Interview with Carl Mitcham


© Carl Mitcham and Figure/Ground
Dr. Mitcham was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 29th, 2010

Carl Mitcham is Hans Jonas Chair at the European Graduate School EGS and Professor of Liberal Arts and International Studies, Colorado School of Mines. Professor Mitcham is one of the leading American philosophers of technology with a focus on the ethics of science, technology and medicine. Mitcham received his Ph. D. in Philosophy at Fordham University in 1988. He has held academic positions at several institutions in the United States and internationally: from 1970-72 at Berea College, Kentucky as an Instructor in Philosophy; from 1972-82 at St. Catharine College, Kentucky as a Lecturer in Philosophy and Social Science; from 1982-90 at Brooklyn Polytechnic University as an Associate and then a Professor of Humanities. He was a Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Science-Technology-Society Program, Pennsylvania State University from 1989-99, and the founding Director of the Philosophy and Technology Studies Center, Polytechnic University, New York. Mitcham has also been a visiting professor at the Universidad de Pais Vasco, Spain (2003-4), the University of Tilburg and the University of Twente, Netherlands (1998), the Universidad de Oviedo (1993), and the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Mayagez (1988). Mitcham is currently the Director of the Hennebach Program for the Humanities at the Colorado School of Mines, a program which sponsors events with visiting professors in the humanities. Being a primarily engineering school, the Hennebach Program works to incorporate the importance of humanities into their highly regarded technical discipline. As head of the program, Mitcham heads this department that seeks to implement interdisciplinary studies with the assistance of an Advisory Committee. He is also the president of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. Mitcham is the author of several books including: Bibliography of the Philosophy of Technology, with Robert Mackey(1973); Thinking Through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy (1994); Research in Philosophy and Technology: Social and Philosophical Constructions of Technology (1995); Thinking Ethics in Technology: Hennebach Lectures and Papers, 1995-1996 (1997); Engineer’s Toolkit: Engineering Ethics, with R. Shannon Duval (2000); La ética en la profesin de ingeniero: Ingeniera y ciudadananía, with Marcos Garca de la Huerta (2001); Technology and Religion: Oppositions, Sympathies, Transformations(2008); and Science, Technology, and Ethics: An Introduction.

Where were you born, how did you decide to attend graduate school, and at what point did you realize that you wanted to become a university professor?

In general, responses to these kinds of questions are difficult to construct.  Life and thought are so complex and fluid.  Reflecting on my life, sometimes I am not sure about whom I was or the continuity of myself.  The theologian Stanley Hauerwas (with whom it would be possible to say I once shared a church) opens his autobiography with, “I did not intend to be ‘Stanley Hauerwas.’  I am aware, however, that there is someone out there who bears that name.”  The same might well be said with regard to “Carl Mitcham.”

I was born in Dallas, Texas.  I never “decided” to attend university any more than I decided to attend grade school or high school (or even to be born).  Today, it seems required that we describe ourselves in terms of decisions.  But my experience is that decisions are not nearly as significant as they are often made out to be.  This is also in contradistinction to Carl Schmidt.  With regard to being a professor, for instance, that is not something I ever directly wanted to be.  I’m still surprised that I have apparently become one, and am not very comfortable in the role.

You attended Fordham University as a doctoral student. Who were some of your mentors there and how was your overall graduate experience in N.Y.?

I arrived at Fordham University in the 1980s.  And as if to illustrate the point about decisions, it was more happenstance than decision.  As a graduate student in the late 1960s, I was arrested for draft resistance and my graduate career was suspended at the ABD stage.  That suspension led by a circuitous route to involvement with an experiment in family monastic community.  When the community fell apart, another event took place to which I can only say I responded: The president of Brooklyn Polytechnic University (whom I just barely knew) offered me a job.  I accepted it.  Then he encouraged me to finish my PhD.  After talking with people in philosophy departments at a number of universities in New York City, Dominic Balestra at Fordham opened the door and I walked through.

Did you hear any stories about Marshall McLuhan during your time at Fordham?

I only heard stories about him from Paul Levinson, a friend at the New School.  But I don’t remember the stories.  What I remember is Levinson’s enthusiasm in talking about McLuhan, who was clearly a charismatic figure.

What do you make of McLuhan’s work? Why do you think he isn’t always acknowledged by philosophers of technology such as Andrew Feenberg, Don Ihde, or yourself?

I’ve read a fair amount of McLuhan and would acknowledge him myself.  But he is probably too oracular to be recognized as an influence by most philosophers.

You are currently a professor at the European Graduate School. How long have you been teaching at EGS and how would you characterize you experience there?

I’ve been teaching there off and on since very early, maybe the first or second year of EGS.  I love the place and experience, not the least of all because of the inspired and insightful leadership of Wolfgang Schirmacher.  He has created something unique, both in the faculty and the students.  I am always energized and challenged by the seminars there.

In the late 60s and early 70s, you were a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. How did your activism influence your research interests?

I’d put it the other way around: it was my research interests – my efforts to think what it means to be human in an increasingly technologized world, a world as artefact – that influenced me to become a Vietnam War resister.  That war was among the most unjust in United States history and it was waged with the most advanced technology America had produced to date.  It also increasingly became a war mediated by television, the media of the time.  Looking back now, I sometimes wish I had not refused induction but had gone and experienced the horror of the war up close instead at a mediated distance.  In a funny way the media both gave and took away the war, made it present and absent at once, even as I opposed it.  Miguel Hernandez, Cancionero y Romancero de Ausencias, is a favorite poets. More vivid in my memory are images of Walter Cronkite than of Thich Quang Duc, whose name I had to look up.  I lack any real feel for the heat and horror of the war and the suffering of the Vietnamese people.  My feel is of sitting in the living rooms of friends in Cambridge watching the evening news together.  There is something wrong with that, something that was articulated by Gunther Anders in his little essay, “Commandments in the Atomic Age,” when he described how our actions have escaped the capacities of our emotions.

Wikipedia provides the following list of contemporary philosophers with an interest in technology: Jean Baudrillard, Albert Borgmann, Andrew Feenberg, Langdon Winner, Donna Haraway, Avital Ronell, Don Ihde, Bruno Latour, Paul Levinson, Carl Mitcham, Leo Marx, Gilbert Simondon, Jacques Ellul and Bernard Stiegler. Is this list arbitrary? Do you feel more closely associated with some of these names than others?

It appears a bit arbitrary or capricious.  From this list, those who have most influenced me are Borgmann, Feenberg, Winner, Ihde, and Ellul.  Among others not mentioned I would add Hans Jonas, Ivan Illich, Kristin Shrader-Frechette, and Rene Girard.

Moreover, this list ignores the most vibrant community of scholars currently pursuing philosophy of technology: the Dutch school that includes Hans Achterhuis, Peter Kroes, Pieter Vermaas, Tsjalling Swierstra, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Martijntje Smits, and Philip Brey, among others.

Actually, in a recent interview I asked Albert Borgmann the same question and he replied that he would exclude Beaudrillard, Haraway, Latour, and Marx from the list on the following grounds: “Beaudrillard can be an astute and helpful observer of contemporary culture. But he throws out zingers that are either worthless or take a lot of work to develop. Haraway wrote a provocative essay, but she does not have a well-worked out philosophy of technology. I find Latour’s work mistaken or an unhelpful re-description of things that others have described already and better. Marx’s The Machine in the Garden is a wonderful book, a classic no doubt. But it’s really history rather than philosophy.” Do you agree with Borgmann’s appreciation of the field?

Yes.  No one is more sound in such assessments than Borgmann.  I admire him greatly for his calm and well measured evaluations.  Incidentally, although he did not say it, if we were to adopt his perspective on Carl Mitcham, it would probably be to characterize him as more historian of the philosophy of technology, or perhaps as an intellectual journalist, than as a philosopher in the sense that Borgmann is.

Your masterpiece is Thinking Through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy (1994). In a nutshell, what is the path that you allude to in the title?

As you may not suspect, I’m uncomfortable with the word “masterpiece.”  But the path I tried to take is to begin with engineering or technology and from there seek philosophy, wisdom, not simply more power, efficiency, or artifice.  This is an increasingly difficult /ambiguous/ambitious task in a world increasingly made artefact.  The more common strategy is that enunciated by Haraway: to take “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries [between nature and technology] and for responsibility in their construction.”  But can an “ironic faith” have any purchase in a world of non-ironic faith in technology?   The philosopher who has tried to think this path without irony more than any other is Leo Strauss.  More recently I’ve also found Pierre Manent helpful.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on too many things, too many of them no more than half finished.  The year 2010 witnessed publication of the Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (co-edited with Robert Frodeman and Julie Thompson Klein) and Humanitarian Engineering (co-authored with an engineering colleague, David Munoz).  The former continues my more scholarly side and reflects an interest in thinking philosophy as interdisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity as philosophy.  There is something the matter with disciplines that needs re-thought.  The latter is just a small textbook effort to throw a bridge between human rights and engineering.  With regard to engineering, and looping back to the “thinking through technology” question, is a book on philosophy of engineering that will appear in a Chinese version next year.  One of these days I would like to finish a small book on religion and technology.  (But I’m not sure who the “I” that will be able to do it.)

Another concern not yet mentioned is science policy.  Here my guide has been Daniel Sarewitz, a geologist with a philosophical soul.  We need to better understand science policy, to promote a philosophy of science policy that could perhaps contribute small chiropractic adjustments to the billons of dollars the world currently invests in research and development in the belief that giving money to science is an unqualified good.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carl Mitcham
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2010). “Interview with Carl Mitcham,” Figure/Ground. December, 29th.
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