions have been developed which usually remain illusionary, superficial, and empty. Then too, technics cannot be "de-signed": we have "la technique inassignable" (Hottois 1984, 59), according to Hottois' central proposition. Let us consider his arguments. There is a radical difference between today's technics and former instruments: the latter were subordinated to theory, they were its application. Today we have "techno-science," where primacy has shifted to technics and science has become operational in its nature. As "logos" is no longer its guide, its evolution cannot be predicted. The "techno-cronos" is essentially open and opaque. The future of technics escapes the power of "logos" in the same way as the "bio-cosmos" cannot be grasped within the frontier of cultural evolution. The "techno-cosmos" as a synthesis between "physis and "techne" breaks the symbolic horizon of man. he is no longer the measure of technics, but an object of its manipulation. As the "techno-scientific" future cannot be anticipated, all anthropocentrism is illusionary. We really do not know what the consequences of modern technics will be, and we do not even know whether we (then who?) can "make decisions" on genetic manipulation, the "information society" etc.

The negation of the irreducible difference between technics and "logos" (or symbolism, language, and culture) leads, according to Hottois, to different kinds of ideologies. Technics is worldless and awful ("l'im-monde technocosme"). It is, we could say, "a-logical." If we summarize the main characteristics (or the phenomenological "essence") of what Hottois calls "the kingdom of technics" ("le règne technique") we get:

1) autonomous and "blind" growth of the "techno-cronos": technics grows just like the "wild" blind, casual, and combination-making "physis," this in contrast to what I call the instrumental postulate.

2) technics belongs to the cosmic creation process. The "techno-cosmos" is a process outside of the human "logos," this is in contrast to the anthropological postulate.

3) the discontinuity or mutation proneness of "techno-science" does not allow its inclusion in a historico-logical view, this in contrast to the theoretical postulate.

The question of whether the human "logos" will eventually become a part of a "techno-logical evolution" through a mutation of the "logos" itself, is, according to Hottois, completely open. Information processing is more a substitute for than integration with the old "logos." It is the technical modus of the relationship between man and world.

The principle "Everything is possible" dominates this technical process. The "an-ethical" imperative corresponds to this "a-logical" principle: "If something can be made, it should be made." The technical system is open to what Hottois calls a "black transcendence," i.e., an experience of time which engenders a blind and dumb future. But this "black metaphysics" is not a mask of God. it is just an outlook of enigma, openness, and (human) impotence.

If "sign" and technics are thus irreducibly different, is there any place "in-between" for man, not as a "logical" but at leas as a moral being? Taking the an-ethicity of technics into consideration and excluding the anthropocentric and instrumentalist views, Hottois sees in the preservation of ethical sensitivity, the central criterion of an ethics "between sign and technics." This does not imply taking man as the measure of technics. It only balances the situation by actively protecting the human race. The ethical option in favour of humanity is itself without ultimate foundational reason when we exclude metaphysical discourse. Its origin, says Hottois, is not of a logical but of a vital nature. It implies the decision to respect and help each other, to consider the other as our neighbour... in short, the whole complex of what we call love. Without a metaphysical "which transcendence" the ethical experience of love offers only some light to the view of a senseless and voiceless future. The cardinal virtue of Hottois' ethics is prudence. It delimits the anti-criterion, "Everything is allowed," without falling into the anthropocentric illusion of domination. Prudence means awareness of an ambivalent situation, without a schizoid unification of opposites, or a surrender of one of them. We do not know in advance what is definitely "good" for mankind.

3. Technics, ethics, and the question of Phenomenology


The question of Phenomenology as it was stated, for instance, by Heidegger is that of a "logos" bringing phenomena into language within their own light, i.e., lelting them be what they are. (10) In this sense Phenomenology is the opposite of objectivized thinking. The two kinds of "logos," the phenomenological and the objective, are, in my opinion, the condition of possibility of Hottois' "a-logicl" approach to technics. The "logos" the criticizes is the objectivizing one, the "logos" of anthropocentrism, instrumentality, and objectivizing theoty. His analysis is not at all "illogical" but, as he himself remarks, it is an attempt at an "integral techno-logy." (Htottois 1984, 186) It is not, we could say, an "ideo-logical" but a "phenomeno-logical" analysis since it does not look at technics from the point of view of an "idea" subjectively preconceived and projected into the object, but it attempts to think of technics within its own horizon of appearance. This is done through the patient work of criticism of the prevailing "ideological" light.

Hottois fails, I think, to differentiate clearly between these two "logoi." he conceives the human "logos" globally as being essentially anthropocentric. But, as Heidegger interpreting Heraclituns states, (11) the human "logos" is already inserted in a "Logos," and Hottois rightly points toward it when he speaks of the "black transcendence" as the source of the unforeseeable possibilities of "being" (in the verbal sense), one of which is modern technics.

Hottois' criticism of anthropocentrism is not radical enough, in my opinion,  with regard to the metaphysical conception of man as an "axio-logical" being. Hottois intends to preserve man by preserving values. But in doing so he only preserves metaphysical entities, although it is cut away from tis "divine" origin. Being human seems to Hottois to be something which should be primarily preserved, but why should it not, as Nietzsche suggested, be "overcome"? In this context we can give a very precise meaning to the word "overcome": it means an enlargement of traditional moral thinking to include all kinds of relationships between man and world. W. Schirmacher calls it life-technic in opposition to the anthropocentric death-technic (the technics of Heidegger's "Gestell"). (12) It includes: (world) Openness, the exercise of mortality (movement and history, instead of "eternal values"), and responsibility. Responsibility, says Schirmacher, means a careful relationship with language, i.e., with the world.

Hottois remains within a metaphysical dichotomy between "logos" and technics, instead of viewing language itself as a paradigm of technical evolution, which is an "event" ("Ereignis"), as Schirmacher says, not an instrument. And indeed, if we consider language non-metaphysically, i.e., as an open and unforeseeable "event," which is not based on its "form" or "content", but, as E. Coseriu and K. Ezawa suggest, (13) on its historical use by the human community, we can then live in more adequate balance with modern technics. We can see technics within its open and opaque horizon, and respect its alterity, without opposing it to a metaphysical "logos." A "dia-logue" can take place, and a "Lebentechnik" can become the shape of our "Lebenswelt." Hottois seems to avoid the Scylla of language by falling into the Charybdis of inflationary technics. The remedy is not to put ethics "in-between," but to rethink the phenomenological sense of technics as a "dia-logical" counterpart to a non-metaphysical "logos," and world-openness (not man) as the place where such "contra-diction" takes place. Not only a prudent but a "releasing" attitude (Heidegger called it "Gelassenheit") is necessary in order to become moral, i.e., responsible within an unforeseeable "techno-logical" process.

Notes

(1) Cf. E. Husserl: "Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologische Philosophie," II. Husserliana 4, (The Hague, 1952)  pp. 190ff.

(2) Cf. Hans Lenk: Zur Sozialphilosophie der Technik (Frankfurt a.M., 1982) pp. 48 ff; see also F. Rapp, P.T. Durbin, eds.: Technikphilosophie in der Diskussion (Branschweig, 1982).

(3) Cf. my "Das Paradigma der technischen Kultur" In Zeitschrift für Ganzheitsforschung, 18 (1984) 2, pp. 62-68.

(4) G. Hotttois: Le signe et la technique. La philosophie à l'épreuve de la technique (Paris, 1984); cf. ibid.: Pour une étique dans un univers technicien (Brussels, 1984).

(5) On the controversy between "optimists" and "pessimists", cf. S. Wollgast, G. Banse: Philosophie der Technik (Berlin, 1979) from a Marxist point of fiew; without this specific background: H. Sachsse, ed.: Technik und Gesellschaft, 3. vol. (Munich, 1976) as well as H. Stork: Einführung in die Philosophie der Technik (Darmstadt, 1977).

(6) Cf. S. Wollgast, G. Banse, op.cit.

(7) Cf. J. Habermas: Technik und Wissenschaft als "Ideologie" (Frankfurt, 1968); H. Schelsky: Auf der Suche nach Wirklichkeit (Düsseldorf, 1965).

(8) Cf. H. Lenk: "Technik zwischen Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft," Kindlers Enzyklopädie: Der Mensch (vol. 7) pp. 567-594; F. Rapp: Analytische Technikphilosophie (Freiburg, 1978); G. Ropohl: Eine Systemtheorie der Technik (Munich, 1979).

(9) G. Hottois: L'inflation du langage dans la philosophie contemporaine (Brussels, 1979).

(10) M. Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, § 7.

(11) M. Heidegger: "Heraklit" (GA 55 Frankfurt a.M., 1979).

(12) W. Schirmacher: Technik und Gelassenheit (Freiburg , 1983).

(13) E. Coseriu: "Humanvissenschaften und Geschichte" Jahrbuch der Norwegischeen Ak. der Wiss. (Oslo, 1979), pp. 3-15; K. Ezawa: "Japans Weg in eine Informationsgesellschaft" Physikal. Blätter 41 (1985) 3, pp. 71-73. Cf. my Hermeneutik der Fachinformation (Freiburg/München, 1986).

Last update: July 16, 2017
 
 
 
    

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