Philosophers tend to think that what they are doing is not mere technique. For a technique, according to philosophers, can be practiced mindlessly, meaning that technicians do not need to inquire into the “ground” of what they are doing. Their occupation and purpose are to be oriented to the goal of facilitating and optimizing our lives: enhancing our human possibilities, expanding the limits of experience, shortening the time that we need to satisfy our basic needs, turning what had been no less than a dream for our ancestors into a reality.
Hans Blumenberg construed this in terms of a confrontation between, what he called, lifetime and world-time.[i] A lifetime is an episode in the face of the infinite vastness of world-time. The episodic constitution of our lifetime, according to Blumenberg, introduces discomfort into our consciousness. We know that we cannot have it all. Irritated by this fact, we try to fill our lives with as much experience as possible, hoping that this could somehow rectify the unbearable disproportion, the great gulf, between our negligible lifetime and endless world-time. For philosophers, the technique serves precisely this end: the “enrichment” of a lifetime.[ii]
As admitted by many, it is impossible not to be fascinated by what mere technique can do.[iii] However, the state of being impressed by the abundance that can be created by techniques has not been satisfactory for philosophers. After all, sophists also knew, and knew all too well, how to impress others. What they had, just like mere technicians, was skill, but not insight. Philosophers distinguished themselves from technicians by having insight. Technician, in other words, executed tasks after tasks without genuinely knowing why and how they were doing it. And this was crucial for them to function, for they were concentrated on the application and not on the understanding. They had a clear problem and they needed to solve it. What motivated them to do so or the consequences of their actions were not their problems.
However, recent decades, during which technique prevailed to such an unprecedented extent, shed some serious doubts on this self-righteous narrative of philosophers. Some have even gone so far as to claim that philosophy, after all, was nothing but mere technique.[iv]
I stop here, with this embarrassingly brief and abstract account, addressing the distinction between technique and philosophy as philosophers see it. And I shift the discussion to a more concrete case, which is directly related to the distinction between philosophy and technique that has become increasingly hard to discern. There are two articles that I would like to discuss. Both authors have studied philosophy but eventually ended up in engineering; now, after years of work, they reflect on this change. As I read their testimonies, I thought about my own experiences. I had a reverse trajectory. I studied engineering, completed two master’s degrees, and worked as an engineer. Then, I switched to philosophy and now I am writing my doctoral dissertation.
The first author had worked as an associate professor of philosophy at a university. He even had a tenured position; he was, nevertheless, crazy enough to leave academia for the private sector. He shares his reflections, after seven years of working in software engineering.
One of the points he makes has to do with the cultural transition. He says “everything in the tech world is collaborative.” The tech world, he continues, is team-oriented. You don’t need to discover America all by yourself, again and again. A team in a competitive world does not have enough time for it. So, they have to assist you. His other point has to do with mobility. He writes: “I gave up job security in return for career security.” Even when you have a tenured position, which is miraculous enough, this means, he notes, that you cannot leave, unless you are a sort of “superstar”. Whereas in the tech world, people are quite mobile (for opportunities are vast), in philosophy, in case you grasp something, you need to hold onto it until it hits the ground. Lastly, he notes, aggravated by the conditions generated by the pandemic, day by day, the situation in philosophy, which has ever been precarious, getting closer to hitting rock bottom. All around the world philosophy departments are struggling with serious budget cuts.
The second author is a specialist in wind turbine technology, and after fifteen years, she elaborates on the differences between philosophy and engineering. The first difference is that whereas philosophy teaches “critical thinking and logic skills”, engineering is about “job readiness”. The latter means that tech worlds change quickly and one needs to learn how to adapt. Philosophy, on the other hand, she notes, does not age much. What she learned in humanities, all skills she has acquired therein, are “timeless.” Furthermore, they make her “a far better engineer.”
To be sure, both of these authors raise valid points, but their accounts remain rather naïve, for they seem to take for granted a solid distinction between philosophy and technique. Indeed, once one moves from philosophy to technical work, it might seem more seductive to accept the separation. However, when the movement takes place in the reverse direction, it becomes harder to maintain narratives that philosophers themselves create.
For a convert – perhaps, this is the destiny of all such conversions – there are two major lines to follow. Either one becomes even more of a philosopher than philosophers themselves, radicalizing self-prophesying narratives. Or one assumes an outsider position, looking at what they, philosophers, are performing and trying to achieve from a peculiar distance.
I happened to assume both positions.
At the very outset, freshly baked in the philosophical oven, I became a staunch defender of the autonomy of philosophy. Engineering was, indeed, mindless; engineers never even thought of raising any question of fundamental significance. They were blindly following a telos (the telos of endless growth and development). They did not care about the consequences of their actions; they were simple-minded and conformist. They choose career over “truth”.
I was not aware, at that stage, that truth itself was a career. This awareness unfolded along with a sort of disappointment and also with a disenchantment. Accordingly, my eyes turned to my own “community”. From then on, I believe, I could maintain a healthier relation to both sides, without letting one elevate itself above the other – a certain and certainly detrimental idealism.
One thing that I realized in this process was how much we, philosophers, ourselves were, in fact, guilty of what we accused others of. It was as if we were trying to cleanse our conscience by projecting our sins onto our archenemy, onto technique. By this I mean that philosophy departments are one of the most concentrated circles where growth and development, which we shamelessly ascribe to the blindness of technique, are espoused and radicalized in the name of cultivation (Bildung).[v] A philosophy department is, in fact, an archipelago, in which each philosopher is closed onto themselves, trying, all alone, to discover America. Community, teamwork, assistance rarely exist in a philosophy department. They are, secretly, sneered at; after all the administrative tasks we have to perform, time is depressingly limited. And if we were to claim that we had expected something different, it would, at the very best, be a half-true statement.
A brief look at the philosophy of history would indicate why: philosophy is a gallery of man. That nowadays women are also being included in this gallery is, to be sure, a salutary endeavor, though it changes nothing of the fact that philosophy is a myth of personalities, of geniuses, of people who deemed themselves so enormously significant that they wrote mindlessly one book after another. Anyone interested in philosophy to such a degree that they decide to make it into a profession, or as we would say, a vocation, regardless of what sort of philosophy they are into, has been deeply fascinated by this gallery and dreamed of being able to appear in it one day. The wish to be “immortal”, to defy time and space, is one of the main sources of motivation, driving philosophy. Compared to this, it seems, indeed, to be entirely justified to disparage technique with that little word: “mere”. Perhaps, then, the real distinction from a mere technique is, in the end, nothing other than our conscious but never publicly conceded reverence of the ideals of growth and development. It is said that Blumenberg, whom I’ve mentioned above, did not sleep a day every week, to be able to read and write more.
This unbalanced attitude goes hand in hand with the meritocratic ideal that has become problematic to maintain in humanities. In a review of Michael J. Sandel’s book Tyranny of Merit, Elizabeth Anderson summarizes the situation: “In Sandel’s view, meritocracy does more than drive material inequality; it creates a toxic economy of esteem. The winners in meritocratic competition feel entitled to take all they can, while the losers feel humiliated, continually told they deserve the fate to which elites consign them.” The question, then, is whether such a toxic economy of esteem is a natural habitat for philosophers. Haven’t philosophy departments turned into disquieting places where each looks askance at the other, waiting nervously for the declaration: “I am delighted that my article has appeared today ….”?
In short, our mindlessness, compared to that of technicians, seemed not to be a matter of quality but of quantity. We believe that through a narrative that helps us radicalize a difference in quantity, we can conjure up a difference in quality. This happens once we become more than ourselves. The radicalization of quantity, once it has been stripped of all its factual ties, must turn into something fundamentally different than a technique: namely, philosophy. The easiest way to accomplish this used to be doing it in the name of God. When that idea was no longer satisfactory, the nation and Volk substituted for it. However, thanks to globalization, the latter have also lost their seductive force. I believe that philosophy experiences this change more violently than other disciplines, since it is living through the contradiction of engaging in the supreme form of what it thinks its achenemy (i.e., technique) is culpable of. In the crisis, which also goes by the name of ‘post-truth,’ it seems that one of the most crucial tasks is rethinking what we do when we do philosophy and in what context we would like to keep doing it.
[i] Cf. Hans Blumenberg, Lebenszeit und Weltzeit (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986).
[ii] In fact, the question of whether or not this is really an “enrichment” or, to the contrary, an “impoverishment” has been contentious in the history of philosophy. Agamben’s shocking (to some) statements in the context of Covid-19 have been the last stage of this contention.
[iii] Cf. Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. by David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970).
[iv] Here research agendas such as STS studies, post-phenomenology, sociology of knowledge are significant. Also cf. Blumenberg, Die Theorie der Lebenswelt, her.v. Manfred Sommer (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 2010).
[v] This is connected to discussions concerning Foucault’s neoliberalism. In fact, was it possible for him not to be a neoliberal? What Foucault, in essence, performs is nothing other than what he cannot not perform – that is, his neoliberalism.