The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

An Aside

On the Metaphysics of Technology

Draft  HHC, June 2004 

last revised November  2004 ©



A Troubled History

The Metaphysics of Technology

Calling Robert Boyle!

End Notes


A Troubled History

A.01       The philosophy of technology has a long and troubled history.  The word ‘technology’ itself entered the English language in 1859 according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary deriving from the Greek techne meaning Art and logos meaning Reason, i.e., reasoned art.  The Oxford English Dictionary says it was re-coined at that time by Sir Richard Francis Burton (OED, technology, 1 b) [A], Victorian explorer and translator of the Kama Sutra (1883), the Arabian Nights (1885) and the Perfumed Garden (1886).  

A.02       Techne, however, dates back to the ancient Greeks for whom it signified all the Mechanical Arts excepting medicine and music.  As such, it was suitable only for the lower classes not for the upper class who practiced the Liberal Arts of ‘free’ men.  It was here in ancient Greece that the English aphorism ‘gentlemen don’t work with their hands’ has its beginnings.  To Plato, techne represented a threat to peace, order and good government for which Reason and Law “by common consent have ever been deemed best.” (Plato, The Republic, Book X, 1952: 433-434). To Aristotle it represented imperfect human imitation of nature.  Quite simply, techne was inferior and not worthy of philosophical consideration with the notable exception of Plato’s early dialogue Ion in which its inferiority and threat are considered. (Dorter 1973) And equally simply, the word ‘technology’ consummated a Victorian marriage between Art and Reason.

A.03       Until this etymological consummation a philosophy of technology was not conceptually possible.  Before 1859 there was art, craft and mechanics; afterwards, there was also technology.  While attempts had been made to formulate philosophies of mechanics and manufacture, they remain essentially footnotes in history including Ernst Kapp (1808-1896) who in 1877 (Idhe 1991, 3) became “the little-known originator of the term ‘philosophy of technology’”. (Mitcham 1994, 20-21)  This group of thinkers is, however, treated by Mitcham as the root of an ‘engineering tradition’ in the philosophy of technology (Mitcham 1994). 

A.04       It was Karl Marx, however, (1818-1883) who produced the first true philosophy of technology combining ‘the means of production’ with a humanist critique rather than glorification of Victorian progress.  While Adam Smith expressed concerns about the psychological and sociological impact of the division and specialization of labour that characterizes technology (Rothschild 2001, 97), it was Marx who named the devil – alienation.  Arguably Marxism is nothing but a philosophy of technology, one admittedly with a political agenda and hence an ‘ideology’, i.e., “a systematic scheme of ideas, usu. relating to politics or society, or to the conduct of a class or group, and regarded as justifying actions.” (OED, ideology, 4). 

A.05       Marx also appropriated the term ‘praxis’, a word which has a similarly chequered past. It was coined by the alchemist, metaphysician and subsequent saint, Albert Magnus, about 1255 C. E.  He derived it from a Greek noun of action meaning “doing, acting, action, practice.” (OED, praxis, Epistemology)  It was re-coined by Cieszkowski in 1838 to mean “the willed action by which a theory or philosophy… becomes a social actuality.”  It was then adopted by Marx in 1844 for whom it explained “how knowledge could give power” not through thought like Hegel but through the will.  (OED, praxis, 1 c)  To Marx, technology was the praxis that explained how knowledge gives power and why ‘the means of production’ could not remain in private hands.

A.06       This Marxian connection inevitably tainted reception of subsequent philosophies of technology in ‘capitalist circles.  This hesitancy to embrace technology as embodied knowledge was amplified by developments in the philosophy of science leading to the logical and empirical positivism of the Vienna Circle of the 1920s.  The Circle effectively reduced science and knowledge to Platonic idealized forms to insure the propositional consistency of language statements, especially mathematics. Baird has characterized this epistemological approach to the instrumental sciences as “semantic ascent”. (Baird 2004, 8)   In the English-speaking world this line of idealization of science and knowledge led to “the dominant view concerning the relationship between science and technology, which is that technology is applied science, or a merely neutral development from science.” (Idhe 1991, 6)  Even today “there remains a certain vestigial Platonism throughout the new philosophy of science.  It remains insensitive to the material embodiments of science, to its technological dimensions.” (Idhe 1991, 45)

A.07       Arguably the ‘new philosophy of science’ began with Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Ironically it was not until after publication that Kuhn realized “that logical positivism had moved on from its extreme Vienna Circle formulation to a position so close to his own at the time that he openly wondered whether he would have written Structure had he known of that shift.” (Fuller 2000, 391)  In both cases, however, technology, including scientific instrumentation, are discounted as epistemologically unimportant – theory or, after Kuhn, paradigm was all.   And with respect to the Marxian specter, it must be noted that Kuhn was commissioned to write Structure by James Bryant Conant (1893-1978), president of Harvard University (1933-1953), director of the National Defense Research Committee during WWII and chairman of the anti-Communist Committee of the Present Danger in the 1950s.  Conant recruited Kuhn, then a junior fellow, at the Harvard Society of Fellows “whose not-so-hidden agenda included the inoculation of promising young scholars against the siren song of Communism.” (Fuller 2000, 6)  A philosophy of technology was perceived as a variation on this theme.

A.08       The English-speaking world, in effect, ignored the philosophy of technology because of its Marxist connotations and the inability to express technology and praxis in logical propositional terms.  In Western Europe, however, scholars beginning with Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology (1859-1938) extended above and beyond Marxian thought seeking a deeper appreciation of the relationship between ‘being’ human, intentionality and the manipulation of space, time, matter and mind.  These developments reached an intellectual denouement in the phenomenological existentialism of Husserl’s student and subsequent colleague, Martin Heidegger:

A.09       Heidegger’s work, however, was not well received in the Anglosphere partially because it was not written in English and partially because of his early support of Hitler and the Nazi party.  Accordingly, it took time for his and the thought of other European scholars, e.g., Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault (Idhe 1991) to break into English-speaking consciousness. As evidence, consider that the American Philosophy of Science Association was founded in 1934 while the Society for Philosophy and Technology was founded some fifty years later in 1983 (Idhe 1991, 4)   

A.10       Given the triumph of liberal democracy over the Nazi and by 1989 of Markets over Marx, it is appropriate to pick the bones of the defeated to glean the good and leave the gutted husk to bleach in the sun of a second Enlightenment – to the victor goes the spoils!  To do so, however, requires an appreciation of the metaphysics of technology, an understanding of why in the hands of Marx it became such a powerful ideology and why it is still passionately viewed as either the last best hope of humanity or a Faustian bargain with a lower class devil.


The Metaphysics of Technology

A.11       If technology has had a troubled history traveling from ancient slave to Marxian master of the universe, it is as nothing compared to ‘metaphysics’ whose woes have moved in the opposite temporal direction.  Putting the two troubles together as ‘the metaphysics of technology’ is like the Victorian marriage of Sentiment (expressed through Art) and Reason. This time, however, it is a ménage à trios of Sensation, Reason and Revelation.  Technology, today, is about sensation and the manipulation of the physical world (including the worlds internal and external to the human body) to suit human purpose.   The god-like powers of genomics to re-create or clone the body itself raises issues addressed by metaphysics defined as “the study of phenomena beyond the scope of scientific inquiry” (OED, metaphysics, n, I & II 1 b)  Ethics is a ‘Humanity’ not a science.  It is not a question of ‘can do’ but of ‘should do’.   This questioning forms the root of what Mitcham calls ‘the humanist tradition’ in the philosophy of technology (Mitcham 1994)

A.12       While such questioning catches sight of one facet of the metaphysics of technology, another is caught by the definition of metaphysics as: “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things or reality, including questions about being, substance, time and space, causation, change, and identity.” (OED, metaphysics, n, I 1 a)  In Heidegger’s existential phenomenology the hammer is one with us in action.  It becomes transparent as ‘other’, or as Polanyi put it, tools form “part of ourselves, the operating persons.  We pour ourselves into them and assimilate them as parts of our own existence”. (Polanyi [1958] 1962, 59).  ‘Being’ human is a succession of coordinated intentional acts involving retention of the past to provide purpose or aim, and, protention of the future to achieve tacit performance, i.e., with no cognitive impediment.  Being human is about manipulating the worlds of mind and matter.  It is our nature.  For Idhe, this nature is expressed as ‘instrumental realism’ (Idhe 1991); for Baird, as ‘thing knowledge’. (Baird 2004)  

A.13       It is ironic that Heidegger’s hammer - the basis of contemporary philosophy of technology - is paralleled in the philosophy of science by Polanyi’s hammer and ‘tacit knowledge’ which has become part of the lexicon of the knowledge-based economy.  (American National Standards Institute and the Global Knowledge Economics Council 2001). Both were German-speaking but I can find no reference that they knew each other or each other’s work.   Heidegger published his article ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ in 1949; Polanyi published his first edition of Personal Knowledge in 1958.  Heidegger had, however, first mentioned the hammer metaphor in his 1927 book Being and Time. (Idhe 1991)

A.14       A problem, however, remains: how does one prove tacit knowledge?  This is reflected in another definition of metaphysics as “used by logical positivists and some other linguistic philosophers for: any proposition or set of propositions of a speculative nature, considered to be meaningless because not empirically verifiable.” (OED, metaphysics, n, I 1 d)

A.15       The final facet of the metaphysics of technology is captured in Christopher Marlowe’s definition of metaphysics in his 1604 play Faustus as “occult or magical lore”. (OED, metaphysics, n, II 3)  Beyond the alchemy of modern technology to transmute matter, space, time and mind, there is the question of Good and Evil, of God and the Devil.  Faustus appeared on stage just a year before Sir Francis Bacon began the Scientific Revolution with publication Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Humane (1605).  The plot of Faustus follows the bargain struck between the Devil (a.k.a. Technology) and ‘Natural Man’ whose gives up his soul and place in heaven in return for dominion over the earth - here and now!

A.16       Marx’s philosophy of technology like Epicurus’ and Bentham’s philosophies was ‘god-less’.  It trumpeted technology as the true saviour of humanity; God need not apply.  This ideology created a schism in Western thought the intensity of which became, by the mid-20th century, as potentially apocalyptic as the European Religious Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, e.g., the fifteen minute nuclear warning.  It was, of course, out of this earlier conflict that the Scientific Revolution emerged.  This Revolution was underpinned by Robert Boyle’s metaphysical compromise that after the Creation God withdrew from the physical world allowing – Protestant or Catholic – the opportunity to discover His Laws of Nature by putting the question using the instruments of the new ‘experimental philosophy’. (Jacob 1978) God continued, however, to rule the realm of the human soul (moral philosophy) and the third realm of angels (metaphysics).  Of the founders of the Royal Society, perhaps the most prominent member who did not accept this ‘Latitudinalist’ compromise (Jacob & Jacob 1980) was Isaac Newton who continued to believe in alchemy, miracles and divine intervention until the day he died. (Harrison 1995).  Keynes wrote on the tercentenary of Newton’s birth that the supreme figure of seventeenth century science was not the first of the Enlightenment but rather “the Last of the Magicians” and “the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.” [B] (Thorndike 1953, 704).

A.17       The metaphysical implications of instruments of experimental philosophy cannot be understated.  As Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

“The reason we are on a higher imaginative level is not because we have a finer imagination, but because we have better instruments.  In science, the most important thing that has happened in the last forty years is the advance in instrumental design... a fresh instrument serves the same purpose as foreign travel; it shows things in unusual combinations.  The gain is more than a mere addition; it is a transformation.” (Idhe 1991, 67)

A.18       The metaphysical impact of such instruments, or their ‘artificial revelation’ (Price 1984, 9), penetrates our daily ‘being’:

Putting our faith in “the objectivity” of machines instead of human analysis and judgment has ramifications far and wide.  It is a qualitatively different experience to give birth with an array of electronic monitors.  It is a qualitatively different experience to teach when student evaluations – “customer satisfaction survey instruments” - are used to evaluate one’s teaching.  It is a qualitatively different experience to make steel “by the numbers,” the numbers being provided by analytical instrumentation. (Baird 2004, 19)

A.19       Differing technological ‘faiths’ fueled the Market/Marxist schism and completed the epistemological fissioning of the old Moral Philosophy -- the total of all the sciences of mind and society (Schumpeter 1949: 141) – on one side into the disciplines and sub-disciplines of sociology, political science, psychology and mainstream or Market Economics, and on the other, into parallel Marxian epistemologies plus the Command Economy of the means of production, i.e., of technology.  It should be noted that Bentham’s radical materialism was only restrained by the terror of the French Revolution. [C] (Marshall 1920: 628, ft 2) Karl Marx, however, saw revolution as the only hope for the working man and the final triumph of human reason in economic and political life.  In a sense Marx is Bentham’s heir, the son he never had in the flesh.  Marx simply extended Bentham's logic beyond the inhibiting fear of revolution.  This connection was made by Keynes who wrote:

I do now regard that as the worm which has been gnawing at the insides of modern civilization and is responsible for its present moral decay.  We used to regard the Christians as the enemy, because they appeared as the representatives of tradition, convention and hocus-pocus.  In truth, it was the Benthamite calculus, based on an over-valuation of the economic criterion, which was destroying the quality of the popular Ideal.  Moreover, it was this escape from Bentham... which has served to protect the whole lot of us from the final reductio ad absurdum of Benthamism known as Marxism (M. Keynes 1949: 96-7).

A.20       With respect to Economics, the ideological divide went as follows:

· conflicting views concerning the impact of culture or stage of cultural development on economic behaviour - yes for the Marxists, no for the Platonic mainstream;

· conflicting theories of value, specifically whether labour was the only productive factor of production as Marxists believed or, whether capital was also productive as the mainstream contended;

· conflicting beliefs in the efficacy of collectivist solutions to political economic problems such as the Party as revolutionary vanguard and the dictatorship of the proletariat versus individualist solutions such as pluralistic democracy and the market mechanism;

· conflicting theories about the legitimacy of private property deemed theft by Marxists or essential for civilized life by the mainstream; and,

· conflicting views about technology deemed the natural inheritance of all workers by Marxists or as any change in knowledge that shifts the production function of a nation or firm as in the Standard Model of economics.


Calling Robert Boyle!

A.21       Having split the world into two warring camps threatening nuclear annihilation for nearly half a century, the philosophy of technology exists in engineering and humanist traditions within Market and Marxist branches.  It awaits a new Robert Boyle to make the metaphysical compromise necessary, to mend the schism, to heal the Fisher King as in the Grail Legend (E. Jung & M-L von Franz 1970) After nearly a century of military-industrial-ideological competition, technology today poses questions affecting the future of all humanity.   From climate change, human population growth, species extinction to the genomics revolution, human manipulation of space, time, matter and mind - technology - has reached global proportions. Humanity reigns supreme but lacks a convincing design for governance of the planet.  This will require a careful weaving of ‘can do’ and ‘should do’ into the fabric of a tent big enough and strong enough to accommodate the cultural and national diversity of human wants, needs and desires.  Calling Robert Boyle!



End Notes

Chapter 6: Form & Fixation

An Aside on the Metaphysics of Technology

[A] HHC: It should be noted that the Oxford Dictionary reports first usage  of ‘technology’ in 1615 meaning: “a discourse or treatise on an art or arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts.” (OED, technology, 1 a)

[B] Newton (1642-1727) practiced ‘the Art’ of alchemy until his death and considered his alchemical work more important than that which has since become the foundation of modern science (Dobbs 1982, 1991).  In 1936, Sotheby's in London auctioned off a cache of writings by Newton - journals and personal notebooks deemed of no scientific value.  The winning bidder was John Maynard Keynes who, after perusing the papers, noted on the tercentenary of Newton's birth, that Newton, the supreme figure of seventeenth century science, was not the first of the Enlightenment but rather “the Last of the Magicians” and “the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.” (quoted in Thorndike 1953, 704).  It is interesting that Shackle refers to the Keynesian process of estimating the marginal efficiency of capital as “psychic alchemy” perhaps recognizing Keynes’ interest in Newton’s ‘lost’ works (Shackle 1967, 129). 

 [C] Of Bentham, Marshall wrote:  “Another way in which he influenced the young economists around him was through his passionate desire for security.  He was indeed an ardent reformer.  He was an enemy of all artificial distinctions between different classes of men; he declared with emphasis that any one man's happiness was as important as any other's, and that the aim of all action should be to increase the sum total of happiness, he admitted that other things being equal, this sum total would be greater the more equally wealth was distributed.  Nevertheless so full was his mind of the terror of the French Revolution, and so great were the evils which he attributed to the smallest attack on security that, daring analyst as he was, he felt himself and fostered in his disciples an almost superstitious reverence for the existing institutions of private property.” (Marshall 1920: 628, ft 2).