Don Ihde has produced a total of six books in the past decade, but although the last one (Acoustic Technics: Postphenomenology and the Philosophy of Technology) appeared only two years ago, his readers were becoming impatient. Acoustic Technics was brilliant, however, its narrow focus on embodied sound left us longing for more of the American philosopher’s insights into science and technology more broadly construed. After finally getting my hands on a copy of Ihde’s latest book, I can confidently say that it was well worth the wait. Husserl’s Missing Technologies is fascinating! Winner of the Golden Eurydice Award for outstanding contributions to the field of biophilosophy, Ihde draws on more than four decades of research expertise in the contested areas of phenomenology and the philosophy of science. In accordance with his usual style, in this work Ihde addresses an astonishing plethora of issues, historical examples and philosophical ideas. The following review will discuss some of these elements.
Тhe book is comprised of seven chapters, each more layered and enthralling than the previous one. Following a lengthy introduction, which problematizes the technological gap in Husserl’s writings and thus justifies Husserl’s Missing Technologies as a project, Ihde swiftly moves straight into a discussion of technology use, scientific objects, the historical development of technoscience, and the timeline of science interpretations in philosophy. This abundance of topics might lead a less experienced writer to create a blurry, perhaps somewhat incoherent framework, but Ihde skillfully escapes this trap, instead setting the ground for a very structured and nuanced piece of writing. As a result, each chapter is sufficiently clear-cut and ambitious in its own right that it could easily be turned into a stand-alone project. Yet in spite of that, the transitions between separate chapters are executed brilliantly and without so much as a hint of discontinuity. For instance, in the first half of the book Ihde’s analysis and historical overview are left to unravel quietly while also clearly foreshadowing the claims about the role of postphenomenological, multi-instrumental technoscience that are made towards the end of the book; by the time the reader reaches the final chapters, the connections have already started to become increasingly obvious, and a complex but coherent argumentative structure gradually begins to emerge.
The title of the book sets the tone for Chapter 1 ‘Where are Husserl’s technologies?’. It opens with a statement that is fairly uncontroversial amongst Husserl scholars: namely, that Husserl’s references to technologies are sparse and usually mentioned only ‘in passing, without serious or in-depth philosophical analysis’ (13). Though this statement applies equally to ordinary-use technologies and to instruments or special technologies used in science, Chapter 1 focuses on the latter. After a short historical interlude which offers examples of the tendency for technology usage-spans to become increasingly shorter, Ihde introduces his readers to the style of science-technology analysis called postphenomenology and identifies its American pragmatist influences (e.g. John Dewey), adding that philosophies should also have usage-spans akin to those of technologies.
The book is an enjoyable read for anyone whose professional interests revolve around phenomenology and these early sections make for an excellent topic of discussion amongst introductory philosophy classes of a more general kind. Ihde questions an uncritical assumption we hold (which we would never make about scientists of the past) that all philosophers in history are our intellectual contemporaries. Science clearly has a history of ‘disappearing scientific objects’: ‘Democritus’s hard, indivisible atoms, Aristotle’s crystalline spheres, phlogiston, aether, the four humours, and most recently event horizons—all are gone except as interesting but quaint historical objects’ (17). It is not that these features of obsolescence or abandonment cannot be observed in philosophy, rather that the most notable examples have tended to appear in response to developments in technoscience; as suggested by the brief science-technology studies (STS) and the science interpretation timeline offered by Ihde in the next section.
Ihde notes that it took an astonishingly long time for anything properly resembling a ‘philosophy of technology’ to come into existence. The mid-twentieth century brought about two different sets of science interpretations ; a ‘conceptual’ and a ‘practical’ one to which scientists (or philosophers of science with notable antipositivist inclinations) and social scientists, respectively, were contributing. It took until the 1980’s for a distinct philosophy of technology to disentangle itself with authors such as Albert Borgmann, Langdon Winner, Andrew Feenberg, and Hubert Dreyfus leading the way. By this time positivism had met its demise, and the ‘acultural, ahistorical, unified, and triumphal’ understanding of science had become replaced by an outlook far more sensitive to the fallibility of science and its social and historical dimensions (22).
Ihde dives into a fascinating exploration of paradigm shifts for a reason. He does a wonderful job of accounting for the way in which ‘the rise of multiple reconsiderations of science, coupled to an increased interest in technologies […] shift the understanding of both science and technology toward more historical, cultural, and material dimensions’ (21). However, he does so in order to identify the reason for the sudden theoretical interest in instruments and technologies expressed in major works like Robert Ackermann’s Data, Instruments, and Theory (1985) or Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983). It is only after Ihde has completed this task that he moves on to the next section which invites readers to re-visit Husserl ‘retrospectively’ and approach his writings (and the predominant science interpretations amongst his contemporaries) from a point of view located at the very end of the timeline he presented earlier (17-22)
The analysis sets out by making three important observations about Husserl’s philosophy of science: Firstly, that it remains largely on the mathematizing side in spite of occasional preoccupations regarding the separation of science and lifeworld. Secondly, that Husserl worried that rationality might be slipping away from science. Thirdly, that the praxis-lifeworld relations Husserl theorizes about in selected bits of The Origin of Geometry are apparently set up in a way which allows for sciences to be born from concrete practices – e.g. geometry arose out of the Ancient Egyptian practice of remeasuring and setting up field boundaries anew after the annual floods. The analysis then gains a comparative aspect as Ihde begins to reflect on the difference between Heidegger’s hammer, Merleau-Ponty’s extended embodiment of canes, and Husserl’s microscope-things and telescope-things. Ihde identifies a kind of ‘vestigial Cartesianism’ (31) in Husserl’s attitude toward objects, since, according to Husserl tools and technologies need to be seen and conceptually recognized as objects in their ‘objectness’ (i.e. as ‘things’) before they can be meaningfully deployed in praxis (25). Values and potential uses are seen by Husserl as things that are added on, rather than intrinsically present.
This discussion seamlessly transitions into an inspection of the relativity or correlation with the nearby-far-off-world which is enabled by instruments, and the ways that correlation fits within the wider unity of experiences. For example, when observing the moon through a telescope Ihde notes that before the ‘first revolution in sciences with technologies […] the experience through the telescope is not primarily of the telescope’ (31; his emphasis). He then explains how in cases of mediated perception the instruments which mediate the perception tend to undergo a withdrawal and become experientially transparent; something which Husserl does not describe in his writings.
However, the technologies of postmodern science no longer deliver experiences isomorphic or analogue to those of ordinary human bodily perception; they have ventured beyond optical imaging and into, e.g. instruments mapping the electromagnetic spectrum. Contemporary technologies can therefore be said to bring into being Husserl’s ‘open infinity of universal world truths’ by revealing the existence of neutron stars, black holes, gas clouds, and multiple galaxies of many and varied shapes (32-34). Ihde is right in claiming that Husserlian phenomenology was not equipped to deal with the worlds beyond the limits set by analogue-isomorphic technologies. One of the big questions of Chapter 1, then, is whether philosophies ought to be prepared for the kinds of theoretical and instrumental shifts characteristic of the sciences if they want to be successful in dealing with a new world? For Ihde the answer is a solid ‘yes’.
Chapter 2, ‘Husserl’s Galileo Needed a Telescope!’, discusses Husserl’s philosophy of science ‘in the light of contemporary analyses of science in practice’ (35). It starts out with the caveat that, for Husserl, the paradigmatic examples of science were: firstly, the ahistorical kinds of disciplines which lend themselves to mathematization, formalized expressions, and idealization and secondly, the kinds of disciplines which involve minimal amounts of embodiment practices and, with the exception of physics, minimal amounts of instrument use. These are, of course, the sciences that Husserl himself was most familiar with in terms of praxis (geometry, physics and astronomy) but they also fit within the broader process of mathematization initiated by other early twentieth century philosophers of science like Ernst Mach, Jules Poincaré and Pierre Duhem.
The next section of Chapter 2 describes the movement from mathematization (abstract and formalistic) to logical positivism or empiricism (with a pronounced focus on perception and observation). It then outlines a further move to anti-positivism (a lot more sensitive to historical context and well aware of the discontinuity present in science) which sets the ground for the next section where Ihde situates Husserl within this rich and slightly confusing intellectual landscape. Ihde notes that, for Husserl ‘science is not ahistorical, noncontextual, but rather is thoroughly historical, contextual, and cultural’, even though in science we can observe an ‘upward, slippery incline of approximations into an ideal world, which distances the investigator from the bodily-materiality of the lifeworld’ (44). The connection to the lifeworld is supposedly maintained, as long as an awareness of the whole process and its origins persists.
But what did Husserl get wrong? The next three sections reveal that Husserl’s portrayal of Galileo’s philosophy of science may have been too reductionistic. While the astronomer was indeed confident that the language of mathematics played a crucial role in interpreting and understanding, he would have been unable to produce ground-breaking science with his bare senses unaided and unamplified by the telescope. As none of these contingencies received special mention from Husserl, Ihde notes that Husserl’s ‘preselected and reduced’ Galileo seems abstract and almost ahistorical, his ‘perceptions and practices with and through the telescope’ absent from Husserl’s histories:
…his Galileo is not the lens grinder, the user of telescopes, the fiddler with inclined planes, the dropper of weights from the Pisa Tower, but the observer who concentrates on, on one side, the already idealized “objects” of geometry and, on the other, the plenary ordinary objects that are before the eyes but indirectly analyzed into their geometrical components. (52)
The final three sections show that a different analysis would have been possible if Husserl had further developed his insights about the importance of written documents as fixed, material, embodied linguistic meaning-structures and instruments as offering a sort of transformational mediation between science and the lifeworld. However, Husserl is forgetful of Galileo’s telescopic praxis.
Just as promised in Chapters 1 and 2, Ihde does return to the reading-writing technologies in Chapter 3 (‘Embodiment and Reading-Writing Technologies’), in order to explore the issues Husserl sees there on a deeper level. The framework of the discussion is dictated by the transition from classical phenomenology to postphenomenology. Husserl’s own writing technologies – different types of pens, eyeglasses, magnifying glass, mimeographs and many others – are examined in truly remarkable detail (and featured on a timeline of writing, reading and optical technologies in Table 1, p. 64) and can be contrasted with his opinions on tools and scientific technologies.
A couple of reccurring motives appear to be that of executive consciousness governing a passive and somewhat ‘machine-like’ body, and that of typicality (of actions or practices, of standard measures, of shapes and trajectories). Ihde challenges these ideas in different ways, including by pointing at counterexamples from contemporary art (e.g. Matisse’s ‘virtuoso practice’ which clearly demonstrated atypical trajectory, especially in his late works). The final section of the chapter is dedicated to reflections on the predominant contemporary embodiment practices; whether or not they can be considered reductive, and whether and how they transform our experiences of space-time.
Chapter 4 – ‘Whole Earth Measurements Revisited’ – goes back to one of the notions first introduced towards the end of Chapter 1: that science needs instruments in order to discover new phenomena or to constitute new problems on which to focus. Structured around Ihde’s 1996 original paper of the same title, the chapter asks whether Husserl’s phenomenology, with its missing technologies, would be capable of detecting a ‘Greenhouse Effect’? It then argues in favour of a negative response; as whole earth measurements are far too complex to be accommodated by the perspectives of classical phenomenology, calling instead for two concepts Ihde refers to as firstly, the earth-as-planet perspective and secondly, an ‘understanding of measurement practice from a thorough technoscience, or instrumentally embodied science’ (80; emphasis not mine). Without those concepts and the aid of imaging technologies, we would be unable to visualize greenhouse gases, which are subperceptual. Ihde is clear that ‘instrumental mediation for Husserl yields a perceptual-correlate’, therefore in a Husserlian framework they would have to be inferred in Cartesian ways rather than perceived (81). Ihde identifies this problem as a Cartesian ‘conceptual duality between concretely perceived plena and abstractly idealized pure shapes’ (Ibid), noting that greenhouse gases are, of course, not pure shapes at all, but that if we want to account for them as material entities, we would need the assistance of postphenomenological, multi-instrumental, embodied technoscience (81-83).
Chapter 5, titled ‘Dewey and Husserl: Consciousness Revisited’, rereads Husserl and John Dewey on consciousness against the backdrop of the increased late twentieth century interest in consciousness, neurology and psychology (especially in a cognitivist context). In doing so Ihde defends phenomenology from accusations that it is subjectivist or an antiscience. From brain scans to animal studies observations of tool or technology use among corvids and primates, the realms of ‘calculating consciousness and technological innovation’ appear to be inextricably linked (92). So, Ihde turns to Dewey’s pragmatism and Husserl’s phenomenology to see exactly how the role played by consciousness differs in each of these experientially based philosophies (hint: they differ in the explanatory models they apply to epistemologies of experience, with Husserl’s essentially representing an adaptation from that of Descartes, and Dewey’s having clear Darwinian influences).
We get to take a deeper look at pragmatism and how it connects to phenomenology in Chapter 6, ‘Adding Pragmatism to Phenomenology’. Here Ihde continues addressing further critiques of phenomenology, e.g. that it relies on introspective methods and that it remains static. According to Ihde, the pragmatist rejection of essentialism/foundationalism, representationist/correspondence notions of truth and transcendental/empirical distinctions is a philosophical style which postphenomenology can reclaim, i.e. replicate, ‘with and through phenomenology’ (109). But is phenomenology capable of returning the favour and enriching pragmatism in a similar manner? Ihde points at several phenomenological techniques (or tools) that could do just that: variational theory, multistability, embodiment, and critical hermeneutics. He then goes on to show how a pragmatic phenomenology or a postphenomenology can be expected to deal with technologies – especially newer and more radical imaging technologies such as the ones that postmodern radio and radar astronomy relies on – in ways that traditional forms of representation cannot.
Finally, in Chapter 7 (appropriately titled ‘From Phenomenology to Postphenomenology’) Ihde briefly outlines the evolution of phenomenology as a term referring to a style of philosophy, as well as the history of the term’s use in his own work, in order to identify the exact moment when postphenomenology began to mature and establish its own trajectory. The book ends by recapping the same ideas that made for such a spectacular and thought-provoking introduction: that philosophy, just like science, ought to keep transforming itself over time, and that as our lifeworld changes, so must our reflections on it.