by James Beauregard
Recently, I have been thinking about the question of technology from the personalist perspective, having given presentations in Madrid, Spain at the Spanish Personalist Association this past May and most recently in York, England at the British Personalist Forum, my first foray into the world of Skype presentation. A comment that I made on both occasions was that personalism has typically not given extended consideration to the issue of technology as it is lived in contemporary society.
During the 1920s, German Personalist Romano Guardini traveled periodically back to the land of his birth in northeastern Italy, and during his time at the Italian Great Lakes he composed a series of letters, first published individually, then collected into the book Letters from Lake Como. The letters are a reflection on both the advancement of technology and the human condition. Living in industrialized Germany as he had since a very young age, Guardini was struck again and again by the comparatively rural and agrarian Italian countryside. Nevertheless, technology was clearly making inroads and he noticed without a little dismay the presence of factories that, in his opinion, marred the Italian skyline.
For Guardini, technology is both a useful tool, but also something that separates us from the natural world. Early in the book, he gives the example of a sailing ship, which he observed not infrequently on Lake Como as an example of how sails harnessed the power of nature; at the same time, he saw the beautiful lines of sailing vessels as, to some extent, separating persons from the natural world of water and wind – the bigger the ship, the greater the separation. Ultimately, his view of technology is a positive, and he exhorts the reader to rise to the occasion of our own abilities so that we remain their master and not their servant.
The contemporary Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák, in his book The Embers and The Stars, also engages in a sustained reflection on the relationship between ourselves and the technology we create. While Guardini knew a world of radio and cinema, automobiles and trains, Kohák wrote some five decades later, in a far more advanced technological society. His book, published in the late 70s. Thus, Kohak’s work predates the Internet of Things. Both authors, however, speak to the danger of dehumanization that technology presents. Kohák, like Guardini before him, is quite clear that technē is a fundamentally human activity, one that has reduced many of the burdens carried by persons in previous ages. At the same time, with British Personalist John Macmurray, he traces the long philosophical process by which Western societies’ root metaphors change. The medieval world, even with its philosophical and theological focus on God, was more person centered. With the Renaissance and the beginnings of the scientific revolution came new ways of thinking about persons and about technology. While Macmurray employees as metaphors in a very practical manner, Kohák is much more explicit about our metaphorical use of language; indeed, his book proceeds largely through successive and recurrent metaphors.
Macmurray traced the development and change in our root metaphors from the foundations of the scientific revolution, beginning in the domain of physics, in which the foundational metaphor became the material in the mechanical, matter and motion or as Kohák terms it, matter propelled by blind force. The Newtonian vision still holds sway in many aspects of the sciences today, and in the wider culture, at least in the way popular thought is expressed. The organic or biological metaphor came to the center of scientific and philosophical thought during the 19th-century, largely thanks to the work of Charles Darwin. Biology became the root metaphor and human beings are spoken of as organisms. The metaphor expanded into thinking about community, and evolutionary concepts were brought into play not only to address human evolution, but the evolution of societies as well.
These metaphors continue to hold central place in biology and in contemporary evolutionary theory. If anything, they have become more and more complex in recent decades. The study of evolution, both of the human race and of societies has on the one hand been enriched, though on the other limited, by advances in biology in the second half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. Evolutionary thinking has become multidisciplinary, and has encompassed the disciplines of population genetics, epi-genetics, biochemistry, embryology, and the more recent advances of Molecular genetics.
We start to run into problems, though, when we sallow these metaphors to stand for our grasp of the whole of reality when in fact they are a part. Useful in this context is Husserl’s sense of regional ontologies, deliberately circumscribed world views and methodologies in the specific sciences whose purpose is the generation of knowledge and understanding about the way the world works. But there is a problem here. Historically, however, the regional ontology of science has come to be mistakenly seen as a general ontology, the parts mistaken for the whole. One of Macmurray’s vital insights came in tracing this development through the modern philosophical era, from the mechanical to the organic, and to recognize that we had been stuck in the metaphor of the organic since the 1800’s. Contemporary science continues to attempt to explain persons from the bottom up, employing material and biological metaphors and assuming they are sufficient to capture the whole of what it means to be a person. The process, however, involves an inherent contradiction. It is only as persons, as Macmurray recognized, that we can speak of the organic and the material via a process of subtraction and abstraction. Both Macmurray and Kohák understand that is only from the root metaphor of persons, rather than matter and biology that we can understand ourselves, others and the world.
Over the next few months, when it's my turn in the BPF blog, I will be taking a closer look at Guardini’s letters. He is read more in Europe than in the English-speaking world, where he is a less appreciated personal list; nevertheless, I think he has some insights to offer to us as we think about the rapid advancement of technology and its impact on the human condition. I will be taking a closer look in the months ahead at each of his "letters" to see what we might glean from them in terms of our contemporary relationship with technology, and to see how they might be brought into conversation with more recent thinking and the philosophy of technology and with personal is him. I invite you to join in the conversation.
James Beauregard is a practicing neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Psy.D. program at Rivier University, Nashua New Hampshire. His philosophical interests include European personalism and the conversation between it and Anglo-American personalism, philosophy of technology and the work of personalists John Macmurray, Juan Manuel Burgos and of, Erazim Kohák. He has coedited, with Simon "mad dog" Smith, the recent book, In the Sphere of the Personal (Vernon Press, 2016).