Interview with Andrew Feenberg

© Andrew Feenberg and Figure/Ground
Dr. Feenberg was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. August 18th, 2010.

Andrew Feenberg is Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, where he directs the Applied Communication and Technology Lab. He has also taught for many years in the Philosophy Department at San Diego State University, and at Duke University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the Universities of California, San Diego and Irvine, the Sorbonne, the University of Paris-Dauphine, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and the University of Tokyo and the University of Brasilia. He is the author of Lukacs, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (Rowman and Littlefield, 1981; Oxford University Press, 1986), Critical Theory of Technology (Oxford University Press, 1991), Alternative Modernity (University of California Press, 1995), andQuestioning Technology (Routledge, 1999). A second edition of Critical Theory of Technology appeared with Oxford in 2002 under the title Transforming Technology. Heidegger and Marcuse: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History appeared in 2005 with Routledge. Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity appeared with MIT Press in 2010. Translations of several of these books are available. Dr. Feenberg is also co-editor of Marcuse: Critical Theory and the Promise of Utopia (Bergin and Garvey Press, 1987), Technology and the Politics of Knowledge (Indiana University Press, 1995), Modernity and Technology (MIT Press, 2003), andCommunity in the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). His co-authored book on the French May Events of 1968 appeared in 2001 with SUNY Press under the title When Poetry Ruled the Streets. With William Leiss, Feenberg has edited a collection entitled The Essential Marcuse published by Beacon Press. A book on Feenberg’s philosophy of technology entitled Democratizing Technology, appeared in 2006. Dr. Feenberg is currently studying online education on a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). In this exclusive interview with Figure/Ground, Professor Feenberg talks about Marcuse, Heidegger, McLuhan and the philosophy of technology.

In one of your lectures entitled Heidegger, Marcuse and the Philosophy of Technology, you said that, even though you had had the good fortune to study with Marcuse and been influenced by his thought, you did not consider yourself a “Marcusean.” I’m curious as to why you felt the need to make that clarification, and whether that makes you ipso-facto a Heideggerian, given that Heidegger was your mentor’s mentor…

It seems to me a “Marcusean” would have to buy the Freudian dimension of Marcuse’s thought. I am not convinced. There is also the matter of Marcuse’s proposal for a “new science” which I have discussed critically. I have felt the need to reinterpret these aspects of his thought in phenomenological terms, which brings me somewhat closer to Heidegger, but there’s no ipso-facto about it. I am even less a Heideggerian than a Marcusean!

I found your anecdote about Marcuse asking you to make a phenomenological reduction of a sunset quite amusing. You write:“Phenomenology seemed to collapse in the face of Marcuse’s stunning koan, but sudden enlightenment did not follow. It could not possibly have occurred to me then that the rejection of a phenomenological reduction that late afternoon confirmed yet again Marcuse’s decision to abandon Heidegger’s mentorship in 1933. He had found another way to understand beauty and its promise of happiness.” Now, isn’t the phenomenological reduction a feature of transcendental phenomenology à la Husserl? Wasn’t Marcuse’s critique the exact same critique Heidegger laid down on Husserl in order to “existentialize” the transcendental phenomenology of his mentor – namely, that one can’t possibly reduce the complexities and ambiguities of lived-through world experience? Is Heidegger “just” a phenomenologist in your view?

This is a very complicated question. Marcuse was probably criticizing me for my then-Husserlian bias against Heidegger. So perhaps he was indulging in a Heideggerian critique of his student Feenberg. I don’t actually know. He was also undoubtedly thinking about the aesthetic in the terms of his own theory. I do think Heidegger was a kind of phenomenologist, at least until the 1930s. This is clear from his courses and from Being and Time. But I don’t get the “just” a phenomenologist remark. There is a tendency to construct an idealist straw man out of Husserl in order to make Heidegger seem more original than he was. I don’t buy that.

During one of his lectures at UC Berkeley, John Searle declared: “in the subculture that I belong to, you don’t want to be caught dead with any of the ‘Hs’” – in clear reference to Hegel, Husserl, but especially Heidegger, given his well-known antagonism with Hubert Dreyfus. Do you think Heidegger’s work continues to be stigmatized and ignored because of his ties to Nazism? I personally believe that the “Death of the Author” was a premature death sentence; however, I do think it’s important to separate a man from his work in some instances, especially when it means saving the work from the man. I’m thinking of Heidegger – but also of Althusser and others. As academics, how should we deal with the fact that perhaps one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, whose masterpiece is, in my opinion, a labour of love that has inspired so many, was also a Nazi collaborator? Does your book Heidegger and Marcuse: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History provide an insight into this sensitive issue?

I seriously doubt if Searle worries overmuch about Heidegger’s Nazism. The big problem, far bigger than mere political errors, is “Continental obscurantism.” We like our ideas “clear” in the English speaking world. So that’s a red herring. Your interesting question concerns the significance of Heidegger’s Nazism for our appreciation of his philosophy. There seems no doubt that Heidegger had serious character flaws that played into his response to Hitler. But to what extent were these reflected in a work like Being and Time? Here’s my answer, which I presented in my book. Heidegger had four very smart Jewish students, Marcuse, Arendt, Jonas, and Lowith. They were surprised when he became a Nazi. Surely that is the most important evidence of all. They must have noticed that their professor was very conservative, but that did not necessarily imply Hitler worship in the late twenties and early 30s. There were other more respectable ways of being conservative. I do think that Heidegger’s conservatism is apparent in Being and Time, and influences his thought in ways that diminish it, but that is a far cry from Nazism.

In the aforementioned lecture of yours, you went on to describe the making of your book as follows: “several years ago I decided to investigate the links between Heidegger and Marcuse more closely and discovered to my surprise that they share a common interpretation of Aristotle, an interpretation that seems to originate in Heidegger’s early courses which Marcuse attended.” How was Heidegger’s (and Marcuse’s) interpretation of Aristotle different from, say, Franz Brentano’s and other philosophers coming from a Cartesian background? What’s the importance of Aristotle in the philosophy of technology?

I am not sufficiently acquainted with all the other interpretations of Aristotle to comment on that part of your question. Certainly Marcuse might have been influenced by many different interpreters but we happen to know he studied with Heidegger for whom Aristotle’s thought was absolutely central. In fact Heidegger interpreted Aristotle as a kind of proto-phenomenologist of the everyday lifeworld. Objectivistic assumptions veiled this to Aristotle himself and to most of his interpreters. Perhaps this is what you mean by referring to “Cartesian” interpretations. As far as philosophy of technology is concerned, the importance of Aristotle lies in his notion that techne realizes potentialities rather than imposing subjectively constructed plans. This is the core argument of Heidegger’s essay on The Question of Technology and it continues in Marcuse in a modified form. They both contrast modern technology with this earlier form of technique. The main difference between them is that Heidegger sees no possibility of renewing techne while Marcuse sees a promise of renewal in socialism.

In a recent interview I did with professor Corey Anton, he pointed out that he was a little suspicious of scholars who talk about “topics” when they’re asked what they do. Do you think specialization still holds in the age of information? McLuhan predicted that it wouldn’t; but if that were true, why don’t we appear to have thinkers like Sartre, Heidegger or Husserl anymore, all of whom seem to have provided us with robust and perfectly articulated systems of thought and comprehensive tool-kits that could be applied to and used to make sense of just about anything across many disciplines and topic areas?

I am not sure that our failure to produce heroic thinkers such as the ones you mention is caused by specialization. With the exception of technical domains, this is a period of astounding cultural poverty. Specialization may be more of a reaction to the impotence of thought today than a cause. As for McLuhan, I do not think he had it right. It is true there are tendencies toward the breakdown of disciplinary barriers in many fields but I think these tendencies are due to the upsurge of real problems that won’t fit within those boundaries and not to changes in the media as McLuhan supposed. I would give the example of environmentalism as a case in point.

In a recent interview, Professor Albert Borgmann defined you as follows: “Andrew Feenberg is the premier political philosopher of technology although he is well-versed in so many other areas that bear on our understanding of technology…he knows much more about political theory and is more optimistic about ordinary people’s ability to adapt technologies to morally significant concerns.” Somewhat related to the previous questions, do you consider yourself a generalist?

Albert is very generous. He has made a great contribution to our thinking about technology. I only wish the environment in which his ideas were presented had been more favourable to the kind of wide ranging and deep reflection in which he engages. In answer to your question, I am an odd sort of generalist. I tend to take up multiple specializations and try to do good professional work in each while contributing to a larger project.

The following question was drafted by Professor Albert Borgmann himself: “is the philosophy of technology a fruitful and flourishing branch of philosophy, has it been recognized as a bona fide special area by North American mainstream philosophers, and has it made a contribution to the public conversation in North America?”

I do not think philosophy of technology has broken through. The reason is primarily the intolerance of analytic philosophers. It does not help that American philosophers who are interested in Continental philosophy have taken up figures who themselves are uninterested in technology such as Habermas and Derrida. Not to say these thinkers are uninteresting! On the contrary, but philosophy of technology has a hard time in organizations such as SPEP. Perhaps Don Ihde has succeeded better than the rest of us in attracting attention to our field but one robin does not make a spring. The other part of the question is more positive. I do think philosophy of technology has had some influence in gradually weaning people away from older positivist and instrumentalist notions of technology. The Internet and the environmental movement have given us a credibility we would never have had on purely argumentative grounds but it has been important that arguments and concepts have been available to rethink technology in the light of these experiences.

You may not remember this, but when I was an undergraduate student at SFU, I once showed up in your office asking you why you considered Marshall McLuhan a technological determinist, given that much of his work is concerned with mediation, embodiment, and the senses. I think I was unable to get my point across then, though that exchange inspired me to write my MA thesis about the points of contact between media ecology and phenomenology. Why do you think McLuhan’s work is largely ignored by philosophers of technology such as Don Ihde, Albert Borgmann, Michael Heim and yourself?

McLuhan had the unfortunate good luck of being too popular for a moment in time and falling off the edge of the world afterwards. Something similar seems to have happened to Marcuse. I will admit that I could use a refresher course on McLuhan who I read with great sympathy in the 1960s. But there is a theoretical problem. The thesis that technologies extend the body and the senses is associated historically with the deterministic views of Gehlen and other early thinkers. For us the question is not just how technology extends the body and senses but how technologies shape and are shaped by cultural and political contexts. I don’t think this was McLuhan’s question.

How is your approach to the study of technology different from some of the philosophers of technology I have just mentioned? Are you an optimist, a pessimist or an “apocalyptic” – like McLuhan used to say – when it comes technological progress and development?

I seem to be the only philosopher of technology attempting to work with the ideas of both the Frankfurt School and constructivist sociology of technology. Combining these sources has been an interesting project for me and opens up the politics of technology in an original way. I suppose the radical indeterminism of constructivist sociology encourages me to be more optimistic than some others writing on technology, but I was raised in the midst of the scientific community and have always had an acute awareness of the threat of nuclear weapons. I would summarize my views this way. Our civilization has no assured long term prospects of survival unlike every earlier major civilizational project. On the other hand, its future is more open to decision than others as well, and this means we can hope to make good decisions that preserve us from threatening catastrophe.  Is that optimistic or pessimistic? I’m not sure.

What are you currently working on?

I have just brought out a book entitled Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity. It is published by MIT Press. So you do not have to wait for my next book to find out what I am thinking these days. I am working on two projects at present. I have spent a good deal of time lecturing in Latin America and writing for Chinese magazines lately. I am interested in the relation of philosophy of technology to the problems of exclusion and development. These texts and some lectures presented in Holland form a short book which I hope will be a good introduction to critical theory of technology. I am also writing on Lukács again. My thesis under Marcuse was on the early Lukács. I have been invited to contribute chapters to two forthcoming books on Lukács and this has got me interested in returning to this topic.

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Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2010). “Interview with Andrew Feenberg,” Figure/Ground. August 18th.
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