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The existential philosophy of Karl Jaspers

Karl Jaspers was a very influential existential philosopher. His theories embody both instrumentalism and determinism.
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Who is Karl Jaspers? Karl Jaspers was a very influential existential philosopher who lived between 1883 and 1969. His work is actually still highly relevant for our thinking about technology. Moreover, his work actually embodies elements from both ‘instrumentalism’ and ‘determinism’, and that makes his work an ideal start for this course. So what does Jaspers think about technology?
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In the early stage of his work, you could say that he started out with a rather deterministic and negative view of technology in which technology alienates humans from themselves. And it does so because technology results in what Jaspers called a mass culture, a mass rule in our society.
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His argumentation is as follows: because of technology, he says, ever more people can live on this earth. And that very fact requires a mechanization of labor. But it also requires a bureaucratic organization of our society, resulting in a society that’s organized as a machine itself. One big apparatus in which human beings can only exist as the fulfillers of the function that they have within that big societal machine. Moreover, our material world becomes a mass world as well, and a world of purely functional objects. Things that exist in mass all identical to each other, like authenticity. They don’t ask for attachment. They don’t call on us as authentic, unique individuals.
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So Jaspers says both our social and our material environment cause us to lose the ability to live authentically, to live as a unique existence, according to Jaspers. We all become cogs in a machine of technology, just like the movie ‘Modern Times’ of Charlie Chaplin shows so beautifully. Jaspers calls this in fact, the demonism of technology. Technology is like a demon. It’s out of control. It’s steering society in a way that nobody actually asked for. But it’s really very hard to escape from it, to undo this situation. So is technology something bad in itself then, you could ask yourself. Well, in fact, according to Jaspers, that’s not the case.
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Even though it might sound a bit strange after what we just heard, especially after the Second World War, his view changed. And he came to the conclusion that we can still see that there is this demonism of technology. But we should also be aware of the fact that we have called for this demon ourselves. So, Jaspers now starts to understand technology in terms of its limits. What can technology not do? What are its boundaries, so to say? And one of the most important limits of technology for Jaspers is that technology is a means, not an end. Technology cannot set its own goals. It’s fully dependent on human beings for the goals for which it can be used.
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So that means that the demonism of technology comes from the fact that we as human beings have started to treat technology as an end in itself rather than treating it as a means. Technology needs direction, needs guidance.
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That means that we have to change our view of technology, and for Jaspers, it’s ultimately the atom bomb that made him realize that. The atom bomb could only have been somehow prevented if somebody had guided this technology. And paradoxically enough, it requires us to see that technology is neutral and needs guidance. Of course, the atom bomb is a bad thing, but it only turned out to be a bad thing because human beings used it as such. What we need to do is to regain sovereignty towards technology. And that means that we have to learn to think authentically about technology. For Jaspers that means that means that we have to use reason and not only scientific calculation.
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We need to stop thinking technologically about technology, but we need to start using reason in order to guide technology in a responsible way.
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So, an interesting view of technology that embodies elements from instrumentalism and determinism, highly interesting, I would say, but it’s also worth to take a critical look at it. And what you see here in fact I think, is that Karl Jaspers, when he starts to think about technologies, often reduces technologies to the conditions that lie behind them. And then he starts to think about these conditions as if he were thinking about the technologies themselves. For instance, if he thinks about what it means to live in this mass world, he reduces the objects that we use to the system of mass production that they come from.
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But the fact that the tables and the cars and all the machines that we use come from the system of mass production, doesn’t mean that we cannot use them authentically. That does not follow from that. We can still get attached to such a thing, even if there are a lot of copies of it, because we have developed a history with it. The fact that technologies come from a system of mass rule doesn’t mean that they also install mass rule when they are used. That requires a different way of thinking about technology. Maybe we can take a look at the example of the car, an example that embodies a bit, maybe these two ways of thinking about technology.
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Of course, cars make us free. At least they seemed to do that. Now we can go wherever we want at high speed. In the meantime, cars have also changed the world. We can say that they come from this world of mass production and therefore they install a mass life, but they do much more. They have to change the layout of our cities, for instance. And they have also resulted in a separation between labor and leisure, because we cannot live further away from our work than than ever, which has also resulted in a separation of the social sphere at work, in the social sphere, in our free time.
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And some people even say that cars helped to shape the choices that we make about our offspring, because the size of the couch at the back of a car indicates how many children you are supposed to get. In other words, what a technology does, cannot always be fully reduced to the conditions or the origins of that technology. That means that we need to develop an approach to technology that is maybe a bit richer without losing this existential questioning that Jaspers brought about. We cannot reduce technologies to mass rule, but in fact, it’s important to still see that technologies are changing society in quite a specific way. And that’s what we will focus on in the rest of this week.
In this video we introduce you to several important concepts of Karl Jaspers’ philosophy of technology. Have another look at the glossary in STEP 1.2 to familiarise yourself with these concepts and read more about Karl Jaspers below.

Karl Jaspers and the demonism of technology

Psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) was one of the most important representatives of existential philosophy, who also developed an existential philosophy of technology. His early conception of technology, which he put forth in Man in the Modern Age (1931), revolved around the transformation of human society into a mass, mechanised culture. His initial assessment of this transformation was negative. He wrote of the demonism of technology, describing technology as an independent power which had been summoned into existence by human beings but which now has turned against them. According to Jaspers, technology transforms human society into a mass culture, alienating human beings from themselves and from the world around them.
Jaspers considered mass-rule a byproduct of the close interaction between technological development and population growth, which results in a vast number of human beings whose existence becomes utterly dependent on technology. This dependency requires a quite specific social and cultural formation. Besides a mechanisation of labour, society needs a smoothly operating bureaucratic organisation in order to keep functioning. Society becomes a machine itself, described by Jaspers as The Apparatus.
This apparatus of workers, machines, and bureaucracy increasingly determines how human beings carry out their daily lives. It has two different but related effects. First, its system of mass production fosters a homogenisation of the material environment in which human beings live. No attachment is possible to mass produced objects, which only exist as exemplars of a general form and are primarily present in terms of their functionality. Second, the apparatus approaches human beings not as unique individuals, but as fulfillers of functions who are in principle interchangeable. Both effects of the technological transformation of society impede human beings from being present as authentic existences, and from living their lives authentically and in existential proximity to the world around them.
After World War II, Jaspers’ analysis of technology changed course. Rather than viewing technology as a threat to authentic human existence, in The Origin and Goal of History (1949) and The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man (1958), Jaspers saw technology as what was at stake in it. He concluded that technology is ultimately neutral or no more than a means for human goals, since it is incapable of generating its own goals. This neutrality makes human beings responsible for what they make of technology: Technology requires human guidance. The task for human beings is to reassert sovereignty over technology.
Jaspers’ later perspective allowed him to discern not only a threatening side of technology but also ways in which it opened up new existential possibilities. These include new proximity to reality, by understanding the laws of nature lying behind the functioning of technology; recognition of the beauty of technological constructs; and making use of the possibilities opened up by media and transportation technologies, which allow humans to experience the Earth as one whole for which they can feel responsible.

References

Jaspers, K. (1931). Die geistige Situation der Zeit. Berlin: Göschen (Band 1000). Translation: Man in the Modern Age (1957), Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Jaspers, K. (1949), Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Zurich: Artemis. Translation: The Origin and Goal of History (1953), London: Routledge
Jaspers, K. (1958), Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen. Munich: Piper. Translation: The Future of Mankind (1961), also as: The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

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