Two Claims

A few years ago I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop facilitated by Dr. Thomas Basboll. Though I appreciated his arguments and told myself I would adopt his strategies, I failed to put enough them into practice. Today I begin to make good on what I promised my writer (myself).


Labels like genetically-modified, transgenic, etc., help shape biologists understanding of organisms. Kuhn would describe the underlying perspective and worldview afforded by such labels and thinking as a paradigm. Werner Heisenberg, in Physics and Philosophy (1958), noted the difficulty of physicists in the early twentieth century to adapt to quantum theories proposed by Niels Bohr and Heisenberg himself. Heisenberg notes that a significant obstacle to shifting from paradigm to another involves underlying philosophical perspectives. In this particular case, that shift involves relinquishing a materialist ontology. Recalcitrant physicists–Einstein included–resisted quantum theory’s vocabulary in part because it denied a Cartesian worldview where only mind is immaterial. The extended body, including all atomic particles, must always exist independent of our observation (instruments included) of them. Heisenberg proposes that characteristics like velocity and speed are secondary qualities–they do not define the quantum things, but they can be used to describe them. The human observer cannot help but alter the quantum matter any time she observes the matter. The tools we use to measure position alter its velocity, thus both cannot be measured simultaneously. Heisenberg argues that our everyday language, including vocabulary passed down from Newtonian classical physics like space and time, condition us to think of all things as cohering to how we already see the world. Quantum theory, on the other hand, proposes perspectives that clash with such language and, more importantly, wish such a worldview. Matter, says Newtonian physics, can neither be created nor destroyed. Yet quantum theory pushes against such an understanding of atomic particles–tiny pieces of matter. For the biologist (wow, this entire paragraph went in a completely different direction until now), gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 mark no revolutionary shift in how they have been doing their work for the last century. Such tools significantly shorten the time, cost, and difficulty of the work in plant and animal breeding. However, making some process faster, more efficient, cheaper, and easier does not imply the process has fundamentally changed. From the biologists’ perspective, then, genetically-modified plants and animals have extensive histories. Performing gene modification on organisms pre-dates Gregor Mendel; current work merely extends such projects. Perhaps a general perspective would be that when scientists break things–organisms, atoms, etc.–down into concomitant parts, they do not create new things. As Bohr and Heisenberg pointed out, however, physics (but maybe all science fits here) does not intend to discover what nature is. It concerns what we humans can say about nature.

“Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods of ordering and surveying human experience” (Bohr, 1960).


Through description, postphenomenologists make normative claims about method. In their introduction to Postphenomenological Investigations, Rosenberger and Verbeek argue that postphenomenology articulates a normative perspective: Postphenomenology “[brings] together the empirical orientation of STS on concrete case studies with the conceptual and also normative orientation that are characteristic for philosophy of technology” (p. 10, emphasis mine). They argue that postphenomenology attempts “to answer the philosophical question of how the role of technology in human existence and experience can be understood” (pp. 10-11). Though they do not intend it, I want the last line to read: “how the role of technology in human existence and experience can and should be understood.” If so, then I would expect many parts of their edited volume to tell readers how we humans should view human-technology relationships. Through the first half of the text, I do not see such normative claims. I may certainly be asking more of the text than it aims to offer. Nevertheless, the first quotation evokes the normative. The empirical orientation + philosophical analysis does not, in my mind, equate to normative critique unless the normative here involves directives for how postphenomenological inquiry should proceed. If so, then Rosenberger and Verbeek’s volume certainly delivers. Its authors espouse an empirical + analysis methodology and seem to claim that the normative should play a part in the analysis. That the normative should play a role in postphenomenology is, perhaps, the sharpest edge of their normative blade. They wield it to acknowledge the import of normative analyses, yet the blade rusts from neglect as the edited volume progresses. My own work suffers from similar abandonment of the normative. My dissertation begins with grand aspirations about bringing more normative claims to philosophy of technology. It ends with little more than description and some hand-waving about why we should adopt posthumanist perspectives.


Ok, I only got to two sentences today. And they rambled. I might try again later today. Otherwise, I will have more to write tomorrow.

I must say, it feels good to get some writing done, even if the quality is little more than a draft at this point.


For another day:

From Postphenemological Investigations, I understand that we canonly move forward by reflecting upon the past (Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty).

Postphenomenology needs a coherent story.


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