Gehlen, A.: "A Philosophical-Anthropological Perspective on Technology"

Gehlen, A. (2003). A Philosophical-Anthropological Perspective on Technology. In R. Scharff & V. Dusek (Eds.), Philosophy of technology (pp. 213-220). Malden,  MA: Blackwell Publishing. Orig. pub. 1983.


"The use of weapons, fire, and hunting techniques thus belong to the behavioral patterns designed to preserve the species, so that the word "technology" [Technik] must refer to both the actual tools and those skills needed to create and use them which makes it possible for this instinct-poor and defenseless creature 'to preserve himself'" (213).

Argues need to begin with interpretation of "the tool." References Kapp's concept of "organ projection"-- "making it possible to distinguish the principles of organic relief [Organentlastung], organic substitution or replacement [Organersatzes], and organic strengthening or improvement [Organüberbeitung], either in themselves or through their interactions" (213). Man-made tools do not always have a model in nature.

Organic substitution: replace organic by inorganic material in artifacts [e.g., bronze age, synthetics].  Replacement of organic power [man; beast] with stored/recovered energies [solar, electricity, nuclear].


Freyer: tech of industrial age does not fit description of all tech before 18th C-- "that man fabricates appropriate means and tools to attain his goals in life, and then improves these until they serve his purposes" (214). Increased energy potential = (citing Freyer) "technological spirit becomes an absolute and is no longer tied to set goals" (214).

Cannot exactly define "technology"-- what is isn't: not simply "applied natural science." Narrowness disregards various components of superstructure (machines, such as those used in physics, do not produce goods but phenomena). Also, not necessarily promoted by interaction.

Asks "whether or not it is possible, instead of referring to a subject term or actor, to speak of the passive beneficiary of this rapid development of progress. And such a beneficiary actually seems to be the human race, admittedly in a purely biological, passionless sense" (215). 1650-1850 doubled. 1850-1950 doubled. by  2000 (written in 1983) it will have doubled again. Gehlen terms this "depressing" (215).


Technological development/ human liberation/ expansion of power > Schmidt. Schmidt sees objectification of human work through tech as a process. Three phases:

  1. tool: phys power comes from work while 'required intellectual contribution' from subject
  2. work and power machinery: brings about technological objectification of human physical power
  3. intellectual contribution of subject dispensed of by tech, leading to the automaton that acts independent of phys/ intellectual "debt" to humans.

"organic-somatic control loops"


"The question of the consequences of this externalization of our functions for man's self-understanding can, for the moment, probably only be discussed and not actually answered. When the feedback circle of human action, which is one of the most basic human phenomena, is externalized, at the same time that the technological control loop is 'desubjectified,' this of course does not constitute progress in the technological production of organic systems. After all, both circles, the subjectively possessed and externalized, are isomorphic--i.e., each 'element is replaced by a totally different one, while the relationship of the parts within the whole remains the same in both cases" (216).


"Society cannot yet be programmed" (217). Maintains can deal with presently discernible human impact of mod, tech-created life environment. Quotes Weber: "modern civilization has already changed almost beyond recognition the spiritual countenance of mankind" adding "it will continue to do so" (217).

Man dependent upon the constructed environment. Not purely theoretical: cites fallout shelters and 'arming' for defense in 1960s.

Mammals or shellfish (Arendt)? Arendt: "technology in fact no longer appears 'as the product of a conscious human effort to enlarge material power, but rather like a biological development of mankind in which the innate structres of the human organism are transformed in an ever-increasing measure to the environment of man'" (citing Heisenberg) (218).

"Human life has always made its way into those free spaces as into open niches" (218).


need of free space will decrease

generalized interests will move to center of social concerns/ experiential center of individual

goal = general welfare system meeting both immediate and imaginable needs

argues for a collectivization from technology (communism?)


'dubious expansion of consciousness'-- high degrees of influence.

brave new world?

mechanization of consciousness counter-balanced to degree that intellectual life renewed.

"the present culture is the most dishonest that ever existed" (219)

"Control of nature, both in technology and in the basic organization of society, and human propagation with social control catalyzed by this propagation, have reached a high level of mutual reinforcement" (219)