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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 225-226

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American Philosophy of Technology: The Empirical Turn. Edited by Hans Achterhuis, trans. Robert P. Crease. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Pp. ix+175. $49.95/$19.95.

"Classical" philosophy of technology, emerging to a large extent out of the postwar thinking of Martin Heidegger, is informed by the modernist view of physical reality. Arising from Bacon and Descartes, this modernist view sought the betterment of the human condition through the application of the scientific method and a consequent subjugation of nature to human will. Classical philosophy of technology marks this as a major turning point in human history and attempts to understand how applied science has transformed cultures and traditions. Classical philosophers of technology are thus interested in the historical and transcendental conditions necessary for the possibility of modern technology. They tend to see technology as an alien and monolithic force that treats nature as a resource for human utility and shapes social practices according to its own impersonal logic.

Roughly twenty years ago, dissatisfaction with this classical (and largely Europe-centered) approach led to what might termed an "empirical turn" within the philosophy of technology, and it is this turn that the volume under review seeks to illuminate. It is a small collection of essays by philosophers from Twente University in the Netherlands. These philosophers see great merit in the current work of various American philosophers of technology, who for them embody this empirical turn. In general, what distinguishes this contemporary approach from the classical view is that it concentrates more on concrete technological practices and less on the transcendental conditions underlying modern technology; instead of a monolithic Technology, the focus is on the development and impact of specific technologies. Technological development is viewed not as an impersonal force impinging on social practices but rather as a social practice in and of itself. [End Page 225]

Thus, the empirical turn in contemporary American philosophy of technology might be characterized as constructivist in nature. Another of its characteristics is its challenge to the classical assumption of the prevalence of the modernist view of nature as a mere resource. It rejects the rigid dualism of culture and nature, and even suggests that an appreciation of nature can be advanced through various technological advances. Lastly, contemporary American philosophy of technology refuses the nostalgic Heideggerian move of rejecting technology in favor of a purportedly more idyllic and premodern relationship between culture and nature. Instead, though it necessarily assumes a critical stance toward technological practices, American philosophy of technology seeks to understand contemporary technological culture so that more primordial human meanings can be derived from within it.

American Philosophy of Technology offers the reader profiles of four contemporary American philosophers of technology, Albert Borgmann, Hubert Dreyfus, Don Ihde, and Andrew Feenberg; the historian of science Donna Haraway; and the political scientist Langdon Winner. Borgmann, Dreyfus, and Ihde each come out of the same phenomenological tradition as Heidegger; Borgmann and Ihde both explore technology and its engagement with everyday life, and Dreyfus has made a name for himself as the chief philosophical critic of artificial intelligence. Feenberg, informed by a neo-Marxist perspective, inquires into the cultural and social possibilities opened up by technology. Haraway uses the concept of the cyborg (a bionic being that is part human, part robot) to investigate the blurring of boundaries and identity within technological culture. Winner delves into the moral and political implications of modern technologies, particularly those of the nuclear power plant.

This is a well-focused volume. It offers an overview of classical philosophy of technology, and then contrasts this with the contemporary approach that it seeks to highlight. Its essays are for the most part not critical; instead, each offers a brief biographical sketch, and identifies and traces out the development of the main themes within each figure's thought. Each is lucidly written by an author clearly at home with their subject, and each is accompanied by a useful bibliography. This makes the book not only an excellent primer for those seeking to do more substantial reading...


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