Overview of the Philosophy of Technology


This is the first of a set of twelve course notes written in 1993 and revised across 1994 and 1995 for Technology and Human Existence, a half-semester first year option on the philosophy of technology.

Overview of the Philosophy of Technology

I want to begin by talking about philosophy rather than technology. For it seems to me that whether you see anything of specifically philosophical interest in technology depends very much on just what you understand by philosophy. I think many people, indeed many philosophers, would say that while technology raised important political and ethical questions for society in general, it did not raise any questions which were somehow specifically questions for philosophers. On this view of things, if you can extract from technology any philosophical questions at all, they all turn out to be standard questions of political and social philosophy, of moral philosophy and the philosophy of science. No philosophical question which technology raises are not raised elsewhere, so in this sense there can be no philosophy of technology at all.

Now it seems to me that you can only think this if you presuppose a distinctive and relatively narrow conception of philosophy itself. I call this conception the idea of philosophy as pure theory, or more elegantly, the theoretical conception of philosophy1:

A. The Theoretical Conception of Philosophy

On this conception of it philosophy is just one more pursuit of knowledge alongside a whole lot of others, in particular, alongside science. Its only intrinsic goal or purpose is to acquire its particular kind of knowledge, namely, philosophical knowledge, just as science’s only intrinsic goal or purpose is to acquire scientific knowledge.

On this conception, philosophy, like science, has no intrinsic practical goal or purpose; it does not have any intrinsic function of, say, making life better or discovering the “meaning of life”, no more so than science has. Of course, both may gather knowledge which turns out to very useful, but this is not why they set out to gather it. The only essential or intrinsic point or function of science as a intellectual discipline is to gather scientific knowledge; the only essential or intrinsic point or function of philosophy is to gather philosophical knowledge.

Of course, this immediately raises a further question: Just what is philosophical, as opposed to scientific knowledge? These days, most philosophers believe that only physics and the various other empirical sciences can tell us how the world really is. So for them philosophical knowledge cannot be knowledge about the world in any straightforward sense. Thus, many philosophers today would say that philosophical knowledge was conceptual knowledge. It is knowledge about how to resolve certain conceptual problems which we encounter when we do science, or engage in art, politics, ethics and any other human activity. Here are some examples of such conceptual problems: > Is it possible for there to be free human action in a world governed by the laws of physics? And if so, how? (This is often called the problem of Free Will versus Causal Determinism.)

Is human reasoning basically the same as what a computer does when it runs through its programme? That is, is the human brain at least in part a kind of computer? (This is a question which is very topical today because both artificial intelligence and a certain branch of psychology called cognitive science rest upon the assumption that the human mind is a kind of computer.)

What is the method of science? What, if anything justifies the presuppositions underlying this method and why is it successful in producing genuine knowledge of the world? (These are the central questions of the philosophy of science)

What is it for something to be beautiful? Is the judgement that something is beautiful somehow objective, or is it merely subjective? That is, is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder? (These are obviously the central questions of the philosophy of art, or aesthetics, as it is more usually called)

What is it for something to be good? And what is it for something to be right? Are judgements of good and bad, right and wrong, absolute or merely relative? Can conceptions of what is right be derived from conceptions of what is good? (These are obviously central questions of the philosophy of morals and ethics, i.e., moral philosophy.)

Clearly, these are all classical examples of philosophical questions. But on the merely theoretical conception of philosophy, raising questions like these and attempting to answer them is all there is to philosophy; philosophy is nothing more than the business of raising and attempting to answer questions like these. In particular, there is no unifying practical function or purpose underlying and justifying the cultural activity and institution which is philosophy.2

Now it seems to me that this view is inadequate. It seems to me that philosophy, unlike science, is not just a merely theoretical activity, the mere pursuit of a certain kind of knowledge. Of course, it is in part a theoretical inquiry and it does involve raising and attempting to answer questions like the above. But as an institution, as a cultural activity done by numerous people in a collective way, it also has an essential practical character and function.3 How so? Human beings exist within nature; they are indeed land mammals, as David Stove, philosopher at the University of Sydney, once said. But we humans are land mammals in a quite distinctive and unique way. For we are interpreting and evaluating land mammals. That is, we are continuously interpreting and judging ourselves and our world in the light of certain conceptions of what we and our world both are and ought to be; we continually measure ourselves and the world against ethical ideals, norms and values, and at least as far as we know, no other creature does this. Now our interpretations, evaluations and standards are precarious in at least three ways:

  1. Firstly, they are continually put to the test by what we learn. In dealing with our environment, we learn about it. And what we learn often contains at least a potential challenge to our conceptions of ourselves and the world; it has the potential to force us to redefine these conceptions quite radically. The rise and progress of modern science gives us all sorts of examples of this.

  2. Secondly, our interpretations and “values” are continually put to the test by what we do. In dealing with the world in order to solve specific problems, we can set in motion social forces which end up mocking, or making irrelevant and inapplicable, our most cherished ideals and conceptions. Thus, in the sixties, the Skolt Lapps of Finland began using snowmobiles instead of dog sleds to herd their reindeer. In so doing, they initiated a development which ended up undermining and making irrelevant their entire traditional culture.

  3. Thirdly, our interpretations and “values” are at least occasionally put to the test by our own reflection upon them. Our interpretations and evaluations of ourselves, our works and our world can often be irrational, inadequate or incomplete. They are thus vulnerable to our own criticism. And at least occasionally, they have actually succumbed to such criticism. It is at least in part due to reflection and criticism that we no longer believe, as we once did, that the world is full of people possessed by the devil, or that people of different skin colour are inferior.

I am sure you will all appreciate how in the course of human history traditional understandings and values have been eroded in these three ways. Learning, action and reflection have often undermined traditional pictures of the world and the diverse norms and conceptions of the good for which these pictures provided the rational foundation. In so doing, they have unleashed uncontrolled and almost autonomous processes of redefining how we perceive ourselves; a good example of this from our own day is the way we are all, whether we like it or not, increasingly using terminology from the computer and information sciences to describe human relations.

Now not surprisingly people have often tried to bring these processes of re-definition and accommodation under at least some kind of rational control. In the West they have attempted this in the form of philosophy. That is, they have seen philosophy as the attempt to mediate rationally between what we learn and do in the world on the one hand, and what on the other we currently regard as our noblest and most valuable features as human beings. On this view, philosophy is an intellectual activity which seeks to soften in a rational way the repercussions had by our actions and discoveries upon our so-called “values”. Philosophy as thus conceived seems to be a uniquely Western idea. Certainly, Socrates and Plato, the founders of philosophy, understood it in this way. For them the whole point of doing philosophy was to counter in a rational way the nihilism and relativism, the attitude that might is right and that humanity is the measure of all things, with which Athenian society was afflicted once it had discovered a genuinely public politics and life, once it had seen the significance of the fact that other peoples and cultures had differing gods and customs.

So we have here two differing conceptions of what philosophy is. On the one view, philosophy is just a certain kind of theoretical inquiry or pursuit of knowledge alongside many others.4 On the other view, however, philosophy has a quite distinctive practical task and function: it seeks to rationally assess, and thus to bring under some kind of rational control, the processes we set in motion which have the potential to radically rewrite our conceptions of ourselves, our works, our world and our values.5 I call this latter view the practical or perhaps even the “existential” conception of philosophy:

B. The Practical Conception of Philosophy:

Philosophy is, as an institution and cultural activity, the attempt to mediate rationally between what we learn and do in the world on the one hand; and what we currently regard as our noblest and most valuable features as human beings on the other. That is, it has the intrinsic goal or purpose of adjudicating between these things.

Of course, the specific ways in which philosophy might seek to fulfil this function can be quite diverse, and will vary from case to case, from problem to problem. It might, for example, seek to show us that it is in fact wrong to fear certain new developments because they do not have the damaging consequences they at first seem to have. Thus, the great German philosopher Leibniz sought to show by means of his philosophical system that the new-born natural science was in fact compatible with religion. Then again, philosophy might seek to provide genuine antidotes and correctives to certain new developments. Thus, Plato sought to refute the sceptical and relativistic arguments which became widespread when the Athenians discovered the power of argument and the Sophists began their activities. And of course philosophy might show us where established conceptions, however important to us, are inadequate and thus distorting; here, philosophy itself would constitute a challenge to the established. Finally, philosophy might seek to show us what, if anything, we stand to lose when we attempt to conceive ourselves on the model of our latest machines, e.g., the computer. Note that if we endorse this practical conception of philosophy, we have a ready and substantial answer to the question of just what use philosophy is. For if philosophy has the kind of role and function I have suggested, then clearly it may play a vital role in suggesting how we might best accommodate, moderate or even counter new developments. In other words, it may prove itself to be extraordinarily “practical” and even “useful”.6

Now it seems to me that all areas or fields of philosophy have the kind of practical function just outlined.7 But I think this is particularly true of the philosophy of technology—and, I might add, of the philosophy of the environment as well, which is in various ways related to the philosophy of technology. It is only when you conceive of philosophy in the rich and complex way I have outlined that you begin to see how technology could constitute in its own right an area for philosophical inquiry. If you do not see philosophy as such as having the function of mediating between apparently conflicting concerns which really do matter to us as human beings, then you will be hard put to see just how there could be a philosophy of technology or, for that matter, of the environment. That is, if you do not see philosophy in this way, you will find yourself asking what specifically philosophical problems either technology could present us with which are not just mere versions or applications of standard problems from either the philosophy of knowledge and science; or the philosophy of ethics, morals and politics. It will seem to you that the philosophy of technology is just a grab bag of questions borrowed from other areas of philosophy, plus certain further questions which are not really philosophical at all, but rather sociological, psychological, ethical or political. But this is not really a criticism of the philosophy of technology at all. Rather, it is just a reflection of a very narrow and highly theoretical conception of philosophy. Once you renounce this concept, once you see philosophy not just as one more specialist discipline amongst others, but rather as something essentially concerned with global problems which touch upon our very existence as human beings, then you will not be surprised by the idea of a philosophy of technology, or again, of a philosophy of the environment. Indeed, you will see this kind of global and topical philosophy as philosophy’s very heart; more specific questions such as my five examples will strike you as arising only because one needs to answer them in order to answer the kind of burning question underlying the more global kinds of philosophy, for example, the philosophy of technology, the philosophy of the environment, or indeed the philosophy of religion and social philosophy.8

All in all, then, if there is to be any real point in talking about the philosophy of technology at all, one must mean more by this label than a mere collection of inquiries into specific questions such as whether there is anything wrong with genetic engineering; or whether one should on occasion halt the development of a new technology. Rather, if there is to be any point in talking about the philosophy of technology at all, then one must mean an inquiry into the very essence and nature of technology, an inquiry motivated by the conviction, or at least by the gut feeling, that technology has in our age become problematic in the following sense: in our age it has come to present us with some fundamental choices as to what kind of society we want to have and what kind of people we want to be. It is fundamentally because it has become problematic in this sense that we need a genuine philosophical inquiry not into this or that particular aspect of contemporary technology, but into technology itself.

Of course, in saying this I am making a factual claim, namely, that in our times technology has become problematic in the sense defined. If this factual claim is right, then we should expect to find in contemporary society an increased interest in technology and its impact. Now this is indeed the case. It is hardly deniable that in contemporary Western society there is the feeling that our technology and technological society is confronting us with some fundamental and possibly conflicting choices. But this is not to say that there is anything like consensus on just what this problematic character is, and how deep it goes. Nor indeed is it to say that there are no longer those around who believe with religious zeal that technology is an unmitigated blessing, and thus not problematic in any sense at all. In fact the first writer we will be looking at, Richard Buckminster-Fuller, was such a zealot. He and others like him see modern technology as enabling an unparalleled degree of material abundance, leisure and freedom; for him and other like-minded enthusiasts technological progress, material abundance and human freedom are just so many different sides of the same coin. But as we shall see, such technological optimists tend to have rather naive and ill-defined ideas of just what technology is and in particular of just what human beings are; they are so blinded by the dazzle of modern technology that they see no need to look behind the scenes for a deeper, philosophical level of questions and problems. Thinkers like these are the kind who measure human progress by the number of people who own motor boats.9

Thus, even though there is and has been since the sixties or so, a growing feeling that our society needs to confront the issue of what technology is and what it does, there is still a very broad spectrum of views and attitudes towards technology. We can represent this broad spectrum on a scale from right to left. On the right, we can put the technophiles, who believe that our modern, scientifically-based technology is marching us inexorably towards human emancipation; in the centre the moderates, who believe that whether any particular technology is good or bad depends on the use to which it is put; and finally on the left, the radical techno-critics, who believe that there is something intrinsically destructive and dominating about modern technology. Representatives of all three positions are:

Right Centre Left
Richard Buckminster-Fuller Emmanuel Mesthene Jacques Ellul

Let us look more closely at the moderate and techno-critical positions.

According to those in moderate range of positions, modern technology is not intrinsically progressive and liberating, but only so when used in the right way and by the right people. For these more moderate writers technology itself is neutral; whether any particular technology is good or bad depends on the use to which it is put. Consequently, if modern technology has led to certain undesirable consequences, this is not due to technology itself, but rather to the particular use made of it, or to the particular form technological development has taken in modern society. For the moderates, then, it would seem that whatever problems technology as it exists today presents for humanity are relatively solvable ones. It is just a question of identifying the particular problematic aspects of technology in modern society and then developing appropriate solutions and remedies. On my scale of differing attitudes to technology, I have indicated a representative of this kind of view, namely, Emmanuel Mesthene. We will be reading an article by him which very well puts the kind of commonsense view represented by the centrist position. Here is a list some of the aspects and features of modern technology which such moderate writers regard as making it problematic:

Firstly, there is the fact that modern science and technology have become so very powerful. The sheer power of modern technology and science raises crucial problems concerning the social and moral responsibility of scientists and technicians. For obvious reasons, this kind of problem has been particularly felt by scientists and technicians themselves. They have seen the enormous power of the technology they have developed, implemented or operated; they have seen how their ideas and their labour can be used to serve evil ends, often without their even being aware of it until it is too late. Thus, many scientists and technicians themselves have begun raising the moral question of their responsibility for what is done with the scientific theories they discover, the technological methods they invent. Since World War II, and in particular, since the development and first use of the atomic bomb, we have seen a profusion of essays, conferences, newspaper articles, radio talks and television documentaries on the social responsibility of scientists and technicians. And we have seen the formation of an increasing number of professional bodies dedicated to the promotion of socially responsible science and technology.

But apart from this moral problem of how to ensure the responsible development and use of science and technology, moderate writers like Mesthene also recognise that modern technology presents a social, political or even psychological problem. Modern technology is characterised by enormous complexity and rapid change. Such complexity and rapid change puts great pressures on social systems and individuals; these often cannot adapt fast enough, or adapt at all, to new technological developments. I am sure you will all be familiar with various forms of this problem, at least as it manifests itself in our Australian society. Here are some examples I’m sure you will all have heard of:

Structural unemployment caused by the introduction of new technologies;

A good example is the introduction of new, highly computerised systems of steel milling into the steel industry at places like Wollongong and Newcastle. > The almost obsessive need for increased occupational and social flexibility and speed;

The fact that these days the only constant in technological society is technological change itself has implications for our conceptions both of training for a working life and of working life itself. Once vocational training consisted in imparting a certain set of skills which defined a certain occupation and which constituted all the skills a person needed for a working life-time. But now people are increasingly having to re-train and re-learn throughout their working lives—so much so that increasingly you hear a lot of talk about how the crucial task of educational institutions is not primarily or exclusively to impart a specific set of occupational skills, but to give people the ability to train and re-train themselves during their working lives. The emphasis is on flexibility, on being able to re-learn or acquire new skills quickly and efficiently, etc. Nor does this demand for increased flexibility and adaptability concern only our occupational skills and abilities. The very tendency of this demand is a universal one: desirable workers are not merely flexible in their specific occupations and skills; they are flexible in all or as many respects as possible. Our technological society demands today the indefinitely malleable individual, the individual skilled in adapting to the latest demands of the social systems within which he or she exists. Such an individual is quickly at home in whatever new skills and activities are required and in whatever the new workplace is where such talents are needed. Increasingly, people are being asked to move around, to accept that they must be prepared to change their jobs, change their workplace, change their address. And thus the desirable individual is increasingly one who is at home everywhere—and possibly just for this reason nowhere.

The disruption and atomisation of family and community life;

Once one had to live very close to work and once work itself once involved lots of people. Thus, whole communities arose around the workplace.10 One thinks here in particular of the working class communities of industrial Britain, say, around the coal mines or the steel mills of the British Midlands. An example closer to home would be the kinds of local communities which grew up in such inner city suburbs of Melbourne as Richmond, Carlton and Collingwood. But with the increasing wealth of the working class, the introduction of the private car and the increasing mechanisation of the workplace, these communities were broken up. These days, one has very little in common with one’s physical neighbour, one lives miles away from one’s relatives and other family members and in general one does not have any particular loyalty to this or that community, suburb or locality. There can be no doubt that this process is continuing, that it is being facilitated by the new technologies currently being introduced; in my opinion it is now reaching into the classic nuclear family itself. If earlier technological change made possible the A.V. Jennings home replete with bored and lonely housewife going mad in the outer suburbs, today it is beginning to make her impossible. These day, both parents must go to work, they must find child care, each must have a car, each must be prepared than to accept flexitime arrangements which break contact with workmates, each must be prepared to change jobs more often and even to go wherever their job requires.

The increased difficulty of determining in advance the effects of new technologies combined with the increased need to do so.

Clearly, the more powerful our technology becomes, the more need there is to determine in advance what effects extensions of it, that is, new technologies, will have. Yet the more powerful new technologies become, the more complex and far-reaching effects they have. Thus, just as it becomes all the more important to determine in advance what effects new technologies will have, it also becomes all the harder to do this. A classic example is genetic engineering: before research organisations and industry start releasing genetically manipulated plants and animals into the environment, it is essential that we check out in advance what detrimental effects this is likely to have. At the same time, determining just what these detrimental effects are likely to be is extraordinarily difficult. In America in the late sixties, as people became more and more aware of the need to determine in advance the effects of new technologies and the great difficulties of doing this, the U.S. government introduced technology assessment.11

Now the problem of technological change points to another kind of problem identified by some writers. This is the problem of technological power. Some writers feel that the way modern, scientific technology has developed has led to the displacing of the traditional power structures of society. Traditional political theories have portrayed political power as lying in the hands of those whom God and tradition have elected to rule; or, more recently, in the hands of those whom the people have elected to office; or even in the hands of those who own the land, factories and banks. But many social scientists believe that thanks to modern technology our society has become so complex that today power really resides in those who have the necessary technical and administrative skills and expertise. The real rulers today are the trained experts, i.e., people who have acquired the kinds of skill needed to contribute to, and administrate, the operation of highly complex social systems made possible by modern technology. In other words, according to some social theorists we live today in a technocracy. A technocracy is a society ruled by technologists, at least on a sufficiently wide reading of the word which allows people with specific training, experience and skills in the art of managing large social organisations to count as technologists. If you would like a slightly facetious example of what is meant by technocracy, you might consider the television series “Yes, Minister”. The central idea around which this series turns is that the politicians are really creatures of skilled administrators whose advice the politicians must blindly follow, for only such administrators, unlike the naive politicians, really understand how to get things done in a complex society.

Now you should not think that writers who regard modern technological society as a kind of technocracy think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many writers, no matter what position they occupy on my scale, believe that there is no other way in which our complex society can be ordered and maintained. They tend to think that even if modern technology has its bad sides; even if the kind of complex society which it makes possible should involve considerable losses, say, in collective solidarity, a sense of belonging to a group and so on: still, the material gains and prosperity of this kind of society cannot be had under any other kind of social organisation. So we will just have to accept the losses technological society brings and make the best of what it can give us. Of course, many writers do not want just to resign in the face of technocracy. They see as the rise of technocracy as a fundamental threat to democratic society and believe that we should and can take steps to counter the threat.

Thus far, we have identified three problems undoubtedly raised by the phenomenon of modern technology:

  1. The problem of the social responsibilities of scientists, technologists and their respective professional bodies and how we get them to accept these responsibilities;

  2. The problem of the effects of technological change and how we prevent or ameliorate them; and

  3. The problem of how technological complexity influences the distribution of power within society and how we can ensure that technological progress remains compatible with democratic ideals.

Writers who take the more moderate, centrist position on my scale of attitudes towards technology see the problematic character of technology as lying solely in these and similar problems. After all, for them, technology itself is not problematic. It does not itself have any tendency to generate these and similar problems. The problems of modern scientific technology are a function of the purely contingent, external circumstances under which it has been developed, implemented and used in our modern society.

Now clearly, these three problems are significant and important. But for many writers on modern technology these are not the most serious ones. These are the radical critics of technology. On my scale of attitudes to technology, they are located to the left of centrists like Mesthene. Radical critics of technology do not of course deny the importance of questions concerning socially responsible technology, technological change and technocracy. But they tend to think that these questions do not get to the heart of what makes modern technology problematic. The real problem is not just that thus far scientists and technologists have failed to take responsibility for their discoveries and inventions. Nor is it simply that modern technological society is changing too fast; even if there were no further technological advance, even if things stayed as they were, the problem of modern technology would still remain. Finally, the problem is not that in technological society ordinary citizens are disempowered by the experts.12 Rather, these radical critics believe that the problem lies in the very existence and nature of modern technology itself. According to these radical critics, problems of social responsibility, technological change and technocracy are direct manifestations or symptoms of the problematic essence of modern technology itself.13 They are not simply the results of the contingent and external circumstances under which modern technology has arisen but rather have been brought about by tendencies intrinsic to modern technology. For on the radical view, modern technology is itself a form or source of domination pervading all life and thought; for them it is an oppressive and largely autonomously acting force, a machine with a dynamic of its own in which we are all caught up.14

Of course, this extreme characterisation of modern technology raises a crucial question: what makes modern technology like this (if it is like this)? Some radical critics trace the allegedly oppressive character of modern technology back to the nature of technology itself. Others regard it as an essential consequence of modern, scientific technology. Note, too, that in order to maintain this extreme view of modern technology, one does not have to deny that something other than modern technology has caused it to become as it is. One could consistently maintain that modern technology has become an oppressive and autonomously acting force, a ‘system’ from which there is no escape as long as one accepts its terms and assumptions, while accepting that this whole ‘machine’ has been called forth by some such thing as the ceaseless competition of the capitalist economy. After all, structural unemployment caused by the introduction of new technologies, the obsessive need for increased occupational and social flexibility and speed, the disruption and atomisation of social relations and the increased difficulty of determining in advance the effects of new technologies may have their proximate causes in the way work is organised and conducted but what causes the new technologies of production and distribution to be introduced are clearly imperatives of efficiency and productivity, which stem in turn from the need to be and remain competitive. (Note that I am regarding as technologies of production not just tools and machines but also the ways in which they and the people who operate them are organised in their operation. Note, too, that new tools and machines make possible new forms of organising and conducting production; conversely, new forms of organising and conducting production permit the introduction of new tools and machines.)15

But whatever their views on what makes modern technology such a force and power, all radical critics of technology see it as a force and power in its own right that directly threatens human freedom. There is only one account of what makes modern technology such an overweening force and power which they would all reject: the view that modern technology has become this simply and solely because something is wrong with the values of its practitioners. As far as the radical critics are concerned, this would be the false claim that technology is oppressive (simply) because its practitioners have put themselves in the service of bad causes when they should be serving truth and human progress. Insofar as human values and understandings play a causal role at all in sustaining modern technology as an autonomous force (as they clearly do), all radical critics of technology believe, or could consistently believe, that this is only because modern technology creates commitment to and endorsement of them. Practitioners, operators and people in general are socialised into these values and understandings.

One thing must be stressed about this radical position: it is not saying that technology is always and irrevocably evil. Rather, it is saying that technology has a kind of intrinsic logic which tends to thwart the realisation of such important human concerns as human freedom, solidarity and wholeness of personality. Evidently, this is not to say that all technology is bad and that we should all return to the caves. It would be quite wrong to describe the radical critics of technology as technophobes, and for this reason I have avoided the term.

We now have in front of us a comprehensive range of different views on technology. The three positions I have outlined, namely, the technophile position, the centrist or liberal position and finally, the radically critical one, are of course only the most obvious and striking ones. There can be various positions in-between, and, as I hope to make clear as we go along, my own attitude lies somewhere in between the radical and the centrist position. The principal difference between the radicals and me is that the radical critics paint such a negative picture of the technological society that resistance against its excesses becomes practically impossible and thus quite senseless. The radicals are simply too pessimistic. This is particularly true of one of the radicals we will be looking at and whose name I have indicated on my scale, namely, Jacques Ellul.

But this is to anticipate things a little. In the next three lectures I want to look more closely at representatives of these three possible positions. In the next lecture I want to examine the views of Richard Buckminster-Fuller. In the lecture thereafter, I will look at the views of Emmanuel Mesthene. And in the fourth lecture I will attempt to make sense of the very strong claims made by Jacques Ellul.


  1. I could have called the theoretical conception the standard conception of philosophy because it is, I think, the conception of philosophy shared by most philosophers here in Australia, at least implicitly.

  2. And on this view it does not matter what ultimately motivates a person to engage in philosophy, to raise and attempt to answer such questions as the above. On the standard view of what philosophy is, there is no overriding function or purpose; philosophy just is the business of answering these and similar questions. And it does not matter why one does philosophy; there is no particular set of motives or concerns which is more helpful than any other in doing philosophy.

  3. And indeed, unlike the sciences, has a quite close connection with a certain kind of motivation, with a certain kind of reason for doing philosophy.

  4. On this first view, philosophy is something which one can undertake and do well for all sorts of reasons and motives.

  5. On this second view, it will be of some importance just why an individual engages in philosophy. For if philosophy is conceived of in this way, then actually being personally affected by the issues at stake will be at least a help in doing philosophy. Let me illustrate this by appeal to the first problem outlined above, the problem of freedom versus causal determinism. One part of deciding this issue must consist in determining just what freedom is and entails. And in determining these things, that person will have a head start for whom it is vitally important that he or she should turn out to be free. The very importance of the issue will make such a person alive to inadequacies in interpretations of the notion of freedom itself. And he or she will be particularly alive to where the weaknesses lie in arguments which too readily claim either that there is no freedom at all, or that if one looks at freedom in such and such a way, then one will see that really there is no incompatibility between freedom and the causally determined character of reality. On the other hand, the person who is genuinely concerned about the fact that modern science at least apparently poses a threat for notions of human freedom is a person who genuinely respects both reasoned argument and the claim of science to provide genuine knowledge. As such, he or she will not be prepared to ride roughshod over the claims of reason and science simply because they have conspired to yield a displeasing result. And thus he or she will be armed against the tendency to believe simply what one wants to believe. So it would appear that the person best equipped to deal with this philosophical problem is someone for whom the question is not just an academic one, but one of vital concern. I believe this to be an important feature of all philosophical questioning, one which distinguishes it from all kinds of merely theoretical inquiry. Ultimately, the best and deepest philosophy is done by people to whom the answers sought really matter, are of more than theoretical or academic interest. And that this should be true testifies to the fact that philosophy is not just a theoretical enterprise, it is also the practical and existential activity of mediating between apparently conflicting claims of vital import for how we see ourselves.

  6. Whenever philosophy seeks to fulfil its function of rational assessment and mediation, two constant features will always stick out: firstly, a concern for reason, i.e., a concern to respect and use the results of either empirical inquiry or intellectual critique, however painful these results may be; and secondly, a concern for the practical and even existential significance of the question at issue. That is, philosophy will be acutely aware that in its questions certain crucial conceptions of what we are and ought to be are implicitly at issue. It will attempt to look for how what we do and say endanger these, and will attempt as far as reason allows to maintain them.

  7. In fact, it would just be to put the matter in another way to say that the task and function of philosophy is that of mediating and adjudicating from case to case between these two fundamental human concerns. It is easy to see this fundamental task lurking behind my first example of a typically philosophical question. This is the question of whether human freedom and the physicist’s picture of reality are compatible. Clearly, the issue of whether human freedom is at all possible is a crucial one, one that crucially effects how we see ourselves. And thus it is easy to see how and why this specific question is not just an interesting theoretical conundrum, but one of practical and existential significance to us as human beings. You might like to think about what makes the other examples practically and existentially significant.

  8. In fact, I want to say that ultimately all areas of philosophy are only properly or completely engaged in if one’s engagement arises out of the kind of practical motivation I have outlined.

  9. Clearly, from this perspective, so-called applied philosophy is not a junior partner of something called pure or theoretical philosophy. Indeed, from this perspective, the whole distinction of “pure” and “applied” would not seem to be appropriate for philosophy at all. While I don’t think the distinction between applied and pure or theoretical is appropriate for philosophy at all, it does make sense in the case of the various natural and human sciences. We see here a way in which philosophy differs from science. Note, too, that the distinction between pure and applied does not make sense in the case of history or literary studies either. What would applied history be as opposed to pure or theoretical history? What would it mean to do applied English literature as opposed to pure English literature? Of course, there is such a thing as the theory of historical investigation, i.e., of what the goal of studying history is, what its methods are; and this is something distinct from the study of history itself. But this is not a distinction between pure and applied, it is rather a distinction between the philosophy of historical study and the actual study of history itself. The same point can be made about English literature.

  10. Kahn and Pepper seem to imply some such yardstick in their book “Will She Be Right?”—see p. .

  11. Of course, we must not idealise such communities; they were often characterised by great poverty, filth and destitution.

  12. Of course, you might be tempted to claim here that these four features and rapid technological change itself are not intrinsic or essential to technology as such, but only to the particular way technology is organised and administered in our society, namely, by the market. That is, you might want to say that these four features are ultimately caused not by technology and technological change themselves, but by the need to remain competitive on the expanding world market. This is an important argument and later I want to deal explicitly both with it and the deeper issue underlying it, namely, the relationship between technology and the economy. But suffice to say for the moment that just as it would be impossible to have our contemporary world economy without contemporary technology, so, too, it would be impossible to have any highly centralised and technologically complex process of producing and distributing goods and services which did not coordinate its component systems by means of market forces. In other words, the kind of technological society which we know today, which has to produce and consume literally masses of goods and services in order to stay afloat at all, simply cannot organise itself efficiently except by market forces. And thus it has an inherently expansionist tendency which amongst other things leads it to revolutionise its technological base continually. (Not a problem of technological change, but of the kind of technology introduced, or of the way it is organised. If every year the technology of paper staplers was revolutionised, this would hardly have serious effects. It is the cumulative effect of rapid change across so many fronts.)

  13. Presumably, radical critics of modern technology would regard the growing interest in questions concerning the social responsibility of scientists and technologists, the social impact of technological change and the rule of experts as revealing an awareness of the real problem which still had not quite grasped what the real problem is.

  14. Ginsberg captures the stance of the radical critics well: “Ourselves caught in the giant machine are conditioned to its terms, only holy vision or technological catastrophe or revolution break “the mind-forg’d manacles.”—Allen Ginsberg, Introduction to Timothy Leary’s Jail Notes, New York, Douglas Books, 1971.

  15. This paragraph was added on January 9th, 2016.