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Technology & Transformation

Helena Moradi looks at changing philosophical attitudes to technology.

The Greek word τέχνη, ‘techne’, which is usually translated as ‘art’, ‘craftsmanship’, ‘knowledge’, or ‘skill’, is generally used to designate the creation of something. In ancient philosophy, however, techne was not just perceived as an activity, but above all as a kind of knowledge. For Plato, who was the first to elaborate on this concept in writing, techne and episteme, art and knowledge, were closely related. Also for Aristotle, techne was a kind of knowledge that goes with a certain form of creative activity. According to him, the goal for the individual craftsman is to achieve as perfect an imitation of nature as possible – although he was well aware of the impossibility of creating exact copies. Techne in this classic sense – and this cannot be emphasized enough when comparing ancient and modern technology – is basically focused on individual work instead of on the streamlined production of many objects of the same kind in order to make a profit. Mass production would be inconceivable to the ancient craftsman, and not just for technical reasons.

It is an interesting and often overlooked fact that technological innovation flourished during the Middle Ages, between about 500-1500 AD. A great number of inventions saw the light of day then: not only gunpowder and the printing press, but also the compass, new plows, spinning wheels, water wheels, and other machines… But all these inventions, which would all radically change the world, were kept within the craftsman’s limited world, and the leading philosophers did not generally care to reflect on such matters. One exception was Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who, among other things, was a philosopher who had technology as a central theme. By his claim that ‘knowledge is power’ he meant that people, through knowledge of nature and the practice of technological power over it, could create a rich and prosperous society, even an ideal one. And in the early seventeenth century, the view on technology started to change fundamentally. At this point modern natural science began to see the light of day.

The leading character in this scientific revolution is Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Galileo examined reality outside of old scholastic dogmas or authority, and, with scientific experiments, sought to uncover its secrets. He expanded science with, among other things, the new telescope he hand-made, making it possible for humanity to look further into space than ever before, discovering that Jupiter had four moons orbiting it and that our own Moon had craters and mountains. After he died, physicians and astronomers, physicists and philosophers, began to work according to his principles. They weighed, measured, counted and designed a variety of ingenious instruments to help them do so. René Descartes (1596-1650) sketched a universe in which inexorable mechanical laws prevailed. Eventually, by the end of the seventeenth century, scientific development was crowned with Isaac Newton’s (1642-1726) grand philosophy of nature, in which he used the principles of mechanics to describe the world as a great machine. Newton’s philosophy of nature became known as ‘mechanical philosophy’. We might say it set the scene for philosophy about technology.

New technology evidently goes hand in hand with the scientific revolution. But the leading philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had little substantial to say about it. It was generally believed that technology was applied science and that it was entirely in the service of the good. Indeed, at this point in history, the view was almost entirely technophilic and optimistic. In the early 1800s this vision was expressed, albeit in different ways, by G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Hegel described the self-realization of the spirit of the world through reason in works such as the Phenomenology of Spirit and Elements of the Philosophy of Rights, which came to hold great importance for the emerging philosophy of technology. Comte, an engineer by trade, dismissed Hegel’s speculative metaphysics, choosing instead to build upon the idea of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) who described a technocratic utopia based on technical-scientific principles. Comte founded sociology, and his positivist philosophy came to have a great impact on modern science and philosophy.

But it was with the manifestation of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century onwards that philosophers began to ask critical questions about technology. The perception that technology could have a negative impact on human life was first expressed in the Romantic movement. The Romantic movement partially constituted a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, which created aesthetically unpleasant and dirty, polluted industrial cities populated by masses of poor people. For the Romantics, the Industrial Revolution, made possible through the emergence of new technology, destroyed both nature and people alike. An early, prescient expression of this view had been put forward in 1750, unlike many of his contemporaries, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), in his Discourse sur les Science et les Arts. In it he criticized the core idea of the Enlightenment, that science and technology automatically leads to the progress of society. He claimed that, on the contrary, the emergence of modern science and technology had been directly detrimental to society and its morality.

The Late Romantic critique of technology and science and how it destroys people’s lives is vast, but a good later representative of this school of thought is the German historian Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), who in The Decline of the West (1918) described how Western civilization was experiencing a crisis similar to that which people experience on the threshold of old age. In essence, his was a warning of the consequences of humanity’s blind worship of technology: it’s unnatural, but also unconditional, and this means technology rules over people as a lord rules over his slaves. Like the earlier Romantics, Spengler was reacting against a machine-dominated society and big industry, instead encouraging a simpler lifestyle, with a closer, more symbiotic relationship with nature. He argued that society should be governed by reason in the form of one ‘Enlightened despot’ of high moral calibre and intellectual standing (‘un despotisme juste et eclaire’).

Technology and Philosophy
Technology & Philosophy by Miles Walker 2023
Image © Miles Walker 2023 Please visit mileswalker.com

The Philosophy of Technology Emerges

The philosophy of technology itself is a relatively new area within philosophy. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that philosophers began to publish works that dealt exclusively with this subject.

Those who initially devoted themselves to this new branch of philosophy were primarily ‘Young Hegelians’. The followers of Hegel had split into two main tendencies. The left-wing Young Hegelians, which included such prominent members as Karl Marx (1818-83) and Ernst Kapp (1808-96). Many of the leftist Hegelians tended to emphasize the material side of technology. They weren’t blind to its potentially negative consequences but thought they could be counteracted by applying ethical and political measures.

Kapp himself coined the phrase ‘philosophy of technology’ in the Elements of a Philosophy of Technology (1877). Similarly to his contemporary Marx, he was a left-wing Hegelian, and just like Marx, he attempted to translate Hegel’s historical idealism dynamic into a more down-to-earth materialism. Whilst Marx’s materialism was intended to reapply Hegel’s philosophy of history to the economic sciences and to economic history, Kapp tried to apply the philosophy of history to geography. Here he would show how geography and the environment make their mark on the social and cultural order through history. He describes how nature doesn’t only affect the economy, but also culture, political structures, and military organization. Today, Kapp’s work on geography falls into the field known as ‘environmental philosophy’. On the other hand, Kapp’s particular application of the historical dialectic demanded a certain transformation of the unwelcoming environment. In an analogy with Hegel’s ‘master and slave’ argument, Kapp argues that a human must try (and is psychologically constituted to try) to meet the challenges he is faced with in an inhospitable environment. In other words, people must try to tame the wildness of nature. To do so, they must colonize its space, either by agriculture, architecture, mining, building roads etc, and its time, through for example telegraphy. Kapp imagined a global system which linked countries, languages and people together, making the world habitable and welcoming. In The Elements he also went on to describe the manner in which tools should be seen as prostheses, by which he meant an external counterpart to a bodily organ. Each tool, for example, appears as an externalization of the hand. He also drew further parallels between the external – technology – and the internal – the human – extending this argument to include even language and government as an extension and counterpart of the mental, psychic, internal parts of human beings.

Marx shared many of Kapp’s ideas. As I mentioned, both were left-wing Hegelians. But they differed in particular where Kapp attempted to apply Hegel’s philosophy of history to geography and Marx instead tried to connect it with macroeconomic theories, and the early socialism that was developing, especially in France. Marx’s mot famous work, Das Kapital, whose first volume was published in 1867, shows the core of his philosophy of technology, expressed in the chapters ‘Division of Labour and Manufacture’ and ‘Machinery and Modern Industry’. In these chapters Marx describes how work tools have transformed from being simple tools to advanced machines, and how these machines are organized in complex systems in which the worker and his labour are included as components. The labourer becomes alienated by being deprived of any control over the production process – over the tools and the fruit of his labour – and is reduced to a cog in the capitalist machine. In this the worker is deprived not only of his work, but also his nature, his humanity. The prerequisite for this transformation, according to Marx, is modern technological science, which analyses the production process in detail. He shows how its response undermines traditional craftsmanship and professional pride, and places the worker in a ghost-like, self-propelled factory, in which the various steps and stages of work are equivalent and interchangeable. Simultaneously, Marx admired mechanical engineering in a rather modern way, and, in a similar vein to Kapp, he respected the ability of technology to tame wild nature. Admittedly, the evident goal of production is to meet the immediate demand for consumer goods; but its higher purpose is production itself, since production is the prerequisite for life. The essence of humans is in their productivity. A human is not primarily just a thinking being, but a being who acts. We are by nature active, creative beings, whose ultimate goal is to change an inhospitable wilderness into a humane, habitable, world. In other words, although technology is presently a means for the capitalist to exploit the worker, with the advent of communist society it will become a blessing.

At the turn of the twentieth century, some new Neo-Kantian philosophers started asking questions about technology, such as the philosopher and engineer Peter Engelmeier (1855-1942). He published various books in the field of the philosophy of technology, such as Creative Individual And Context In The Sphere Of Technical Innovation (1911), Philosophy Of Technology (four volumes, 1912-1913), and Do We Need Philosophy Of Technology? (1929). Engelmeier was one of the first to provide an overview of techno-philosophical issues and to systematically provide a connection between technology and philosophical and political themes. Other philosophers working in this field included the social scientist A. Espinas, the civil engineer J. Lafitte, and Gilbert Simondon, who was also the main inspiration for one of the most prominent techno-philosophers of our own time, Bernard Stiegler. In broad terms, this group often based their theories directly on technology itself, and they took technical development for granted.

Contrary to a straightforward materialistic understanding of technology, though, these Neo-Kantians posed questions about the purpose and legitimacy of technology based on the ideas that it embodies. One of the most prominent Neo-Kantians, Friedrich Dessauer (1881–1963), even tried to give a Kantian ‘transcendental’ interpretation of the conditions for technical and scientific knowledge and the ethical consequences of its application. He did this in his 1927 book Philosophie der Technik. For him, the essence of technology lies neither in the industrial production process, nor in the end products used by consumers, but in technical creation. And to Immanuel Kant’s three famous critiques – of pure reason, of practical reason and of the power of discernment itself – Dessauer adds a fourth: a critique of technical creation. In the process of technical creation, he argues, contact is established with the ‘thing-in-itself’. He speaks of an ‘inner working’ that sets human consciousness in contact, a world of predetermined solutions to technical problems. Technical creation brings forth ‘existence from essence’, the material embodiment of the transcendental reality (Streit Um Die Technik, p.234, 1956).

Although philosophers often find Dessauer’s ‘machining’ of Kant somewhat naive and over-simplified, it can be understood as a kind of extension of the Kantian project. For Kant, the ‘transcendental’ is tied to sensory and moral experiences. For Dessauer, technology itself has received a moral, not to say mysterious, meaning. Technology is not just limited to the benefit it provides; it has, above all, the character of a Kantian categorical imperative or divine calling. In other words, creating and using modern technology is an element of participation in “the greatest experience on this earth for us mortals” (Philosophie der Technik).

Dessauer’s somewhat odd reasoning is rarely followed today, but that did not prevent his extensive interdisciplinary philosophy of technology from having a great influence on modern day theorising about technology. Ernst Cassirer (1875-1945) is an example. In his 1930 essay Form und Technik, Cassirer argues that technology must be understood as an activity and a production which is closely tied to the act of thinking. Indeed technology makes thinking possible, since technology constitutes the foundation for the transmission of information, which belongs to the essence of thinking.

Technology and Transformation

Recent Technological Thinking

Since the First World War, technology has emerged as the subject of serious philosophical questioning. In the 1920s, its status started to become an object of public interest, not just a topic for intellectuals. By 1930, every aspect of a Western person’s life had been affected by new technologies; at home, in the workplace, and in society in general. Animals had been replaced as means of transport, electricity was widely available in ordinary homes, the telephone, the gramophone, and not the least the radio, were being brought to the most remote parts of the world. The decade between 1920 and 1930 has been called ‘the age of total mechanization’, referring to the fact that each moment of daily life was becoming affected by a variety of technical inventions.

One attempt to interpret the time was made by Ernst Jünger (1895-1998). He coined the term ‘total mobilization’ in an attempt to describe the technological era. He used the concept of total mobilization to explain that since WWI, warfare was no longer a concern only for armies that fought their battles far away from ordinary life; but rather, war had become a battle for life and death for society as a whole for all the states involved.

Jünger’s technological doctrine resurrects conservative and collectivist values that return to ancient notions which stand in stark contrast to the Enlightenment’s individualist and universal view of humanity. He draws a deeply pessimistic picture of his time, in which ‘the new man’ makes himself not only the master of technology, but also, simultaneously, its slave.

Perhaps his most important work was The Worker (1932). It might be regarded as the political manifesto of modernity, and it came to be one of the strongest impulses to Martin Heidegger’s late philosophy of technology. It’s about the Industrial Revolution, the new ideal person as worker, and the relationship between the worker and technology. Jünger defines technology as ‘the mobilization of the world through the worker’s Gestell [framework]”. According to Jünger, individual technical objects are as inferior to the system as people themselves: both are simply means for this technique of mass production to express itself. Jünger asserts that it is only the technological world with its skilled ‘technified’ workers who survived the destruction of WWI, and the hopelessness of the post-war period.

The nineteenth century’s belief in progress is doomed to fail in a technological world characterized by total mobilization. Technology as a means of material progress is just one side of technology, the other side is its destructive potential for war. Jünger’s work points forward to the total mobilization of Germany through Nazism and fascism before the impending disaster of WWII.

More warnings of high-tech wars were to come; but it was only with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War and the realization that nuclear weapons threatened to destroy humanity that a critical evaluation of technology was taken more seriously. Awareness grew in the 1960s and 1970s in regards to the technological character of both the military and industrial complexes. Environmental protection, not least concerns about gene technology with the possibility of manipulating human nature, have also contributed to the spread of debates about technology. All of the above raise new, difficult questions for lawmakers and politicians alike. It was partly as a response to these demands that the Society for Philosophy and Technology was founded – a global organization for philosophy and technology where philosophers with different specializations meet for ‘cross- border’ discussions on various techno-philosophical themes.

The relationship between individuals and technology is yet another central question for the philosophy of technology. Many have tried to define what distinguishes humans from other creatures. Some emphasize the manufacturing of tools, others deny that this is unique to humans; some say it is abstract consciousness or the linguistic use of symbols which marks out humankind as different. Which view one holds depends to a large extent on one’s approach to technology. Those who see technology as essentially good tend to perceive humans as a manufacturer of tools. Those who see technology as a threat tend to emphasize consciousness or language. The debate is basically about whether humans first became self-aware then got up to use their hands to make tools; or instead, if they first got up and made tools, and then became self-aware. A third possibility would be to consider the uniqueness of humanity as a gradual process, in which humans and technology are essentially two elements of one dynamic and reciprocal, mutually-interacting system.

What is meant by ‘philosophy of technology’ is still not completely agreed upon. This is largely due to it is close proximity to other philosophical areas, such as philosophy of science, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. To engage in techno-philosophy therefore requires deep and broad philosophical insights, as we have seen.

© Dr Helena Moradi 2023

Helena Moradi is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative at Emory University School of Law, specializing in law and philosophy, with a particular focus on vulnerability theory. She obtained her first law degrees at Stockholm University and Humboldt University, and a PhD at Tsinghua University.

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