The Conversion of Nature and Technology (4)

This is the fourth in a series of five posts under the same title—a series consisting of a short text I wrote and published more than forty years ago. For more information, see the opening of the first post in the series.

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Nature, which, in the mythico-religious attitude, was manifest as the dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable, and which, in the theoretical attitude, is reduced to a mediator between man and the metaphysical, becomes further dislocated with the transformation to the technological attitude. Under the technological attitude the whole of nature (including man, insofar as he is conceived to belong to nature) for the first time becomes manifest as a field open to human organization and control. Nature appears as in principle subject to mastery, and science and technology become the means of establishing man's dominion over nature—the goal already clearly envisioned by Descartes. Knowledge becomes the means for achieving mastery; knowledge, that is, becomes technological. Nature, in turn, is to be known in order to be controlled.

Even under the theoretical attitude (the reign of the metaphysical) nature could never have been dislocated to the level of a manipulable field, and knowledge could never have been dislocated to the level of technology. In the theoretical attitude nature, either as the mediator between man and the metaphysical, or as the fall of man from the metaphysical, retained the dignity of something alien to, and frequently overpoweringly greater than, man. Though it had lost its place as the primary dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable, nature remained in a definitive relationship to that dimension, regardless of whether the relationship was conceived positively (as mediation) or negatively (as fall and temptation). Thus, although “knowledge” no longer meant the practical “knowing-one's-way-about-in-the-world” of the mythico-religious attitude, it could not yet mean “knowing how to direct the energies of nature to the accomplishment of goals set by man himself.” Instead, knowledge of nature meant knowing the paths that led through or around nature [physis] to the meta-physical.

In the technological attitude, however, nature loses its definitive relationship to the dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable. Indeed, that entire dimension itself now seems to be lost. Knowledge becomes technology; nature becomes the field for the development and exercise of technology; and the metaphysical comes to be revealed as a hollow idol. Thus, neither man, who employs technology, nor nature, which suffers technological organization, nor the metaphysical, which has been banished from the technological world, can any longer wear the mantle of that which sustains, permeates, and yet threatens man. Man appears to be set adrift, cut loose from his moorings in the dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable. Man is delivered over to alienation, anguish, and nihilism.

Today, of course, a century after Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky , such reflections appear platitudinous. Nevertheless, they are still true, and troubling, since man still seems adrift. No new, secure harbor has yet been found, though many have been, and are being, sought.

Perhaps the reason that no safe harbor has yet been found is that man has not yet been at sea long enough. That is, perhaps he has not yet learned the currents and moods of the new sea well enough to make his way from port to port. Man, when he was still on land, before he was set adrift, had constantly to learn and relearn the lay of the land, and the rites of passage from land to land (passage which sometimes led even over the sea), before he could find himself at home. Perhaps now, when man is no longer given to the land, it is necessary to learn the sea itself and the rites of passage over the sea (passage which might sometimes lead even over the land), before he can again be at home. If wisdom once consisted of never venturing too far from the sight of land, perhaps now wisdom consists of recognizing that no shore truly offers hospitality and habitude, but only, at best, tolerates temporary expeditionary excursions. Perhaps wisdom today consists of never giving one's heart entirely to the land, but remaining true to the sea itself.

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To be continued.