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Understanding Technology?

Technology, Culture, Society and Man        

Technology makes out so central an element in the life and mind of modern man, that it is impossible to think of this life without this element mentioned. With the term ’modern man’ I think not only about the purely temporal aspect which characterizes individuals living in ’modern times’ and i.e. in a specific historical period and more specifically in newest times and especially the latest times, but I think about what is common about the form of life, the content of life and form of mind that characterizes these individuals as members of a high-technological culture – the many differences that yet exist not taken into consideration. In other words I think mainly about us who live in Northern Europe and North America today. Of course we can try to imagine what life would be like for us without access to technology and try to imagine what it would be like to be without knowledge about this, but those imaginings which this doing would imply would probably either relate to empirical matters on the background of imagining  what life is like where technology is at a low level, as we ‘know’ it from the so-called ’third world’, but it would still be seen from the view of the technologically influenced mind, which we can hardly escape or get behind.

If this is true, then it is part of our understanding of ourselves as human beings, i.e. as cultural beings, to have an understanding of the essence of the role of technology in our lives. Thus e.g. to have an understanding of technological specific problems and solutions. But the most basic understanding of technology we find – as we shall see – in an understanding of the many aspects of which technology is part or holds itself. Such an inclusive attempt is identical with a philosophical attempt to understand technology. I here understand a philosophical access as an example of an attempt to think together all aspects of a thing or theme and as an example of making a more precise critical conceptualisation of a problematic matter. An investigation of these separate aspects taken together makes out a synthetic thematizing of aspects of technology that various researchers and philosophers have made either their sole object, or made one of several objects for investigation, therefore representing narrow or broader attempts at investigation and understanding. These examples of understanding thus represent narrow or broader conceptualisations of technology. The attempt here is to show that technology can be best understood in the broadest sense – according to its dimensions.

My aim in this paper is to try to give an overview of the content of these dimensions as themes and thus present a certain overview over the content of these themes and thus in a broad sense contribute to a synthesis of understanding by attempting to uncover and make precise some of the lines of connection that exist between the themes for discussion of technology. Doing that I shall perhaps present a picture of technology which is not in accordance with the more traditional picture and shall perhaps transgress some widespread notions. These notions often express a view of technology as something purely material – as material objects – and therefore as part of a field the content of which is close to the field of nature and therefore theoretically speaking and concerning understanding is basically close to or closest to the natural sciences. I shall try, though, to show that technology is more than that, and that technology, even seen from a material view, is best understood in the broad sense. It is my contention that thinking about, researching and understanding technology is not only a matter for or close to the field of the natural sciences, but is a matter for the humanities and social sciences. The boundary between these fields and their objects is not or ought not to be so sharp as is often considered.

As usual when one attempts at an understanding of a rather complex matter or a rather complex field of matters, it is desirable to take point of departure in a basic understanding that is common to and collects the possible aspects of the matter and thus helps the understanding of the connections between the aspects. Such a basic understanding tries to catch the essential properties or aspects of the matter – tries to determine its ontological status. In its shortest version such an attempt can have the character of a definition – and in its most ambitious version of a definition of essentials. I.e. it is a definition which exhaustively presents all the necessary and sufficient properties which the object has as represented by one term: the concept. Already here is opened up of a general problematics that has not only to do with technology, but has to do with forms of existence of objects in general, and the concepts that we have of them. This is not the place to deal with this matter in general and is not the place where it should be resolved whether essentialism or modified versions of it is a sound metaphysical position, but it is my contention that at least technology does not and its versions do not have a nature of essence and cannot be made the object essentialistic or reductivistic considerations.[1] Initially this ought to be obvious, if we just see that technology does not consist only of the many different material objects that we intuitively identify with technology, for these objects somehow imply the use, the users of the objects and the frame or contextf(s) within which these users exist. There is, although, a view on technology which ascribes technology an essential nature in the sense of inherent logic. This view has been called an ”essentialistic” view on technology, but this view is – as we shall see – not identical with an essentialistic metaphysics in general. I.e. it is not necessarily identical with the extensive view that something exists, namely substances that make all the respectively different objects what they are or must be because of inherent, essence-causing properties which are fundamentally causally determining for their interaction with other ”things”, and that this essential nature can be possibly caught in a definition.

Traditionally speaking we have two terms concerning technology. The primary term, of course, is ’technics’ which has been developed or derived from the Greek word τεχνε (techné). The Greek term no way, however, denote only material objects, and i.e. – in order to be precise – does not denote the nature of objects, namely as tools and perhaps as apparatuses and machines, but rather denote a capability or the craft of a craftsman, and i.e. denotes a capabililty-based and perhaps artistic capability-based overcoming of material-, social- and political obstacles. This craft therefore makes out the condition for making objects from materials of nature – for making artefacts.

Yet the modern use – derived from the term ’technics’ – in the mind of many people refer to material objects, and i.e. to tools and etc. To this adds the term ’technology’ – a compound of technics and logos – as a term for a knowledge of technics. This tradition – this distinction – yet is rarely no longer maintained. There may be two causes for this. The first cause may be the one that affects much linguistic development, namely that common language competence cannot operate with more than a certain amount of nuances and therefore with a certain amount of words and therefore again often operates with fewer or only one word in the context. The other cause might be that the distinction – as we will see – in principle makes no much sense or no sense at all, and that it is best to choose the term which best covers all the aspects of the object with which we are concerned.

All this should make out the background for understanding the future of technology and its impact on our lives concerning cultural and working-life aspects.

The “Essence” of Technology. A Preliminary Stipulation

In spite of the contention that technology has no true essence in substantial sense, it is of course not excluded, that it has an essence in a different sense. This sense of ’essence’ might e.g. comprise the connection between objects of concepts which are unconditionally necessary for understanding an ”object” as being an example of technology and a behaviour as being technological. If we can establish such a connection, we have caught the ontological features that make technology possible, and which therefore together make out what we with a modification might call the ”essence” of technology. This essence may be coined out in a definition which so far reads like this:

Technology is an example of operationalized or operationalisable knowledge about – and most often is an example of several operationalised cooperative elements of knowledge about – working principles with an intended instrumental function for fulfilling goals of action.

The content of this definition shall be dealt with and explained in the following.

Such a definition of course does not anyway pretend to define technology exhaustively and thus make possible an agreed or safe settlement on the question, whether this or that object falls under the definition and therefore can be seen as a true example of technology. The function of the definition is to be tentative or rather is to give a foundation for an overview and for a notion of determining or characterizing limits and thus to create the foundation for a testing and explorative and clarifying delimitation in relation to objects of nature and in relation to human made objects and perhaps human acts which are not examples of technologies or do not use technologies.

Means and Instruments

The definition does not tell anything about in which medium the operationalization takes place[2] or may find place and therefore does not immediately say anything about possibilities of delimitation.

According to the mentioned definition of technology, then technology is part of human actions, namely the aspect of actions which does not only make use of the being’s own body, but beyond that makes use of means for obtaining of goals. But not all means of action have the nature of a technological matter. There exist very few means in a context of action to which can neither be ascribed the status of a tool nor status of operationalization. Most of the food that we eat of course has the status as a means, but it can hardly be ascribed technological status. Of course food serves as a means for survival, but we can hardly without speaking metaphorically consider food as an instrumental or tool-like means. The definition only says, that the means that have an intended instrumental function is an example of technology. In spite of this demand, the user needs not to be fully conscious of the intention and needs not perhaps also know (have knowledge about) all the principles on which the success of the outcome depends. Yet the user must have an in principle phraseable intention with his or her use in order for the use to be called technological, and there must be someone who has created the knowledge about the working principles which the specific technology expresses and utilizes. Food does not become technological in itself till when it is object of very specific goals and principles for their obtaining: e.g. slimming techniques or specific food oriented health techniques. Food of course can be made the object of technological processing of both gastronomical and industrial kind. In the first mentioned context focus is on the purpose of the experience of taste, and in the second context the purpose of the focus is mass-production.

If these demands are not presupposed, then all human use of means and behaviour related to means is technological, and the same is true of the use of means by certain animals. The absence of the demands will first of all dissolve the meaningfulness of the use of the term (concept) technology and secondly would presuppose an intending and knowledge which is hardly present in most animals except in higher primates. If we therefore use the term technology about use of means and tools in other cases than those required by the demands of the definition, we must consider this use as metaphorical.

We probably also have to say, that much of the content of dealings that human beings have with each other has the character of  ”use” and of use as means, but we will hardly talk about use as a means and therefore talk about outspoken use as means or tools of technology except in cases when this use is strongly one-sided in one person’s or group’s favour and calculated and possibly depersonalizing and dehumanizing. In normal cases in a human context, even use of other human beings as a means contains some personal human relationships.

Yet technologies exist within this context ranging from techniques of attention, techniques of seduction, techniques of love and techniques of sexuality ranging to to couple- and group therapy and to techniques of controlling behaviour and efficiency of labour.

Non-material Means

Not all means have yet a material character. Certain technologies of physiological, therapeutic and controlling kind are solely based on a use of knowledge about bodily and psychic functions. Here is thought, of course, specially at body therapy that does not use tools: gymnastics and body exercises[3], massage and the like, talk therapy, hypnosis, techniques of breathing and the like, and controlling through affecting the emotions: ’technologies of mind’, ‘technologies of mood’[4]. In these contexts, of course, use of tools may take place and very often takes place. The rich technology that in most recent modern times characterizes this context are known from fitness programs, medicine and surgery of a more or less advanced kind, ranging to psychotropics.

Cultural Techniques

Cultural techniques are the techniques the purpose of which is to secure the cultural and social integration. I.e. techniques that should develop specific desirable patterns of behaviour on the basis of patterns of way of experiencing by the members of the culture and the bearers of culture and make certain that these ways of experiencing are preserved and mediated to new members of the culture. The integration itself is an expression of a certain mark of unity of experiencing and therefore a union of experiencing in order to secure an experience of connectedness. The essential factor here is the learning of norms, integrated in emotional life. These sorts of techniques in a strange way unite or make goals and means coincide and therefore often make them seem self-evident and opaque to the bearers. The means which are used – as mentioned – are means that shall secure control of ways of experiencing, and here not only knowledge about the world in general make out an indispensable element, but especially knowledge about which features of the world that are important and how things should be understood on this basis. The ”means” in this context concerning the consciousness internally is our emotions and attitudes which are developed with a specific cognitive and affective aspect through specific connectings in order to secure certain experiencings[5], and the outer ”means” are overall made out of rituals and traditions: the repeated content of which forms and secures the content of emotions and attitudes. We might in this context talk about how the culturally and socially implicit and explicit values aims at being secured through internalization in the emotional links.

Integrative techniques, though, are rarely the only techniques in a culture. Techniques also exist the purpose of which are to secure existing power relations or to secure existing power relations by other means than accept or as cooperation. These more controlling techniques we shall return to under  the heading  of social techniques.


The essence of artefacts are determined by the function they have or by the role they play; and the type of artefacts which are of a truly technological kind are artefacts, i.e. tools, appliances and machines which have a specific purpose-fulfilling function according to given principles. Most of the objects by which we are surrounded – in spite of level of technological development – therefore are examples of technology, but the amount and their technological complexity increase with the level of technologizing.

Non-technological Artefacts

Non-technological artefacts are characterized by either not having an internal operationalizable function or by not having a specific purpose. Houses have technological nature or status according to that consideration. They operationalize specific principles for a place for living with the purpose of procuring shelter and comfort by means of less or more developed technologies. Le Corbusier could thus dub houses as ’machines for living’.

Objects of decoration without operationalizable function, of course, have the purpose of giving pleasure to the viewer, but such a fulfilling of the purpose is not guaranteed. The absence of an operationalizable principle excludes the guarantee of success and makes success contingent or dependent of other, external factors. Created objects of decoration are, of course, always created by means of technology, but th are not necessarily technological in themselves. Technological objects can on the other hand be attempted to appear more or less as decoration or as decorated or to be adapted in appearance and utility, so that to their function is added an element of something inviting and pleasantly interesting: an element of technological aesthetics. The same goes for other elements in our lives as clothes, perfumes, scents etc.

Works of Art

Works of art can hardly be called technology. The production of works of art use techniques in every and each link, but the finished product is not in itself an example of technology. This applies to the singular piece of work of art, but it not least applies to the reproducible work of art and staged or rendered work of art. Pictorial art in a broad sense is an example of applied techniques, works of performed music is based on musical instrumental techniques and of techniques of playing together. The accessibility of literary works of art is related to the development of the art of printing etc., and the staging of plays for the scene and playing from the score also needs learned technical skills. Works of art as finished products although also use techniques as e.g. style and contexts of meaning at any link and i.e. principles of meaning and sense that transgress common principles of meaning and sense and create experiences which are not the products of principles. I.e. works of art create experiences of cognitive and emotional kind which have both a unity of commonly human content and the character of something singular and something uniquely subjective. The effects of works of art therefore are never exactly the same.

This outlook on works of art is of course an example of a strongly limited picture of this kind of ”objects” and only intends to place them in an ontological context.

When we are trying to find the border between the sort of means that are of a non-technological kind, and the means that are of a technological kind, we do not have other means than our conceptual intuitions and our reflections on their content with the purpose of making this content meaningful. Whether language as a whole or parts of it is meaningful concerning its references, and whether gymnastics or other self-influencing techniques based on knowledge are techniques that do not use tools, but are still to be considered as techniques is a question of individual notions, but not only that. The basis for these spontaneous conceptual notions may be attempted constantly clarified and brought in union in thought  in order to be tested for its meaningfulness in the context.

Views on Technology

As can be seen, it is my contention, that technology is a very complex matter with a general complex of causal factors and relations of causes within different ontological spheres. This means, that a focus on one of these spheres make space for a  possible explanation of the essence or role of technology, but this means also, that such an explanation is both limited and insufficient in itself, and it means also, that such an attempt expresses som preconditions in the view of technology which reflect other factors (limiting as it must always be) of cultural, historical and possibly personal kind. The philosophical access to a matter  by nature attempts to transgress this limitation. An  attempt of this kind,  and i.e. an attempt at a ”full” understanding of the essence of technology includes an understanding of these factors. I.e. includes an understanding of the factors that led to this or that understanding of technology.

The problem with the different focuses in the views on technology is, that they use different conceptual apparatuses which can make it difficult to compare the views. Seen from their own point of view, they do not deal with a theme concerning technology, but tell the (full) truth about technology. Seen from another – overall – view they only show part of the truth, and their conceptual apparatus should therefore be translated into a synthetizing conceptual apparatus.

The following will make out an attempt at showing some views on technology on the background of the preconditions which the view expresses or on which it rests. When I distinguish, it is because many views do not relate to their own preconditions or do not  do so explicitly concerning all their preconditions. It is, of course, always a problem, when one tries to bring views and their preconditions under categories. This problem consists among other things also in the arbitrariness and i.e. lack of certainty concerning the categorizing – a lack of certainty which will and must always exist. No overall system of categorizing system exists – and if it did, the world would look a lot different, but what exists is more or less purposeful ways of dividing categories and their content. The purposefulness is secured by overall and mutual meaningfulness in which the (part-)categorizings can be possibly placed. If the categories mutually elucidate and explain each other seen from an overall view, there is a great chance that the categorization is purposeful.

An attempt at establishing a purposeful categorizing system concerning technology must of course take point of departure in historical, existing views and try to piece these together into a coherent view. Such a doing places existing views in a system from where these are viewed. I have already indicated such a ”system”, but will indicate how this came into existence by moving the opposite way.

The Role of Technology?

The most comprehensive and central question concerning technology is: which role does technology play? The answer to this question depends, however, on which factors one ”chooses” to include. It is a question, whether one chooses to look at technology as tools instantiated, ie. whether one includes the purpose of technology, and therefore includes the causes or reasons for developing technology, and again whether one includes the cultural and therefore historical conditions under which technology develops.

The Function of Technology

No one will hardly disagree, that technology has a role. But whether one sees this role as something that can be understood from the object itself – as an expression of the object itself, is more doubtful. From the view of this doubted – but logically possible position – the role of technology is identified with function. These two terms need not, granted, represent conceptually different matters. We need not distinguish between the cultural role and the function of technology, but when we look at the technological object isolatedly, it is purposeful to reserve ’function’ to the description of the content. This cannot be done, though, without understanding the purpose in accordance with which the function was intended. According to this view the purpose therefore makes out the constitutive element of the function. This ought to be obvious to anyone, if one thinks that no one is able to understand an example of technology, e.g. a tool, without understanding with which purpose it works.[6]

Technology should therefore be (best) understood internally seen from a functional angle. This function is  – as mentioned above – therefore not necessarily instantiated in a specific medium. Inventions represent different ways of producing means for obtainings of goals, but as many means can in principle obtain the same goals, and as the means which do this in the best way, and i.e. fastest and with immediately smaller costs and risks for the user or the owner, there therefore is strong attention to this aspect, and there are almost no limits to the inventiveness that exists. We are here getting closer to the core of technology, and i.e. the interest in efficient intervention into the world and control over parts of the content of the future through iterative opportunities for control. Technology can therefore not be understood only through description of purpose and function – cannot be understood from a purely descriptive angle – but can only be understood, if the relationship between purpose and function is included, and i.e. if efficiency is included. Various technologies are almost always possible as means in relation to a specific goal, but the efficiency of the means varies. The fact exactly that technology is not tied to a specific medium, but is concerned with efficient obtaining of purposes by way of the means that nature, social conditions and the specific historical situation of knowledge makes possible, means that this field cannot be made the object of thoughts about essence. Machines for production of energy exist of many kinds today. There are both machines producing power as steam engines, machines based on petroproducts, nuclear power or wind- or hydropower. The difference in efficiency between these types of power-productions is obvious and so are the costs, and the technology which is most efficient in its function will normally be preferred unless it is too expensive for the user, or unless the source of energy is not accessible to the specific user or unless that other natural conditions and costs for nature, or cultural or political factors are present and counterwork this tendency. Technology therefore in its nature is a normative matter, and this means, that technology represent values somehow and always is part of axiological contexts. This is hardly surprising, as this is the case concerning everything that has to do with human purposes. Technology therefore is no way to be understood as a neutral matter.

The Roles of Technology

The role of technology can only be understood by the role it plays in specific contexts, and we therefore have to speak about the roles of technology. In order get a picture of these roles many factors have to be taken into consideration. The factors we speak about are the factors which condition change, development or hampering of technologies.

New Possibilities, Reliefs and Power

In the context mentioned the basic factors have the nature of truisms, and the awareness of them often only is only present, when one reflects in a more abstract sense over one’s own doings in relation to nature,  to human beings and society and discover, that man’s relation to  nature is a relation of dependence – man being the dependent part, and that this dependency can be made less toilsome, can be relieved and thus open new opportunities and make life easier and less unsecure by means of technological means and inventiveness and cooperation with other human beings. Less toilsome by supplanting or relieving human toilsome labour with other energies and less unsecure by procuring means which can satisfy needs or desires immediately when necessary. Of course these basic factors cannot be separated, but for reasons of understanding a distinction is analytically necessary. The first basic factor consist in the will to seek new means for procuring of other, desired opportunities in life and originally for procuring means for opportunities of relieved life. Thus also for producing technology to be sold as commodities in the market. In a less neutral and value-loaded formulation of the desirable opportunities in life, this is an expression of a will to establish lasting conditions of power, and here technology often makes out – and at least does so today – the most essential factor for such conditions. Much technology that we know from everyday life today in high-technological contexts, yet, has the character of technology of entertainment (condition of power over a life of boredom created by a technologically inactivizing culture?), and this factor can contribute to prevent us partly from seeing the other side of technology which is the history of overcoming[7] obstacles causing needs to be unsatisfied, and the history of the establishing of power[8]. Even if the last factor mentioned is still made apparent by weapons and warfare technologies. The second factor mentioned above concerns inventiveness and its foundation, and i.e. the factor that concerns being able to see the opportunities for satisfaction of needs and desires through possible, but yet not existing means. This inventiveness consists of a hardly specifiable capability to combine a more or less implicit knowledge about natural matters and materials, and especially about laws of nature, with the efficient operationizable opportunities that this knowledge ”promisses”. Thus inventiveness is not a separate factor in the context. It contains a foundation of purposefulness and a foundation of knowledge which together combine these in an absolutely new way, when this functions (best) for obtaining specific goals or perhaps for finding which new goals that newly invented means or instruments could be used to bring into existence. This foundation may consist in individual knowledge, but of course it grows in richness, if a specific culture has established such a developed foundation, and if more people with this foundation are involved in the same project – if we speak about established teams working on the project. To such an established culture belongs therefore an already given technology and culture of technology. Even if the mentioned inventiveness hardly in the end is specifiable as a capability – as mentioned above – because it contains an essential element of imagination, yet the foundation of  knowledge may be attempted systematically developed, as we know it from educations of technicians and engineers and technological schools and institutes.

A basic factor is – as mentioned – human will to control the contingent conditions of human dependency on nature. This factor has been called the ”will to control over nature” (in German ”Wille zur Naturbeherrschung”). This insight was formulated by Descartes among others in a period, when there was a new focus on this factor among members of a small group belonging to the intellectual elite. An insight expressed in the following words: ”how much different automats or moving machines can do for human industry…” exemplified by ”…the grottoes and the fountains in the gardens of kings..” and ”…the clocks, the artificial fountains, the mills and other machines…” as expression of  ”…a practical philosophy by which through knowing the powers and effects which are in fire, water and air, the stars, the heavens and all the other bodies that surround us, as obviously as we know the techniques of our craftsmen, can make us the lord and master of nature…”[9] As such this view expresses a dream which has been present since Antiquity, but which no one dared to dream truly of becoming true then. [10] The optimism expressed here has ever since been present in large parts of the views of technology, but the view has definitely not been alone. We can thus find views on technology ranging from the most outspoken naive optimism to a pessimism concerning technology or an outspoken hate to or fear of technology: technophobia. While it can be said, that the outspoken optimism of technology has a common core which more or less consists of the just mentioned, yet there is not much to be said about this view, because it is just a view which finds its foundation in its confirmed and self-confirming expectations, in contrast to scepticism of technology which is a view somewhat more nuanced.

While the reason for optimism is one is, then the reasons for scepticism or level-headedness are plural. These include also outspoken hate of or disregard of the object. These reasons all reflect different values or views of values from which technology or specific technologies are viewed more or less positively and/or negatively. The outspoken optimistic view focuses solely on all the opportunities for improvement of life that technology holds. The outspoken technological optimist sees technologically speaking only the progress and identifies uniquely (all) progress with technological progresses. There is therefore an inner relationship between the values according to which or from which technology is assessed, and the (in principle descriptive) model for explanation of the essence of technology or the view of the ontological status of technology linked to this estimation. I will not allege, that it is impossible to get a true or even an approximately true picture of technology for this reason. My contention is, that only the undimensioned, narrow models of description give a false or incomplete picture and therefore either a too outspokenly optimistic or pessimistic view. As we cannot, the other way round, know anything for certain about the reasons of singular individuals for their views: whether singular views give reasons for overall views or overall views give reasons for views of singular individuals, we will have to look at the preconditions of the views.

A good example of this in an optimistic – and purely optimistic – context we find in Friedrich Dessauer.[11] Dessauer considers technology as a separate and autonomous metaphysical sphere the content of which exists in itself.  Of course not as a sphere which in its nature materially speaking is like the objects technology also consists of, but as a sphere which exists by force of the discoverable solutions to problems. Therefore not a sphere which by its nature is material as the objects that make out technology, but a sphere which exists because of the discoverable opportunity for problem-solving within this particular sphere – or this ”realm” as Dessauer puts it. This is an addition to a Kantian three world ontology and thus a four world ontology. The fourth world therefore exists in its own right before the inventor invented it or to put it more correctly: discovered it. The inventor should from this point of view more correctly be dubbed the discoverer:

Among the objects of the fourth realm there is some essence which has passed out of it by means of human action. The technical or invented object which is perceived in the external world like a tree consequently implies an encounter of a different kind than the encounter with a natural thing. It is a re-seeing: and still more than that, a re-finding – of a third thing.[12]

This ontological status implies an independence in relation to mind – a neutral value – in relation to the use which can be made of it, and this view on the independent existence of technology does not include or accept the cultural dimension and the dimension of costs concerning technology. Still technology would never be developed, if human mind did not turn to this realm, but in the way one might consider the existence of certain values as independent of the content of mind, but not existing without minds, the same way one might – with an analogy – consider the world of technology as a value in itself, a discoverable value which has its own logic of effect because of this, a logic which is the logic of progress:

Our contemporaries complain about “technological progress”. But, in truth, no one opposes this power of the fourth realm, permitted – indeed, demanded – by mankind, continues to flow onward, probably to be stengthened from century to century; it will continue the transformation of the earth so that all science fiction and utopian visions will be put to shame.[13]

This logic of development and optimism is found also – as well-known – in more traditional Marxian thought. Here yet with an equally strong focus on another aspect of the logic of development namely the unequal distribution of resources and the painful consequences which the struggle about access to and development of the means of production has to those who are exploited and weak. The necessary and positive development must go through stages of misery in order to obtain full flourishing in communist society.

The more level-headed, the sceptics or even the hateful viewers are, of course, in the same situation concerning mixing values and facts. Their negative attitudes also contain a mixture of specific ontologies and values.

Also on the background of the earlier mentioned basic factor concerning development of technology, namely the will to find new means, it is clear, that it is attitudes within this field which can hamper or stop technological change and development.

This is stated without an assessment of whether this is good or bad. We cannot assess the reasons or motives that drive the resistance against technology without relating them more basic values or values about which we can reasonably agree.


As a theme in the philosophy of technology traditionalism has two sides. As a cultural view traditionalism is culturally conserving. Traditionalism is a ”view” stating, that specific or perhaps all cultural features represent or express values in themselves which should be preserved. Such a view can represent either an opposition against technological renewal because of opposition against cultural change or can represent an opposition against just cultural change[14].

In the first case we find the will to impediment of technology which we know from many traditionalistic cultures. The Amish people and the Shakers in The United States are recent and well-known examples in the Western World, but large parts of the pre-romantic movement (e.g. William Blake) and the romantic movement, parts of the socialistic movement have also placed themselves here as an expression of opposition against industrial technologizing and often as proponents of good craft. As exponents of this view one is not absolutely against technology – but is proponent for technology being used and preserved at a certain level. Traditionalism is most often very diffuse in its view on permissible and not permissible changes and is unable to express sharp lines or clear limits. The limits are most often experienced through the expressed opposition against technology, and all traditionalistic cultures are therefore not against technological goods or they can be divided in their views. We can see this case as some sort of cultural fight and an expression of a cultural struggle for self-protection in big parts of the world today. A cultural fight in which technology plays a more or less important part. Weapons technology seem yet to have an attraction in most places and to be acceptable. It is even possible that strongly traditionalistic cultures can play a leading role in the development of new technology as has been the case in The United States in recent times. The truth of this contention need a longer support and explanation which I shall not attempt here, but mentioning that the cultures of The United States are many and some of them progressive, but the majority culture is traditionalistic.

In the second case we find examples of views on technology which think, that the role of technology is to preserve and secure existing culture or parts of it, but thinks so as a descriptive view on technology – from a meta-point of view – that this is the function of technology, that technology serves norms. The views on technology which say, that this is what technology is about, can exist yet in several variations according to their metaphysical or axiological foundations. The uniting factor in these views is that they consider culture as the dominant element in the development of technology and therefore as the foundation for understanding and researching in technology. These are constructivist views on technology. I.e. in this view examples of technology are constructs with cultural/social purposes.

If the purpose of technology is considered to be cultural dominance, then we have a view that equals the view of Foucault.[15]

In this view technology represents a social logic of power and has a logic of its own and does not primarily represent a logic of control over nature, and in this game of logic human beings are instruments without exception. The trends of development can all be understood as examples of power-relations and striving for preservation of power, and the trends have no intrinsic understandable logics apart from the logics of power in various contexts.

If in contrast the purpose og technology is considered to preserve and especially to preserve a specific culture including certain technological cultures, then we have yet another view on technology. We here talk about technology as having a normfulfilling function, and that technological development therefore is determined by or co-determined by the aid that technology can yield in support of certain norms. An example of this could be the development of the automatic door closer. Instead of a note on the door with a request for closing the door in order to avoid theft, draught, waste of energy or possible spread of fire, the automatic door closer is developed thus heightening the possibility of fulfilling of the norms in contrast to the mere request. This view is represented in the thinking of Bruno Latour from whom the example has been taken.[16] Latour has – if anyone – drawn attention to the fact, that cultural features and therefore also technological cultural features such as research- and laboratory cultures etc. are determining or co-determining in thechnological development, and that an understanding of technology therefore includes the cultural dimension. The study of technology thus has a hermeneutic dimension: a sociological and historical dimension and therefore is a humanistic disciplin.[17] The history of technology therefore is a very essential disciplin in the context we are researching, but I will only touch it hintingly here.

Even if both of these views – in their more radical versions – do not tell the whole truth about the essence of technology, still they tell a very essential truth. The essentiality of the cultural dimension was mentioned above and shall not be repeated, but Foucault’s awareness of the social dimension of technology is very essential. This is another dimension than the cultural technological dimension mentioned above. While the cultural technological dimension is understood as having an integrative function, social technologies have more a nature of control. Some people will deny the special status of the integrative element, but I will contend, that there is a distinction. The integrative element is based on emotions and attitudes, but with a possible understanding of their reasons and functions as a foundation for coordinations of actions. Something which concerning the last aspect is only or best known from a reflective culture.


Social technologies are necessary in any societies just a bit complex, because social cohesion is not secured only by regulation of emotional life and homogenous ways of living at a minor level. The more complex societies are, and the less they are characterized by equality, characerized by lack of influence of the many and characterized by conflict, the more these technologies are needed. In a complex society as instruments needed to solve problems of complexity with the impending danger that these technologies become complex themselves, opaque and unmanagable and lose their function and cause problems which are alleged only to be solved by new technological tools in the hand of a group outside democratic control: namely technocrats.

Technocracy therefore makes out a constant danger. Both under the conditions of societies characterized by lack of influence of the people and under condtions of societies characterized by conflicts and under both conditions social technologies serve primarily as instruments to preserve power through control. The role of the social technologies is to ensure as little opposition as possible and as much adherence and subservience as possible in these contexts. The instruments for this is control over minds by disciplining, indoctrinizing, speak to the fear in individuals and groups, and where it is necessary to forbid information about actual facts (censorship), by concealing the truth of matters and distorting information and produce information that is faked and false (propaganda). Media technologies play a central role in this context with their instruments for influencing and thus also play a central role in the struggle for dominating these instruments.

Inattention or Indifference

Inattention or indifference towards technological opportunities or possible development of technology is an example of an attitude of not feeling that anything is lacking or of not feeling that technology might influence one’s life significantly. I.e. that one does not miss anything or does not seem to miss anything which technology might procure This ”attitude of luxury” is identical with the absence of the formerly mentioned will to search for new means for procuring different, desirable opportunities in life. When I dub it an ”attitude of luxury”, it is because we are here dealing with an extraordinary situation compared with the need that the greatest part of humanity have always suffered. And the priviliged situation of these bearers of this mentioned attitude can hardly rest on their own work. If the bearers of such an attitude make out the dominating power factor in society, then there is no or only little or scant technological development. This only happens presumably in situations, when the production of goods is made by large amounts of slave labour or slavelike labour. In such situations incentives to development of technology is little, perhaps except for technology in the field of warfare, because under such circumstances such technology is necessary and object of special interest. We find examples of this – as Koyré draws attention to – in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and  Ancient Rome, where technological development was astonishingly slow compared to the development in other cultural spheres.[18] Yet there are other hampering factors.

Scepticism and Hostility

A special aspect of the just mentioned, but with a more outspoken cultural dimension, could be the aristocratic disgust and disrespect for physical and manually practical labour which an intellectually active elite develops and ”hands over to tradition” and in Antiquity turns to a positive focus on vita contemplativa.[19] This view is not foreign to the intellectuals within the humanities of later times, though of course there are exeptions. Here we do not speak about a culture that is hampering to technological development, but we speak about a culture which is ”offended about” the technological/natural scientific focus on matters. This is the background for the development of one side of of what C.P. Snow dubbed ”the two cultures”.[20]

Potential for Abuse, Costs and Intrinsic Logic

The most valuable crticism against technology in general concerns its potential for abuse, its costs and its alleged intrinsic logic and the consequenly negative influence on human freedom.

As for potential for abuse there is no doubt. Technology produces – as is its function – instruments of power and make these instrument available. Often these instruments of power are terrifying. Does this fact give reason for objections against technology in general or against specific technologies? Well, hardly objections against technology in general, if some technologies produce goods without great costs. There is therefore only reason for objections against specific technologies with a great potential for abuse and irrepairable costs for nature. E.g. nuclear weapons and other sorts of weapon and prouction based on coal and petrol, but a lot of of other examples may probably be given. Not only concerning warfare technology, but instruments to survey and control members of society, automatization that creates mass unemployment. To this adds the contention about the intrinsic logic of  technology. In one view that logic is closely connected to  the formerly mentioned factor for the objection against technology, namely that the intrinsic logic of technology sooner or later will produce instruments for abuse, and that these instruments will consequently be apllied. This view therefore contends, that technology should not only be controlled, but should be stopped.

The problem concerning the costs of technology is more difficult to decide. Is it so, that any gain produced by technology is equaled by a similar cost? E.g. as development of technological instruments for suppression, for unnessesary labour, loss of ressources and pollution? If so the visibility oft his is not perhaps immidiately obvious, because it might be suppressed or hidden  and therefore is not seen in relation to the values of which so many are destroyed as there are produced positive values. We find such a view in Jaques Ellul who thinks, that technological problems are not solved by technology. Against such problems only ethics and reflective thinking is of any aid.[21] Denial of this view is, of course, an example of of the earlier mentioned optimism.

We here find examples of opposition against cultural change produced specifically by technology and technological means or against uncontrolled technology. An anti-technological conservatism of some kind.

The mentioned contention about the intrinsic logic of technology and its repressive function in itself needs a backing in the shape of a theory which can explain the content of the contention. In this field we find several competing theories the object of which is the relationship between technology and freedom.


Technology and Freedom

Does technology have its own inertia? And i.e. are we bereaved of power by technology? Or is it rather a political question? Under the discussion of the concept of social technologies it was mentioned, that human beings can be influenced by and can be controlled by technological means. But is it also the case, that human mind is totally controlled by technology? A theory which answers the question in a positive way preconditions total or hard determinism. Such a case of course is thinkable, but hardly plausible concerning that the determining mechanism in the context should be something completely outside and independent of mind without causally explaining links between these matters. Why is the influence only goin in one direction? One needs not be an opponent of the assertion of hard determinism to wonder about such a theory. I do not know, if anyone has asserted such a view in this formulation, but superficially seen this formulation makes out the essence of the theories that do not specify the causal connections.

A more valid bid ought to explain how it is possible in spite of an accepted human freedom, in the sense of the existence of free will, is possible, that this free will is limited by by certain factors, and i.e. that it is limitable so that the decisions which are made either do not have their actual origin in the individual or are against the interest of the individual without this being clear to that same individual.

The first view dealing with the problem of origin of change concerns a question of freedom itself, whereas the other view concerns the question of rationality, namely either about the intrinsic logic of rationality or about absence of rationality. The last view preconditons that a transparency is possible, and that it is possible in principle to see through one’s own irrationalities. The first aspect of the last view concerns the relationship between technology and mind – a controlling relationship between technology and mind, whereas the other aspect concerns relationships in mind – a controlling relationship between parts of mind.

A theory about this last aspect states, that man as authentic is free because of his understanding of himself and his relationship to the world. This authentic relationship, however, may be broken, if man takes a specific attitude towards nature, namely an attitude towards nature as a ressource for exploitation. In taking this attitude – which is a technological attitude as such – man does something to himself building a faith, that he can control nature by means of technology and thus control life. Says Heidegger who is the the author of this view or this theory.[22] This attitude, though, veils, that the essence of freedom is managing the uncovered truth –  uncovering of truth in the open receptivity, but this freedom is substituted and dissolved and turns into its contrast in an attitude which is characterized by a will to control and therefore has to view reality in the light of utility only – and has to see itself as life as an object of utility for this utility. This of course is an attempt at in a very extreme short form to render the points of the view – without the heideggerian terminology.

According to Horkheimer og Adorno[23] reason itself is technological. Reason in its content is determined by and developed by the function by which its aim is to try to survive in a world primarily by the help of reason. Reason must be and is for that same reason determined by the objects of the world as instruments for avoiding things unpleasant and obtain things pleasant. Reason is in other words essentially instrumental. This fact implies, that such a basic technological approach to reality, a will to control over nature, represents an instrumentalizing of man himself in relation to nature that is exploited, if this exploitation is to be efficient. The result is a oppression and exploitation of other human beings as means in process of a self-oppression. Technology arises out of an attitude to be free and independent, but this attitude results in the opposite of what was dreamt and hoped for. Thus the conflict between the ideal of enlightenment and its contrast in practice.

This view has later been attempted revised and made more realistic/optimistic by other members of The Frankfurt School, and among them Marcuse who thought, that technology is not in itself oppressive, but that its goods can be used to satisfy an oppressed class and make the members of the class forget the forms of repression.[24] Another contribution to this revision of the view is found in the work of Jürgen Habermas. He pleads for an understanding that says, that technological and natural scientific success and the consequently ideologized promise of progress makes the instrumental concept of rationality succesful and thus leads away focus of awareness from oppression and exploitation. And leads away awareness from another and more basic rationality, namely a communicative rationality. This rationality Habermas describes in later works as the fundamental rationality of which instrumental rationality is but an aspect without an existence of its own, but only characterized ontologically by the sort of object on which rationality is directed. [25] From this last point of  view technology does not have a logic of its own.

Another bid for an explanation of the relation between technology and mind might be to understand human behaviour as an expression of a will to improve life with the opportunities that exist. If new opportunities are available human beings will therefore be prone to utilize and on this background expect even more opportunities. To put it simply: if there is anything that we can do as human beings there are always people who want to utilize these opportunities and if this want is satisfied, then expectations about more opportunities are increased by way of habit. Technologically speaking this means, that if specific technologies are available, e.g. medical technologies, then there will be an expectation of or a desire for using these tool in spite of problems of uncertaincy concerning costs, and thus an expectation is brought about a means or a cure for everything. If this is true, then the mechanism only works as something habitually and as such is possibly dissolved through reflection on the context.

Technology and its influence on experiences and experiencing

How does technology influence our ways of experiencing and our experiences? I have just hinted one way, but in principle it is impossible to catch all the ways in which this happens because the ways and the results are plural. The results are presumably influenced by the many technologies and the many ways of relating to technology that exist. The way of experiencing is probably different between the person who has never used a computer and the person who almost grew up with a computer. The essential uniting element in the experiences is, of course. the security which technology is created to offer and which it  gives as experience and expectation, if it works – and vice versa. I.e. the experiences which are connected to or brought about by technology show the world in specific perspective of selfevidence and give cause for a corresponding frustration and irritation, when technology does not function, and give cause for insecurity and fear when the expected security is not present or is threatened.

Technology and Values: Assessments/risks/ethics

No one will probably doubt that technology is connected to costs, but there is a strong disagreement about which are the costs and how heavy. It is it only a question about the mentioned potentials for abuse, coincidental possible disaster or whether technology has beyond that always ecological costs, potentials for danger that need observance or has unpridictable change-producing potentials of coincidence which all demand as point of departure to be taken into consideration and assessments when applying  existing or new technology? This field has in increasing degree become object of interest under the names of technology assesment and risk assessment using the so-called precautionary principle.[26] Several cases in recent years have increased the focus on these aspects. Thus the accidents of two Space Shuttles, the handling of the case of Mad Cow Disease under both English and European auspices only to mention a few examples of many.

Though this assessment is a field within ethics and as such subject to this dscipline and to the principles of assessment that characterize this field, technology itself has contributed to the development of ethical considerations. The opportunities which technology supply still raise new questions concerning their use. Should they be applied? Does anyone have the right to use them? Or should they be brought into application? And who has the right to the fruits of this use? Etc. Etc. The answers are dependent on the principles of values by which we assess technology and assess its users. Nothing is new here, but with the speed of change of opportunities in demand for using them and their consequences, with the complexity, confusion and power that characterizes the field, this is a field which has made more clear to see many of the problems in traditional ethical theories, and it is at the same time a field in which factors for the same reasons has proven to be difficult to control and make the object of ethical agreement.

Technology and Progress

The history of technology is by and large identical with the history of progress, but is the history of progress also identical with the history of technology? There is hardly any doubt that the progresses that many of us will think have been done have a technological aspect, but that this aspect should be the only one is doubtful on the other hand. The factors which have developed progress in the sense of the best things about modernity, i.e. the rationalizing of the understanding of various fields of reality, are plural and are those that force into being the use of rationality in the broad sense, and i.e. the basic formal demands for giving reasons for contentions and demands for consistency and coherence amongst propositions in various fields. Within this field demands for development of technology and the production of knowledge about nature has played a very central role, but so has legalizations of societies.[27] Yet this development holds no promises, that the best about it is preserved. Progress is neither guaranteed by technology or by reason, but can be lost if there is not constant serious and democratic struggle for it.[28]

The understanding of the actual developing or hampering factors thus consists of an essential element in the understanding of development in history: in the history of progress and modernity.

Technology and the Natural Sciences

A traditional view on technology states, that technology is applied natural science. The idea  is, that the insight into the natural laws which science delivers is applied for copying a specific effect that can serve as an instrument for specific purposes. Knowledge about magnetism and electricity plus knowledge about mechanical functions can thus be applied to make an electric motor that can drive a propeller in a ”tube” and thus cause the suction which is desired in a vacuum cleaner. If this view is true, then development in technology is totally dependent on development in the natural sciences. Several things, though, speak against the truth of this statement about the relation mentioned. First of all it is very little probable, that technological instruments are not brought about till the theoretical foundation is present. On the contrary. It is most often so, that some people have a notion of some technological opportunities and test them, and then after that follows the more theoretical exploration of the foundation. Secondly, many technologies are not based on scientific knowledge, if I am right in the contentions above. Thirdly, studies of the history of natural sciences show, that progress – conversely – is based on the development of technology and not necessarily a technology which is closely connected to the field in which the progress takes place. An example of this could be the progress within astronomy that was brought about by the development of the telescope. The development of the telescope was based on the laws of optics, but caused progress within astronomy. A totally different field. Rather than considering the relationship as a relationship between theory and application – and in that order, the relationship should be viewed as a symbiotic relationship.[29]


We have now seen the many aspects of technology. The moral that we can learn is, that technology is basically a question of power, and that technology is not always a question of progress for mankind as a whole, but is mainly created as a tool for preserving the power of those already in power. The original developers of technology very often did not intend personal and group-limited power, but were fascinated by the opportunities as such. But in market competition contexts and political power contexts the inventions invariably end in the hands of those in power with the result of increasing power concentration. This does not mean – as we all know – that ordinary people do not have access to technology, but it means that this access is only there as a instrument for those in power. This is seen in so many contexts these years. A striking example is found within the market of capital finance. We here see, that those with the best technology can survey other buyers of stocks and buy the stocks that are object of greatest interest and therefore profitable seconds before the buyers they surveyed. Technological and financial power are increasingly intermerged resulting in increased political power of corporations, and traditional political power either challenged by or serving as a tool for corporate power.

The development we are facing in the nearest years to come concerning automatization of labour will only sharpen this conflict by pushing large parts of the members of the working market out of the working market and into unemployment and leaving the remaining part in a precarious situation. What we face is an increased conflict between democratic- and welfare interests of larger majorities  against the monopoly of power of corporations and oligarchs. The solution to this conflict is not technological, it is only political – and democratic.



[1] As for a thorough, surveying treatment of the relation between objects and concepts see e.g. Frank C. Keil: Concepts, Kinds and Cognitive Development. Boston: MIT Press 1989. One of Keil’s essential insights is, that even if we – for different reasons – admit, that the types of essences exist, which we call ‘natural classes’, then this is, however, not the case when we look at non-natural things – artefacts. These have as means for human goals not an inherent nature, but can only be understood on the background of human aims. And I can add – as a personal view that will be expanded in the following: artefacts and therefore technologies are only understandable as something concerning human goals in a context.

[2] My awareness of exactly the aspect of operationalizing and therefore of the many possibilities of mediation and therefore again support for my contention concerning the broadness of the concept of technology I owe to Michael Polyani Polanyi. See Michael Polanyi: Personal Knowledge. Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1955. Chapter II: The Logic of Achievement.

[3] I am, of course, aware, that these contexts in recent times includes and perhaps is dominated  by material tools as seen below.

[4] See Dylan Evans: Emotion. The Science of Sentiment. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001.

[5] This contention rests of, course, on a specific view of emotions and attitudes. There is no agreement about this matter. For a recent investigation see Peter Goldie: The Emotions. A Philosophical Exploration. Oxford/New York: The Clarendon Press 2000. From this view one might metaphorically speaking talk about that emotions themselves represent a specific technology that culture and and we make ”use”.

[6] Some years ago there was a series on Danish TV in which various historians should try to guess the use and purpose of different  tools. This series showed with all possible clarity, how incredibly difficult it is is to guess the purpose of a tool just from a study of the object itself.

[7] This said, it should be mentioned, that much energy has been spent ”…developing apparatuses that were without practical utility…”. Quotation in my translation from Alexandre Koyré: ‘Filosofferne og Maskinen’, in Alexandre Koyré: Tankens enhed. Essays om filosofi, videnskabshistorie og teknologi. Hans Reitzels Forlag: København 1998. s. 122.

[8] Cf. my paper: ‘Magt – afmagt. Et essay om magtens symboliseringer – og afmagtens realiteter’ in Filosofi nr 2. 2000.

[9] Qoutation from Alexandre Koyré p. 97 in my translation.

[10] Cf. Alexandre Koyré.

[11] Friedrich Dessauer: Philosophie der Technik: Das Problem der Realisierung. Bonn: Cohen-Verlag 1927. Dessauer belongs to the early part of philosophy of technology which as a discipline is rather new. This fact may also explain the outspoken optimism which we find here.

[12] Quoted in English translation from Carl Mitcham and Robert Macke (eds.): Philosophy and Technology. Readings in the philosophical problems of technology, New York/London: The Free Press/Collier-Macmillan Ltd 1972. p. 325. My italics.

[13] Ibid. p. 326.

[14] History shows many examples of persons, who have developed new technology, have been persecuted or incarcerated. Cf. Dessauer who informs, that they are known by thousands.

[15] This view is found in large parts of his writings. E.g. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, The Birth of the Clinic and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, The Will to Knowledge. I refer very broadly because the writings of Foucault are well-known and accesible.

[16] Bruno Latour: ‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artefacts’, in W. Bijker and J. Law (eds.): Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1992.

[17] A matter especially stressed by e.g. Andrew Feenberg in support of the dimensioned view of technology that I plead for here. See Andrew Feenberg: Questioning Tchnology. London/New York: Routledge 1999.

[18] Cf. the text mentioned above by Koyré.

[19] A mattter which Koyré makes object of specific interest and discussion in a comparison with the later developments of technologies  and their  break with this tradition. Ibid.

[20] C.P. Snow: The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1959.

[21] See Jaques Ellul: The Technological Order. Detroit: Wayne State University Press 1963.

[22] See Martin Heidegger: Die Frage nach der Technik. Stuttgart: Clett-Cotta 1962.

[23] M. Horkheimer und Th.W. Adorno: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Amsterdam: Medusa Verlag 1947.

[24] Herbert Marcuse: One-Dimensional Man, Boston: Beacon Press 1964.

[25] See Jürgen Habermas: Technologie und Wissenschaft als “Ideologie”, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1968, and Jürgen Habermas: Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns I-II, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1981.

[26] See e.g. Karsten Klint Jensen: ‘The moral Foundation of the Precautionary Principle’, in Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics No. 15, 2002. and Karsten Klint Jensen “Late lessons from early warnings: The precautionary principle 1896-2000. Environmental Issue report no. 22, published by European Environment Agency.

[27] I am here inspired by Habermas’s description of the factors of rationalization in Modernity. He stresses particularly the importance of legalisation in his process and much less the importance of technology and the natural sciences although this aspect is implied in the ”demythologisation” of understanding matters of life and society. See his Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns I-II. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag 1981.

[28] Cf. Georg Henrik vonWright: Myten om Fremskridtet. Tanker 1987-92 med en intellektuel biografi. København: Munksgaard – Rosinante 1994.

[29] See Rachel Laudan (ed.): The Nature of Technological Knowledge. Are Models of Scientific Change Relevant? Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster: D. Reidel Publishing Company 1984.

An interview with Yasmine Samir Kelada, Deputy Director at BibAlex Visitors Department

  1. Can you describe your job at the BibAlex?

I am the Deputy Director of the Visitors’ Department of BibAlex.

The Visitors’ Department is the first place a visitor comes in contact with, once in the Library.

I’ve been working here until 2002, a week before the official inauguration; I started as a Tour Guide, then I was promoted to the Head of Tours Section and eventually to the Head of this Department.

The Library’s main complex


  1. Can you draw an outline of the aims that led to the building of the new Library in place of the mythical one?

First of all, it was decided to rebuild it very close to the ancient location: actually, the ancient library was about 200m. west to this site.

The façade of the main building is made of Assuan grey granite, round and carved with 120 inscriptions, each one in a different language.

The new Library was meant to be a revival of the ancient one, that was not  only a library at the time: indeed,  that was a centre for learning: among the other structures, there was a zoo, and all scholars came to study here from all over the world.

Grrammars and philologists were in charge of copying, noting and correcting the texts; critical editions were edited and stored: scrolls were about 490.000 in Philadelphus’ times -that is, about 120.000 volumes in actual books-  and when more space was needed  a Serapeus was built.

Therefore, the revival of a new library had to be realized in practice  with the same spirit and role of the ancient one.

We are working to perform this role and, thanks to computer science and globalization, we even succeed today in having a wider one.

The Library Wall

  1. Indeed, what is also interesting to know is what the Library represents nowadays, what it contains today that is different from the ancient times.

Today, the BibAlex actually consists of 3 main buildings: the main building of the Library, a Planetarium and a Conference center.

The main library itself is a huge building in the shape of the rising sun, to symbolize the sun rising from the sea as a symbol of a non-stop knowledge, a daily renewal of knowledge in the shape that Snowhetta, the Norwegian enterprise that  won the contest for the design, planned in 1989 ; the library itself had a reading area of 20,000 m2 , an open reading room for 2000 readers that is the widest reading area in the world; is has seven stores, resulting in a vast light-filled reading room with a glass ceiling that slopes towards the Mediterranean. Finally, it is meant to hold eight millions of books.

We increase books by acquisition and donation; we work on acquiring books on different scales: starting from Egypt and proceeding on different circles, first the Middle East, then the Mediterranean, Africa and eventually the whole world.

The second building is  the Planetarium Science Center, which is a centre  where we have a 3D room to shot scientific movies, both for adults and children. We also have a centre to encourage children to love science, where they can have all different experiments, in Physics, Science, Chemistry and this is where they start to love science, because they work it, they produce results with their hands. We have special workshops that work on special programs, in accordance with the school requests during school time, while in the summer we have  full loaded centers with hundreds and hundreds of children coming to join the summer programs.

The third building is the Conference Center, which is a huge center that has several holes for different facilities, and these holes can host different kinds of events: seminars, conferences, concerts, all equipped with the  complete facilities up to the highest international standards.

The Library’s Main Study Room



  1. What about the exibitions the BibAlex hosts?

In fact, within these three  buildings we have four museums: the Sadat Museum, the Manuscript Museum, the Antiquities Museum and the History of Science Museum.  We also host fifteen permanent exhibitons: three heritage collections – the Arab Folk Art; the Arab-Muslim Medieval Instruments of Astronomy and Science; the Bulaq Press. Three personal collections: the Awad Collection on Alexandria, the Shadi Abdel Salam Exhibition, regarding the famous Egyptian film-maker; the Arabic Calligraphy Collection. And eventually eight Exhibitions of contemporary visual artists.

Last, but not least, “Our Digital World” showcases BibAlex most exciting digital projects.

The exhibition includes projects documenting the history of modern Egypt, for example the digital archives of former presidents Naguib, Nasser and Sadat; scientific projects as the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL); digitization projects of precious books. There is also a section with computers to give the public the opportunity to explore the collection of the digital initiatives, and there are short movies on each project in different languages.

Besides, we have  several centres covering different cultural aspects, such as the Alexandrian- Mediterrranean studies, the Islamic studies, the Coptic studies, the Hellenistic studies, that are all on our website for people to look up.

The BibAlex website contains all the detalied info, and is a very user friendly website that is constantly updated and re-designed, where perspective and virtual visitors can easily plan their tour and find all the information they need.


  1. Could you highlight other outstanding aspects in which the BibAlex interacts with the city?

Of course it goes along with different ages and interests. We have models  for  different political aspects: Activities for the youth are especially wide: for example we can involve the youth to express themselves about  the problem of the Nile, or the problems we suffered after the Revolution; besides, children –apart fron the scientific field-  have their own  library.

We not only serv tourist with guided tours, but also have tours for children, and different competitions about knowing Alexandria better, or knowing the Library better.

We have special events for the very young, under 6 years; we try to educate and improve their behaviour  regarding the city, such as how to keep Alexandria clean, or to perform very simple etiquette sessions; we try to cover as wide aspects as we can, which means that even the Department  of visits is not  involved with visits only. This means we try to reach also schools with very primitive and limited facilities,  which cannot reach the BibAlex, so what we do is to take the Library there, show a presentation and a movie about the Library that  orient them about it, and we still make a presentation in cooperating with other library departments, such as the Calligraphy, so they can learn very basic elemets of calligraphy, such as the Pharaonic letters. We try to work as wide as we can to develop the young generation’s  knowledge of the past and their cultural identity.

  1. What about the aspects the BibAlex addressed to the adults, such as concerts, exhibitions – I am thinking for example of the MET broadcasting on Saturdays, and of similar events as well.

This part is  actually wide, as artists come to the BibAlex for concerts and exhibitions but also for workshops,  so the cultural part addressed to the adult public is really wholly covered under a wide range of aspects.

The Great Hall, the main auditorium, can comfortably accommodate more than 1600 persons. It is used for international conferences, symposia, meetings, seminars, concerts, presentations and performances.

The Great Hall is equipped with complete audio-visual devices.

The Small Theater, accommodates about 200 guests. It usually hosts smaller conferences, seminars ,theatrical plays and chamber music.

The Delegates Hall has 100 seats and fully equipped tables, with internet connection,  simultaneous interpretation head phones and a microphone.

The Lectures Hall has a theater-style setting with armchairs and folding tables. It is suitable for international conferences, symposia, lectures, seminars and presentations, and can host around 200 people.

Besides, there are five seminar rooms in the Conference Center, and one seminar room in the main Library building.

  1. Another area widely covered concerns congresses and meetings – I see now the Cardiology Seminar for example, and in October I personally experienced the final meeting of a two-year programme concerning Egypt Culture and Heritage, held in collaboration with the EU.

This underscores another important role the BibAlex plays, that is the link with world cultural and economical Institutions.

Yes, we basically work on the idea that the BibAlex is the window from Egypt to the world and viceversa, from the world into Egypt.

We are not closed to an area, but we have  links with libraries all over the world; the widest we can go, the better; we have a lot of agreements, with a lot of international associations that help the library in projects and funding.

The link is not only economical, but people are willing to come to work for the project itself, the documentation, the digitization.

  1. Could we say the BibAlex has an international staff?

Well it is not exactly the idea of an international staff, as people come to work on projects and then go when the project is accomplished; this develops within the different projects and it is again very wide, covering  many different nationalities and research centres. Actually we have connections all over the world with the most important libraries, mainly in terms of digitalization, but also the idea of being connected in terms of human resources is very alive –  the interest in concretely come and see, and reproduce, what the Library represents is very attractive for people abroad.

Our Library is a bench mark for people from abroad, and even working as a volunteer here means playing a great role in the library, gaining a lot of experience; I can see it in interviews from people coming to the Library, they really fancy coming here and work for this  outstanding institution, so we always look forward to having  volunteers from abroad, and even if they are not convenient on a Department we  try and succeed in finding them a suitable place.

Beacause the volunteers have a lot of energy, they are very willing to learn, and they are  extremely motivated, so we give them a chance even if it’s not particularly convenient for the BibAlex.

  1. One last question concerns the future projects planned now in the BibAlex.

Each Department in the BibAlex has  its own projects for the future; it’s impossible to identify a main one, and I would be unfair quoting one, as they are all working hard and enthusiastically about their  projects. Moreover, each project is deepening and  digging back to widen its  subject. The library is  constantly renewing and updating its subjects.

  1. Thank you Yasmine, for your time and the precious information. I am sure our audience will be interested in deepening  the  subject of BibAlex and in time  also to visit Alexandria and this  unique cultural site.

Thanks for the interest expressed! BibAlex is always  glad to spread  news about its activities, to attract new Institutions and  to start new partnerships all over the world.

The Planetarium




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Postcultural Communication? – Intercultural communication from a postcultural position


According to practice theory, our actions produce and maintain social reality (Schatzki 1996). Through practice we are trained as researchers, teachers and debaters. Within practices in the education system, students are trained by us and by our practices. Because of this we are accountable for how the concepts we teach maintain social differences. Every time we use the concept of intercultural communication in its classic definition, as communication between people with different cultural backgrounds, we perpetuate the notion that national differences influence communication more than other differences. These could be social categories such as gender, class, age, or e.g. differences in relations between a teacher and her student. When cultural and national differences are granted status as the most important differences – ethnic minorities in multicultural societies are silently/verbally excluded from national communities.

Continue reading Postcultural Communication? – Intercultural communication from a postcultural position

Pragmatic Universalism – A Basis of Coexistence of Multiple Diversities

“You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find, returning in the evening,

Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man”

P.Levi, If this is a man (1947)


Despite numerous initiatives to encourage combating discrimination against race/ethnicity and cultural diversity the problem of peaceful coexistence and positive integration surfaces again when new examples of discrimination, mortification of those of different faiths or different ethnic origins arise in Europe.

Continue reading Pragmatic Universalism – A Basis of Coexistence of Multiple Diversities

Translation as Critique of “Cultural Sameness”: Ricoeur, Luther and the Practice of Translation




This article discusses translation as a critique of what I call “cultural sameness”. “Cultural sameness” is a rephrasing of the Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad’s concept “imagined sameness” (Gullestad 2002, 2004). With this notion she wants to show how the process of inclusion (and exclusion) of new citizens into Norwegian society depends not only on receiving formal status as an equal citizen, but also how inclusion is linked to a social and anthropological dimension: in order to be regarded as an equal, the same cultural background and origin is required. In the text I interpret this “imagined sameness” as referring to cultural sameness. We imagine that the others we recognize as our equals have the same cultural background as ourselves and that we are recognized by others culturally identical or similar to ourselves. It is the constellation of sameness and culture that I want to question in this text.    

Sameness as a logical category (to be the same or being identical) is perceived as binary and defined by its opposite: difference. The problem with sameness is that it is oppositional, and hence closed, and that culture together with sameness here constitutes a kind of vicious circle: those who are included belong to the same culture, and those who are excluded belong to a different one. My claim is that the reason why culture has a part in exclusion and inclusion is due to its being linked to the idea of sameness and it is this very sameness that should be questioned.

How can we go about it? How can we challenge the binary logic of sameness and difference? I propose a reflection on the theory and practice of translation as analogous to thinking of culture in a way that does not work on the assumption of binary sameness and difference. As a guide for these reflections I select the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and his book On translation (Ricoeur 2004b). As a well demonstrated historical case I will also draw on Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German during the 16th century. Luther’s translation showed that it was possible for the meaning of the original text in Hebrew and Greek to be understood in the German language. As regards my guide, I wish to emphasise two points regarding Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation.

First of all by taking Ricoeur’s understanding of translation I want to show that the problem of understanding culture as static, pure and different is analogous to how languages are thought of as untranslatable (focusing on difference) or translatable (focusing on sameness).

A second aspect of translation is the consequence of the first point. If cohabitation in a society depends on cultural sameness or shared cultural identity, then this must mean that there is an inside and an outside to this culture that make it possible to distinguish those who belong here and those who do not. Translation gives us an alternative way of imagining this. Like translations, following Ricoeur, create comparables between languages, comparables between cultures can be created too. My claim is thus that we do not have to have the same cultural background in order to be able to live together. Translation through its practices thus articulates how equality and difference can be possible at the same time. Thus the link between equality and sameness is not unbreakable.




The problem of “cultural sameness”: closure and exclusion

The complex aim of this text is to discuss translation in relation to a certain notion of culture and the role that culture plays in inclusion and exclusion of new citizens. So, first of all, what does this notion of culture distinguish and what role does it play in inclusion and exclusion?   

Central to my argument is what Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad suggested in two of her articles, where she discussed how “culture” has replaced “race” as a means for excluding and including New Norwegian citizens. She claimed that it is not sufficient to acquire formal legal status as a citizen in order to be recognized as an equal citizens; this new citizen also has to feel that she is “the same” as those whose recognition is sought. Referring to Alexis de Tocqueville, Gullestad wrote that: “people have to feel that they are more or less the same in order to be equal of value” (Gullestad 2002, p. 46).

This feeling is analogous to the “imagined” and refers to the historian Benedict Andersons’ ground-breaking study of nationalism, Imagined communities (Anderson 2006). Anderson included imagination as an analytical concept for rendering account of the possibility that a huge amount of people who have never met and are geographically spread across an enormous territory to share a feeling of belonging together: the feeling of a national community could thus be said to be imagined[2].

The link that Gullestad creates between the constitutional equality of all Norwegian citizens and the socially and anthropologically constituted value of equality makes sense since it explains the inconsistencies often found in debates on Norwegian culture. It is often said that immigrants, when becoming Norwegian citizens, “must adapt to our ways of living” and abandon their cultural features and customs when those are conflicting with the norms inherent in Norwegian culture. But there seems to be confusion as to how they should do this and about what they should adapt to. When discussing Norwegian culture, the debate tends to fluctuate between references to language, values, cultural traditions, religious background (Andersen/ Tybring-Gjedde 2010) on the one hand, and the legal and political fundamentals of society such as democracy, rule of law and the freedom of speech on the other (NRK 2009, debate on Norwegian  values). Whereas the essence of what is Norwegian is vague, the legal and political fundamentals are not particularly Norwegian. However, Gullestad’s analysis explains, as far as I see it, why there is no mix up after all: the imagined sameness constitutes the community and consequently the execution of equality in the social world. In order to be recognized as equal one must be the same (identical and/or similar) as those recognizing you. From this perspective, it seems impossible to adapt to the Norwegian society, even if one minutely follows the decrees and requirements of political and legal institutions, simply because the cultural background of the immigrant is different.     

Gullestad expands the idea of “imagined community” into what she calls “imagined sameness”: we imagine that everyone who belongs to a national community is the same as ourselves[3]. In fact, it is the hallmark of a specific Nordic imagination, that “social actors must consider themselves as more or less the same” (Gullestad 2002, p. 46). It is not sufficient to render any account of Norwegian egalitarianism by referring to Norway’s formal constitutional framework. Her aim is to articulate the social and anthropological dimension that constitutes egalitarianism as a value. She continues by saying that:


When they [the social actors] thus manage to establish a definition of the situation focusing on sameness, each of the parties – paradoxically – also gains confirmation of their individual value. In order to have their desired identities confirmed, people need relevant others who are able and willing to recognize and support them. According to the logic involved, the relevant supporters are other people who are regarded as similar. This logic often leads to an interaction style in which commonalities are emphasized, while differences are played down. In this way the sameness cannot always be observed but is, rather, a style that focuses on sameness. For the sake of simplicity I call it “imagined sameness” (Ibid, p. 47).


What I find interesting here is what she says about commonalities being emphasized. The commonalities she has in mind are culture, origin and ancestry. I hence find it pertinent to interpret or rephrase Gullestad’s term “imagined sameness” as a “cultural sameness”, meaning that what is imagined as common, or that which makes us the same, is the culture one belongs to.

Going back to Gullestad, she utilizes Anderson’s reflections on the function of the imagination to shed some light on mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion and the establishment of hierarchy. Her point is, as far as I understand it, that even though egalitarianism is supposed to account for everyone, we do not leave the idea of cultural belonging when it comes to the recognition of who is a genuinely equal citizen. We thus enter the play of exclusion and inclusion. Even though equality is supposed to be universal and individual, equality is nevertheless linked to a common culture, ancestry and origin. And this “”culture” is somehow regarded as completed” (2002, p. 53). Therefore, it is not too farfetched to interpret Gullestad’s imagined sameness as a cultural sameness, which refers to cultural identity and cultural origin. For an immigrant, or rather through the very label of being called an “immigrant”, this renders the inclusion into a society a difficult task. An immigrant is someone whose cultural identity and origin is always different and which will never cease to stick with this person. The immigrant is, almost by receiving this nametag alone, excluded from the community of genuine Norwegians and placed within an invisible hierarchy of Norwegians. This exclusion and hierarchy is possible to establish on the basis of an assumption that there is a cultural difference between the original and ethnic Norwegians and those entering the community.    

We are now approaching the problem that I want to look into and which connects “cultural sameness” and translation. The logic, which makes it possible to reproduce the interface between inclusion and exclusion or the tension between equality and hierarchy, is connected to “sameness”. Or rather, “sameness” is, logically speaking, an oppositional notion that has difference as its counterpart: that which is not the same, is different. In The Oxford English Dictionary we can read the following about the definition of identity: “the sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else” (cited in Gleason 1983). “Sameness” appears synonymously with “identity” and is defined through “not being something else”. Since sameness and difference represent oppositional notions, they exclude each other. In fact the only way they can be related is by mutually excluding each other. The point is that this logic is found on a practical and social level too, in the sense that those who have a different cultural background and attachment are excluded. And when applied to “culture” this renders culture something closed. It resembles a vicious circle: the imagined sameness shapes our understanding of culture, which in its turn reproduces exclusion and inclusion, and this exclusion and inclusion affirms the imagined sameness. The question is then whether it is possible to break the circle. Is it possible to articulate openness of culture? And if so, how should we articulate it?  

By drawing a parallel between culture and language, I wish to show how translation as a problematization of the closing of languages might teach us something about the closing of culture. As far as I am concerned, the obstacle in seeing culture as closed is parallel, if not identical, to the problem of untranslatability and lack of communicative ability between languages. Common for them both is that sameness and difference constitute closure. At the social level this closure is reproducing exclusion, whereas in the field of language what is being reproduced tends to be the view that communication is impossible. However, in order to comprehend this parallel, we must turn our attention more fully to translation.      



What is translation?

Translation comes from Classical Latin translatus. Trans means “across” and latus is the perfect passive participle of the verb fero, ferre, which means “to bear”. To translate is to lead, bring, transport or conduct across and over to something.

In the practice of translation we find both the aspect of carrying something across and then of interpreting it. This practice could be described as the tension between two poles: source language and target language. The French translation scholar Jean-René Ladmiral writes that: “Translation passes a message from the language of departure or source language to the language of arrival or target language.” (Ladmiral 1994, p. 11; translation by the author) The translation transmits both meaning and message from one place to another. The point of departure is thus something incomprehensible that requires that we carry it over to our side for interpretation. It could perhaps be illustrated by the image of two separate river banks. Transporting something from one side to the other is thus perturbed until something, for instance, a bridge, is constructed, which may be able to carry things across. The two banks are no longer separated. However, the river is still there and the bridge might be fragile: a bad translation might turn out to be ruinous, leading to new misunderstandings. Briefly put, a translation might potentially always be replaced by a better one.

Relevant historical examples of translation are not difficult to find. During the 12th century, the contact between the West and the Arabic world led to vital developments, as the Greek source and foundation of the West were rediscovered. For instance, major works by Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle were translated by Wilhem of Moerbekes (Störig 1963, p. xi). However, despite a widespread practice of translation, there were no theoretical studies of translations until much later. Even though a scientific approach to translation emerged in the 15th century with Leonardo Bruni’s work De Interpretatione Recta (1420), a theoretical approach to translation was first and foremost developed from the 19th century onwards. Ricoeur refers in many places to the work of Antoine Berman and his book L’épreuve de l’étranger, where Berman discusses two German traditions of translation. On the one hand we have the likes of Novalis and Schlegel, who subscribed to what Berman called a speculative theory of translation, which was furthermore linked to what they conceived of as critique. Berman writes that for the romantic thinkers’ translation was a way of improving the potential in the original. This led for instance to the conclusion that Shakespeare was better in German than in the original English:


The original itself…possesses an a priori aim: The idea of the work, that the work wants to be (l’Idée de l’Oeuvre que l’oeuvre veut être), tends to be…but which it empirically speaking never is. The original, in this sense, is nothing but the copy- the translation if you like- of this a priori figure…By this aim the translation produces a “better” text than the first (Berman, p. 172).


On the other hand we have among others Humboldt and Schleiermacher, who for the first time tries to conceive of that which is alien or strange in a text. Following Berman’s account what is different for them compared to Novalis and Schlegel is that understanding is introduced as a problem. To understand a text is to understand “an expressive product of a subject” (Ibid, p. 227)and the phenomenon of objective language defined by history and culture. And this conception of history and culture is different from those of the readers, interpreters or translators. (Ibid) Thirdly, language is not just an instrument, but the place where the human being lives. Language defines who a human being is and renders expression through language essential. Through these three points one becomes aware of the difference between languages and the importance of these differences. A text is the expression of an individual author who expresses him- or her-self in the language of a specific time and place. Without taking this specific time and place into account, the vital aspect of the expression is lost.  

Schleiermacher in particular is enormously interesting in his linking of understanding, interpretation and translation. Whereas interpretation concerns itself with ordinary expressions, translation handles science and art. But how should this relation between the authors and the reader’s language be balanced by the translator? It is here that Schleiermacher refutes the idea that one should translate as if the author wrote in the language of the reader (Ibid, p. 235). The most important issue to recognize for a translator is the writer’s relation to his or her mother tongue.  Schleiermacher argues that in order to recognize one’s own mother tongue and having one’s own mother tongue recognized, one must be able to receive what is different. As far as I understand it, this means that what is strange and different has a constitutive role for the status of equality. Berman once wrote that Schleiermacher linked translation to a cultural situation where the national language has not yet affirmed itself, and thus could not receive the other languages nor present itself as a cultivated language (Ibid, p. 236).

Thus we may see that translation has a role to play in the inter-subjective constitution of languages. By approaching the reader’s language to the author, translations can demonstrate the equal value of the author’s language. What is first and foremost interesting for our part is the role of what is foreign (l’épreuve de l’étranger) here. It is only by showing that the reader’s mother tongue is as rich as the author’s that it can receive a status as equal. And this equality between languages is, as we shall see, pivotal for understanding Luther’s translation, which I will discuss later.

Why take this brief historical tour through the theme of translation? Schleiermacher’s sensitivity for those elements and words which are foreign represents a central event in the philosophy of translation. Translation should be seen as an effort to understand what is foreign and thus remains a challenge for the translator. Is it possible to bring a foreign meaning or message over into your own language without losing the original meaning? On the other hand, how far should we go in making the foreign into the absolute? Are translations impossible due to the differences between languages, or are they possible because we are all of the same nature or with the same historical origin? We will now go on scrutinizing the translator’s attempt to balance two languages in order that we may articulate a thinking that does not see sameness and difference as the only alternatives.           



Translation from theory to practice

If we now turn more specifically to Paul Ricoeur’s notion of translation, the basis for our reflections is a collection of three articles on translation published under the title Sur la traduction (Ricoeur 2004a). I shall not give a summary of the texts here, but rather refer to those parts which are central to our problem.

Translation fluctuates between the language of the author and the language of the reader. Ricoeur refers to a long tradition in the theory of translation. Franz Rosenzweig presents translation as a paradox. It serves two masters: the author in her work and the readers’ desire to understand. Schleiermacher for his part describes, as we have seen, translation as taking the author to the reader and the reader to the author. According to him, a translator has to choose in the end between the language of the author and the language of the reader. And in the end it is the translator’s ability to let the reader’s language receive the author’s language that is the test of whether or not the reader’s language is equal to the author’s. (Berman, pp. 226-250) Ladmiral in his book Traduire: théorèmes pour la traduction denominates the antinomy in translation between the litteral and the litterary(Ladmiral 1994, p. 89).

Now, the tension between these two poles – the author and the reader – has led to both a linguistic and a philological debate, as well as to speculation on whether or not translation is in fact possible. Two kinds or types of response can be discerned. On the one hand, given the diversity of languages, the differences between languages make translation impossible. And, as Ladmiral points out, this seems to be a dominant position. (Ibid, p. 85) In lack of a third text, the transition between the two languages remains blocked. On the other hand, given that translations actually take place, different languages must be sharing some common ground. This is an attempt to justify translations based on either common origin prior to the separation of all languages, or in a prior deeper or implicit structure common to all languages. However both strands meet obstacles: the former cannot explain the fact that translations take place; the latter does not succeed in supplying us with this common ground.

Ricoeur’s contribution is not a solution to these problems. His point is rather that this problem, whether or not translation is possible, is a theoretical problem imposed from the outside. He tries to understand the problem that the practice of translation is a response to. And what is this problem? According to Ricoeur, the real problem in the practice of translation is whether to be faithful to or to betray the language of the reader and whether to be faithful or to betray the language of the author. The outcome of this tension is “the production of equivalence without identity”. (Ricoeur 2004a: 63) Since the tension between fidelity and treason is never dissolved, it rather accounts for how an equivalent is not identical. Even though Ricoeur to a certain point might be right, the question is whether this displacement from theory to practice really avoids the problem about whether or not translation is possible As Ladmiral points out, the question about whether translation is possible is posed exactly due to this problem – which language to be faithful to – in the practice. They are part of the same antinomy. Thus it appears difficult to get rid of the question concerning whether translation is possible, due to the fact that every translation is faced with the question of whether it is a good translation. On the other hand, the question is then of quality and not of possibility. To say that a translation is not sufficient is not to say that translation as such is impossible. And in a translation some parts might be deemed more successful than others. That does not mean that less successful translations prove the impossibility of translating, only that the demand of faithfulness to the two languages has been difficult to comply with.  

This problem still endures after the translator’s work itself is finished. Even though there is no third text from where one can judge a translation, it does not follow that the translation is exempt from criticism. And the best way to criticize a translation is to present a better one. Critique is perhaps too vague or general to constitute a principle in translations, but is however a necessary part of the translator’s onerous task.



Between fidelity and treason: Luther’s creation of the comparable

Translation is the construction of equivalence without identity or a comparable between two languages. This implies a continuity and rupture of meaning at the same time. Where continuity is ensured in the commitment or faithfulness to both the author and the reader, the ruptures reveal themselves in the betrayal of them. The fidelity of received language is jeopardised in favour of a creative act, which at the same time is, as Ricoeur writes, a risk: “Grandeur of translation, risk of translation: creative betrayal of the original, equally creative appropriation by the language of reception or; construction of the comparable.” (Ricoeur 2004b: 37)

What then is a comparable? An example that is close to Ricoeur’s heart is Martin Luther’s translation of the Greek Bible into German in the 16th century. Translations of the Bible had been undertaken before, both into German as well as into other languages, but Luther gave the first complete translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts into German without going through Latin. Luther also found the earlier German translations of parts of the Bible too Latin, whereas he aimed at a Germanization of the Bible. We are not forgetting the Geneva Bible or the Czech translation by the Moravian church, even though that is not our focus here. Before Luther, the translation of the Greek text had been done through Latin. The Catholic Church had had a monopoly regarding translation and interpretation of the Bible through the Latin language, which only the Church was the real possessor of. If we read Luther’s own thoughts on Biblical translation in Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, we can discern his antiauthoritarian statement that:


We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German… Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them. (Luther 2003; translation by Gary Mann)


Reading this, it is striking to note the central role that translation has in Luther’s reformation. As Luther’s credo was that the Bible is the only authority (sola scriptura), he opened the way for a thinking that did not have to go through the tradition of the Catholic Church. In order to realise this idea that the Bible is the only authority, a consequence is that everyone must be able to read it. Sola scriptura is no good without people being able to read the Bible. Luther’s solution is ingenious. Instead of everyone learning the only accepted language of translation, Latin, which up until then had only been reserved for a few, the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts became accessible in the language of the people. In other words, Luther’s translation is not merely the effect of the idea of the reformation; it could be understood as its articulation and realisation. Or differently put, would sola scriptura be equally meaningful without the translation of the Bible? The translation thus expresses the reformation on a concrete and symbolic level. The real effect was however not only a change in the religious perception, but the destabilisation of the Church’s power and hegemony. This power was partly constituted by the Latin language as the language through which one had access to God’s word and hence the truth. The truth of God’s word constituted this power. The implication of translating the Bible to other languages than Latin was that truth was no longer mediated by the Church.

Luther wanted to Germanize the Bible by translating it into good German, the German of the people. However it was not clear what good German meant, as the Germans spoke a number of dialects (Mundarten). Antoine Berman (1995) describes the difficult balance. Luther’s double attempt was to:


Translate into a German which a priori was local, his own Hochdeutsch German, but in this process of translating, elevate this local German into a common German (un allemand commun), a lingua franca. In order for this German not to become a language detached from the people, it had to conserve something of the Mundarten and the general modes of expressions from popular language (Berman, p. 46; translation by the author).


In order for the German particularity to acquire universality in the sense of equality with Latin, it could not remain in the “pure” particularity of the dialects. However, without some continuity to the dialects and the Mundarten, it would become too strong a homogenization. 

Even though Luther was convinced that God’s word could be received in the German language, he was not exempt from the paradoxical demand in every translation of serving two masters: the language of the original or the language of the reader. Even though the principle of taking the original to the reader’s language is the most common for all translations, Luther finds it also necessary to practice the other principle of taking the reader to the language of origin. As Franz Rosenzweig writes in his text “Die Schrift und Luther” (Rosenzweig 1963), Luther was conscious of the necessity to give room for the Hebrew language in order to fully appreciate the meaning of the text. It was thus sometimes necessary to go beyond the German normal language, as he explains in his foreword to the translation of the Psalms, and “get used to” such words (solche Worte behalten, gewohnen). For example, in order to conserve the Hebrew meaning he substitutes Gefangenden erlöset (liberated the imprisoned) with Gefängnis gefangen (imprisoned the prison/imprisonment) as an expression of what Christ has done. The Hebrew meaning, that expresses that Christ has imprisoned the prison itself, could thus be said to hold an even stronger meaning than just claiming that he has liberated the imprisoned. Now, what is interesting here is that Luther does not import a foreign word to express this, but twists the German language itself so that it can receive the proper meaning of the original. It is still German, but Luther found (in Gefängnis gefangen) either a potential not yet brought to the fore in the German language, or he actually constructed a neologism in German.     

The idea of the universal as the word, reason or right in European history is accompanied by a notion of its linguistic form (Latin, French). Latin could thus be opposed by particular languages, or rather languages which had only an oral usage on the one hand, and languages that had writing and grammar on the other. This notion of the universal as the opposite to the particular is however something that found its way into the age of the Enlightenment. But, as Richard Kearney points out, there were obstacles:


The ideal in the century of Enlightenment of a universal perfect language was confronted with the resistance from cultural differences that rested on linguistic disparity… most attempts at founding a language one and absolute was found to be, de facto, an imperialist and cunning manoeuvre… which aimed at giving privilege to one particular language…in relation to the languages of subordinate countries or regions. (Kearney, p. 163)


According to Annelise Senger, Luther viewed translation as reviving old German words rather than importing foreign elements. In this respect Luther actually did contribute to homogenize the German language as later will become clear. As Luther states elsewhere in Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, the most important element to be conserved from the original text is its implied meaning.  

For our part, the most interesting aspect of Luther’s translation is how German becomes a language that the “original” text could be translated into. How can this balance, that Berman describes as “neither Latin nor a pure dialect, but a popular use of language”, be articulated? German was up until then incomparable to Latin and thus inept as translation-language. In other words, German was not an equivalent to Latin when it came to receiving the word of God. God did not speak German until Luther translated the Bible. Luther thus changed the perception of the German language. Ricoeur writes that:


Luther not only constructed a comparable in translating the Bible into German, in “germanizing” it, as he dared say, in the face of St. Jerome’s Latin, but created the German language, as comparable to Latin, to the Greek of the Septuagint, and to the Hebrew of the Bible. (Ricoeur 2004b: 37)


Once again, Luther’s translation had a striking significance for the philosophy of the Enlightenment a century later. First of all, the Church was dethroned as exclusive authority. However, that did not imply a rejection of the universal as such. Without claiming that Luther was an Enlightenment thinker-, one could perhaps localize Luther’s enterprise as being somewhere between what later became the French and the German versions of Enlightenment. The former is focused on dethroning all authorities with reference to metaphysics, tradition etc., but nevertheless preserves a centralist and anti-traditional universalism. The latter is represented by, for instance, Herder, who criticizes the rationalism of the authors of the Encyclopédie. On Herder’s stance, Louis Dumont writes in Essais sur l`individualisme that he criticized: “The enlightenment for their vulgar rationalism, their narrow understanding of progress, and above all the hegemony of this universalist rationalism” (Dumont 1983, p. 137; translation by the author). Despite Luther’s and Herder’s diverging views on translation, Luther initiated a criticism of the universalism on which Herder continues. Having said that, Luther’s enterprise is not a refutation of the universal in general, as Dumont proposes in the case of Herder. Even though Luther’s perspective was to prove  the Church wrong, and not to promote any kind of modern plurality, rendering the word of God accessible for everyone in their own language, set ideas in motion that led to a later destabilisation of the notion of the universal. In translation it is possible to grasp the universal in the particular.

Returning to the dilemma of treason and fidelity, what status does this conversion of signs have? Since there is no third text or criterion by which one can measure the correctness of a translation, one is left with the dilemma of treason and fidelity. And as Olivier Abel and Jerome Porée write, not even a true fidelity is an identical replica. However, they write as well: “that does not mean that translation is treason… it is a creative fidelity. “ (Abel/Porée, p. 125) They seem to indicate an opposition between treason and fidelity that creativity tries to surmount. This seems a bit odd, particularly in the light of Ricoeur’s own description of the grandeur of translation as “creative betrayal of the original“. However one chooses to see it, what seems to be at the center of the dilemma between fidelity and treason is creativity. Creativity is necessary in order to make the reader’s language able to receive the foreign language. On the other hand “too much” creativity risk losing the faithfulness to both languages. Thus the translator has to decide how “much” creativity and which of the two languages one has to be most faithful to.

We are now in a better position to understand the initial precisions on the comparable. Theoretically speaking, the construction of a comparable means three things: the comparable unites two entities that before where separated or heterogeneous; in this case the German written language unites the spoken German as well as the original texts in Greek and Hebrew. Secondly, in this process, the German language thought of as inferior is lifted up to equal Latin, Greek and Hebrew. And, thirdly, this equality is achieved without abandoning the German language tradition.

Going back to Ricoeur’s displacement from theory to practice, the question is not whether it is possible to translate the Bible, but to what degree the translation betrays or remains faithful to the original language and the language of the reader. Luther created what we can call an equivalent without adequacy or identity, or in other words an equivalent without homogeneity. Luther emphasizes a connective aspect when German as a language can only become a language of its own after or through its connection to planetary meanings or universals like the Bible. By finding equivalence between the Hebrew and Greek languages and the German dialects, German could be recognized as a particular language. But if this is possible, then it opens up the question of how that may be possible. Is there some common ground historically or in human nature which makes it possible? On the other hand, the failure to find the perfect translation might lead us to the opposite conclusion, i.e. that it is impossible. In other words, we see here a parallel between the problems in translation and those of culture, that is the transition between outside and inside and the question of how these two could somehow be joined. The practice of translation seems to assume and question the inside and outside of language at the same time. It assumes both unity and diversity of language. Translation is both a success (when presenting a translation) and a failure (at finding a perfect translation). These are the paradoxes of translation. 


From language to culture and back: the parallel

How is Luther’s creation of a comparable relevant to the question of cultural sameness? As Ricoeur shows, translation does not work on such epistemological assumptions. Languages are either too different or have the same origin, but in both cases they pursue their own epistemological questions. The epistemology of translation may rather be found in practice. Or as Ricoeur writes, paraphrasing Donald Davidson, that translation is: ”Theoretically Difficult, Hard and Practically Simple, Easy.” (Ricoeur 2004b, p. 15) Having said that, practices never articulate themselves but must be explicated.

What I first of all find interesting is Ricoeur’s take on this. Like the creation of a comparable shows that the problem “whether translation is possible or not” is a false or merely theoretical problem, this helps us to ask if the analogous problem “whether it is possible to live together in a culturally diverse society or not” is a false or merely theoretical problem too. What the hypothetical question does not take into account is the case where the problem has already been overcome. But since Ricoeur has analysed this through Luther’s practical enterprise, he has also found that this is not the question that translation responds to at all. The question is rather the degree of faithfulness or betrayal to one of the two languages. As far as I can see, this represents an insightful approach that is transferable to the question of culture. A process of integration is perhaps rather a question of how faithful or how deceitful one could be.  

Homogeneity in the sense of demand for adaptation is thus a response to a false problem. The demand for adaptation is a response to a problem that assumes that other cultures represent a threat to democracy as well as to society as a whole, whether Norwegian or French, etc. I am not making an invitation to relativism or a refutation of values, norms and principles in our societies. Nor am I presenting a naïve proposition. There are of course groups and individuals who have no interest in democracy and the rule of law, and there are those who are aiming at founding society on alternative laws. But in this context as elsewhere, there are only potentialities, and no guarantees.

My point is rather that this hypothetical question is nurturing itself on the logic of identity and difference that is common to both language and culture. The theory of translation puts the basic question of whether translation is at all possible or not. It premises the outcome on either an identity of all languages in human nature or a common origin, or on the differences between languages being insurmountable. This is a similar point to that of Gullestad when she reflects on the imagined sameness, which is a common cultural identity and origin. This sameness has as its opposite another and different cultural identity and origin. Following the egalitarian logic, and it being linked to this imagined sameness, any co-habituation is impossible because of a lack of original common origin that may ground a community. The hypothetical and the imagined have that in common: that they disregard practices that show something else than what theory allows. What Gullestad does not take into account is the practices or examples of successful integration, which could be subversive to the imagined sameness.  

Going back to Luther and the epistemological problem that Luther wrestled with in his translations, he did not deal with the question of whether or not the translation was possible, but rather whether he could succeed in stabilising the tension between faithfulness and treason. Again, the problem is not theoretical but practical. Likewise, we must investigate multicultural society taking the practices that are already there in order to articulate that which is already possible in practice. The idea of a cultural sameness and the demand for adaptation to our values does not render us capable of understanding the intercultural practices, which are already there and transgress our imagination. In the way in which translation as a practice transgresses our imagination, we must look into transcultural and intercultural practices that also transgress our imagination.  

Further, as a result of this preliminary “deconstruction” of the question comes the more constructive solution. In Luther’s case, the creation of a comparable makes languages (German and Greek) that before were separated or heterogeneous, open to each other. Thus, Luthers practice of translation has not only showed us a false or badly put question. It has also given us more specifically a practical example, which can reflect on cultural diversity. Translation as a practical activity overcomes obstacles of understanding. The fact that people go from not understanding to understanding one another is understandable first of all from the practice of translation. The risk is of course that the translation becomes focused on adaptation.

In addition, the equal status of German and Latin is achieved without abandoning the German language and German tradition. If the point of Luther’s translation was the creation of an equivalent without identity, something comparable to Latin, this is important due to the fact that it was no longer an obligation to learn Latin to conceive of God’s word. German received the status of universal equality to Latin, but kept its German particularity. German as Biblical language was the construction of an equivalent to Latin without being identical to Latin. To say that German is equivalent or comparable to Latin is to say at once that German and Latin are of equal value, that it is possible to say the same in both languages, and that a premise is not a complete homogenisation.   

This gives us another interesting take on the parallel between language and culture. As I see it, there are some analogous points between the Latin-German opposition and the sameness-otherness opposition in a multicultural society. What Luther’s translation created was an equality which is not based on sameness. Even though the German language is related to Latin, Greek or Hebrew, it is not reducible to them. Instead a specific German branch of Christianity saw the light of the day and augmented the linguistic and cultural spectre of the Christian religion. Equality meant thus creative contribution and recognition, but not on its own terms alone. Likewise, homogenisation, total adaptation, or cultural sameness are not a prerequisite for co-habituation and equality in a society. What generates a feeling of equality is rather that one with one’s own background can contribute to this co-habituation and perhaps broaden the imagination of what it means to be Norwegian, French, etc. 



The paradigm of openness

Ricoeur writes that translation is a paradigm and articulates a linguistic hospitality. This linguistic hospitality consists in the fact that the attempt to understand the foreign language is prior to the appropriation of it. Translation questions our self-centered being by living in a language other than our own and by welcoming a foreign language to be in our own. By calling it a “paradigm”, Ricoeur sees a parallel or analogy between languages, confessions, and religions. I would like not only to add culture to the list of analogues, but even say that translation is an intervention into the paradigm of linguistic comparison that constitutes the logic of cultural sameness and cultural difference. What Ricoeur means by calling it a paradigm is that it goes deeper and wider than this kind of comparison.

In the secondary literature on Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation, the concept of paradigm is mentioned many times. Richard Kearney writes about translation as a linguistic, ontological, anthropological and hermeneutic paradigm. Kearney writes: “Ricoeur is holding the view that good translations require a radical openness towards the other.”(Kearney, p. 161) And further: “the translation is exposing us to what is other (l’étranger). We are at the same time involved with an alterity residing outside ourselves (en dehors du chez-soi) and an alterity residing inside.”(Ibid, p. 164) This point of an alterity residing inside ourselves is a point underlined many times by Ricoeur and originally borrowed from Georg Steiner, who in his book After Babel (Steiner 1998) writes about translation internal to a cultural and linguistic domain. It seems as though we are confronted here with a question of openness. Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation is a philosophy of hospitality which points to an openness. And even though this could easily be interpreted as an ethical statement, does it not also equally hold as an epistemological statement about the practice of translation? This is not a relativist point of view. In order for a translation to be good both languages must be open: otherwise it is not a translation. Openness renders account for the rules governing the practice of translation: in order to translate one it is necessary to listen and learn what is foreign. Otherwise we are not translating. 





If we now take everything into consideration, we see that the “cultural sameness” that renders culture into a mechanism of exclusion and inclusion is situated within the binary logic of identity and difference. In order to be included into a society you have to be imagined to have the same cultural attachment. I have tried to challenge this notion by reflecting on an alternative to oppositional thinking: translation. The practice of translation follows a logic that is not oppositional but rather one of balances between languages and degrees of openness between them. In order to translate one must be open to another language, but without abandoning his or her own starting language. Luther’s translation showed that such openness was possible for the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew text to enter the German language and for these meanings to be articulated in new forms.




Abel O. and Porée J. (2009) Le vocabulaire de Ricoeur. Paris: Ellipse.

Andersen, K., and Tybring-Gjedde, C., (2010) Drømmen fra Disneyland. Aftenposten, available at:


[Accessed 22. 01.2013].

Anderson B. (2006[1983]) Imagined communities. London: Verso.

Berman A. (1995) L’épreuve de l’étranger. Paris : Gallimard.

Dumont L. (1983) Essais sur l`individualisme, Paris : Éditions du Seuil.

Gleason P.(1983)”Identifying identity: A semantic History”, The Journal of American History, Vol. 69. No. 4, 910-931.

Gullestad M. (2002) “Invisible fences: Egalitarianism, nationalism and racism”, Royal anthropological institute 8, 45-63.

Gullestad M. (2004) “Blind slaves of our prejudice: Debating “culture” and “race” in Norway”, Ethnos, Vol. 69:2, 177-203.

Hustad J. (2013) “Ikkje min kulturminister“ Aftenposten 2. january 2013, available at: http://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/kronikker/Ikkje-min-kulturminister-7081291.html [Accessed 22 january 2013].

Kerney R. (2008) “Vers une herméneutique de la traduction“  in Fiasse Gaëlle (ed.) Paul Ricoeur. De l’homme faillible à l’homme capable. Paris: PUF.

Ladmiral J.-R. (1994):Traduire: théorèmes pour la traduction. Paris: Gallimard.

Luther M. (2008) Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen. Stuttgart: Reclams Universal-Bibliothek.

Luther M. (2003) Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen. transl. Gary Mann revised by Michael D. Marlowe An open letter on translating. Available at: http://www.bibleresearcher.com/luther01.html [Accessed 20. 10. 2010]

NRK, 2009. Debatt om norske verdier, 2009. [Radio-debate] NRK, NRK Nett-tv, 11th May 2009 19.00. Available at: http://www1.nrk.no/nett-tv/klipp/491227 [Accessed 05.03.2013].

Ricoeur P. (2004a) Sur la traduction, Paris: Bayard.

Ricoeur P. (2004b) Sur la traduction Transl. Eileen Brennan On translation. London/New York: Routledge.

Rosenzweig F. (1963) “Die Schrift und Luther” in Das problem des Übersetzens. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Steiner G. (1998[1975]): After Babel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Störig H. (ed.) (1963): „Einleitung“ in Das problem des Übersetzens. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.


[1] I want to thank Martin Peterson for comments on this text.

[2] I will not dwell on this here, but “imagined” is not the obverse of reality. Imagination is rather an element in the constitution of national communities, since the amount of people and the territory of the nation makes it impossible to ground community in, for instance, face-to-face relations.

[3] The Norwegian version of the article (Gullestad 2002) uses likhet, which also means “semblance” and “similarity”. And the author makes it clear that likhet covers both meanings in Norwegian. So there is an ambiguity in likhet meaning sameness (identical) and similarity at the same time. Having said that, she has chosen sameness and not similarity in the English version.


Helle Prosdam and Thomas Elholm (eds.), Dialogues on Justice: European Perspectives on Law and Humanities (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012)

Each chapter yields fresh insights into the relationship between law, literature, and justice. It is not possible to deal with each chapter satisfactorily, but it is possible to discuss some of them briefly.


The themes open with Greta Olson’s arresting analysis of the deficiencies with the manner in which law and literature is being pursued. The argument is a reprint of the article to be found in the 2010 volume of Law and Literature, but includes a post-script wherein Olson notes further developments on her thinking since the original article was published.  


Mattias Kumm’s chapter on thick constitutional patriotism includes a call for a conceptualization of European history in a manner that provides an exegesis about the roots of European political development. It would focus on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, but understands that such a history is “to a significant extent the history of the fight against these ideals, their hypocritical abuse, or their complacent misunderstanding.” Kumm’s project is a refreshingly ambitious one and, to the author’s credit, he puts forward a template for how such a project might be developed in the field of legal history, with a thematic focus on the time frames between 1789 and 1919, 1919 to 1992, and the post-1992 legal sphere. There is much to be said for such a project, but it is not clear that the disparate national tendencies of the European continent allows such a history to be told convincingly. The temptation to focus solely on those parts of the history which conform to our current values may be insuperable. Kumm falls victim to this difficulty when dealing with the US Declaration of Independence, which he describes as follows:


A further characteristic [of the revolutionary tenets of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the US Declaration of Independence] is the absence of both God and religion (or any other perfectionist ideal) as a point of ultimate reference for legal and political life. Many will find it plausible that the ultimate roots of these rights lie in the fact that God has created persons in a certain way, and that rights are instrumental to human flourishing… But, when the authors of the Declaration of Independence declared the foundational principles of Political Liberalism as self-evident, it created the possibility of thinking of Political Liberalism as the focal point of a consensus that, for the purposes of organizing public life, avoided deeper questions of theological foundations and ultimate purpose.


This is an ahistorical treatment of the Declaration of Independence which appeals to the “Supreme Judge of the World”, “divine Providence”, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and, in the extract that Kumm directly refers to, man’s “Creator”. This was not a document that avoided deeper questions of ultimate purpose; it repeatedly referred to these questions. Moreover, the problem recurs if we read Kumm’s point in a more restrictive fashion; the US Declaration of Independence, insofar only as it referred to man being created equal, created the possibility for the future expression of political liberalism. This overlooks those elements of the document which do not conform to this reading, and makes the analysis of the document contingent on subsequent developments where it was used in a manner conducive to the development of the ideal of political liberalism.


The French Declaration of the Rights of Man, in contrast, can be read in the manner that Kumm proposes for the US Declaration, and suggests that such a project could enjoy some success. Kumm is to be applauded for his ambitious project, but the treatment of such material promises to be an arduous task.


Sven Erik Larsen’s chapter on the interrelationship between forgiveness and law is a masterly typology of forgiveness which ranges across examples as diverse as the return of Korean NGOs after capture by the Taliban and the removal of Inuit children from Greenland to Denmark. The typology is comprehensive and compelling.


Mia Rendix’s chapter on the return of the Icelandic sagas notes the distinction between the legal and political processes that characterized the relationship between Denmark and Iceland on the issue. Denmark’s perfect claim to legal title was undermined by statements such as Alexander Jóhannesson’s that the sagas were “like flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood”. Rendix’s analysis spans the legal and cultural spheres, and the local and universal art spheres, with commendable results. I disagree with Rendix’s conclusion that the current digitization projects can undercut the national insistence on exclusive rights. It seems to me that such projects will act as a supplement to national initiatives; the educational and cultural significance of an object in physical form should not be underestimated.


The volume as a whole marks a considerable addition to the field of law and literature and should be celebrated as such. The work will appeal to academic and general readers alike.


The idea of University in a Cosmopolitan Perspective


My focus here will be on the university. I do not so much have the Danish Copenhagen Business School (CBS) or MIT in Boston in mind as other big universities, both in Denmark and abroad. It is perhaps precisely because the universities called business schools have business as their main focus that they have been able to integrate humanistic disciplines without severe criticism from outside. In Denmark, for example, the threat against the humanities is much stronger in universities such as Copenhagen University, Aarhus University and the University of Southern Denmark than at CBS. Abroad we witness attacks on philosophy similar to the one we witnessed at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in 2010, only the attacks are worse. In Hungary, for example, in the fall of 2010, the new director of the philosophical institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, nominated by the new conservative government that also tried to enslave the press, has dismissed four philosophers and disqualified 15 out of 23 colleagues as “professionally unsuitable” (in German translation: fachlich ungeeignet). In addition, a police investigation has been initiated against the famous philosopher Agnes Heller and the vice-president of the Philosophical Society, Mihaly Vajda, for having received financial support from the former government. In England, a Centre for European Philosophy at the University of Middlesex in London was closed in the spring of 2010, and later on transferred to Kingston University. Moreover, in the spring of 2011, the Philosophy department at the university of Keele was threatened to be closed, but was prolonged for the next year after strong international protests.

For sure, this is only the top of the iceberg. Programs in the humanities disappear or are reduced in many universities today, and there is a worldwide serious threat to the humanities in the universities and scientific academies. In addition, many universities are increasingly turning into management institutions. In light of these tendencies, a fundamental question arises: What is a good university? Since a university is an institution, let us first consider the even more fundamental question: What is a good institution?

2. The ideas of an institution

Paul Ricœur defines the idea of an institution in his book Oneself as Another as “the good life with and for others, in just institutions.”1 What does he mean by “just institutions”? For Ricœur just institutions are neither about face-to-face relationships, nor about being submitted to domination. Rather, they allude to communities where everybody in principle is on an equal footing with everyone else. Justice consists in the fact that we recognize each other’s equal rights. Here Ricœur refers to the distinction elaborated by Hannah Arendt between power-in-common and domination. The latter goes back to Max Weber’s idea in Economy and Society that the relation of domination, Herrschaft, distinguishes the political institution of the State from all other institutions. Characteristic for this relation is that it separates the governing from the governed, and is based on a monopoly of violence. However, according to Arendt, the power-in-common is different. As she says in her most famous work, The Human Condition, power-in-common stems directly from the category of action and is “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things and matter” and so “correspond[s] to the human condition of plurality”.2

To Ricœur this concept of plurality is important if we want to understand the just institution, because it “suggests the extension of interhuman relations to all those who are left outside of the face-to-face encounter of an “I” and a “you” and remain third parties”3. This third party is always “the inclusive middle term within the plurality that constitutes power”, and will never be face in the sense of Emanuel Levinas: the other whom I encounter. It is anonymous in the literal sense of the term, having no name. While its power is fragile, “since it exists only as long as people act together and vanishes when they disperse”4, this fragility “is not the raw and naked vulnerability of mortals as such but the second order fragility of institutions and of all the human affairs gravitating around them.”5

However, Ricœur agrees with Arendt that this action in concert is invisible, “because it is so extensively covered over by relations of domination, and that it is brought to light only when it is about to be destroyed, laying the field open for violence”.6 Moreover, “this is why this constitutive element can be discerned only in its discontinuous irruptions onto the public stage when history is its most tumultuous.”7 Here Ricœur might think of what happened when the Youth revolt broke out in ‘68. Nevertheless, he seems convinced that however weak it may be “it is power, as wanting to live and acting together, that brings to the ethical aim the point of application of its indispensable third dimension: justice”.

The idea of justice is here both a vision of the good life and a demand for a social order, a distributive operation that is not only economic, but also concerns the apportionment of roles, task and advantages and disadvantages. What is just is “between the good and the legal”.8 In other words, “a consideration of the institution is part of the ethical aim in its full scope”.9

Another keyword here is equality. As Ricœur declares, “equality, however it is modulated, is to life in institutions what solicitude is in interpersonal relations”.10 He concludes: “Because of this, the sense of justice takes nothing away from solicitude; the sense of justice presupposes it, to the extent that it holds persons to be irreplaceable. Justice in turn adds to solicitude, to the extent that the field of application of equality is all of humanity”.11

I believe Arendt and Ricœur are right in claiming that we must distinguish between domination built on violence, on the one hand, and power of common action built on a ordered plurality, on the other. A system of domination is not simply identical to a just institution, the latter of which is action-in-concert according to common rules. It follows that although in practice there is no pure action-in-common without its inclusion in a system of domination, a criticism of an institution for being purely repressive and unjust must rely on the impossibility of the members of the institution to find a minimum (or too little) of themselves acting therein. It must rely on the impossibility of recognizing in them their own participation in a common action. Thus, in this regard we can say that an institution in which we cannot find ourselves or too little of ourselves is an unjust institution.

3. The University crises in ‘68 and now

As examples of institutions, Ricœur mentions “people, nation, region and so forth”,12 (p. 194), but according to Arendt, they comprise much more. Institutions are what she calls “political bodies”, and must include every action in concert inside a people, a nation and the like.13 Consequently, every educational body in a society is an institution. From this perspective, when Ricœur writes about the university in the sixties, he writes about an institution, and the critique he directs at the French university system is precisely that it can no longer fulfil the condition of an institution where its members can see themselves as acting in common.

In the preface to a book on Concepts of the University, Ricœur> describes the sociological background of the youth revolt in ‘68 at the universities.14 He mentions the fact that universities at the time had developed into enormous institutions that had to educate a mass of students, which was very expensive for the society at large. On the one hand, the state could not spend money on students without demanding useful results in return. On the other, students could not accept to spend their time in these institutions without demanding personal development. In other words, the political power wanted to gain some goods for society by their investment in the universities, whereas the students wanted to act in common with teachers and each other in order to obtain both knowledge and culture for their personal and social life. Ricœur sees in this conflict a contradiction between two demands placed on a modern university. It should be a liberal university, i.e., an institution of research allowing criticism and testing of new ideas, something that would be impossible if governing authorities would prescribe the goals of the research. And, it should prepare the students for the qualifications that the society needs for its production and administration.

This contradiction, which in the sixties brought the universities into a deep crisis, is not very different from the contradiction that we experience today, in the society in general and the universities in particular. It is a contradiction between the demand of the universities to explore the material and social reality and ‘tell the truth’, on the one side, and the demand that they through research and education help to qualify researchers and students for the competition on the world market, on the other. Indeed, in light of the similarities of the two situations, we might learn something by considering what Ricœur has to say about the aforementioned contradiction. He proposes three measures for overcoming the crisis:

First, Ricœur proposes a reform of the universities that avoids both the constraints of pure utility and the destructive rejection of organizations. This renewed liberal university shall both permit free research and integrate researchers in the society, so that they can participate in a responsible way in the scientific, cultural, technological and spiritual adventure of our time.

Second, he imagines a reform that can give the students access to participation in the governance of the universities. Professors, assistants and students should be able to share their activities in discussions about the orientation, development and sanction of studies. Ricœur knew that such an educational relationship would be difficult because of its asymmetrical character, viz. because its aim is to apply the competence and experience of the teacher in the learning process. However, he believed that “the student brings something: talents and tastes, acquired knowledge and parallel knowledge, and particularly a wish of personal accomplishment that only partly can be satisfied by instruction, job training and the acquisition of a culture for leisure.15 Thus, by his or her partial contribution to the student’s project of accomplishment, the teacher still learns. According to Ricœur, he is “really taught by his students and receives from them the opportunity and the permission to realize his own desire for cognition and knowledge. This is the reason why one must even say – to paraphrase Aristotle – that education is the shared act of the master and the student.”16 Moreover, convinced of the idea that the university is the only institution in the modern society in which the most critical thinking can be expressed, Ricœur even imagines that this shared action, if it becomes successful in the universities, might be a model for the society as a whole. It may assist in demolishing its authoritarian institutions.

Third, he pictures a reform accommodating what he calls “zones of transparency between the university institution and the extra-university world”, which are self-governing, creating a connection between the university culture and the non-university culture. Indeed, universities face a non-university culture in the form of everything from advertising, songs in different media and movies, to pure propaganda. This culture is what most people live by in the leisure-time permitted by modern industrial work. Therefore, it is the task of researchers not only to be critical in their own domain of research, but also of the cultural activities outside the world of research. By the same token, criticism should not be one-way communication, according to Ricœur. Rather, universities should also be listening to criticism from non-university, such as from artists and businesspeople, etc.

Ricœur saw in many ways the youth revolt in the universities as a legitimate revolt against an unjust institution in which the students cannot find themselves. Thus, he sees it as a “cultural revolution” against a system of domination, i.e. a system without space for action-in-common. First, it is a revolt against capitalism, not only because it fails in creating social justice, but because it has succeeded all too well in seducing people by its inhuman project of quantitative well-being. Secondly, it is a revolt against the bureaucracy, not only because it is heavy and ineffective, but because it transforms people into slaves to powers, structures and hierarchical relationships. Finally, Ricœur sees it as a revolt against the “nihilism of a society that, like a cancerous tissue has no other goal than growth; a revolt facing a society of non-sense”.17 Simultaneously, however, it is a revolt that “intended to promote creation of goods, ideas and values rather than their consummation”.18

This is the background to Ricœur’s famous declaration that “it is necessary to remain revolutionary when making reform”.19 And in the seventies, many universities were in fact reformed more or less according to the ideas that Ricœur had formulated so clearly. However, perhaps because there was in the youth of that time too little understanding of the necessity of universities as stable institutions extreme individualism and anarchism often brought the reforms to fail.20

Today we are back in a situation where universities suffer from a contradiction between search for academic freedom for researchers, teachers and students, on the one hand, and political domination through the demand for market utility, on the other. Moreover, today it is not so much the mass of students that destabilize the universities as the mass of bureaucrats, the latter of which transfer the university system into a colossus with feet of clay. Therefore, when students and teachers in our days cannot find themselves in their universities it is because they are often confronted with mega-schools in the form of top-governed management institutions. While they could find themselves in a liberal university, where students and professors in learning and research could experience participation in common action, they cannot find themselves in the management system of domination and repression into which our universities are now increasingly transformed.

4. The Humboldt model

We should recall that the idea of the university, which exists under so bad conditions today, is more than two hundred years old. In 1798, Immanuel Kant described in his book The Conflict of the Faculties, the relationship between the four faculties belonging to university in his time, including that of theology, law, medicine and philosophy. He describes the first three of these as “the higher faculties”. They are considered very useful for the government, but not free. The only entirely free faculty is “the lower faculty” of philosophy (later called the faculty of humanities). Kant believes that although there will always be a conflict between the faculties that are considered useful for the government and the faculty of philosophy which aims at truth, the higher faculties and the lower faculty may in the end move closer to each other. He concludes by saying that “it could well happen that the last would someday become the first (the lower faculty would be the higher) – not indeed in authority, but in counselling the authority (the government). For the government may find the freedom of the philosophy faculty, and the increased insight gained from its freedom, a better means for achieving its ends than its own absolute authority.”21

Interestingly, this was exactly what happened a few years later. In 1810, the linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt as minister of education in Prussia created a new university in Berlin and reformed the whole educational system. In the new university, the faculty of philosophy became the higher faculty and a philosopher, J.G. Fichte, became its first rector in 1811, later on to be replaced by another philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. Its goal was the general cultivation, allgemeine Bildung, of the individual. Objective knowledge was from now on to be combined with subjective formation (Bildung) of each individual and, as Humboldt said, with “the moral culture of the nation” (die moralische Kultur der Nation).22 The Humboldt model expressed the idea of the humanities, and in particular of philosophy, as the leading sciences. It is this idea that today is seriously challenged by the notion of the management university.

The question is what we can do to oppose this pseudo-university. First, we can analyse its condition, which apparently justifies the end of the Humboldt era. Thereafter, we can show how the inner contradiction of the management university sooner or later must raise a demand for another university, which, according to the dream of Kant, is both allowed to telling the truth and being highly useful for society.

5. Analyses of the condition

The condition for the establishment of the management university was already exposed by Jean-François Lyotard in 1979. In his book The postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (translated into English in 1984), he described the developed societies of his time in terms of ‘the postmodern condition’. This postmodernism does not imply a new cultivation integrating the sciences in a new way while still preserving the humanities as an essential part of the whole, but rather opposes the very focus on cultivation in order to replace it by what Lyotard calls ‘performativity’. Lyotard’s diagnosis was that more and more research and education would be justified by their performativity.23 The term ‘performativity’ was new both in French and in English when the book was published, but it relates to ‘performance’ and means efficiency in the performance.

Lyotard’s analysis is, I would claim, more true today than when he presented it. In the beginning of the 21st century we witness how the educational systems, first in the United States and later in many other countries, are increasingly turned into one single end, that of performativity. Nowadays it is common to speak about efficiency, a goal which is possible to measure by tests, including national and public tests in schools, and stimulate by means of competition between classes and schools.

6. The inner contradiction of the Competition State

Now, if you ask the question ‘why performativity?’, the answer is ‘because of the necessary competition on the world market’. The Danish political scientist Ove Kaj Pedersen is right in claiming that today the idea of the welfare state is increasingly replaced by the idea of ‘the state of competition’. In his view, the welfare state, in which everybody should be respected as an irreplaceable individual, could not be realized because it was too expensive. Further, it was not able to prevent the weakest from being dominated by the strongest and, consequently, could not assure that everybody was protected by the same rights within a democratic system. Instead, it has become necessary to accept that everybody is an egoist, because this egoism is useful in the competition that has become the condition of all social life.24

What follows from this is that the task of the educational systems in schools and universities is redefined. It is less an education to democracy and social justice and more an education to national and international competition. Moreover, schools and universities are now obliged to enter into competition with each other and with other agents on the market to which they “sell knowledge”. In this competition, human sciences, and in particular philosophy, have apparently no raison d’être. Human sciences and critical philosophy more than any other discipline is considered useless and even dangerous for competition. For this reason, the state of competition suffers from an inner contradiction that is no less serious than the inner contradiction of the welfare state, namely, that it undermines by itself the social cohesion that is supposed to make it acceptable to everybody. In this state, people do not believe in the democratic education of citizens and do not feel responsible for the common good. Everybody can follow his or her interest within the frames defined by those in charge. In addition, belonging to this ideology is the presumption that great leaders are able to disregard their personal interests and establish the social coherence by their control of every common activity. It follows that only they have the task of thinking and acting for the common good. But the question is: how can such altruistic leaders be found amongst the people who have only learnt to think of their own interests and not about the common good? It seems unimaginable.

This is the contradiction: the state of competition, which is supposed to work without people being educated to take care of the common good and mutually recognize the rights of each other, nevertheless needs such an education in order to find good leaders amongst them and justify the destitution of bad leaders. Moreover, it must establish democratic elections and control of the leaders. In other words, the state of competition simultaneously rejects democracy and needs it. The criticism we can and must insist upon is therefore that no society that needs a social and moral coherence can do without education in democracy, and that society therefore must submit the competition to a democratic co-determination.

7. Democracy and cosmopolitanism

This insight is stressed by Martha C. Nussbaum in her recent book Not for profit: Why democracy needs humanities. She calls for a fight against the growing contempt for the humanities in universities and school systems. Nussbaum argues that this contempt results in the youth acquiring less and less knowledge about the ideas that are necessary in order to develop into democrats, i.e. autonomous and critical but also realistic citizens who recognize the values of a life together with others – not only national fellow citizens, but also foreigners from other parts of the world. This is exactly what they do not learn, Nussbaum argues, if they only learn how to get material profit and how to be most efficient on the world market. Instead, they have to learn that “a strong economy is a means to human ends, not an end in itself”, since “most of us would not choose to live in a prosperous nation, that had ceased to be democratic.”25 They have to learn to be responsible persons and to respect others as having equal rights independently of colour, religion, sex, and so on, and to assess what is good and bad for one’s own country as a whole as well as the kind of role it may play jointly with other countries and people in an increasingly complex globalized world.

Nussbaum advocates an education for cosmopolitan citizenship and points in a chapter entitled “Citizens of the World” to the fact that “we live in a world in which people face one another across gulfs of geography, language and nationality. More than at anytime in the past, she says, we all depend on people we have never seen, and they depend on us. The problems we need to solve – economic, environmental, religious and political – are global in their scope.”26 But if we shall handle them, we must involve “the contributions of history, geography, the interdisciplinary studies of culture, the history of law and political systems, and the study of religion – all interacting with one another.”27

According to Lyotard, grand narratives no longer work in the justification or understanding of society. However, this is no longer true. It might be true when it comes to grand stories that were used to legitimize authoritarian regimes such as the narratives of Nazism and Stalinism. However, Nussbaum is right when claiming that today “we need world history and global understanding for reasons that go beyond what is required to understand our own nation.”28 In other words, we need a cosmopolitan story of our world as basis of our universities.


1 Oneself as Another, The University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 172, The English translator has put brackets round ‘good life’, because Ricœur puts brackets round “la vie bonne” in the French text in order to indicate that it does not mean “la bonne vie” which is ‘the pleasant life’, but that is an ethical and more precisely an Aristotelian philosophical concept. In English it is common to use the term as a philosophical expression so it does not need to be put in brackets.

2 Hannah Arendt: The human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958, p. 7.

3 Oneself as Another, p. 195.

4 Ibid., p. 196

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 197.

7 Ibid.

8 Paul Ricœur: « Le juste entre le légal et le bon » in Lectures 1, 1991, Seuil, Paris, pp. 176 – 195 (not translated into English).

9 Oneself as Another, p. 201.

10 Ibid., p. 202.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 9.

13 The Human Condition, p. 9.

14 Paul Ricœur : ”Trois ripostes à la crise universitaire”, in Conceptions de l’Université, eds. Jacques Drèze et Jean Debelle, Editions Universitaires, Paris, 1969; published in Le Monde 17.1.1969

15 Lectures 1, p. 382.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Paul Ricœur: ”Réforme et révolution dans l’Université”, Lectures 1, p.380.

19 Paul Ricœur: ”Réforme et révolution dans l’Université”, Lectures 1, p. 381.

20 Ricœur himself was very disappointed by this development in France, and he never again wrote about a reform of universities, see P. Kemp: “Ricoeur and education: Ricoeur’s implied philosophy of education” in Ricoeur across the disciplines, ed. by Scott Davidson. Continuum, New York, 2010, p. 181-194.

21 Immanuel Kant: The conflict of the Faculties/ Der Sreit der Fakultäten [bilingual edition], translated by Mary J. Gregor, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1979, p. 59.

22 Wilhelm von Humboldt: Über die innere und äussere Organisation der höheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten in Berlin” in Schriften zur Politik und zum Bildungswesen, Wissenschaftlische Buchgesellschaft, Darmstandt, 1964, p. 255.

23 Jean-François Lyotard: La condition postmoderne, Rapport sur le savoir, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1979, Chapters 11 and 12 (English translation: The Postmodern Condition, Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press, Manchesater, 1984, chapter 11 and 12).

24 Ove K. Pedersen : Konkurrence Staten, Hans Reitzels forlag, Copenhagen, 2011.

25 Martha C. Nussbaum: Not for profit. Why democracy needs humanities, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, p. 10-11.

26 Ibid., p. 79-80.

27 Ibid., p. 86-87.

28 Ibid. . p. 81-82.

Pia Guldager and Jane Hjar Petersen (eds.), Meetings of cultures in the Black Sea region. Between conflict and coexistence, (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2008)

The cultures at issue are the native Scythian tribes, including Sarmatian ones, and the ancient Greek settlers in the Pontic Region, i.e. the vast steppe-land located in the northern and north-eastern regions of the Black Sea. This area was called Euxeinos Pontos for most part of the Graeco-Roman age, meaning literally ‘hospitable sea’, but it was really a euphemism replacing an earlier name introduced by Pindar, Pontos Axenios, i.e. ‘inhospitable sea’. The studies contained in the volume focus upon Pre-Roman Times, particularly from the 7th century BC, when the first Greek settlements were established, to 63 BC, i.e. the year of Mithridates the Great’s death, which marks as well the beginning of the Roman predominance. The disciplines involved in this survey are historiography, archaeology, numismatic, epigraphy and ceramography.

The book contains five chapters: “Setting the scene”, “Spaces of identity”, “Claiming the land”, “The dynamics of cultural exchange” and “Mind the gap”. The five chapters comprise nineteen articles written by eighteen different authors. Five of the published contributions were not presented at the conference: the article by P. G. Bilde in the first chapter and the articles by A. V. Karjaka, A. V. Gavrilov and T. N. Smekalova in the third chapter.

It is unavoidable for us studying something like the very concept of culture as a pragmatic category, i.e. as a truth that is such beacuse it produces practical results that satisfy us, and not vice versa, i.e. as a truth that is such before the production of any satisfying practical result. Thus, it is important to understand that the things we can say about other cultures – whether Greek or non-Greek, sedentary or nomadic – will necessary be a product of our culture, which establishes the criteria for practical satisfaction in the first place, that is to say, our own complex system of expectations. Hence we should note that, for instance, writing ‘settler’ instead of ‘colonist’ is a choice that is not inherent to those peoples that we write about, but to ourselves. These considerations certainly act on the background of the articles contained in the book, but they are not theoretically themed and discussed.

In the book, the contents develop around the main aspect stated in the title of the chapter in which they appear. The three articles that form the first chapter are written by J. A. Vinogradov, P. G. Bilde and V. Mordvintseva, and they describe the historical context. In particular, Bilde’s paper introduces and analyzes two very significant terms: diaspora and hybridization. The second chapter also includes three articles, the authors of which are P. Attema, A. Baralis, M. Vickers and A. Kakhidze, and it shows the way Greek and non-Greek groups established themselves in neighbouring areas. In Vickers’ and Kakhidze’s opinion this fact can be determined by the careful study of the collocation of burial sites. The five papers in the third chapter, written by J. M. Højte, A. V. Karjaka, A. V. Gavrilov and T. N. Smekalova, explain how to look at the ancient management of land division so as to identify how far the two different cultures had been able to collaborate. The four articles that constitute the fourth chapter, authored by J. H. Petersen, N. A. Gavriljuk, L. Summerer, N. G. Novi?enkova and E. Kakhidze, examine the way differences of status and power overcame and replaced differences of ethnicity. The fifth and last chapter is composed of three papers, written by R. Osborne, D. Braund and G. Hinge, and it explains how Self and Other are substantially the same, since: (a) everyone can see him/herself in the self of the other, and (b) the self needs the other’s recognition to be formed. On this theoretical matter, the authors refer here in particular to Herodotus’ fourth book of his Histories.

The topic of this book – i.e. the way in which the meeting of cultures took place in antiquity – is relevant not only to classical scholars, but also to us, who live in a historical contingency certainly no longer modern, but also no longer postmodern: the dichotomy between Us and Them, or between Other and Self. This dichotomy is today even more problematic than it was only few generations ago, because it is the very concept of dichotomy that is being questioned. In fact, if the truth is today considered to be becoming, i.e. walking with us, correlatively to the practices of knowing that are embodied in our life’s occasion, then every dichotomy is ‘only’ transiently true. In other words, thinking the difference between Them and Us becomes a practice that is theoretical, ethical, but also historical.

Meeting of cultures in the Black Sea region is recommended not only to those who just want to increase their knowledge about specific Greek communities settling in the Pontic region, but also to everyone interested in themes like the frontier, the periphery, the tension between wilderness and civility, and even in retrieving the material traces of the dynamic development of concepts like Self and Other, i.e. theoretical issues that are highly relevant in the age of globalization.