With this thesis previewed, he briefly explains in what sense his book can be called a philosophy, and moves on. First, Borgmann explains that science tells us about the world as it actually is, while technology allows us to transform it into other possible worlds Part 2, starting with chapters , goes into more depth regarding this phenomenon. It does not leave the question of the good life open but answers it along technological lines. Technology developed into a definite style of life.
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The previous chapter took Nature as an intuitive source of helpful challenges to the technological paradigm. Moreover, Borgmann actually thinks that technology, while it can be a challenge to what we find meaningful in life, for that very reason heightens its beauty.
So, what is a focal thing or practice? Examples of focal things are not hard to find, and extend beyond the wilderness: music, gardening, the culture of the table, and running constitute a few.
For Heidegger, this role of the temple—gathering in and disclosing the givenness of its surroundings—is central to art and historical existence. Technology, on the other hand, is for him a metaphysical development that deals in pure conditionality—what might or might not be the case in whatever circumstance. Conditionality potential realities based on lawlike extrapolations of variable states of affairs is totally different from givenness what truly is. Heidegger tried to recover this givenness, finding it in simple, concrete artifacts like an earthenware jug.
A simple jug by its shape and purpose discloses what it means to hold as well as to give. It gathers together sky, earth, rain, and grape together in the wine it serves, revealing them to us, teaching us about refreshment and invoking the divine via the tradition of libations, or something else.
While Borgmann is sympathetic to this way of thinking, he fears that we moderns have lost the ability to listen to earthenware jugs the same way we have discarded temples; outside of a very specific set of circumstances, a jug will just be a jug, and a temple a building. What is essential is to uncover the pattern of technology, to perceive its central emptiness, so that focal things regain a place in our ontology, where they had before been crowded out.
Moreover, we need to go beyond focal things to practices, and to an engagement with society and politics, which of course is where things themselves exist. Essentially, we need through a cultivation of focal practices and political engagement to strip the gag from focal things and allow them to have a voice in deictic discourse.
Now to more examples. Nature was a good one! Borgmann examines two in the course of the chapter: running and the culture of the table. He picks these in part because he believes that we have all experienced in some way or another the feeling of a run or at least a brisk walk , and a simple good meal at home in the presence of good company, and that we will understand the contrast between them and sitting indoors for weeks, or grabbing a quick meal from a fast-food chain.
Unfortunately running outside and homemade meals are nowadays fleeting experiences. Philosophers, politicians, and technologists have not developed them as part of a wider discourse. Instead, practitioners the runners themselves, for example have been the ones who have been witnesses of the focal power of these practices. This is excellent, as far as Borgmann is concerned, for these people can actually speak deictically to us!
Melville, Thoreau, Pirsig, and Maclean are all helpful. Even instruction manuals for hiking or backpacking can have strikingly deep philosophical reflection and insight.
Running is different than driving. In outdoor running, mind and body are intimate with the world. We know the world more deeply by running through it than driving past it in an enclosed cage. Technological eating is divided into form and function; in a festive family meal, eating once again engages us fully.
Borgmann acknowledges that in the course of any meal there is an element of sheer consumption. In the great meal, that is only part of the structure, however; there is also a moment of reflection or prayer , a sequence of courses, memorable conversation, all clothed with the desire to respect one another and the event via the discipline of table manners.
Activities are embodied in persons—the dish and cook, the vegetable and gardener, etc… This meal is not characterized by consumption and anonymity.
It could even be called religious, or sacred and many special traditional meals have that character explicitly. In our technological setting, the great meal is necessarily understood differently than in a pre-technological one; for us, rather than it being the necessary way of things, it can become something more: a place of calm, of memory.
A place where there is respite from the striving for consumption and a restoration of the depth of the world. Engaging in focal practices like running or cultivating homemade meals is clearly possible for all of us to do even if only because our technological society has given us that opportunity! Everyone can run or make a meal from scratch. Well, first of all, our labor—that which we spend most of our time doing—is exhausting. And so ultimately the rule of technology, which we have been examining all these chapters, is stronger than any ad hoc willpower we might possess.
The whole framework of our world validates my desire to simply kick back in the easy chair and watch a movie, beer in hand. If we care about running or making meals from scratch, the only thing that will suffice is turning them into an actual practice, not a series of one-off events we hope will be the norm.
How are focal practices established? In pre-technological societies, they were often done so with some mythic purpose or backstory, showing how this particular practice enacts something we all know or desire to be true cosmically, for example as in the Eucharist, a practice established to commemorate not just a specific event but the cosmic reality that event signified: God giving himself for the world.
Our antagonist today is the deadening effect of technology, but this antagonist is hard to see. It is the backdrop, the stage setting, not easily visible as a character itself.
Unless we have seen its patterns and felt its debilitating effect on our lives, it will be hard to find energy to found focal practices in opposition to it. Practices, in their recurring and faithful nature, protect focal things from being subverted by technology and from being lost because of our own frailty or natural inconsistency. Practices remind us that focal goods, far from being delivered automatically whenever we engage in the practice, are hard-won, and all the more satisfying for remaining in the practice despite difficulty or long seasons without apparent advancement.
And as Alisdair MacIntyre says, a practice always contains the notion of the goods it obtains, so the technological split between means and ends is healed—the focal practice and focal good cannot be disentangled as with a machine and its product. In sum, focal practices are essential to counteract the pattern of technology and to guard focal things from extinction.
They come into being through either our explicit resolution or an implicit nurturing that becomes a solid custom. Our focal practices today will differ from those of our pre-technological ancestors. Theirs were social, public, and enshrined in buildings, public offices, roles, clothing, etc… Ours are more humble, homely, scattered, and often more private. This is a limitation of focal practices that we need to examine if, as Borgmann thinks, they can be the ground for a more widespread reform of technology that reaches into the public sphere.
Jonathan is the architect and project lead for Appium, the popular open source automation framework. He is also the founding Principal of Cloud Grey, a consulting firm devoted to helping clients leverage the power of Appium successfully. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over 15 years, but is also passionate about academic discussion.
Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 23, “Focal Things and Practices”
The previous chapter took Nature as an intuitive source of helpful challenges to the technological paradigm. Moreover, Borgmann actually thinks that technology, while it can be a challenge to what we find meaningful in life, for that very reason heightens its beauty. So, what is a focal thing or practice? Examples of focal things are not hard to find, and extend beyond the wilderness: music, gardening, the culture of the table, and running constitute a few.
Albert Borgmann on Taming Technology: An Interview
This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 23, , pp. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www. For Albert Borgmann, philosophy is a way of taking up the questions that reside at the center of everyday life -- questions that are urgent but often inarticulate.
Something is available in this sense if it has been rendered instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy. Borgmann contrasts this with the effort required and imperfect results achieved by log fires. But Borgmann adds something important to this common view. What makes warmth more available is that it is now detached from the device - not just physically but socioeconomically.