Heidegger’s Technologies and Critical Theory for STS

I am looking for more critical theoretical strands in my research into science and technology studies. I have been mostly pleased with the socio-ecological work stemming from marxian traditions of thought, but I feel the question of technology has not been adequately addressed in these more “environmental” focused works.  So I have decided to look into Heideggarian theoretical work, namely the critique by Don Ihde, to search for some strands of thought which might elucidate a critical lens on technology.  Heidegger’s philosophy of technology is, although limited because of its historical context and inability to tackle the techno-sciences of the heavily technological world in which we are now situated in the 21st Century, is still tremendously important as it presents useful concepts.  And although Heidegger was a product of his surroundings, marked by his European/German hybridization of romanticism and technologization,  Ihde notes that this techno-romanticism changed by the time Heidegger wrote his work, ” The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) after he had gone through denazification and began again to publish with the help of his partner, Hannah Arendt.

To call Heidegger a philosopher of technology is to place him in a lineage of thinkers with Karl Marx who was perhaps one of the first (“philosophers” of technology), although not expressedly so. Ihde claims that Marx was a technological determinist, because he showed how material modes of production produced different types of social organization (I am not sure I agree that this is “determinist”, it seems more complicated, because we know Marx did not think that technology existed outside of the social, and instead it was an instrument of capital’s repressive and alienating forces, of a burgeoning economic culture).  Nevertheless, Heidegger was and still is well known for his philosophy of technology, for he presented a take that technology was not neutral, a common stance now taken in STS circles, but also that technology was much more than the material, it was important because of its “essence”. By this, Heidegger meant the anthropological-instrumental view of technology made us blind to its essence, that is,Technology is much more than a means to an end, it is a state of mind, an almost metaphysical stance. It is this view which made possible a vision of technology as something capable of being autonomous, a ruining/destructive force on humanity and nature, outside of our control.  And thus, following WWII, he had sort of confirmed that the war was never over, but rather, that technology was reinforcing its longer epoch on man, a threatening and dangerous existence to humanity strengthened through complexification, gigantism, and interlocking systems.  Now, this, I would argue is determinist!

Critical theorists like Adorno and Horkheimer were strong critics of Heidegger, whereas Arendt and Marcuse looked upon Heideggarian thought in a positive light and developed it further, while Habermas sort of remained ambivalently situated in the debate.  Many of the Frankfurt School had agreed that technology (modern and industrial, not traditional) threatened cultural values and encouraged “mass man” uniformity. Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man was highly critical of technology and its analytic rationality suggesting that it reduced humanity to “one dimension such that genuine freedom becomes nearly impossible…only rebellious freedom was possible” (Ihde 2010: 22-3).  The critical theorists of the Frankfurt school were more dystopic and pessimistic about the advancement of technology, because they understood it as being produced within the confines of a social structure that reinforced dominant power relations. Technologies were embedded with the social relations of production.

To take this is as starting point is beneficial because it grounds our concepts of technology and science within the material modes of production.  Therefore, the subsequent work can build on this, and reappropriate the vast literature on the cultural and empirical work in STS.  How can the “empirical turn” in STS, constructivism being central but also co-production, coupled with a materialist marixian perspective shape a new way of thinking about the developments of science and technology in a critical way? When we tease apart, unmask, or ‘open the black box’, can we reveal the innerworkings of the capitalist system? Or does the focus on cultures, values, and imaginaries distract us from asking deeper questions about the underlying social relations and inequalities that exist? How can we rethink the confluence of science, technology, and democracy with a critical STS?


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  1. dmfant

    my early studies with Ihde, Ed Casey and co. @SUNY StonyBrook, eventually lead me thru STS to Hubert Dreyfus & Richard Rorty and eventually to Paul Rabinow and ANTers like Mol and Law:

  2. anthony

    Wow! That’s a terrific resource. Thanks! What did you gain from Rorty? I have never read Rorty nor Dreyfus, although they are pretty contemporary thinkers, I instead went straight into ANT, Foucault, Marx, etc. I am reading Deleuze and Guattari now as well. Not sure all of this is meshing well though…

  3. dmfant

    Rorty gave me an appreciation of aspects of pragmatism like contingency, a Kuhnian reading of Donald Davidson’s work on metaphors and the beginnings of a model of individuation/sublimation of our anxieties of influence and blind-impresses, and an all-too-human anthropology, pace Heidegger, that we are always already manipulating (people,things,etc, as we are as Stanley Fish diagnoses homo rhetoricus , akin to Stengers’ emphasis on “interests” and suggest-ability) , Rorty had an unjustified faith in reading/literature and Dreyfus had started very important work against cognitive-behavioral psychologies/anthropologies that is now being done better by enactivist-minded folks Alva Noe
    I don’t find anything really useful in D&G tho I appreciate the thrust of much of Guatarri’s solo work minus his Romantic flights of fancy, Bifo’s book on his (and our) depression is quite good I think.
    Annemarie Mol’s book on bodies is terrific and I’m a big fan of John Law&co as they (like Paul Rabinow whois reworking John Dewey for our times after his work with Dreyfus/Foucault) are mapping out who is doing what to whom and under what circumstances and really what more is there that isn’t science-fiction but is graspable given our limitations?

  4. anthony

    Thanks for the link! I will read soon!

    Pragmatist trends are often, and truly quite importantly, included in planning theory. For example John Forrester’s book (http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=TFkZE6ia6mkC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=planning+theory+pragmatism&ots=sIkmn4TABm&sig=HRAPHVIrZfFcWGrKv8-TFF5y1zU#v=onepage&q=planning%20theory%20pragmatism&f=false) This tradition is in stark contrast to the “modernist” efforts of allowing expert knowledges shape the built environment, causing quite disastrous effects. It echoes much from the concepts like contingency, and local or practical knowledges ( I think we often get it through the anthropologies of metis by James Scott). The idea is that planning theory is directly related to practice, yet we often get disjunctures there. The Alva Noe route I think is a really interesting way to highlight to importance of local knowledges, and the way we think about what is legitimate knowledge, and a fresh take on concepts.

    I find D&G interesting when I attempt to think through democratic theories in relation to the state and capital. They offer a great analysis of how these systems can encage our capacities for actually working for ourselves, or in other words, a view of freedom and truly democratic life.

    Bifo is awesome! And for, Paul Rabinow I am limited to his thoughts on Foucault. I have to dig more! My past engineering education did not get me into philosophy/social theory/political theory/etc. early enough!

  5. dmfant

    thanks will check out the Forrester, another pragmatist thinker I enjoy is Richard Sennett who of course has done much work on cities. Don’t know what kind of library access you have but if you can check out;

  6. dmfant


  7. anthony

    Thanks again! There are some people in the energy world who do some research on practices, and I think one great example is Elizabeth Shove. http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/sociology/profiles/elizabeth-shove

    And the first chapter of her book http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/47628_Shove.pdf

    Just got the Turner book from the library. Thanks!

    Practice theory is an interesting route to thinking about urban sustainability issues and energy issues. I wonder how I can weave this in with my current research on energy infrastructures and their sort of determinant force on how we can consume energy. Shove gets at this question, but I think we could scale up from the building to the city….

  8. dmfant

    would be very interested to hear what you make of Turner, if we think in terms of assemblages than scaling up can happen without losing concreteness/specificity. for a mix of speculation&assemblages see:

  9. anthony

    Delanda is a serious deleuzian, no? I’m excited to get through some of those lectures. I’m interested in seeing how assemblage theory mixes with urban theories, and there has been some work in this area for sure. For example: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415486620/

    I will get back to you about Turner. Book should be ready to pickup in a few days….

  10. dmfant

    Delanda split the Deleuzian scene a while back but his roots are clear

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