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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912


WOLFF, Ernst. Technology as critical social theory. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2012, vol.52, n.1, pp. 36-51. ISSN 2224-7912.

In this article the significance of technics for an acceptable perspective on human agency is presented in a descriptive and critical manner. The principal descriptive strategy adopted in this study is to approach technicity as an aspect of human agency, rather than to explore technical action in the framework of an action typology. Correspondingly, "technology" is presented as the study of the technicity of human action. In the centre of such a study is an exploration of technicity as major characteristic of the human body, the coinciding use of means and/or the pursuit of different forms of excellence. This polemical use of the term "technology" serves the purpose of opposing three recurrent misconceptions regarding technics: (1) the ideologically driven approaches to human technicity, namely techno-optimism and techno-pessimism, (2) the erroneous conviction that thorough attention to human technicity necessarily implies the instrumental degradation of the human being, and (3) the excessive isolation of human technicity with respect to other aspects of being human. The constructive response to these three critical points, are as follows: first, a nuanced image ofhuman technicity is provided. Bodily technics (techniques du corps) are the growing and evolving series of capabilities that are gradually sedimented in the body of a developing human being. These capacities are acquired under cultural specific regimes of encouragement and sanction. They are also steady dispositions to act in certain ways, when confronted with certain kinds of context, without, however, being determined by these contexts. Furthermore, the bodily technics is the manner in which an agent is acquainted with the world, in the sense of having a non consciousness centred, practical know-how of the world. Second, the particular human character of technicity is studied in three ways. (i) It is demonstrated that there is no disposition to rule following behaviour in human beings that does not stand under the influence of judgement, adaptation to a context and the exercise of capabilities under the restrictions of inabilities. (ii) Subsequently the hermeneutic spiral involved in the technicity of all action is explained. A three-fold meaning is uncovered in the interpretation, which is part of the technicity of action: the technical meaning (in a narrow sense), the meaning of usage and the symbolic meaning. (iii) Finally, the mutual implication of technicity and creativity is explored. It is argued that the technicity of action is to be understood as a non-teleological capacity, before the subsequent teleological capability (usually associated with the instrumental reason in action typologies) is taken into consideration. Drawing from the work of Hans Joas, it is demonstrated that without this teleological capability, the human being would be simply determined in a behaviouristic manner by the forces of the environment, in other words, the teleological capacity (as development of our primordial technicity) creates room for creativity. Furthermore, the capacity for creative intervention in the world presupposes the non-teleological capacity of primordial technicity. Third, the interwovenness of human technicity with other anthropological aspects is examined. Five aspects of human existence are dialectically implicated with human technicity: the biological constitution, the constructed technical system, the acquisition of know-how through socialisation, associative action and the symbolic and linguistic order. The critical potential of a non-teleological notion of the technicity of human action is mapped in the last section in order to demonstrate the relevance of "technology"for the humanities and for the social sciences in particular. Stated negatively, the critical thrust of technology is aimed against the technicist reduction (ie the reduction of human technicity to a specific type of action, which is warped by the teleological prejudices against the nature of human technicity) and against the anti-technical marginalisation of human technicity (ie the attempt to expel technicity from being human or to limit it to certain kinds of action). These two tendencies of misrepresentations of human technical agency usually lead to techno-optimism and techno-pessimism, respectively. Stated positively, technology as critical discourse on human technicity is guided by the desire to gain insight into the full potential for the development of human agency, since this is a condition for the possibility of ethical as well as moral and political excellence. In this sense, technology (in the sense used here) has a critical social scientific ambition. An overview of possible pathologies of techno-pessimism and techno-optimism is plotted in tabular form against the five dialectical relations between human technicity and other aspects of human existence (as referred to above). The underlying structure of the table presents these two categories of practical techno-pathologies in an Aristotelian way as the excesses and deficiencies associated with warped perspectives on human technicity. Furthermore, as in Aristotle 's practical philosophy, the two vices give an indication of the midway between them that is to be pursued in all practical contexts as the way of excellence. This midway ideally recognises the true spirit or humaneness of human technicity, by according to it, its rightful place. One of the characteristics of excellence in human action is the capability to do justice to this spirit of human technicity in the divergent contexts of practice and under different regimes of justification. Here, "doing justice " refers only secondarily to what is done after action, retrospectively by social scientists; primarily it refers to excellence in human practice.

Keywords : technicity; technology; action; social theory; rule following; hermeneutics; creativity; critique; habitus.

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