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Language and technology: maps, bridges, and pathways


Contemporary philosophy of technology after the empirical turn has surprisingly little to say on the relation between language and technology. This essay describes this gap, offers a preliminary discussion of how language and technology may be related to show that there is a rich conceptual space to be gained, and begins to explore some ways in which the gap could be bridged by starting from within specific philosophical subfields and traditions. One route starts from philosophy of language (both “analytic” and “continental”: Searle and Heidegger) and discusses some potential implications for thinking about technology; another starts from artefact-oriented approaches in philosophy of technology and STS and shows that these approaches might helpfully be extended by theorizing relationships between language and technological artefacts. The essay concludes by suggesting a research agenda, which invites more work on the relation between language and technology.

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  1. Surprisingly, so far Searle’s social ontology has not been interpreted and used much in contemporary philosophy of technology.

  2. According to Heidegger, we take part in the history of Being and we must respond to Being. Against modern thinking and in line with theological thinking in this direction, Heidegger emphasizes the receptive dimension of human being (see also Coeckelbergh 2002) and thinks that there is a “call” from Being to which we must respond. He also interprets ancient Greek thinking about and writes about “fate”: we have a “destiny”. For language, this means that we must listen to the voice of Being and that Being speaks through us. Language is the language of Being. We are part of the advent and history of being and have to attune to Being (see also Bennett-Hunter 2007).

  3. In cognitive science for instance Andy Clark has argued that language is an artefact or a tool, even a resource (Clark 1997; see also Wheeler 2004).

  4. Note that this view implies, among other things, that if we wanted to change “the world” and indeed change “the human” we would have to act differently but also speak differently; we would have to change things and change words. Heidegger wanted to think differently and therefore had to invent a new vocabulary. If ‘language itself is the vehicle of thought’, as Wittgenstein wrote in the Philosophical Investigations, (Wittgenstein 1953, §329, p. 113), then why can we not try to change the vehicle? At the same time, Heidegger warns this change can only happen in the form of a response to what is already there; otherwise, we would have a “technological” understanding of language again (language as a tool) and a “technological” understanding of change. So we have to respond to the (linguistically) given. For instance, Heidegger used Ancient Greek and Germanic etymology and was influenced by Hölderlin’s poetry. Language gives itself. It also gives us, and it gives the human. Language brings something present, lets appear something. We respond and co-respond. Heidegger seeks a transformation of language, but it is one we can neither compel nor invent (Heidegger quoted in Ziarek 2013).

  5. Note that this does not necessarily entail an idealist position, as Lafont suggests, but rather one beyond realism versus idealism. Again, Heidegger tries to think beyond such dualisms. There is being-in-the-world.

  6. See Dreyfus, who interprets Heidegger as meaning that technological devices and efficiency are fine, as long as we do not think that they are absolutes and the only end, and open up to the ‘mystery’. Once we become aware that technology is ‘our latest understanding of being’, we will even be ‘grateful’ for it. Again this is about receptivity: we did not make this understanding but receive it. And once we realize this, Dreyfus argues, we have stepped out of it already (Dreyfus 1995, p. 29).

  7. The “they” here refers to the (post)phenomenological current in philosophy of technology. Of course, Heidegger’s work can also be used to criticize the naturalist assumptions of those empirically oriented researchers in technology studies who use scientific methods. In this essay, however, I mainly respond to empirically oriented but phenomenological–hermeneutical philosophy of technology and focus on how underdeveloped work in this area is when it comes to understanding relations between humans, language, and technology.

  8. I use “neo” here because arguably philosophers of technology before the empirical turn—the classic authors such as Heidegger but also later authors working in the “humanities” tradition—generally had more critical awareness of the role and significance of language, whatever the shortcomings of their work on technology might have been.

  9. Indeed, “in between” should not be understood as meaning that the terms are pre-existing and fixed—this would be contrary to Heideggerian thinking and has rightly been rejected in postphenomenology by Verbeek: mediators help to constitute what is real for us (Verbeek 2012). Nevertheless, the term “in between” expresses that we have only access to reality “through” the medium, that our world is constituted by it and is revealed by it. In this sense, only it is an “in between”. It should not be understood as a kind of “object” that stands between two fixed terms.

  10. When it comes to technologies, perhaps scientific and technological language even actively mutes meanings that do not fit into its framework—which would also explain why philosophy of technology in the “engineering” tradition (and of course in the naturalist tradition) has generally failed to engage with philosophy of language in its theories.

  11. For more on embodied skill, see for instance the work of Dreyfus. Note that Ratcliffe also uses the Heideggerian distinction between ready-to-hand and present-at-hand when he gives the example of using a pen: When I skilfully use a tool such as a pen, my experience does not make a clear distinction between me and it. The pen and my hand merge seamlessly in the context of practical activity. Understanding beings as ready-to-hand thus differs from present-at-hand contemplation in two important respects. First of all, ready-to-hand beings are not related to each only insofar as they occupy positions in a common space–time; they knit together as a cohesive functional whole. Second, as we skilfully employ tools and become unreflectively absorbed in our activities, we do not cleanly distinguish ourselves from them’ (Ratcliffe 2008, p. 44).

  12. Incidentally, let us not forget non-humans such as animals and at least consider conceptualizing how they relate to language and technology. Many philosophers of language and many philosophers of technology of the past and present have failed to give them a voice or to hear them speak.


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Correspondence to Mark Coeckelbergh.

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Coeckelbergh, M. Language and technology: maps, bridges, and pathways. AI & Soc 32, 175–189 (2017).

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  • Language
  • Technology
  • Social ontology
  • Phenomenology
  • Hermeneutics
  • Mediation
  • Heidegger
  • Searle
  • Ihde
  • Latour