Monday, October 26, 2009

Cerbone, David R. Review of Two Books by Don Ihde. NDPR (October 2009).

  • Postphenomenology and Technoscience: the Peking University Lectures. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009.
  • Ironic Technics. Automatic Press, 2008.
This pair of slim volumes presents in condensed form Ihde's distinctive take on the philosophy of technology, which combines the two key terms in the title of the longer volume: what Ihde calls "postphenomenology" and "technoscience". The volume bearing these two words in its title consists of a series of lectures Ihde delivered at Peking University in 2006; the other volume consists of four freestanding, though thematically linked essays. Despite their brevity, there is a great deal of repetition within and across these two volumes, and so rather than deal with them serially, I will mainly concentrate on singling out the key ideas and theses the two works share, taking passages from either or both as needed.

Ihde's notion of postphenomenology serves as something of the master-concept in his view, and so it may be best to begin with it. If we confine ourselves at the start just to Ihde's choice of terminology, the principal question appears to be one concerning how to situate Ihde's notion in relation to what it presents itself as succeeding, namely phenomenology. There is, of course, no single notion of phenomenology -- Husserl himself changed his conception of phenomenology over his career, and the various "existential" phenomenologists such as Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty offered their own distinctive takes on the notion -- and this makes the task of delineating a successor method a rather delicate maneuver (one may be a post-Husserlian phenomenologist, for example, but still be doing plain old phenomenology in, say, Heidegger's sense). What makes Ihde's approach phenomenological is its appropriation of several key ideas from the phenomenological tradition -- and especially from Husserl -- which are then projected into a new domain, namely the philosophy of technology. Ihde claims that technology is not just a particular object of study, but is itself a way in which experience is mediated. This means that intentionality itself -- the principal subject matter of phenomenology in the traditional sense -- is modified by technology: "Technologies can be the means by which 'consciousness itself' is mediated. Technologies may occupy the 'of' [in the 'consciousness of ____' formula of intentionality] and not just be some object domain" (PT, p. 23). What I take this to mean is that technology can play an adverbial role with respect to intentionality, so that it is not so much what we experience (some technological object) as a way we experience: we experience things technologically in that technology modifies -- sometimes modestly, sometimes radically -- both what and how we experience the world. Postphenomenology is interested in documenting these forms of mediation, and so Ihde's discussions abound with examples where technology has shaped the object domain (e.g. the popular song, whose length was determined by the limits of recording technologies) and opened up new domains for exploration (considerable attention is devoted to imaging technologies). . . .

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