Critical Theory

Andrew Feenberg asks “What is the Philosophy of Technology?” a question Popper concerned himself with a few years ago and one that came up in my studies the other day.

According to Popper, who wrote in 1965 (Three Views Concerning Human Knowledge) science has abandoned philosophy and instead concerned itself only with with “the mastery of the mathematical formalism (ie the instrument) and its application”. In philosophical jargon the instrumentalist view advocated by Osiander in his preface to Copernicus’ work in 1543 (Copernicus was the guy who wrote that the Earth orbited the sun) has become hegemonic in science. In this view, scientific theory is useful for calculating results or predicting things, like when the stars appear but doesn’t actually tell us anything concrete about reality.

Given the the way scientific theories evolve as descriptions of observable facts and the way they explain things in relative terms, this view is hardly surprising but Feenberg espouses Critical Theory as an alternative to blind faith in the liberal notion of infinite scientific progress. Such progress is understood to eventually lead us to know everything, sort of like God who is also omniscient but still embodied in our human form.

It may well be that having abandoned belief in God leads us inexorably to this point but it does seem strange that for a culture that has “progressed” beyond a belief system based on religious faith we seem to have replaced it with another belief system based on yet another ideal, that is, infinite scientific progress.

This is itself perhaps not so strange given the prevailing belief in other ideas such as infinite economic growth, a belief that will eventually lead everyone to nirvana but one that coincidentally results in structural inequality in our societies.

Basically Critical Theory as I understand Feenberg consists in humans making choices about systems of means and ends. For example if the outcome we desire is a relatively stable weather system which is less destructive to agriculture and vulnerable population centres, then perhaps we should consider sharply reducing our contribution of CO2 in the atmosphere, especially given the existing weight of scientific theories about climate change.

The idea has application everywhere, from the small to the very big. Think about it 🙂


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