For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Critical theory of technology: An overview"

by Feenberg, Andrew (2008)


What makes technical action different from other relations to reality? This question is often answered in terms of notions such as efficiency or control, which are themselves internal to a technical approach to the world. To judge an action as more or less efficient is already to have determined it to be technical and therefore an appropriate object of such a judgment. Similarly, the concept of control implied in technique is “technical” and so not a distinguishing criterion. There is tradition in philosophy of technology that resolves this problem by invoking the concept of “impersonal domination” first found in Marx’s description of capitalism. This tradition, associated with Heidegger and the Frankfurt School, remains too abstract to satisfy us today but it does identify an extraordinary feature of technical action.

Key Passage

Much philosophy of technology offers very abstract and unhistorical accounts of the essence of technology. These accounts appear painfully thin compared to the rich complexity revealed in social studies of technology. Yet technology has the distinguishing features sketched above and these have normative implications. As Marcuse argued in One-Dimensional Man, the choice of a technical rather than a political or moral solution to a social problem is politically and morally significant. The dilemma divides technology studies into two opposed branches. Most essentialist philosophy of technology is critical of modernity, even antimodern, while most empirical research on technologies ignores the larger issue of modernity and thus appears uncritical, even conformist, to social critics (Feenberg, 2003). I find it difficult to explain my solution to this dilemma because it crosses lines we are used to standing behind. These lines cleanly separate the substantivist critique of technology as we find it in Heidegger from the constructivism of many contemporary historians and sociologists. These two approaches are usually seen as totally opposed. Nevertheless, there is something obviously right in both. I have therefore attempted to combine their insights in a common framework that I call “instrumentalization theory.” (p.33)


Feenberg, Heidegger, Marx, Frankfurt School, Technology, Critical Theory, Technical Action


Technology, On Heidegger

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