The Conversion of Nature and Technology (5)

This is the last 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 was once the dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable. Nature is no longer that dimension, and metaphysical substitutes for nature have proved unreliable. Is it true, then, that the entire dimension has now vanished? Not at all. If neither man, nor nature, nor the metaphysical can any longer pose as such a dimension, then what is left? What is left is precisely the network of relationships between man, nature, and the metaphysical. What is left, that is, is technology itself.

Today, technology is the dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable. It is ineluctable : No one who has once been touched by it can ever return entirely from it. Any such “return” would have to be accomplished through technological means themselves (perhaps I can take a jet to some wilderness area). A “return” to the pre-technological would only be possible if it were possible to eradicate any memory of the very motives which activated the efforts to return; but such self-induced amnesia would not be a “return” or “retrieval” in anything more than the most empty, external sense.

Technology is ineluctable. Insofar as it is ineluctable, it is also sustaining. It is both the glue that binds the individual to his society, to other societies, to physical nature, and even to himself, and the tension that keeps the individual from vanishing into others, nature, or even himself.

Finally, technology today obviously possesses the threateningly over-whelming visage that once belonged to nature. As energy crises, pollution, and the whole litany of the problems of contemporary society testify, technology constantly and everywhere threatens to turn a malevolent face toward man.

If it is true that modern technology has become the dimension which nature once was, then the threat implicit in technology is nothing that can be remedied and controlled through further technological advance: the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable is in principle beyond man's dominion, beyond control. If technology is such a dimension, then what is primarily at issue today is not to discover new ways to “direct” technology, so that it may be harnessed for non-technological ends. Rather, what is needed is the creation of institutions that mediate between man and technology, just as institutions once mediated between man and nature, or man and the metaphysical. The solution to the contemporary crisis of man lies neither in the development of new technological refinements, nor in a return to pre-technological ways of life, but in a fearful respect of technology, similar to the wary, fearful respect which so-called “primitive” peoples must show toward nature; and insofar as phenomenology takes as its task the description of the technological dimension of the life-world, it will help to generate such respect. Precisely as the description of technology, phenomenology itself is an “institution” which mediates between man and the dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable.

At least ever since Socrates described the philosopher as the gadfly at the neck of society, the projection of what “might be” from the analysis of “what is”—that is, the critical description of “what is”—has been one of the definitive tasks of philosophy. Just such a task is also definitive for phenomenology, even and especially for phenomenology as Husserl conceived it, provided that one is careful not to confuse the philosophical projection of “what might be” (which projection is nothing but the description of “what is” itself) with any kind of prophecy or prediction. Essential to philosophy in general, and to phenomenology in particular is the projection or philosophical “vision” of what might be, and the criticism of what is, through that projection. Everything depends, however, on just how this projection is accomplished. Phenomenology can live up to its task only if the “possibilities” which it “projects” not only derive from, but also return to, the phenomenological description of what is. In this sense, any adequate phenomenology must be “concrete.” Otherwise, any proffered “projection” or “vision” is really just another device whereby the present vanquishes the future. At the level of a legitimate phenomenological “vision,” the distinction between “theory” and “practice” must break down, insofar as such a “vision” is a projection of concrete possibilities which become visible through a phenomenological analysis of contemporary “reality,” which itself always belongs, as Husserl himself saw, to the “life of the spirit.”* Here, a “vision” is anything but an empty playing with purely formal possibilities. It is, instead, a concrete projection from what we are to that which what we are promises us to be. Any such “vision,” then, already contains an outline for its own “realization”—indeed, already is its own realization. The life of the spirit and its correlative “reality” are only intentionally; that is, in principle, what they both “are now” is a reference and assignment to that which, insofar as the reference remains and is taken up by man (by the “spirit” itself), they “are to become.” 


* Husserl, Crisis, p. 299.