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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.

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.