Tuesday 15 December 2015

The cost of the 'Question concerning technology'

At a phenomenology reading group yesterday  there was a surprisingly positive reception for Martin Heidegger’s Question concerning technology. Within a community of health researchers, one reason for this seemed to be a kind of anti-scientistic suspicion of the overuse of an impersonal technological approach to patients. Heidegger’s suspicion of modern technology’s view of the world as merely a kind of resource resonated with worries about modern medicine. The mood that resonated is expressed in the snide final sentence of the description of the role of the Rhine in contemporary thinking.

What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Holderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry. [Heidegger 1977: 5]

But it seemed to me that that the cost of this reassurance was high: his suspicion not, I think, of scientism but of science itself. It is suggested here:

It remains true, nonetheless, that man in the technological age is, in a particularly striking way, challenged forth into revealing. That revealing concerns nature, above all, as the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve. Accordingly, man’s ordering attitude and behavior display themselves first in the rise of modern physics as an exact science. Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces. Modern physics is not experimental physics because it applies apparatus to the questioning of nature. Rather the reverse is true. Because physics, indeed already as pure theory, sets nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance, it therefore orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way. ... The modern physical theory of nature prepares the way first not simply for technology but for the essence of modern technology. [ibid: 21]

(There is also a lovely distinction between history and chronology:

But after all, mathematical physics arose almost two centuries . before technology. How, then, could it have already been set upon by modern technology and placed in its service? The facts testify to the contrary. Surely technology got under way only when it could be supported by exact physical science. Reckoned chronologically, this is correct. Thought historically, it does not hit upon the truth. [ibid: 21-2] )

If I follow the broad picture, the way in which the world reveals itself to us in the modern era, the era of both modern science and industrial production, manifests the essence of technology. That essence is the form that the world takes for us. Further, although Heidegger thinks that there is something wrong with this way, what is wrong is not a matter of falsity. Truths are revealed to us through the technological gaze. One thing wrong seems to be that this way of understanding the world excludes all others. From within it, it seems that this is the only way to latch onto the world. It takes a Heidegger to spot, because of clues still present and hinted at in a line from Holderlin, that this is not so. A poetic revealing of the world, by contrast, permits the idea that still other ways may be available.

The logic of the passage about science seems to be that what is wrong in the way the world is revealed to us through the conceptual spectacles of the essence of technology is already present in the way that natural science takes the world to fit the realm of mathematicised natural law. So if there were a way to step aside from a technological gaze it would involve rejecting the rise of scientific accounts of nature. Heidegger does not seem to reject merely a philosophical addition to science: the scientistic assumption that there is no more to nature than natural science reveals. It seems that with the sentence “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces” that science itself is already at fault.

This may all be my misunderstanding but if not it seems that the cost of the framework that Heidegger offers to my colleagues is too high. As well as rejecting a scientistic assumption that the world is merely the disenchanted realm science describes, we have also to reject its disenchanted descriptions of the disenchanted bits of the world described despite the truth that seems to inhere in them. So scientific medicine would have to be thrown out wholesale rather than merely put to the service of person centred care.

I also wonder what the marks of someone who had achieved the view Heidegger points towards would be. It was, apparently, there in the poetic response to the world of the ancient Greeks and their wholehearted embrace of art not as a mere cultural industry. For them, a life of silver chalice making perhaps. But what would it be now?

Heidegger, M. (1977) 'The question concerning technology' in Heidegger, M. The question concerning technology, and other essays. New York: Harper & Row

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Missed link to RDoC

My Frontiers paper (2015) ‘Against explanatoryminimalism in psychiatry’ Frontiers of Psychiatry 6: 171 is now out in proper format. But I realise that I missed a trick by not connecting it to issues raised in particular by Steve Hyman's Oxford lectures last month: the rise and rise of RDoC. This was suggested to me in an email over the weekend by a psychiatrist:

"Hi Tim,

I came across a copy of your recent paper “Against explanatory minimalism in psychiatry.” As I am not trained in philosophy, parts of it definitely “went over my head.” But, it seems to be quite relevant to a contemporary problem in American mental health research. That is, the National Institute of Mental Health is very focused on a neuroscientific model of mental health, and more specifically the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) framework:


This is controversial because it is impacting the types of projects that are and are not funded by NIMH, independent of scientific merit as determined by the review panels. Although not explicitly mentioned in your paper, the topic of your paper seems quite timely and relates to very pragmatic issues that is already having a profound long-term effect on psychiatric research. The RDoC framework is shaping the types of questions people are training to answer – with a huge emphasis on the “lower” levels of analysis, such as genetics/genomics, biomarkers, and at best, neural circuits, and much less on the actual lived-experience of people with mental illnesses."

Tuesday 1 December 2015


I have a couple of PhD vivas this week (and a third where my role is merely chair) and getting home after the first, which had a happy outcome and went well by all the usual standards, I was as bad tempered as, on reflection, I always am. Given that they simply comprise a friendly questioning conversation, why should that be? Perhaps it’s because they are a disturbing parody of an academic conversation.

A fellow philosopher reported on Facebook last year that she had been asked a question at a conference which began: “I want to re-ask an earlier question but more aggressively…” What possible role could aggression have in academia, she wondered. Clearly it shouldn’t have any but I think I can see why it might seem to have one.

On the assumption that asking philosophical questions is a matter of weighing reasons for beliefs, and assuming that we don’t have a general theory of good and bad reasons (logic only goes so far), then one must accord them weight them ‘from within’ for which process a characteristic experience is an inner exclamation of ‘But that’s a terrible reason!’. In polite conversation and said of someone else’s commitment – rather than the abstract possibility of a reason – saying that would sound, and possibly be, aggressive. In academia, between equals it wouldn’t be or even sound so. (There really is no need for aggression in academia.) But because of the power imbalance in a viva such an expression is something to be avoided with a potentially nervous PhD candidate. So part of the stress of the viva is that a commitment to exploring reasons brings with it characteristic experiences of bad reasons (as well as good, but they are easy) which have then constantly to be masked. For two hours.

Second, I take my role in a viva to be primarily exploring the student’s reasons for saying and doing what he or she has in the thesis not simply imposing my views of what he/she ought. It is often a matter of exploring the costs of adopting particular views. Sometimes this leads to agreement on a matter. In other cases, not and the prospect of suggested corrections to the thesis. But in a number of cases, even after some iterations, one doesn’t ground out the issue and, practically in the circumstances, the only thing to do is let the matter drop. A PhD is, after all, merely an academic apprenticeship. But as part of a conversation aimed at getting at the truth, such lacunae are hugely frustrating. So as well as letting the particular issue drop, one has also to hide the frustration of doing this.

On reflection, though, that’s not the best way to describe things. If the conversation were simply ‘aimed at getting at the truth’ then one would usually also offer solutions. That’s what I’d do at a conference or in the pub. Although I sometimes do this in vivas in order to ask a further question, as an end in itself, it is not very helpful as part of an exam. So again there’s an internal tension in this case between the apparent regulative ideal of the conversation – seeking out the truth – and its role as an exam.

I noticed yesterday that my fellow examiner referred in media res to the ‘interesting conversation’ we were all ‘having together’. But it is a weird parody of a conversation leaving no one satisfied.