S576: Technology and Contemporary Life
The Rhode Island School of Design, Wintersession 2003
Notes, January 17th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Technology and Technique

Introduction: What Philosophy Is (For)

In our discussion of the first several pages of Ellul yesterday, some of you were perhaps wondering what it is we're supposed to do with a text like this. Whether one is sympathetic with, puzzled by, or annoyed at Ellul, it's worth asking what might make the difficulty of the The Technological Society worth the time and effort necessary to understand it. In the case of Ellul's book, this question is not just about what makes difficult books worth the effort but about what we learn from studying philosophy as well.

For example, in discussing the question of whether technology is best considered from a neutralist/instrumental or from a substantive/deterministic perspective, what can we hope to accomplish? Won't we just expose or arrive at a variety of opinions, justified in a variety of ways, and be forced to stop there? Or is there something about the examination of the different opinions that might be worthwhile whether or not we are able to settle on an "answer"? In the first paragraph of his wonderful short book, The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wrote:

When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy -- for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer ... questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.

It is in this spirit that we should be reading Ellul, thinking as much about his questions, assumptions and arguments as about whether we happen to agree with his overall position. Indeed, by trying first to identify the questions that are bugging Ellul, and the beliefs which serve as the foundations for his arguments and analyses, we may arrive at a deeper understanding of The Technological Society independent of whether or not we agree with its author.

Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, chapters 1 & 2

Before turning to the presentation of chapter 2, let's work through some of the sections of chapter 1 and try to follow what each contributes to Ellul's view/argument. For each of the following, we should ask what question/objection/argument Ellul is trying to answer, and whether/how that answer follows from his overall view.

We'll now proceed to chapter 2, "The Characterology of Technique," and before today's class is over we can hopefully get some reactions to the idea of the "autonomy of technique," (pps. 133ff) and the following passage from earlier in the chapter:

Modern society is, in fact, conducted on the basis of purely technical considerations. But when men found themselves going counter to the human factor, they reintroduced -- and in an absurd way -- all manner of moral theories related to the rights of man, the League of Nations, liberty, justice. None of that has any more importance than the ruffled sunshade of MacCormick's first reaper. (p. 74)

For Next Time: Read chapters 4-6 of Ellul, and the Benjamin essay.

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© 2003 Roger B. Blumberg