New Substantivism in Philosophy of Technology


In the philosophy of technology, substantivism is a critical position opposed to the common sense philosophy of technology known as “instrumentalism”. Instrumentalists argue that tools have no agency of their own – only tool users. According to instrumentalism, technology is a mass of instruments whose existence has no special normative implications. Substantivists like Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul argue that technology is not a collection of neutral instruments but a way of existing and understanding entities which determines how things and other people are experienced by us. If Heidegger is right, we may control individual devices, but our technological mode of being exerts a decisive grip on us: “man does not have control over unconcealment itself, in which at any given time the real shows itself or withdraws” (Heidegger 1978: 299).

For Ellull, likewise, technology is not a collection of devices or methods which serve human ends, but a nonhuman system that adapts humans to its ends. Ellul does not deny human technical agency but claims that the norms according to which agency is assessed are fixed by the system rather than by human agents. Modern technique, for Ellul, is thus “autonomous” because it determines its principles of action internal to it (Winner 1977: 16). The content of this prescription can be expressed as the injunction to maximise efficiency; a principle overriding conceptions of the good adopted by human users of technical means.

In Chapter 7 of Posthuman Life, I argue that a condition of technical autonomy –self-augmentation – is in fact incompatible with technical autonomy. “Self-augmentation” refers to the propensity of modern technique to catalyse the development of further techniques. Thus while technical autonomy is a normative concept, self-augmentation is a dynamical one.

I claim that technical self-augmentation presupposes the independence of techniques from culture, use and place (technical abstraction). However, technical abstraction is incompatible with the technical autonomy implied by traditional substantivism, because where techniques are relatively abstract they cannot be functionally individuated. Self-augmentation can only operate where techniques do not determine how they are used. Thus substantivists like Ellul and Heidegger are wrong to treat technology as a system that subjects humans to its strictures. Self-augmenting Technical Systems (SATS) are not in control because they are not subjects or stand-ins for subjects. However, I argue that there are grounds for claiming that it may be beyond our capacity to control.

This hypothesis is, admittedly, quite speculative but there are four prima facie grounds for entertaining it:

  1. In a planetary SATS local sites can exert a disproportionate influence on the organisation of the whole but may not “show up” for those lacking “local knowledge”. Thus even encyclopaedic knowledge of current “technical trends” will not be sufficient to identify all future causes of technical change.
  2. The categorical porousness of technique adds to this difficulty. The line between technical and non-technical is systematically fuzzy (as indicated by the way modern computer languages derived from pure mathematics and logic). If technical abstraction amplifies the potential for “crossings” between technical and extra-technical domains, it must further ramp up uncertainty regarding the sources of future technical change.
  3. Given my thesis of Speculative Posthumanism, technical change could engender posthuman life forms that are functionally autonomous and thus withdraw from any form of human control.
  4. Any computationally tractable simulation of a SATS would be part of the system it is designed to model. It would consequently be a disseminable, highly abstract part. So multiple variations of the same simulations could be replicated across the SATS, producing a system qualitatively different from the one that it was originally designed to simulate. In the work of Elena Esposito a related idea is examined via the way users of financial instruments employ uncertainty as a way of influencing the decisions of others through one’s market behaviour. Esposito argues that the theories used by economists to predict market behaviour are performative. They influence economic behaviour though their capacity to predict it is limited by the impossibility of self-modelling (Esposito 2013).

If enough of 1-4 hold then technology is not in control of anything but is largely out of our control. Yet there remains something right about the substantivist picture, for technology exerts a powerful influence on individuals, society, and culture, if not an “autonomous” influence. However, since technology self-augmenting and thus abstract it is counter-final – it has no ends and tends to render human ends contingent by altering the material conditions on which our normative practices depend.


Esposito, E., 2013. The structures of uncertainty: performativity and unpredictability in economic operations. Economy and Society, 42(1), pp.102-129.

Ellul, J. 1964. The Technological Society, J. Wilkinson (trans.). New York: Vintage


Heidegger, M. 1978. “The Question Concerning Technology”. In Basic Writings, D. Farrell

Krell (ed.), 283–317. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London:


Winner, L. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political

Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

16 thoughts on “New Substantivism in Philosophy of Technology

  1. to read Heidegger against himself (to reduce it to what he slandered as mere anthropology, have you read any of Don Ihde’s work?) techne isn’t an alien/non-human force or condition of Being but just and aspect of our unavoidable way of using what is around us for our means/interests/ends, I like Andy Pickering’s sense of the “mangle” of practices in that materials/tools/etc have qualities/powers of their own, not unlike Gibson and co. on affordances and the like.
    His whole “ontology” is that we are not in control, alltoohuman in our limited grasps no matter how powerful our inventions and they in turn aren’t organized into command&controlled systems:

  2. I should say that I’m in the process of reformulating the foundations of NS, so the more input I can get from other thinkers, the better – so I look forward to catching up with Pickering and Granata’s work. Don Ihde I’m reasonably familiar with, though I’ve a few critical beefs with the postphenoemnological approach.

  3. In my own studies I’ve been slowly shaping a view of technics and technology that seems in our time shifting from the natural perspective and its conflictual relations toward the artificial. What I mean by this is that the very concepts of technics and technology that originated in Plato were founded on the ancient Greeks notions of the Cosmos as a harmonious order, whereas in our own time the shift to a much more complex and disorderly and dynamic (as you’ve shown!) Cosmos is coming to the fore. What this entails is that our notions of technics and technology have up till now been bound to the naturalist notions of order and harmony (i.e., natural law etc.). That is not so now. So that any of our concepts cannot be based on a substantive formalism that still resides within the older naturalistic cosmos.

    For better are worse the older metaphysical universe of concepts is dead, mute. The whole tradition of phenomenological or idealist bias that still posits a cognisant, thinking subject as the arbiter of technology will have to be replaced by a mode of conceptuality no longer bound to the metaphysics of intentionality. The destruction of the anthropocentric residuum within contemporary philosophy of technology needs to be done. Where ever you begin I think that is the first even if minor step. If we think the Universe/Cosmos not as natural but in terms of the artificial and machinic or/else deanthropomorphized and indifferentist to human concern, etc., then technics and technology become supplemental not to human but to the very dynamism of the cosmos itself.

    As you’ve suggested notions of autonomy should be defined outside the human, the older notions of for us or related to us as tools, etc. should no longer be part of the argument. Rather than treating technics (art) and technology (tool, supplement, prosthesis, etc.) as related to the human, it should be thought against the non-human and non-intentional – as other, aporetic. One aspect of Bernard Steigler’s work is that modern homo sapiens is already beyond the natural, that modern humans began with the incorporation of technics and technology as supplement. Therefore we are already technical objects ourselves, artificial through and through. That technics and technology have defined and shaped us in a conflictual relationship of artificial selection rather than natural selection processes.

    Yet, Steigler is still too humanist… I think we need to strip his humanistic concern with a post-humanist conceptuality. I think this is what I see in your dark turn in phenomenology which touches base with the Bataillean cosmos of non-utilitarian and antagonistic relations of technics and technology of excess and transgression no longer defined within the humanist worlds of stable meaning.

  4. Ihde is really a transitional figure, his break thru being a shift away from reification/deification and towards the actual details/capacities of engineering/lab-work, in some ways a a step towards ANT/STS, reminds me of how Dewey took the first huge step away from theology and into Darwinism ( Paul Rabinow is working out a later echo of such a shift). The closer we stick to the actual happenings the closer we come to understanding the limits of our grasps and hopefully avoid worshiping our ignorance/desires as some dark God, let the alien be truly alien if you will.

  5. Yes, I like a lot of what I’ve read in Steigler, but – at least in the Technics and Time Part 1 – he still seems to be playing the game concretising transcendental and quasi-@Craig: transcendental conditions of possibility (and impossibility) for subjectivity – albeit with far more attention to the details on the ground than one gets in Derrida, say. This discourse of original technicity is an example of what I (slightly) denigrate as “cyborg humanism” in PHL; a posttructuralist extended mind theory. I find the thesis quite persuasive but ultimately it just erects humanism on a wider base rather than genuinely challenging it. The fact that subjectivity or autonomy might depend on pre-subjective structures is just vanilla supervenience (Roden 2014: 45).

    @Dirk: I depart from Ihde and (and Verbeek) where they reduce technical entities to their functional roles. I argue that technical entities precisely withdraw from those roles – which are local and contingent. As I write: “If technologies transcend their uses in particular contexts, it follows that they are ontologically independent of the rules or practices that fix their function. A technical entity such as an Acheulian hand axe can be used as a scraper, a chopper or a projectile weapon because its potential for use extends beyond any single use (§6.5).” (159)

  6. I don’t think anyone (not Ihde while I knew him back in the 80’s anyway) is denying that tools/machines/etc have physical existence (and so powers/capacities) beyond our uses of them are they?
    after Harman and all the use of withdraw/al (as opposed to just exceeding any particular grasp/use) is a bit of a relight for me.

  7. I haven’t got a quote from Ihde to hand but the limitation of the postphenomenological approach to technology is that it is still old fashioned phenomenology. As Verbeek puts it, technologies are only technologies – on this approach – as long as they function, as long as they have an “in order to”. But they wouldn’t have an “in order to” without having a virtual or abstract character lacking determinate function and this is not evident from a phenomenological perspective.

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