Monday, March 19, 2012

Philosophy Sneaks Up Via Technology

Bounding into the bizarre. That is how I felt, but I just couldn't stop going forward.

It all started when, quite some time ago, I picked up a book called "Technologies of the Self"*. I confess that the reason the book caught my attention was the word "technology" in the title. I had no clue what it was about, although the subtitle "A Seminar with Michel Foucault" might have been the give away. Had I ever done any formal readings in philosophy that is.

I took this orphan off the shelf and with me on a recent cross country plane ride. Having nowhere to escape to and no other resources to distract me (I declined to inquire about the "nominal fee" for inflight Internet) I plugged my way along through what turned out to be a nitty gritty voyage through historical conceptions of "Self". Who am I, what am I, how do I view me, how does society view me. Sometimes the reading was fascinating, as when the discussion involved comparative religion, historical literature, and mind bending leap frogging in and around Eastern and Western thought. At other times I thought I was going to be buried alive under the weight of 3 millenia of philosophical ideology and I wanted to cry out for more airplane coffee.

What kept me going during the incredibly dry moments was wondering when I was going to learn what the title meant. They (multiple authors) kept referring to "technology of self" as if it was self explanatory. I suppose to a graduate philosophy student it must be! Although they never did explain it (hence my conclusion that the phrase is an item of academic jargon common in the field), my clue came near the end with a passing reference to "techne".

Aha. I can look that up as an originating word. Linguistics is fun. Back to my new friend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There is therein an entry on "Episteme and Techne". Urg. I understand "epistemology": study and investigation of knowledge. Knowledge. In the greater sense of the word.  Been there - thank you to my graduate education theory classes. Techne... hmm. Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy pairs the two, as, essentially, theory and practice (see the link if you want all the details).

"Technologies of the Self".... practice of? art of (as in the act of implementation)? I am getting closer. How the self is viewed, how the self is constructed, how the self (capitalized Self) is conceptualized.

I think I get it. But this different usage of the word technology still intrigues me. In our science and engineering necks of the woods, we have a different intuition about what technology means. Don't we? Technology as an artifact, a tangible creation. We generally think of modern technology (say, since the Industrial Revolution) but I have heard it argued by colleagues in the arts that the term technology should rightfully be applied all the way back to stone knives and bear skins. Ok. Point taken.

But as a more abstract concept involving the notion of "Self". I'm still wrapping my head around the use of techne (practice as the complement of theory) for a non-tangible application to the notion of who I am. Or what I am. Or what I am not. Or who "they" think I am. Or am not.

You have to be careful what books you pick up! They can really mess with your mind. You gotta love it.

*"Technologies of the Self" book information


  1. It opens the door to the very interesting question of how artifactual technology affects our sense (and practice!) of who we are.
    Hi from Korea,

  2. Since I'm on a linguistics adventure, I'm running around possible definitions of "artifactual" (without cheating and looking it up online).

    Wondering what you have in mind.

    Annyunghaseyo from the US.