Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 3, “The Choice of a Theory”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

In this chapter, Borgmann is concerned to shore up the validity of the distinction between the substantive, instrumental, and pluralist views of technology. These distinctions carve up the possible theoretical space in a certain way, and Borgmann concedes that any such classification is going to suppress some aspects of reality and highlight others. We therefore need to be mindful of this in selecting a space within which to develop a theory of technology, and it’s open to anyone to ask whether Borgmann’s categorization is the best, or even a good, one.

What Borgmann gives us in Chapter 3 is essentially a case study: he examines a different classification of ideas about technology, namely that of Carl Mitcham. In comparing the features of Mitcham’s distinctions and their fruitfulness for providing an appropriate arena for asking and answering questions about technology, Borgmann is trying to convince us that we should stick with his picture. He does this with a measure of humility; he does not critique Mitcham’s classification (in fact much of the chapter praises it) so much as point out where it leaves residual areas of potential confusion.

Mitcham makes the same basic distinction Borgmann did, between the narrow sense of technology as engineering science and the broad sense of it in all its interfaces with society. The subsequent challenge Mitcham takes up is to address whether technology may be thought of as an “all-pervasive approach” to human affairs. (In other words, technology is one instance of a more inclusive phenomenon). He rejects this “radical” thesis, deciding that technology is rather “the human making and using of material artifacts in all forms and aspects” (13). (Here Borgmann says as an aside that the above challenge is the basis of his introduction of the distinction between the substantive and instrumental views). That technology is a “making” implies that it is not a “doing” in the Aristotelian sense (where human “doing” encompasses political, moral, and religious action), though Borgmann questions whether this distinction is even valid in modern society, given that “making” has so eclipsed “doing” in general.

Mitcham sees three major dimensions of technology: the subjective (or material, i.e., pertaining to the actual substances and methods of technology), the functional (or structural, i.e., the essential aspects of technology), and the social (or historical, i.e., technology as a social, historical enterprise). For Mitcham the functional dimension is the one we least understand, and he further subdivides it into technology-as-knowledge, technology-as-process, and technology-as-product. These correspond to three canonical philosophical entities: thoughts, activities, and objects, respectively. These distinctions in hand, Mitcham tries to address deeper questions of the essence of technology, and finds that he needs a fourth aspect (technology-as-volition, i.e., technology with respect to our will about ourselves and the world) in order to address the supreme question of whether technology fits our deepest aspirations or not. In Borgmann’s words, this question can be paraphrased by the possible answers to it: “Is technology a powerful instrument in the service of our values, a force in its own right that threatens our essential welfare, or is there perhaps no clear problem of technology at all, merely an interplay of numerous & variable tendencies?” (15)

For Borgmann, Mitcham’s multi-tiered classification of technology obscures as much as it illuminates, and he thinks the core questions are addressed better by the substantive/instrumental/pluralist distinctions. These distinctions form a set of competing tensions—no one viewpoint can be correct, he says, because modern technology is too complex. Within their defining boundaries, then, what can we discern as the fundamental pattern of technology? That is the task at hand. One major obstacle in pursuing this task is the lack of a “principled understanding of science.” Science and technology are usually thought of in the same vein (or as essentially identical approaches to knowledge and action, respectively), but Borgmann claims this is a fatally misleading assumption, and will spend the next few chapters discussing the relationship between these two concepts.

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Open Source at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. Apart from being the project lead of Appium, he has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver BC, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit for more.

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