Sage advice from Albert Borgmann

This fall I’m enrolled in a seminar on the philosophy of technology. It is taught by Professor Darin Barney. Some of the best advice out there regarding one’s relationship to technology comes from Albert Borgmann, an American philosopher who lives in Montana. Borgmann’s advice is as good and honest, and as useful and wise, as that of E.F. Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973). Here I offer a redaction of direct quotation and paraphrase from ‘Focal Things and Practices’ and ‘Wealth and the Good Life,’ chapters in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984). Citation at bottom of page.

I apologize if citation/note style is jarring in lack of transitions. If you prefer, read this brief to-the-point interview with Borgmann by David Wood.

Borgmann is a practicing Christian, but his advice will be found useful by agnostics, Muslims, pantheists, and heathens alike (I bet).

‘Focal Things and Practices’

In Latin, focus used to mean, and still etymologically means, hearth. As in the hearth of a home.

The reflective care of the good life has not withered away. It has left the profession of philosophy and sprung up among practical people. In fact, there is a tradition in this country of persons who are engaged by life in its concreteness and simplicity and who are so filled with this engagement that they have reached for the pen to become witnesses and teachers, speakers of deictic discourse. Melville and Thoreau are among the great prophets of this traditon. The following modern practitioners have their mooring in the attention to tangible and bodily things and practices, and they speak with an enthusiasm that is nourished by these focal concerns:

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance;
Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker;
Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It;
Roger B. Swain’s Earthly Pleasures;
Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb: (‘through the culture of the table, we can again become freeholders of our culture’); and
George Sheehan’s Running and Being: (‘in the runner, effort and joy are one; the split between means and ends, labor and leisure is healed’).

[There are times when] the call for exertion and engagement seems like a cruel and unjust demand. We have sat in the easy chair, beer at hand and television before us; when we felt stirrings of ambition we found it easy to ignore our superego.

If we are to challenge the rule of technology, we can do so only through the practice of engagement. The human ability to establish and commit oneself to a practice reflects our capacity to comprehend the world, to harbor it in its expanse as a context that is oriented by its focal points. To found a practice is to guard a focal concern, to  shelter it against the vicissitudes and our frailty. Through a practice, we are able to accomplish what remains unattainable when aimed at in a series of individual decisions and acts.

The peril of technology lies not in this or that of its manifestations but in the pervasiveness and consistency of its pattern. There are always occasions where a Big Mac, an exercycle, or a television program are unobjectionable and truly helpful answers to human needs. This makes a case-by-case appraisal of technology so inconclusive. It is when we attempt to take the measure of technological life in its normal totality that we are distressed by its shallowness. And I believe that the more strongly we sense and the more clearly we uderstand the  coherence and the character of technology, the more evident it becomes to us that technology must be countered by an equally patterned and social commitment i.e., by a practice. At this level the opposition of technology does become fruitful to focal practices. The can now be seen as restoriing a depth and integrity to our lives that are in principle excluded within the paradigm of technology.

Countering technology through a practice is to take account of our susceptibility to technological distraction, and it is also to engage the peculiarly human strength of comprehension, i.e., the power to take in the world in its extent and significance and to respond through an enduring commitment.

In comparison [to eminent pretechnological focal practices, such as involved temple, church, choir, altar, implements, vestments, —  our modern day] focal practices are humble and scattered. Sometimes they can hardly be called practices, being private and limited. Often they begin as a personal regimen and mature into a routine without ever attaining the social richness that distinguishes a practice.

A reform [of technology] is the recognition and restraint of the pattern of technology so as to give focal concerns a central place in our lives. [Such a reform proposal] will be seen to engender an intelligently selective attitude toward technology and a life of wealth in a well-defined sense.

Borgmann addresses the concern that intellectual pursuits are one-sided, purely mental and essentially disembodied:

Between poetry and practical engagement there is the complementary rhythm of comprehension and action, of systole and diastole. The focal significance of a mental activity should be judged, I believe, by the force and extent with which it gathers and illuminates the tangible world and our appropriation of it.

Focal things are distinguished by plurality, concreteness, and simplicity. They are concrete, tangible, and deep, admitting of no functional equivalents; they have a tradition, structure, and rhythm of their own. They are unprocurable and finally beyond our control. They engage us in the fullness of our capacities. And they thrive in a technological setting. A focal practice, generally, is the resolute and regular dedication to a focal thing. It sponsors discipline and skill which are exercised in a unity of achievement and enjoyment, of mind, body, and the world, of myself and others, and in a social union.

We must not allow vague promises of technological magnificence to blight the simple splendor of the things that now center and sustain our lives.

To the blight of the enthrallment with technology there corresponds symmetrically the impatient waiting or insistence on the great epiphany of the world’s central focus. Instead we should gratefully record the present wealth of focal things and practices, take these things to heart, and work toward a republic of focal concerns.

[A reform of the device paradigm] is rather the recognition and the restraint of the paradigm. To restrain the [device] paradigm is to restrict it to its proper sphere. Its proper sphere is the background or periphery of focal things and practices. Technology so reformed is no longer the characteristic and dominant way in which we take up with reality; rather it is a way of proceeding that we follow at certain times and up to a point, one that is left behind when we reach the threshold of our focal and final concerns. The present proposal is to restrict the entire paradigm, both the machinery and the commodities, to the status of a means and let focal things and practices be our ends.

What is needed if we are to make the world truly and finally ours again is the recovery of a center and a standpoint from which one can tell what matters in the world and what merely clutters it up.

The three steps of the personal and private reforms

1) a clearing of a central space for the focal thing, to establish an inviolate time for running, or to establish a hearth in one’s home for the culture of the table;
2) simplification of the context that surrounds and supports the focal area;
3) having experienced the depth of things and the pleasure of full-bodied competence at the center, one seeks to extend such excellence to the margins of life.

Citation: Borgmann, Albert. ‘Focal Things and Practices’ and ‘Wealth and the Good Life.’ Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (University of Chicago Press, 1984). Ps. 196-226.

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