© Albert Borgmann and Figure/Ground Communications
Dr. Borgmann was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 16th, 2010
Albert Borgmann is an American philosopher, specializing in the philosophy of technology. He was born in Freiburg, Germany, and is a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana. He has an MA in literature from the University of Illinois (Urbana) and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Munich (Germany). Since 1970 he has taught at the University of Montana. His special area is the philosophy of society and culture with particular emphasis on technology. Among his publications are Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago Press, 1984), Crossing the Postmodern Divide (University of Chicago Press, 1992), Holding on to Reality: the Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (University of Chicago Press, 1999), Power Failure (2003), and Real American Ethics (2006).
You are originally from Freiburg, Germany. When did you move to the United States and what made you decide to settle down in Montana?
I first came here as a student in 1958, returned to Germany in 1961 to get my Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Munich, and returned to the United States for good in 1964.
Between 1964 and 1967 Nancy and I had moved four times and had ended up in Hawaii and with three daughters. They don’t call Hawaii paradise for nothing, but the lack of seasons, of snowy mountains, of open spaces, and of a reasonable distance to Germany made us, in 1970, move to Montana which has those things that Hawaii or at least Oahu is lacking. We were ready to settle down.
To what extent has your ‘throwness’ conditioned you to become a philosopher, being from Freiburg of all places?
My parents belonged to the Catholic intelligentsia of Freiburg and knew philosophers such as Max Müller and Bernhard Welte (a philosopher as much as a theologian) who in turn knew Heidegger. But thrownness and decision, environment and genes are interwoven in a texture that’s hard to unravel into causal factors…
Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) follows a Heideggerian viewpoint – but do you consider yourself a Heideggerian philosopher? Did you ever meet Heidegger?
I have learned crucial things from Heidegger and would never disavow my debt to him. But I have learned as much from John Rawls, and I admire him. Social justice, the plain style, how to structure a book, attention to the social sciences, a positive regard for the natural sciences in their own right — these are concerns I have tried to take from Rawls or have shared with him all along, things that Heidegger has ignored or disdained.
I corresponded with Heidegger when I was at the University of Hawaii and we invited him to a conference on “Heidegger and Eastern Thought.” I attended the lectures Heidegger gave while I was a student at the University of Freiburg in 1957-58. But I never met him in person.
How do you feel about TCCL 26 years after it first came out?
I got it basically right, but there were things that had to be developed more — communal celebrations, technology and religion, information technology, ethics and technology — and I have tried to deal with these topics in more detail elsewhere.
The program of classic philosophy of science — to provide a philosophical grounding for the natural sciences — has failed. Science studies as inspired by Bruno Latour are superficial where they’re not misguided. So serious philosophy of science today is a competent conversation with physics, biology, or psychology. Occasionally, philosophers of science actually contribute to the sciences themselves as Baas van Fraassen has done with his distinctive version of quantum mechanics. It’s a discipline I admire.
The big difference between philosophy of science and the philosophy of technology is that the former deals with accounts of reality that have a claim to adequacy or truth and in any case to explanatory power. That involves cognitive and theoretical norms. The latter deals with a complex social, cultural, and historical phenomenon where broadly moral norms are needed if chaos and aimlessness of inquiry are to be avoided. Attention to moral norms is penultimate or disingenuous if the step from description to prescription or from analysis to moral and cultural proposals is not taken.
Wikipedia provides the following list of contemporary philosophers with an interest in technology: Jean Baudrillard, Albert Borgmann, Andrew Feenberg, Langdon Winner, Donna Haraway, Avital Ronell, Don Ihde, Bruno Latour, Paul Levinson, Carl Mitcham, Leo Marx, Gilbert Simondon, Jacques Ellul and Bernard Stiegler. Is this list arbitrary? Do you feel more closely associated with some of these names than others?
Of the ones I am familiar with I would exclude Beaudrillard, Haraway, Latour, and Marx. Beaudrillard can be an astute and helpful observer of contemporary culture. But he throws out zingers that are either worthless or take a lot of work to develop. Haraway wrote a provocative essay, but she does not have a well-worked out philosophy of technology. I find Latour’s work mistaken or an unhelpful re-description of things that others have described already and better. Marx’s The Machine in the Garden is a wonderful book, a classic no doubt. But it’s really history rather than philosophy.
I think we need to add Paul Durbin whose activist philosophy of technology is distinctive and important – not to mention his surveys of the field. Larry Hickman too should be added: his Deweyan philosophy of technology is a unique and uniquely American contribution to the field. And finally Kristen Shrader-Frechette belongs on the list; her work on technology and risk and on technology and science is outstanding.
What would you say is the most fundamental difference between your own approach and Don Ihde’s or Andrew Feenberg’s to the study of technology? Have you ever collaborated with them?
I feel very close to them and have learned a lot from them though I have never collaborated with them. Don Ihde is clearly the master of the phenomenology of technology. Andrew Feenberg is the premier political philosopher of technology although he is well-versed in so many other areas that bear on our understanding of technology.
I think my work is less light-hearted than Ihde’s, less culturally circumspect and less accepting of methodological diversity and perhaps more concerned with theoretical rigor and normative conclusions.
As for Feenberg, he knows much more about political theory and is more optimistic about ordinary people’s ability to adapt technologies to morally significant concerns. It’s mostly a division of intellectual labor, however. I write more about the possibilities of celebration and religion than he does.
Your first book was actually Philosophy of Language: Historical Foundations and Contemporary Issues, published in 1977. What made you switch from the philosophy of language to the philosophy of technology?
Language and linguistics were areas I was familiar with. Philosophy of Language, moreover, was much en vogue at the time. I had a hard time getting a foothold in American philosophy. So I wrote what I knew. Arrogance and curiosity turned me to technology. I wanted to articulate our time in concepts as Hegel tells us to, and the phenomenon of technology seemed to provide the best access to that task.
Have you read Marshall McLuhan? Why do you think his name was excluded from the above-mentioned list?
I’ve read some of his work. Like Haraway, he’s provocative and at times even thought-provoking. But there’s a lot of gravel you have to sort through to get to the nuggets, much as is the case with Derrida’s writings. I’d rather read authors like Ihde and Feenberg who have taken the trouble to think things through.
What are you currently working on?
I’m interested in knowledge as a moral obligation. What should I know? That connects up with the problem of space in contemporary culture and the question, What can I know? when it comes to relativity and quantum theory. And that in turn connects with the question of how we can hope to orient ourselves in space today. I’m not sure, however, whether I can say something coherent and worth saying about all this. So I don’t think there’s a book in this.
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