© Don Ihde and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. Ihde was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on September 4th, 2010.
Don Ihde is a philosopher of science and technology, and a post-phenomenologist. In 1979 he wrote what is often identified as the first North American work on philosophy of technology,Technics and Praxis. Ihde is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Ihde is the author of twenty original books and the editor of many others. Recent examples include Chasing Technoscience (2003), edited with Evan Selinger; Bodies in Technology (2002); Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science (1998); and Postphenomenology (1993). His most recent book is Heidegger’s Technologies: Postphenomenological Perspectives (Fordham, 2010). Ihde lectures and gives seminars internationally and some of his books and articles have been appeared in a dozen languages.
How did you decide to become a university professor, who were some of your mentors in graduate school, and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
The picture predicting what I would become in my high school yearbook was that of a professor! As a one room elementary school student, I fell in love with evolution (in Kansas, and for way back when one could both be religious and scientific, compared to today’s religious right with evolution and global warming doubters). And as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, I was a speech and drama major/ philosophy minor. As for graduate schools, I began thinking I would be a philosophical theologian and studied under Paul Tillich while doing my M.Div at Andover Newton (Tillich was at Harvard, but our consortium allowed us to take courses in a number of theological schools), but by the time I was doing my Ph.D. at Boston University, theology had already begun to fade in favour of philosophy. My mentors were quite diverse, including Tillich and Harvey Cox early, and George Berry, a Quine student, from whom I took philosophy of language and many analytic seminars on Quine, Goodman, et.al., John Lavely, mostly a history of philosophy guy but who turned me onto Paul Ricoeur, who became my dissertation figure, to Erazim Kohak with his phenomenology and Husserl t-shirts. In those days (late 50’s-mid 60’s) existentialism-phenomenology was largely underground and minoritarian, but that appealed to me while recognizing that I had better do the analytic stuff as well. Many of my earliest articles were analytic-phenomenology comparisons, often around language/perception themes. During graduate schools, I was a chaplain at MIT and in that setting met many leading technologists – and Bert Dreyfus, then an instructor there – although I was not yet thinking ‘philosophy of technology.’
What makes a good teacher today? How do you command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Frankly, I have not taught undergraduate courses now for a dozen years, but by the end of that time I found one needed to co-opt what the internet offered and so I often assigned collaborative projects with groups doing presentations. And, given the phenomenological predilection towards perception over cognition, my lectures always included lots of visuals and concrete examples as you know from reading Experimental Phenomenology. Today, however, in the research seminar the process remains collaborative with every participant presenting and with lots of discussion and critique—which also includes the roasts you refer to below. I largely now serve as chief critic, commentator and discussant in the seminars. The seminar has produced a whole spectrum of techno-science studies “empirical turn” case studies which then get presented at such meetings as the Society for Social Studies of Science, the Society for Phenomenology and Human Sciences, the Society for Philosophy and Technology, etc. with many published in STS type journals. Human Studies also published five of these in a special issue on post-phenomenological research in 2008. The group, most of whom have spent short or longer times in the seminar, now numbers roughly fifty people and with five years of presentations at least that many studies. We hope soon to have a series which publishes the results.
I read and enjoyed many of your books: Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction (1986), Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (1990), Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction (1993), and Bodies in Technology (2002); however, I must say that Technics and Praxis (1979) remains, in my opinion, your masterpiece. It’s been more than 30 years since it first came out, and many of its insights continue to be as valid today as they were back then. Furthermore, it is often identified as the first North American work on philosophy of technology. I know it’s hard to reflect upon one’s own work, but how do you feel about Technics and Praxis looking back in light of subsequent changes in information technology effected by the Internet. Are there sections of T&P that need to be revised and updated in order to reflect the technological environments we dwell in today?
Technics and Praxis did start if off, and I am gratified that you have read so many of my books, but as you will see below, my 20th has just been published so there are quite a few more awaiting you! I do think Technology and the Lifeworld updated and made more systematic whatever insights were budding in Technics and Praxis, but more recently I have done a lot more ‘case studies’ and these may be found in such little books as Ironic Technics (2008), and Embodied Technics (2010). Do I think updates are called for? Definitely, I believe that technological time tends to move much faster than philosophical time, but especially in philosophy of technology one needs to modify and update all along — I argue this explicitly in my latest book, but have also argued in many places that I think philosophers of technology should situate themselves at the “ R&D” (research and development) stage rather than at the already-in-place or applied stages. For example, the current developments of the micro-worlds of “nano/info/bio/and imaging” technologies are very different than the macro-technologies of the early industrial developments in spite of the fact that these latter still remain in place. Heidegger, to my mind, remains caught in the latter model of technology.
How would you define the concept of “technological realism” in a nutshell? How is this notion different from the idea of media-as-environments put forth by media ecologists?
At the core of my style of analysis there is an inter-relational or interactive ontology. It owes its origins to earlier phenomenology, intentionality in Husserl and being-in-the-world in Heidegger, but in post-phenomenology I have tried to entirely escape subjectification or the Cartesian, subject-object thought of early modernity. Many contemporary commentators and critics see it as complementary to, but different from Latour’s actor-network-theory and there have been a number of workshops on precisely this comparison (in Rotterdam, Manchester UK, Arlington VA, for example). We make our technologies, which also make us—inter-relationally. This realism is dynamic, ever changing, but there are slower and faster aspects to it. As for media as environments, yes, I accept that, but media is only one dimension of the larger and more diverse set of technologies as environments. In science, for example, the revolution of contemporary imaging technologies has transformed virtually all the frontier sciences just since the mid-20th century. I hope to systematically address this in a forthcoming book.
Last June, you were invited to the 11th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association as a distinguished speaker, yet McLuhan is rarely mentioned in your works – or in that of other philosophers of technology, such as Andrew Feenberg, Albert Borgmann, or Michael Heim. The following question was drafted by Professor Lance Strate: “what are your assessments of Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong – have your views about them changed over the past couple of decades?”
Here is where I will have to turn to the books (and articles) which you—and maybe Lance—have not read. I do cite both Ong and McLuhan in my earlier Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound (second edition, SUNY 2007) and Feenberg, Borgmann and even Heim in many of the genre reviews I do as articles. I have done about half a dozen of these relating to philosophy of technology, a few less for philosophy of science and these have appeared in journals such as Philosophy of Science, Continental Philosophy Review, and in quite a few both Asian and European sources. Now, as for assessments: in my earliest courses on philosophy of technology I always used Mumford’s Technics and Civilization and still think this is a landmark book on the history and development of technology. But today it is outdated and his later works lapsed into the dystopianism which characterizes so much early philosophy of technology and which I reject. On McLuhan, I would echo both Borgmann and Feenberg in your interviews — interesting, popular, but ultimately somewhat superficial. His “hot” and “cold” media notions I consider foolish — he needed to do a much more rigorous phenomenology. Walter Ong I did read well and met him a few times. I early followed his oral/literary culture distinctions, but later rejected these (probably after absorbing some Derrida—and Foucault). My views have changed and currently I am engaged with a rather intense investigation into the history and phenomenology of writing technologies, only a few results of which have been published to date. Today, I would see myself much closer to someone like Peter Galison who holds that there are subcultures of ‘imagers’ and ‘logicians’ within contemporary physics, but which styles I see all the way back to the Ice Ages whose pictures and artefacts I myself have seen and studied. While Ong was certainly correct in noting that not all cultures developed writing in the narrow sense of transforming speech into script, none were without ‘inscriptions’ or writing in the broader sense.
Let’s move on. Wikipedia portrays you as a philosopher of science and technology as well as a “post-phenomenologist.” I personally always thought that you were a scholar who applied the phenomenological method of Edmund Husserl et al. to come up with your own brand of philosophy of technology. I am aware that you recently wrote a book entitled “Post-phenomenology,” which in all honesty I haven’t read; but I guess the term “post-phenomenologist” threw me off a little, because it suggests that you are above and beyond phenomenology – much like post-structuralism claims to be above and beyond phenomenology. Since you clearly aren’t a post-structuralist, what exactly is post-phenomenology, and where do you see yourself in the tradition?
You are far from alone in not liking “postphenomenology” as a description of my style of analysis. Most of my older European friends also dislike it for the same reasons you cite—but fortunately a lot of my younger European (and more recently Asian) friends now like it. In addition to the first book with this title, Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context (1993), more recently after being invited to give a series of lectures specifically on postphenomenology which was considered to be up-to-date at Peking University in China, I published these specifically as a sort of introduction to postphenomenology, Postphenomenology and Technoscience (SUNY 2009)—although they were also published in Chinese already in 2008 and are today frequently used as a text in their philosophy of technology courses. As I conceive postphenomenology, it combines much non-foundational pragmatism along with an acceptance of empirical turn, case studies or concrete studies from science studies practices. I debated a terminology but pragmato-phenomenology seemed simply too clumsy. Post, while for some containing a seeming arrogance as you hint, is more like past (early) phenomenology. I do not consider myself ‘above’ phenomenology, but I do consider postphenomenology to be ‘past’ and different than classical phenomenology as a development from phenomenology. Besides, I do not see why one has to forever reverence the godfathers—surely there can be developments past classical phenomenology and postphenomenology is but one. Too much of so-called continental philosophy acts as if the last words were said by the godfathers, but surely there can be development in new directions? Some would ‘naturalize’ phenomenology, others do ‘heterophenomenology,’ so I do postphenomenology. I certainly acknowledge my debts to Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty—and also the hermeneutic traditions which add Gadamer and Ricoeur to the tradition. But I am also critical of the ‘subjectivism’ associated with Husserl, the ‘romanticism’ associated with Heidegger, and the ‘lingusticism’ associated with the hermeneuts. Moreover, philosophy of technology—better technoscience studies in my term—must be sensitive to materiality. Husserl had very little to say about technologies; Heidegger had lots to say but retained a nostalgic romanticism over simple technologies; and Merleau-Ponty, often insightful, usually was indirect about technologies. Evan Selinger and I pointed this out in our Chasing Technoscience (2003). By now, however, it is too late to change the terminology since there is now a growing body of work discussing postphenomenology and its notions of embodiment, multistability, technological trajectories and the like. I should also reference Peter Paul Verbeek here, since he has done the most by way of publications which compare and develop postphenomenology vis-à-vis classical phenomenology. And today more philosophers, such as Kyle Whyte and Robert Rosenberger, are sharpening the notions of postphenomenology. Finally, Selinger’s Postphenomenology: A Critical Companion to Ihde (2006) with its 19 critic-authors (including Feenberg, Borgmann, Galison, Haraway, et. al. ) shows much more about the development of postphenomenology.
You are the director of a seminar called the Techno-science Research Group, offered by the Philosophy Department at State University of New York at Stony Brook. The seminar examines cutting-edge work in the fields of the philosophies of science and technology, and science studies; it also emphasizes the roles of our material cultures. The interesting thing about it is that participants read only living authors (Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Ian Hacking, Andrew Pickering, Sandra Harding, etc.), and then occasionally you invite other authors for a “roast.” Past “roastees” have included Peter Galison, Hubert Dreyfus, Albert Borgmann, Andrew Feenberg, and Harry Collins. This is clearly a brilliant idea; however, I’m curious as to the requirements to register in such course: is it possible to understand somebody like Dreyfus, Feenberg or Borgmann without mastering Husserl, Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty?
Here I think you need to think about the concrete context of my seminar. In answer to: can thinkers such as Dreyfus, Feenberg, et.al. be understood without their godfathers—not fully of course. But, how fully does one go back, can you understand the godfathers without their godfathers (Kant, Hegel, early Moderns)? It becomes an historical infinite regress. Again, there is a deep tendency in what I call generic continentalism to be conservative—historically, in terms of giant figures, textually a canon of reverence texts—and one of the attributes of pragmatism I admire is it willingness to be experimental. But, since the technoscience group takes place at Stony Brook one has to look at what else is going on. Ours is dominantly a ‘continental’ department and every year there are courses on Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and add a plethora of others. Now actually – with a few exceptions such as some living contemporary feminists – all these figures are dead white males! But they are studied at least by the philosophy grads who dominate my seminar. So they are not reading Borgmann, Dreyfus et.al without context. My contemporaneity is thus just a contrast to the dominant historical-textual approach of the other seminars.
Beyond the obvious fact that participants get a chance to learn from experienced scholars of the highest calibre, are there other reasons to emphasize the study of living authors in your seminar? Are you of the opinion that philosophy and history should be studied backwards to put things into a different perspective, perhaps?
One of my purposes is to give the ‘feel’ for a developing, contemporary discipline. Science studies, in my case, technoscience studies, comes from the burgeoning new sociologies, anthropologies, feminisms—and here philosophies which began to look at science—and technoscience—as a set of practices. This harks back, as you recognize, to Technics and Praxis where I claim philosophy of technology owes more to the praxis approaches than the epistemological ones favored in early 20th century philosophy of science which was mostly analytic/positivist. Another earlier book, Consequences of Phenomenology (1986), pointed out that the secondary style characteristics of analytic philosophies included what I called “horizontal” citations. That is, within a debate discussion, these philosophers cited contemporaries as part of the “conversation” Rorty would have said; whereas continental philosophers cite ‘vertically’, mostly back to the godfathers. Thus this style favors giants and what I call “reverence texts.” I guess I am a contrarian, but harking back to those early analytic habits of wanting to deal with problems [now case studies] in a contemporary setting, and to thereby include collaboratively peers and others who are interested in the same problems. But, of course, I include histories, albeit ‘phenomenological histories.’ In many of my most recent studies, I often take technologies back to very early origins—with multistability in technologies which use bow-under-tension processes (archery, musical instruments, other tools) I go back 22,000+ years. Similarly with writing technologies, it is necessary to go back at least to the Ice Ages. But the emphasis of the historical analysis is to understand how these technologies were embodied in practices.
The following question was drafted by Andrew Feenberg himself: “What do you think is the relation between the rational aspect of technology (the scientific side) and the cultural aspect (the meanings technologies take on in everyday life)?
One of the most delightful experiences I have had as a philosopher of technology over more than three decades, has been the to engage in interesting discussions and debates with others, especially Andy, Albert, Bert and many, many more. Andy and I are often very close to agreements; for example, I think we are both inter-culturally sensitive, appreciate what I call multi-stabilities, and look at concrete cases. But I will admit, he is more sensitive to the political and maybe the social dimensions than I am, and his chosen framework deriving from Critical Theory differs from mine from a more interpretive strand of hermeneutics. Thus, I have to say, that I cannot well relate to his association of ‘rationality’ as a scientific side of technologies compared to the cultural or hermeneutic, lifeworld side. That is probably because I am much more involved with the postmodern critique of science than he is. We both draw from what he calls the social constructionism of the new sociologies, but I think I draw different lessons and reject more deeply the older theory-bias of classical philosophy of science which touts ‘rationality.’ In my book, Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science (1998), I deeply attack what I call the Diltheyan Divide which sees natural science operating under one set of methods, and humanities and the social sciences another. Rather, I try to show that all science, including natural science, is hermeneutic [critically interpretive] all the way down. Here, interestingly, I am probably close to Evelyn Fox-Keller, another of our roastees, who sees metaphor in science as all the way down. Are we post enlightenment? I think we are more so than does Andy. Again referencing my book on science’s visualism, I argue that too many continentally inspired thinkers simply ceded to both Dilthey and the positivists a certain view of scientific rationality which more contemporary science studies now calls into question. Science today is a very different animal than it was even in the 19th century. This very semester the theme of the techno-science seminar is “broken, abandoned, forgotten technologies,” and our first case study is that of the cancellation of the Super Collider, the biggest and most expensive physics instrument in history (today ‘replaced’ by the Hadron collider at CERN, but which has yet to fully function). Here, too, is an example which shows how embedded Big Science is in all the politics, economics and even internal science jealousies, that plague today’s techno-world. Thus unlike either Husserl-Merleau Ponty on one side, or Willfred Sellars on the other, I do not see a vast distinction between science in practice and the life-world—both today are the complex inter-involved processes which cannot be separated.
What are you currently working on?
My latest book, Heidegger’s Technologies: Postphenomenological Perspectives just came out last week. In Euro-American philosophy of technology, one simply cannot avoid dealing with Heidegger as Borgmann, Feenberg, and Dreyfus know so well, too. My take, however, is more critical and I now feel Heidegger has been surpassed by the rapid and different technologies of today. In a long introduction, I try to situate Heidegger in his historical context and then in six increasingly critical chapters I try to show how his approach has limited contemporary relevance and why today’s philosophers of technology need to more deeply address the emerging technologies now that are inter-relationally more involved with the shaping of human being. I am now ambiguously approaching retirement, but I have two larger and continuing projects which will eventually become books. First, I have now for more than a decade deeply studied imaging technologies, primarily as they are used in science, but also in media, entertainment and cultural practices. I contend that contemporary imaging technologies are radically different than older, historical imaging and this has resulted in a ‘second scientific revolution’ which is unfolding even now. Only since the very end of the 19th,with the invention of x-ray imaging, but dominantly in the 20th-21st centuries, has imaging been capable of far exceeding our bodily perceptual capacities, which now combined with computational technologies such as computer tomography, makes the active construction of imaging more powerful than ever before. I have already published a score or more of articles about this but need a book which I am tentatively calling Imaging Technologies: Plato upside down. Indeed, except for two concluding chapters, I have most of a draft for this project. A second project is related to the first, it is the development of what I call material hermeneutics. It takes what I have learned from scientific imaging and raises the question: what if the humanities and the social sciences began to use these technologies to deal with the kinds of questions these disciplines ask? My contention is that there would be dramatic change involved. I argue that humanistic and social science disciplines are too ‘linguistico-centric,’ and need to more attend to materiality (one can again detect here the phenomenological tendency to emphasize perception and embodiment over cognition and propositions). Again, there are a number of my articles out there on this topic, but it is not yet a systematic book. Finally, I also intend to produce a number of smaller studies which elaborate on the key notions in postphenomenology which will include a new and enlarged edition of Experimental Phenomenology with chapters on embodiment and multistability in technologies as more material and concrete versions of the visual examples in the first edition.
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