Postphenomenologists and performativists criticize classical approaches to phenomenology for isolating human subjects from their socio-material relations. The purpose of this essay is to repudiate their criticism by presenting a nuanced account of phenomenology thus making it evident that phenomenological theories have the potential for meshing with the performative idiom of contemporary science and technology studies (STS). However, phenomenology retains an apparent shortcoming in that its proponents typically focus on human–nonhuman relations that arise in localized contexts. For this reason, it seems to contrast with one of the core assumptions behind practical ontologies: that socio-practical significance extends beyond an agent’s immediate situatedness in a localized context. Turning to Heidegger’s phenomenology and his notion of ‘de-distancing’, the essay explores how localized phenomena that pertain to human experience connect with global practices (i.e., socio-material assemblages and networks) and, thus, the possibility of consilience between phenomenological research and present-day STS.
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This apparent shortcoming is also recognized by STS scholars who explore human–computer interactions (HCI) from a performative perspective. As Jan Rod and Denisa Kera observe, the “interpretations of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenology in HCI take almost exclusively the subject (user) as the point of departure for further thinking about the interaction”. Consequently, they argue, “[w]e need to rethink this starting point in order to approach the design of large techno-social systems that are more complex in this respect” (Rod and Kera 2010: 73).
There are also those who push a ‘Object Oriented Ontology’ (OOO) in an explicit attempt to avoid subject-centeredness (e.g., Harman 2011). Proponents of OOO seek to embrace a flat ontology by dismissing consciousness studies (Morton 2011). Specifically, they do so by focusing on “objects in-themselves”. As Thomas Lemke (2017) shows, however, this move entails a tacit commitment to subjectivism.
A similar assumption grounds Alfred Schutz’s social phenomenology which presents an in-depth analysis of the connection between the classical phenomenological notion of lifeworld and socio-cultural reality (Costelloe 1996). Schutz showcases how the concept of ‘lifeworld,’ which is used by many classical phenomenologists (Kockelmans 1986), is compatible with sociological concepts.
Here I find it useful to draw on Goffman for the following two reasons: First, Knorr Cetina’s criticism of Goffman’s restricted focus on the locally situated is analogous to the criticism that proponents of the performative idiom in STS could direct at classical phenomenology. Second, Knorr Cetina uses this criticism to explore global interactions. By limiting her focus to social ontologies, however, she abstains from clarifying the experiential basis of such interactions.
According to Hubert Dreyfus, Heidegger takes “the real danger” of machine-powered technology to be that technology has imposed “a restriction in our way of thinking” and, specifically, our understanding of being (Dreyfus 1995: 55). Consequently, humans need to break free of modern technology. That said, however, Dreyfus does not discuss whether Heideggerian phenomenology provides useful concepts for exploring human-nonhuman relations that are constitutive of STS-style practical ontologies.
Some scholars including Robert Scharff would disagree. Scharff argues that Heidegger’s view on technology is neither abstract nor dystopian (Scharff 2010: 106). Nevertheless, he recognizes that “Heidegger does not share the happy, unreflective complacency that usually accompanies the developed-world idea” (2010). Thus, Scharff seems to tacitly agree that questions relating to the constitution of global practices fall outside of Heidegger’s scope.
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Gahrn-Andersen, R. Heideggerian Phenomenology, Practical Ontologies and the Link Between Experience and Practices. Hum Stud 42, 565–580 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-019-09493-8
- Heideggerian phenomenology
- Practical ontologies