Rhetoric, hermeneutics and the philosophy of technology

My approach to the philosophy of technology has been via the route of hermeneutics from day one. Within mainstream philosophy, there are established figures such as Heidegger who feature in all of the summaries of the philosophy of technology, yet they does not do much for me. There are the critical theorists such as Marcuse who are also often appealed to, and likewise I am unenthused. I feel I should set out how and why hermeneutics, and Hans Georg Gadamer specifically, set the tone for my engagement with the philosophy of technology and its sub-disciplines. The reason I choose Gadamerian hermeneutics is that it is a philosophy which puts rhetoric in a central position, and technology is a deeply rhetorical field.

Technology is most often described as being connected with science, in that it is technology which exemplifies a scientific principle brought to bear on the world. It is science made practical, science made to serve our human ends. Were this the full story, in all its neutral glory, then turning to Heidegger or Marcuse would not seem quite so problematic to me. If technology was only ever merely “application” then it would invite such interpretation as Heidegger and Marcuse seem to offer. But it is not. There are two ways to demonstrate this, through (i) content, and through (ii) form.

Technology is always already tied up in another discourse, and often that discourse is the discourse of the market. With this, then, I would seem to be retiring Heidegger from the running. I used the word market, so come on in Marcuse! Again, this is not so, because noting that technology is always a discourse does not automatically imply that a discourse concerned with Marcuse’s “technological rationality” is the way forward. It is but one element of an entire constellation of questions about the social configurations, practices, and philosophical questions which need to be asked. This is the argument from content against Marcuse.

Returning to Heidegger for a moment, I can put my difficulty with analyses of technology from his perspective in a similar light. The argument from content against Heidegger is that “being” is always, always at the root of Heidegger’s explorations, and so though he does delve into tools and technology, these are media which allow him to explore being, ontology, and all those things that he enjoys.

The argument from form can be said to include both Marcuse and Heidegger, and also alternative representatives of the hermeneutic tradition, and will require a minor tangent. Why have I chosen Gadamer as against Ricoeur, for example? The reason for this is that Gadamer is a clear representative of what Ricoeur termed the “hermeneutics of tradition”, whereas Heidegger and Marcuse are somewhat more involved in the hermeneutics of suspicion (Ricoeur is a liminal figure in the above division, which is why, perhaps, he gets to set up such a split). The hermeneutics of suspicion is concerned with distanciation, which is in its most elementary form what it sounds like, how distant we are from something. For Ricoeur distanciation could be productive, and with this concept he set himself apart (!) from Gadamer. Gadamer, by contrast, saw distanciation basically as an opposition between participation and alienation. I believe both of these perspectives are valid, but not both at the same time.

My argument from form is as follows: technology already has an element of distanciation, which I referred to by describing technology as always already a discourse. The supposed neutral definition of technology (“technology just is application”)is always superceded by its reality as a nexus of anterior practices and situations, that which we might call “ideology” but which I am content to refer to as simply discursive. My decision to use the hermeneutics of tradition as found in Gadamer is so as not to compound this distanciation. In information theory terms, to use a hermeneutics of suspicion to examine technology is like focussing on noise to rather than the information. The “information” here is what technology should do. To address this should does not commit us to some Kantian, deontological interpretation of technology. What it does is allows us to consider the discourses of technology (some explicit, more hidden) which interact with our other political, social, and ethical discourses in the grand knowledge ecology. The form of technology and the form of discourses as such require a philosophy which recognises the basic reality of technology as being implicated in a wider ecology of information and knowledge, practices and ideas.

This approach is one which assumes discourses as plural as a simple fact. The knee-jerk reaction against the Gadamerian approach which incorrectly assumes that non-participation in the world of noise, exceptions, problematizing, distanciation-squared is de facto opposition. This is not so, but there is the important matter of priority to be addressed. Marcuse and Heidegger undoubtedly were philosophers of technology, even though I disagree with their fundamental insights and conclusions. Likewise the hermeneutics of suspicion presents us with myriad approaches to technology which have been and will continue to be useful in delineating philosophies of technology. What I am proposing is that if there is to be a Philosophy of Technology in capitals, then the discursive, hermeneutic, rhetorical philosophy of Hans Georg Gadamer is to be our best bet at doing some of the ground-work to bring us to a solid foundation. This is our best hope for philosophizing about technology which is sceptical, but not in blind opposition, which is alert to the fundamentally technological aspect of human existence, without setting up slippery slopes or arcadian paleo-technical myths of the past.

Post just up by Dale Carrico over at Amor Mundi: “Technology and Myth”, which correctly points out that referring to technology in a monolithic manner as I have above isn’t very helpful. Anyway, I leave it to stand as a point on the road to wherever that I am on:

It is “myth” that makes “technology in general” where there is none, it is “myth” that naturalizes and renders uncritical and hence susceptible to incumbency the politics of familiarization and de-familiarization through which we invest some but never all of our artifacts and techniques the force of the “technological.”


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