CHAPTER XIII


TECHNOLOGY AND
CZECH PHILOSOPHY




As is well-known, technology has not been a very popular theme in philosophy. The great authority of ancient times, Aristotle, considered "techné" a lower stage of practical reason, along with "phronésis" or reasonability of a mostly political kind. Since "techné" taught control rather than analysis of cause and understanding, it was not deemed very respectable by speculative philosophers.

The non practical character of theoretical knowledge in antiquity was the reason why technology was dealt with so inadequately. If technology is conceived as a deliberate use of natural and man-made systems and structures for human cultural purposes, it is easy to understand that its philosophical reflection has, from the beginning, been confronted with serious conceptual difficulties due to the ambiguous status of material culture, of which technology is a constituent part.

This is, the nature of technology cannot be understood from technology itself. Philosophical reflections which identify technology with human skillfulness and dexterity, on the one hand, or with artificial technological means, on the other, cannot explain the nature of technology. As is the more apparent to us nowadays, technology is characteristic not only of man as a species, but also as a significant global structure of culture, the most active element of its ecological opposition to the machine.

The biological line of technological programs, which began with a deliberate use of the functions and metabolisms of living systems and which nowadays culminates in modern biotechnologies, has not drawn much theoretical attention. Hence, a more fruitful philosophical approach to technology seems to have been the analysis of the evolution of the non-biologic technological means (tool, machine, automatic system). Such an analysis has contributed to an understanding of the place of man in the technological system, indicated the role of experience and science in the evolution of technology, and suggested a host of technological and natural aspects of technology.

BEFORE 1950

In the Czech philosophy of the first half of this century, i.e., before the arrival of the official Marxist philosophy, the subject of technology was very rare and was understood mostly in the line of the traditional Greek conception of "techné" as the skillfulness and dexterity of man. Outside philosophy, within largely popular and immediately didactic approaches, e.g., in university lectures given by technicians and sociologists, the focus understandably enough was more empirical. More attention was paid to the utilitarian subject of technology, its history, complexity, function, influence on man, etc.(222)

Significantly, in the 1930s, neither eská mysl (The Czech Mind), nor Ruch filosofický (Philosophical Action), nor Filosofie (Philosophy) published a text of major importance or a review of a book dealing solely with technology. In 1927, however, an article by J. Barto entitled "Umni a technika" (Art and Technology) appeared in Ruch filosofický. The author, in accordance with the Greek tradition, understands technology as dexterity, capability, or assurance in execution. "Technology is that which time and again keeps being repeated. There are rhythms which through some mysterious way time and again penetrate into works of art so as to function as a basis for the production of unique artistic creations."

Král's eskoslovenská filosofie (Czechoslovak Philosophy), dating back to the 1930s, makes an indirect mention of technology, recalling the work of Jindich Fleischner entitled Technická kultura (Technological Culture, 1916). J. Král goes on to say that

the technological component of culture and its rational perfection is being researched by Václav Veruná, the editor of the miscellany Racionalizace, vdecká organizace a sociální otázka (Rationalization, Scientific Organization, and the Social Issue), 1930, where he himself contributed an article on the scientific management of work.

Král then adds that Karel mejkal (1903-1933), who, by a fateful coincidence, died prematurely, made small contributions to the sociological approach to technology, on which the article "Podmínky monosti: pedvídání v technice" (The Conditions and Possibilities of Foresight in Technology) was meant to be delivered at the Sociological Congress in Geneva in 1933.

Emanuel Rádl's Moderní vda (Modern Science), a collection of texts originating from the author's university lectures for students of natural sciences, makes another indirect mention of technology, namely, in the section: Mechnický názor svtový (The Mechanical Worldview). The author says, e.g., that

mechanics studies events through `machines'; the machine is the measure of the world. The idea of the machine brought about a worldview that developed while this branch of science was thriving. Its starting point is a conviction that the machine (in the broad sense of the word) is the basis of all natural events ("mechanism" and "machine" mean one and the same thing). The machine (the term "automation" is sometimes used, and perhaps more aptly) is understood as a typical configuration of physical components whose operation causes a typical effect. In an even wider sense, machine events are those entirely determined by their starting conditions. Therefore, the lever, water mill, clock, engine, and dynamo are machines: it is possible to imagine solid, liquid, or gas machines, machines in which mechanical, chemical, electric, thermal, and light energies are in operation. It is only necessary that the course of events should be automatic and should in fact depend on the inner arrangement of the machine. Solutions prepared by biologists are machines of a certain kind.

Rádl's text evidences ont only his broad conception of technology, which constitutes a positive value nowadays, but also certain hesitations involved in attempting to identify its philosophical characteristics. Rádl's biological position also lacks a clear philosophical conception of the role technology plays within material social culture.

The absence of a general philosophical concept of technology also marks several works on the subject published in 1940s.(223) It can, thus, be concluded that the phenomenon of technology and material culture was but a peripheral part of the subject of Czech philosophy in the first half of this century. In striking contrast to the attention paid to the subject in foreign scholarly literature of that time (L. Mumford, S. Lilley, F. Dessauer, J.D. Bernal, and others), in Czech philosophy it was reflected upon only occasionally and with inadequate philosophical background.

Lack of tradition and an inadequately pronounced, almost romanticized, approach to technology, all this, along with other factors of a political and ideological character, had negative consequences in the period of Marxist philosophy of technology, after World War II.

SINCE 1950: RADOVAN RICHTA

Although the evaluation of the determining influence of Marxist philosophy in the Czech region over the last 40 years is still far from being complete, we will attempt here a brief preliminary critique of the overall philosophical concept of technology. This appears useful because of the fact that, in the course of the 1960s (during a certain ideological relaxation following the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), this issue was a topical theoretical innovation in the ruling Marxist philosophy; it became an important ideological argument in the Marxist critique of the so-called bourgeois concepts of the scientific-technological revolution.

Even though more authors expressed their views on the philosophical dimension of technology in the 1950s and 1960s (Radovan Richta, Jindich Filipec, Ladislav Tondl, Miloslav Král, Frantiek Kutta, and others), Richta's approach was apparently the most significant. His work, lovk a technika v revoluci naich dn (Man and Technology in the Revolution of Our Day), 1963, was an important source of ideas for a significant monograph, Civilizace na rozcestí (Civilization at a Crossroads), 1966, written by a group of authors headed by Richta who was the director of the Philosophical Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences since 1968.(224)

For several reasons, Richta's conception of technology had a profound influence on other authors, as well as on the general public. As stated above, there had been no tradition of technology in Czech philosophy, nor was it even an important philosophical issue. A second significant circumstance was Richta's thorough knowledge of Marx's theoretical work. Marx's Capital and Grundriss' Manuscripts (still unpublished at that time in Czech) were viewed as a thorough theoretical analysis of mechanical industrial technology from the position of a radical revolutionary critique of capitalism. The third theoretical circumstance was the author's ample knowledge of contemporary philosophical literature on technology.

Richta's philosophical concept of technology had strong impact also owing to a favorable ideological atmosphere: a certain sense of liberation after the cult of Stalin had been disclosed at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, though, still marked with a black-and-white mode of viewing and evaluating social issues. Last but not least, the influence of Richta's concept of technology was greatly enhanced by the gripping journalistic style of his works.

Here, we will attempt to outline the general theoretical premises and consequences of Richta's concept of technology.

1. Perhaps under the influence of Marx's thorough social analysis of the industrial revolution, Richta accepts his view of technology as being the predominantly non-biological industrial technology of production. Technology is a part of the means of production, though its evolution is relatively independent of the relations of production. Nevertheless, since there is an historical correlation between the means and relations of production, there occurs an overall temporal synchronization of technological and social revolutions.

2. Social revolutions are superior to technological revolutions: the Communist revolution is above the technological-scientific revolution. This view was perhaps conditioned partly by a fear of technological determinism, of extrapolating the forms of cultural life from the movements of technology and science, or perhaps of diverting theoretical attention from social class aspects to general human and technological issues. This, of course, is a classical Marxist scheme: relatively autonomous technological progress is again subjected to the traditional a priori concept of the social liberation of man. Therefore--in keeping with Marx and Engels--Richta comes to the conclusion that the highest level of technological progress will be feasible only at the most advanced level of worldwide social organization, the Communist society. "Automation represents such a level of technology that all its material forms and consequences correspond--as does only automation--to the standards of Communist life."(225)

3. The phenomenon of technology--full of contradictions, and ecologically ambiguous from the start--is but an instrument for the unification of workers throughout society, and hence a positive social force. Technological progress catalyzes the growth of the productivity of labour and the increase of social wealth; it creates conditions for the overall fulfillment of human needs.

Furthermore, the objective logic of the evolution of technology is, after all, identical to that of human history: it opposes capitalism, which will be overcome in a short time span, since it prevents the development of technology:

In fact, capitalism--just as Marx has foreseen--has become a major hindrance to the progress of technology. In accordance with Lenin's analysis, the monopolies set about opposing the progress of technology, stamping on it severely wherever monopoly prices could be asserted and legalized, suppressing it for monopoly profit. In close keeping with the conclusions of Marxism, contemporary capitalism has turned an incredible portion of the means of production into forces of destruction and military devastation, as though it wanted to prove Marx's idea that the victory of socialism would once prove to be an act of human self-preservation.(226)

4. In Richta's speculative approach, technological progress appears as a linear step-by-step ascent: from tool, to machine, to automaton. This is reminiscent of Hegel's dialectical negation where each higher evolutionary step proves superior to the one that immediately precedes it, and everything that is higher evolutionally is, at the same time, better and more perfect. In that scheme of things everything seems clear and transparent. Tools, i.e., crafts, proved inferior to the machine, i.e., to big industry. This, in turn, clarified class relations by creating capitalists as the owners and workers as the progressive social force. The scientific-technological revolution turns the machine into an automaton (fully automatic factories), and the technological liberation of workers occurs. "Where the machine required control, the automaton applies itself and forces man to master new conditions of natural processes, i.e., to prove his creative power with its penetration and versatility."(227)

The actual logic of the historical evolution of technology is, of course, more complex than Richta thought. Technology grows not only vertically but also horizontally, and that which is higher on the scale of evolution never prevails entirely. Hence, real technological progress with all its historically achieved levels and forms, which do not cancel each other but tend to complement and positively influence each other, is reminiscent of the functional organization of the biosphere. Within the biosphere there appears an equally global technosphere which functions and grows. In spite of being its creators, people conform to this on both the individual and collective levels; they function in this as its specific elements and subsystems.

Such a concept of technological progress, where the old remains beside the new and where the "monarchic tendency of time joins with the liberalism of space" (Feuerbach), better corresponds to reality. It protects against the mental construct which gives priority to forms of social life over material content. This concept of technological progress could hardly have conditioned the slogans which for 20 years kept appearing on some public buildings: "the scientific-technological revolution is a process that the world is being forced to accept only by Communism."

5. It is characteristic of Richta's concept of technology that he did not take into consideration the natural dimension of technology. Technology is, as stated above, a deliberate use of natural or man-made systems and structures for human cultural purposes. In a naturally ordered world, the technological order (and culture) grows at the expense of the natural order, most of all of biospheric order. Undoubtedly, the productivity of labour keeps increasing, as does social wealth, and conditions now are emerging for an adequate fulfillment of the needs of the majority. Life systems, on the other hand, keep being damaged, repressed, reduced. These are the systems which we have not created, nor are capable of creating, and which we therefore have no right to destroy. The illusion of total control over nature and over the conditions of socialization itself appears to be the most disputable point of Richta's concept of technology. "People cannot become masters of all the conditions of their own lives until they themselves have created and processed them, until all their relations have been produced by a society, not determined by nature."(228)

From the present-day point of view, the overall evaluation of Richta's concept of technology is, therefore, ambiguous. It is to Richta's credit that, as early as the early 1960s, he turned the attention of Czech Marxist philosophers to technology and the scientific-technological revolution. His concept of technology inspired a host of other authors, aimed the focus of the social sciences towards analysis of real social issues, and met a wide reception abroad. The collective monograph, Civilization at a Crossroads, written under Richta's supervision, remains one of the most significant achievements of postwar Marxist philosophy. On the other hand, Richta's schematic approach to technology and technological progress as a linear ascent towards what is better and more perfect, ultimately carried along the whole society and enforced the utopian elements of the Marxist social theory within which it operated and to which in the end it conformed.

To return back to the first statement above, technology has not been a very popular theme in philosophy, but times are changing. The world has become technology-ridden and organized into a functional whole. Within the global biosphere there is a technosphere which is just as global and developing at a dangerous pace. Czech philosophy, while fully aware of the fact that it owes more attention to the phenomenon of technology, hopefully will have something to say in future discussions on the subject.