Ihde on Technology

Contemporary philosopher Don Ihde is a key thinker in the analysis of human-technology relations.  He is indebted to Heidegger for much of his way of thinking, but he analyzes a  wider range of technological relations.  Indeed, his chief critique of Heidegger is that Ihde thinks there is no such thing as a “technological relation” as such – as Heidegger argued for in our last blog post – but only particular encounters with particular technologies.

To this end, I offer below one example of Ihde’s method of doing a phenomenology of technology.  Like Heidegger, Ihde is attempting to describe concrete human experience to arrive at the essential structure of the intentionality of consciousness.  That is, he is not trying to reveal the object character of a technology, but the relationship that occurs between a technology and a person.  Like Heidegger he is using a concrete example to reveal a paradigmatic intentionality and then formulating that as a concept, in this example, something he calls Hermeneutic Technics.  Unlike Heidegger, Ihde does not claim that the hermeneutic character of technology-human relations is descriptive of all technological relations, but only certain kinds.

Below is a text from his major work Technology and the LifeworldFor my students, take note where he does concrete description, where he tries to formulate a concept, and where he maps out the relationality (i.e. intentional structure) of the experience.


“[Using a hammer] displays  an  embodiment  relation.  Bodily  action  through  [the hammer]  occurs within  the  environment.  But  broken,  missing,  or  malfunctioning,  it  ceases  to  be  the  means  of praxis and  becomes  an  obtruding  object  defeating  the  work  project.  Unfortunately,  that  negative  derivation of  objectness  by  Heidegger  carries  with  it  a  block  against  understanding  a  second  existential human-technology  relation,  the  type  of  relation  I  shall  term  hermeneutic.

The  term  hermeneutic  has  a  long  history.  In  its  broadest  and  simplest  sense  it  means  “interpretation,”  but  in  a  more  specialized  sense  it  refers  to  textual  interpretation  and  thus  entails  reading.  I  shall  retain  both  these  senses  and  take  hermeneutic  to  mean  a  special  interpretive  action within  the  technological  context.  That  kind  of  activity  calls  for  special  modes  of  action  and  perception,  modes  analogous  to  the  reading  process. . . .

The movement  from  embodiment  relations  to  hermeneutic  ones  can  be  very  gradual,  as  in the  history  of  writing,  with  little-noticed  differentiations  along  the  human-technology  continuum. A series  of  wide-ranging  variants  upon  readable  technologies  will  establish  the  point.

thermometer1 First,  a  fairly explicit  example  of  a  readable  technology:  Imagine  sitting  inside  on  a  cold  day.  You  look  out  the window  and  notice  that  the  snow  is  blowing,  but  you  are  toasty  warm  in  front  of  the  fire.  You can clearly  “see”  the  cold  in  Merleau-Ponty’s  pregnant  sense  of  perception—but  you  do  not  actually feel  it.  Of  course,  you  could,  were  you  to  go  outside.  You would  then  have  a  full  face-to-face  verification  of  what  you  had  seen.

But  you  might  also  see  the  thermometer  nailed  to  the  grape  arbor  post  and  read  that  it  is 28°F.  You would now  “know”  how  cold  it  was,  but  you  still  would  not  feel  it.  To retain the  full sense  of  an  embodiment  relation,  there  must  also  be  retained  some  isomorphism  with  the  felt  sense of  the  cold—in  this  case,  tactile—that  one  would  get  through  face-to-face  experience.  One could invent such a  technology;  for  example,  some  conductive  material  could  be  placed  through  the  wall so  that  the  negative  “heat,”  which  is  cold,  could  be  felt  by  hand.  But this is not  what  the  thermometer  does.

Instead, you read  the  thermometer,  and  in  the  immediacy  of  your  reading  you  hermeneutically  know  that  it  is  cold.  There is an instantaneity to such  reading,  as  it  is  an  already  constituted intuition  (in  phenomenological  terms).  But you should not  fail  to  note  that  perceptually  what  you have  seen  is  the  dial  and  the  numbers,  the  thermometer  “text.”  And that text has hermeneutically delivered its  “world” reference, the cold.1

Such constituted immediacy is not always available.  For instance, although  I  have  often enough  lived  in  countries  where  Centigrade  replaces  Fahrenheit,  I  still  must  translate  from  my  intuitive  familiar  language  to  the  less  familiar  one  in  a  deliberate  and  self-conscious  hermeneutic  act. Immediacy, however,  is  not  the  test  for  whether  the  relation  is  hermeneutic.  A hermeneutic relation mimics sensory  perception  insofar  as  it  is  also  a  kind  of  seeing  as; but it  is a seeing,  which  has  as  its  immediate  perceptual  focus  seeing  the  thermometer.

Now let  us  make  the  case  more  complex.  In the example cited,  the  experiencer  had  both embodiment  (seeing  the  cold)  and  hermeneutic  access  to  the  phenomenon  (reading  the  thermometer).  Suppose the house  were  hermetically  sealed,  with  no  windows,  and  the  only  access  to  the weather  were  through  the  thermometer  (and  any  other  instruments  we  might  include).  The  hermeneutic  character  of  the  relation  becomes  more  obvious.  I  now  clearly  have  to  know  how  to  read  the instrumentation  and  from  this  reading  knowledge  get  hold  of  the  “world”  being  referred  to.

This example  has  taken  actual  shape  in  nuclear  power  plants.  In the  Three  Mile  Island  incident,  the  nuclear  power  system  was  observed  only  through  instrumentation.  Part  of  the  delay  that caused  a  near  meltdown  was  misreadings  of  the  instruments.  There  was  no  face-to-face,  independent  access  to  the  pile  or  to  much  of  the  machinery  involved,  nor  could  there  be.

An  intentionality  analysis  of  this  situation  retains  the  mediational  position  of  the  technology:



The operator has instruments between him  or  her  and  the  nuclear  pile.  But—and here an essential difference emerges  between  embodiment  and  hermeneutic  relations—what  is  immediately  perceived  is  the  instrument  panel  itself.  It becomes the object  of  my  micro-perception,  although  in  the special  sense  of  a  hermeneutic  transparency,  I  read  the  pile  through  it.  This situation  calls  for  a different  formalization: The  parenthesis  now  indicates  that  the  immediate  perceptual  focus  of  my  experience  is  the  control panel.  I  read  through  it,  but  this  reading  is  now  dependent  upon  the  semi-opaque  connection between  the  instruments  and  the  referent  object  (the  pile).

. . .

By  continuing  the  intentionality  analysis  I  have  been  following,  one  can  now  see  that  hermeneutic  relations  vary  the  continuum  of  human-technology-world  relations.  Hermeneutic  relations maintain  the  general  mediation  position  of  technologies  within  the  context  of human  praxis  towards a  world,  but  they  also  change  the  variables  within  the  human-technology-world  relation.  A  comparative  formalism  may  be  suggestive:

General  intentionality  relations

Variant  A:  Embodiment  relations
(I-technology) – world

Variant  B:  Hermeneutic  relations
I  –  (technology-world)

While  each  component  of  the  relation  changes  within  the  correlation,  the  overall  shapes  of  the variants  are  distinguishable.  Nor  are  these  matters  of  simply  how  technologies  are  experienced.”

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