So I’ve been thinking through some of the work I’ve done in the last year on Modern American Technocracy and I’d like to publicly articulate some tentative conclusions. Some of these might be more lucid than others but try to cut me some slack since it’s 4am.

  1. The central and distinguishing characteristic of modernity is not technology itself—the Greeks were aware of the fact of invention and reflected on it systematically enough to formulate searching moral and political critiques of it. In fact, our terminology for these things is even of classical origin. Nevertheless, technology wasn’t largely understood by them to be essentially in contradistinction to nature but a mimetic reflection of it, or a consummation or perfection of nature. This means they certainly understood the “technological dimension of freedom”, as Pope Benedict pus it, as a genuine source of reflection about the peculiar character of undetermined human agency but had not yet interpreted that discovery as either the key to plumbing the depths of the being of human beings nor had they thought it prudent to politically and morally liberate human liberty itself from all restraints. Strauss is on to something when he writes that the central and maybe only difference between the ancients and the moderns regarding their respective assessments of democracy is a function of their assessments of technology.

  2. This means that technocracy, or the rule of technological reason rather than the empirical fact of technology, is the hallmark of modernity. From a practical-political perspective this means the “mastery and possession of nature”, or the “relief of man’s estate”—the goal is to radically transform the “almost worthless materials furnished by nature” into something useful for man. Technological power both reveals and harnesses or directs our liberationist freedom—-the “mastery” of nature is the asymptotic aggrandizement of our freedom in the direction of autonomy. From a theoretical perspective, this means that the tripartite activities of man—knowing/making/loving—has to be collapsed into making. There is a tension one can still discern in Descartes between knowing and making—-he simultaneously affirms the primary goodness of knowing and the priority of making—there is a volatile dichotomy that runs through the Discourses between the beautiful and the useful. However, he ultimately tries to effectuate a synthesis of the two since knowing ends up identical to making—-we only know what we make. Theory construction is like nature reconstruction—Descartes gives us a theory of practice that really produces a very abstract but un-metaphysical lionization of practice. Loving turns out to be much more resistant to its exhaustion into making or productivity—even making babies is hard to properly spin as form of productivity. Machiavelli ultimately prefers fear over love because fear is an object of rational control—we can make it—but love is mysteriously recalcitrant to a simple summoning (ask King Lear).

  3. One great tension in modernity is its persistent difficulty, even utter failure, to forward a credible philosophical anthropology, or a real account of man. This is expressed in the great modern tension between two conspicuously inconsistent pursuits—the elevation of technology and the discovery of the “personal”. One can see this at the level of technology itself—-the point is to personalize a cosmos indifferent to our pain and joy by remaking it in our image—we perfect the failed creation project of God. Paradoxically, the personalization of nature depersonalizes human reason and human reasoners—it disconnects human life from a proper reflection on the good, on our true moral condition, and on ourselves as particular beings. David Walsh, in his most recent work, points out that much of modern philosophy is dominated by the attempt to excavate a theoretically unvarnished encounter with existence prior to theory—however, in my view (not Walsh’s) this often counterproductively issues in even greater abstraction. Heidegger is a good example of a thinker who, in aggressively attempting to generate an account of human practice independent of theory is precipitately led into a remarkably theoretical view of practice. He tries to get to Being itself via human beings, the only part of Being open to Being, but ends up over-personalizing Being through its encapsulation by History and depersonalizing human beings by presupposing a kind of a-moral autonomy as his point of departure. For all his aversion to technological nihilism, he ultimately succumbs to it.

  4. Heidegger is right that there is a technological dimension to America—one can see that the early American writings are rife with references to technology and the analogy between politics and science. Our whole republic is often discussed as an invention, one which is “unprecedented in the annals of human history”, and Madison even uses the curious phrase “inventions of prudence”. Our success depends upon a “new science of politics” that replaces “accident and force” with “reflection and choice”. I could go one and have elsewhere. However, there is also a preoccupation in the same writings with classical virtue—in other words, that which both provides content to freedom and limits it. One can see this great tension in Adams who sometimes discusses virtue as a requisite condition for the establishment of a good constitution and other times a good constitution as the sine qua non condition for virtue. Our constitution is a technological artifact—we made it—but it is also properly understood as on object of veneration. In other words, the constitution is the most ambitious political attempt to combine the traditional view that the good is connected to the ancestral with the exhilaration and goodness of innovation. America is surely modern but not irreducibly so—but like all of modernity it struggles with the task of putting together modern depersonalizing technology and the modern elucidation of the personal.


I have a lot more to say on all these things but fatigue has finally found me. As Peter often says, more soon.

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