Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hope for the future

The Nature of Knowledge and the Philosophy of Technology

The post this week is a reflection of chapter one in 'Questioning Technology' by Andrew Feenberg. However it is deeply interwoven with the thoughts of Gadamer and my emerging notions of epistemological and ontological understanding. There is no running away from Gadamer now and there is no running away from my questions on teaching and learning. What is learning for? What is schooling for? Why do we teach? What is this nature of knowledge if we place it within a technological framework? When I say learning I mean purpose driven learning not memorization.
In this chapter Feenberg is really just sketching the main themes he intends to address in the book as a whole. However the chapter gradually brings in to focus in my mind that which was very much outside of my awareness just a short 7 months ago. I say gradually because nothing is sharply focused yet. Not long ago I remember saying out loud 'Technology has a philosophy?' Well doesn't everything that becomes real to you? So here I will attempt to lay this out on the floor to tip toe around for a minute:

I believe that philosophy is the study of the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. What I call knowledge, reality and existence may not be what others call it.

With regards to epistemology and the nature of knowledge traditionally it has been thought of as the theory of knowledge associated with scientific-technological knowledge with regard to methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology can be thought of as an investigation that will distinguish a difference between justified belief and opinion. In this case reality leads to a single truth that maybe repeatable in order to be believed by others. For me this nature of knowledge just does not transfer to well from the lab to the complex world that I teach in. I can see how this approach works with memorization but not with the nebulous nature of purpose driven learning in the digital world?

However I have begun to understand ontology in a metaphysical way as a study of reality. My personal ontological view seems to be in line with philosophical hermeneutics as I understand it. I believe that understanding and what we believe to be reality is based on how we live and play in the world and therefore is in constant flux leading to more than one truth. So in my mind reality is a personal experience that we are capable of sharing through dialogue and language. So I wonder given this, are epistemology and ontology a dichotomy or just different windows to look through?

Historically we humans have not placed to much value in thinking about the technical. Feenberg reports that this goes back to the ancient Greeks who place a higher value on activity of the mind such as social, political and theoretical rather than activities of the hands. A view that I shared not long ago was treating technology as a neutral instrument and therefore did not require any kind of philosophical explanation or justification of its existence. In more recent times however we have a new notion of technology that is rooted in the idea of progress, freedom and happiness. Out of these two traditions form what Feenberg calls technological determinism. Technology's advance is the advance of the human species (p.2).

In opposition to this there is a tradition of protest against mechanization the most famous example is the luddites in the early nineteenth century. Feenberg refers to this as a substantive theory of technology. In this case technology may be viewed as an instrument but it is not neutral or free from values. In this case technological development transforms what it is to be human. This autonomous thinking naturally leads to fear of loss of control.
I am left to wonder what the thinking of knowledge is within a substantive or a determinist theory if technology is viewed as a tool. In fact Feenberg states that modernity is an epistemological event in which the essence of technology lives. Our drive for efficiency is linked to a rational method and a epistemological theory of understanding, as I quoted last week “Reason can be used to tear apart bad arguments and it can be used to apply universal principles to particular cases. But reason as an instrument of analysis on its own is uncreative. It is not an instrument of creativity or discovery. Reason can apply universal principles but it cannot discover them”(p.1)

Both determinism and substantivism view technology as an autonomous tool but what about those that see technology as humanly controllable? Feenberg briefly describes two other theories, instrumentalism and critical theory. I think it is on this side I think I place my hope for the future. It is on this side we find democratic control over the direction and definition of what progress is and intervention into technical affairs. It is also where we find social constructivism that lead to choices of alternative means-ends systems. I look forward to part two of his book that goes deeper into these theories.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sensus Communis

Gadamer Sensus Communis pages 17-27 Truth and Method

Within the humanistic tradition what is to be learned from what we call knowledge, truth and understanding?

Sensus communis is yet another term I had never encountered before. In checking other sources I uncovered that Sensus Communis in rhetoric can be used to mean a whole set of unstated assumptions, prejudices, and values that an orator can take for granted when addressing an audience. 1 The term has been identified with the thought of a 'sense' we have in common or rather something we all have.

A philosopher that spoke of this sense was Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Vico or Vigo (23 June 1668 – 23 January 1744) an Italian philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist.
Gadamer says that Vico's ideas are based on old truths (p. 17). Vico's ideas are built upon the ideal of eloquentia within a classical concept of wisdom. Eloquentia is rhetoric or saying something well, not just the art of speaking but also speaking a truth that is understood by others. However while he criticizes Vico, he reminds us that we go nowhere without the wisdom of the past.

Sensus communis can also be thought of as a basic human truth that is rooted in a common way of being. I wonder does that make it a universal truth? And what happens when the way we live in the world changes? I think at this point of my understanding I believe that Gadamer wants us to build on historical thinking but to move away from a truth that is singular and towards truth that brings many possibilities.

Shaftesbury in the eighteenth century described sensus communis as a restrained, customary, and regular way of thinking. It was not a capacity given to all. Gadamer tells us Shaftesbury viewed this to be a social virtue that is tied to the moral. He says that Shaftesbury's notion of a common sense had lost it's political connection and was associated more with theoretical judgement. Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (May 2, 1702 - February 10, 1782) 2, was a German theosopher that combined this humanistic, political view with the peripatetic(Aristotle). I do not at this point understand what is Aristotle's doctrine of nous. For Oetinger this is the divine mystery of life. He believed that even if one commits an extreme sin one could find their way back to God through the grace of God. These practices exposed him to the attacks of persons who misunderstood him. He is associated with Pietism in the eighteenth century which relied on this notion of restraint and added a layer of living knowledge.

I am drawn towards this notion of living knowledge I also see that there is a constant need to renew adaptations in new situations. It seems reasonable that understandings should rely on a generative rather than demonstrative method.

To summarize I think today generally when we use the term common sense we are referring to more of a practical knowledge and not so much this living knowledge. I had not thought of this expressions diverse history before now. My thinking is that in the 21st century it would serve us better to think of this sense in more of a theoretical fashion given that we now view knowledge as vast and varied. How could a singular or a universal truth help us navigate this complexity? So knowledge in this communal sense can't be a truth that is singular. Gadamer speaks of the old Aristotelian distinction or perhaps the duality between practical (phronesis) and theoretical knowledge. The practical being knowledge that follows a rational method and is directed towards a concrete situation it must 'grasp the circumstance'. “The sensus communis is created not by logic but by original, archaic human speech which bursts forth from the human condition itself.”A rational method analyzes the case, this means to break it apart or break it down. The Verene philosophy suggests that “Reason can be used to tear apart bad arguments and it can be used to apply universal principles to particular cases. But reason as an instrument of analysis on its own is uncreative. It is not an instrument of creativity or discovery. Reason can apply universal principles but it cannot discover them”(p.1) 3 . I hear teachers talking about this sort of thing often. They say, “how can I use this tomorrow in my classroom?”. I question how this practical knowledge can even in variety be of use if it is directed towards one circumstance? Students today live and learn in a nebulous networked world full of ambiguity. How is it that we want to measure understanding and truth in such a flat way? How does this thinking help us adapt to new situations?

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensus_communis
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Christoph_Oetinger
3. Donald Phillip Verene, Vico’s Science of Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1981) Taken from Philosophy and Culture Essays in Honor of Donald Phillip Verene -Glenn Alexander Magee, Editor : http://www.pdcnet.org/publindex.html

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Making sense of Questioning Technology

Making sense of Questioning Technology
by Andrew Feenberg

This book is an introduction to the philosophy of technology. While I am a novice student of philosophy I was asked to think about this in the fall of 2008 and in response I co-created a Google Group with Barb Brown. I continue to have some struggles of my own as I adjust and navigate my way through this new territory. After looking at the topic with a rather wide lens I felt it was important for me to focus more deeply on what Andrew Feenberg had to say. He gives us a brief account of the growth of interest in technology. As a culture in the 20th century we became familiar with the notion of technology having an autonomous force separate from society. Two very separate camps began to form. Some took a rather pessimistic view and became concerned that technology seemed to have a life of it's own and would somehow run out of our control. I believe this notion lead people to write to stories of caution such as “2001 a Space Odyssey” and Martin Heidegger to write his essay on the question concerning technology. (I have read this essay but will write about it later.) While at the same time there was a push in our democratic society to expand our use of technology in our homes, schools and businesses. In both camps technology has been tied to the notion of progress.
Feenberg suggests that in the past our culture has looked upon the technical and the social as separate domains but that the fate of future democracy depends on us bridging the two. And that the fate of democracy is bound up with our understanding of technology. He feels that we need to challenge a essentialist philosophy of technology. The belief that technology has a set of characteristics that make what it is and reduces it to how it functions and its raw materials. This philosophy views technology as an instrument for efficiency.
I have just begun the first chapter entitled Technology, Philosophy, Politics. He begins by mapping out the territory of the philosophy of technology. Over time we have paid little attention to technology due largely to the technical being viewed as secondary to more intellectual pursues. In addition with the neutral notion of technology being an instrument society didn't really require and explanation or justification of it.
The other side of this map indicates the promise of technology. It is rooted in this idea of efficiency and carries with it a gift from the tradition of the scientific method. It is progressivism or rather technological determinism.
In opposition to this is a substance theory of technology, a protest against mechanization. In this view technology is not neutral and its spread is fearful. Potentially technological development transforms what it is to be human.
He mentions Langdon Winner and Carl Mitcham as further explanation of this thinking.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Background thinking of Gadamer

It is early days as I begin to understand Gadamer. He uses a lot of terms that I am only now becoming familiar with one of them is Bildung. So I did a little searching to expand my understanding of it. This is what I found using the Literary Encyclopedia.1
The noun “Bildung” has several meanings, which is why the term Bildungsroman is often left untranslated.
By the mid-eighteenth century Bildung had assimilated the humanist-philosophical ideas of the Age of Enlightenment and become a secular term.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, influenced by a botanical and morphological framework from the natural sciences, achieved maybe the most refined and comprehensive definition of Bildung as a combination of Anbildung (acquisition of qualities or knowledge), Ausbildung (development of already existing qualities), Entfaltung (creative broadening of acquired skills or qualities without external restriction) and Assimilation. Goethe 2 defined his idea of Bildung with his own concepts of metamorphosis and morphology as a natural, organic process of maturation as well as a pedagogic principle leading to an overall harmonic wholeness.

So I gather what he means that it is a process but not a procedure or a behaviour. It is a growing or a creation. Gadamer seems to be placing it inside culture or historical tradition (cultivated consciousness). That's a bigger place. We can't forget the place we came from and the collection of voices from that place. Yet we bring with us our own sense of self -right? He calls it developing one's capacities or talents, a transition from becoming to being. The result is not a technical construction but a natural one rather, it grows out of being personally involved in your own life. We educate ourselves within culture (p. 10). It has an element of spirit but not an absolute spirit. A state of development not a means to an end (p.12). He seems to be looking at universality differently than what I understood it to mean. He says it gives us distance, it keeps us open to what is 'other'. To look at something the way an 'other' might (p.15). He does not mean that this can be measured by some fixed rule. We are just open the viewpoints of others.

A little about Gadamer:

It is said that a fusion of the Heideggerian notion of phronesis or “practical wisdom” with the Platonic insight into the dialogical nature of being that provides the basis for the development of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics.

“All understanding is historically situated in a number of ways: for example, interpretations always come out of a way of life that shapes expectations; and interpretations are always configured in relation to some linguistic and conceptual schema; in addition, interpretation always arises in the form of specific hypotheses that relate to the particular events or beings to be understood. It is this situatedness to which Gadamer refers when he claims that any understanding is always already laden with pre-judgements. These pre-judgements are not theoretical positions, but un-reflective interests, orientations, and attitudes. Thus they are more being than being-conscious: “history does not belong to us; we belong to it [. . .]. The individual’s self-reflection is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life”.3

It is my desire to be reflective in my attitudes and my understanding of my place in the world.

Thoughts to remember from today:
  • the notion of truth as the event of disclosure, or un-concealment (aletheia)
  • What is fixed in writing has detached itself from the contingency of its origin
  • no interpretation can be definitive
  • finite play of disclosure and concealment does not prevent intelligibility; rather it is what allows interpretation in the first place
  • dialogue - if it is to be reasonable - must possess the attitude of hermeneutical openness to what is utterly foreign
  • It is only the transformative experience of the shattering of expectations that allows true insight
Gadamer teaches me that in order to judge an event I must take into account the accompanying circumstances (p.17). So I gather that if I am to understand why some teachers are successfully infusing technology into their practice I guess I need come to an understanding of that place.

1 Literary Encyclopedia http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=119
(Free to many universities)
2 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) Playwright, Novelist, Poet.
Born 1749; died 1832. Active 1767-1832 in Germany, Continental Europe
3 Wood, Kelsey. "Hans-Georg Gadamer". The Literary Encyclopedia. 21 December 2003.
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1663, accessed 9 May 2009.]

Thursday, May 7, 2009



So I have been thinking... What kind of knowledge is it that understands that something is so because it understands that it has come about so? The road we travel in our understanding must be part of our understanding. No? How did we get here? Scotty did not beam us here. And why do we often discribe this knowledge in a negative way. I mean we often spend more time talking about what something is not than what it is. True we are in a different place with new understanding but why not include in the history of the journey there?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Introduction to Gadamer

So there I was just a few moments ago sitting for the first time this spring in the warmth of my garden. Spring happens slowly in Calgary with many false starts and this year is no exception. There are a few green promises of growth but largely the ground in baron just waiting.
I have made a decision to read Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer. It's a tough one but there I was sitting in my garden with the promise of spring hoping for the promise of understanding.
So here it is. I just give it a go..
In the introduction Gadamer expresses that the problem of hermeneutics deals with the phenomenon of understanding. He says that the correct interpretation of what has been understood has little to do with methodology but everything to do with human experience in the world. It also is not concerned with amassing verified knowledge such as we find withing the scientific community. Legitimacy is found only in a deep investigation of the phenomenon of understanding. I have equated this kind of understanding to slow cooking on the back burner. It takes longer but it tastes better.
The introduction just seems to be setting the landscape for me. One thing I hope to gain is an understanding of what role tradition plays in my own understanding of my place in the world. What is this notion of tradition, the ghostly voices from our ancestors? I feel I must spend some time exploring my heritage as it relates to own understanding of self.
Part one deals with the question of truth as it emerges in the experience of art. I plan on reading that next week end.