Technology and Society in Habermas’ Early Social Theory: Towards a
Critical Theory of Technology beyond Instrumentalism
Antonio Oraldi
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 66-84.
Jürgen Habermas is not often thought of as a philosopher of technology. After presenting his
early critique of technocratic consciousness, I will contend that the main problem of Haber-
mas’ conception of technology lies in the conflation of “technology” with “technical rational-
ity”. Feenberg criticizes Habermas’ position for implicitly depoliticizing technology. By de-
veloping a distinction between “technology” and “technique”, I will argue that Habermas’ po-
sition does not exclude a critical theory of technology. The emergent picture will combine
Habermas’ emphasis that technology is more than a historical project with Feenberg’s opti-
mism on the possibility of an emancipatory reorientation of technology.
Habermas, Feenberg, Winner, Critical theory, Philosophy of technology, Technical rationality
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Technology and Society in Habermas’ Early Social Theory: Towards a
Critical Theory of Technology beyond Instrumentalism
Antonio Oraldi
This paper offers a critical appraisal of Habermas’ conception of technology, as outlined in his
early essay Technology and Science as “Ideology” (TSI). The main objective of the article is
not a systematic exegesis of Habermas’ conception of technology, but to explore its potential
as a critical-political tool. The main issue at stake is whether technology constitutes a possible
driver of emancipation. Without being anti-technology per se, Habermas nonetheless excluded
any significant emancipatory potential of technology in virtue of its intimate association with
instrumental action. Throughout the ages, human beings consistently made use of tools and
instruments to modify the external environment. As such, technology is not simply a historical
project carried out by specific social groups: for Habermas, technology is a “project of the
human species” (1968). In this perspective, technology is a transhistorical force and it is al-
ways oriented to exercising a degree of control over the external environment.
Philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg argued that Habermas’ transhistorical position
hinders the imagination of an emancipatory technology. I will argue that, while Habermas’
critique of technocracy is laudable, it is based on a narrow view of technology as technical
rationality; this is the main flaw of Habermas’ conception. Nonetheless, Feenberg’s contention
that Habermas’ theory excludes the possibility of a critical theory of technology will be chal-
lenged (I). The transhistorical stance does not necessarily imply the idea that technology is
neutral and apolitical. Rather, this position allows for a framework where general interests
(e.g. modification of external environment) and particular interests (e.g. capitalist profit) co-
I will reframe the Habermasian position through a distinction between technique and technol-
ogy, which prevents the conflation between technical rationality and technology (II). This dis-
tinction allows the avoidance of the idea that technologies are value neutral, and it points to
the analytic separation between instrumentality and artificiality. Langdon Winner’s politics of
artifacts (III) will be integrated into the discussion so as to show that the transhistorical stance
is not acritical when it incorporates a distinction between technology and technique.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
I. Transhistoricism and Instrumentalism
Habermas on Technology
There are at least two general ways to understand technology: technological instrumentalism
and technological expressivism (Carpenter 1992). In the former, the isolated and independent
mind approaches and utilizes a world of objects that is fundamentally external to it; in the
latter, objects are constituted through relations of meaning in which the mind is embedded
both socially and historically. Although Habermas’ conception of autonomy and his linguistic
philosophy position the human mind as neither independent nor isolated from the external
world, his conception of technology is instrumentalist. In Habermas’ writings, technology is
always associated with an instrumental attitude to the world: a set of techniques and procedures
directed towards the fulfilment of goals.
Though Habermas never elaborated a comprehensive theory of technology, some of his most
significant claims on the nature of technology were put forward in TSI. In the 1968 essay,
Habermas challenges Marcuse’s views on technology. The stakes of the debate focus on the
role of technology as a potential driver of human emancipation from the forces of economic
and political domination. For Marcuse, technology is a “historical-social project” which re-
flects “what a society and its ruling interests intend to do with men and things” (Marcuse 1968,
223). Thus, a capitalist society will produce capitalist technologies that reinforce the dominant
system. If only we had a radically different technology which, for Marcuse, is both possible
and desirable we would be empowered to change the system.
Drawing from Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology, Habermas contraposes a “universalist”
position, according to which technology springs from the organic functions of the body. Eye-
glasses ameliorate sight, hammers intensify strength, and washing machines substitute the act
of washing with hands. Technology is a result of organic projection of bodily activities. As
technology advances, the functions of bodily organs are increasingly projected onto tools and
In other words, the process consists of a “step-by-step disconnection of the behav-
ioral system of purposive-rational action from the human organism and its transferral to ma-
chines” (Habermas 1968, 106). Technology is thus an instrumental process characterised by
incremental delegation oriented to acting upon the external environment.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Habermas’ view of technology is directly informed by an important distinction between two
general human activities: “work” and “interaction”. “Work” is purposive-rational action regu-
lated by its own results, while “interaction” denotes a symbolic activity oriented to mutual
understanding (Habermas 1968, 87-88; 91-92). The objective of “work” is finding the right
means to a given end, whereas “interaction” indicates the possibility of non-coercive commu-
nicative relationships where subjects are not merely means but ends in their own right. In this
conception, technology shares the same structure as work: it is governed by technical rules,
and it is always instrumental. Thus, if technology is a project at all, Habermas says, it is a
“project of the human species as a whole” (1968, 87). Because technology always involves an
instrumental attitude to the world, Habermas is sceptical of Marcuse’s vision of a radically
different, non-instrumental type of technology.
For Habermas, technology is a universal human activity, but it takes a specific ideological
function in the contemporary world, which he calls “technocratic consciousness.” Techno-
cratic consciousness is (i) “‘less ideological’ than all previous ideologies” (1968, 111), alt-
hough it is (ii) the most “irresistible and far-reaching”: it not only hides class interest but,
through the suppression of the distinction between the practical and technical dimension, it
(iii) compromises “the human race’s emancipatory interest as such” (1968, 111). Like all ide-
ologies, (iv) it serves to detach the foundations of society from thought and reflection (1968,
111-112) but even more than other ideologies (v) it is invulnerable to reflection because it
does not put forward an image of the “good life.” For it is exclusively associated with the
domain of “work,” not of “interaction.” By glorifying “work,” technocratic consciousness re-
duces practical (ethical-political) problems to technical problems. The highest value in this
worldview is efficiency, which becomes the only measure of adequacy for solutions to human
Technology becomes ideological in relation to two processes in advanced capitalism. The first
is what could be termed the “technicization of politics,” though Habermas does not use one
specific term to encapsulate it. In modern societies, he claims, the main activity of govern-
ments is directed at the maintenance of the economic system. In this sense, politics becomes
negative: its aim is to sustain the reproduction of the technical, while its deliberative quality
in the realm of practical-moral affairs becomes obscured. Yet such a tendency has to confront
the lasting issue that the “institutional framework of society […] continues to be a problem of
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
practice linked to communication, not one of technology” (1968, 104). The “technicization of
politics” creates a legitimation gap, which is filled by science and technology themselves.
Consequently, given that technical problems are removed from public discussion, the expan-
sion of the technical realm leads to a shrinking of the public place of deliberation over practical
The second tendency of advanced capitalism relevant for our purposes is what Habermas calls
the “scientization of technology.” While science and technology have been interlinked for cen-
turies, they became inseparable only towards the end of the nineteenth century. Science relies
on tools to produce technically usable knowledge. Their tight connection with production
forces allowed for the formation of a system, often under government control and pressured
towards military and civil aims. Science and technology were thus put at the service of what
he later would call the “functional imperatives of the system” (1987), namely the instrumental
and objectivating forces of production and control. Because state and economic power have
traditionally formed the institutional framework concerned with practical problems, the insti-
tutionalization of scientific-technical progress implies that technical problems are no longer
distinguished from practical problems. Thus, alongside the technicization of politics, the sci-
entization of technology contributes to loss of awareness of the dualism between work and
interaction (1968, 105).
By virtue of this lack of awareness, the development of the social system assumes a quasi-
autonomous status that appears to be determined by the inner logic of technical development
(qua guarantor of economic growth). The suppression of the distinction between technical and
practical (and, with it, between “work” and “interaction”) compromises human emancipation.
Homo faber becomes homo fabricatus as soon as the “institutional framework of society […]
[is] absorbed by the subsystems of purposive-rational action” (1968, 106). The idea of an au-
tonomously reproducing institutional framework on the basis of the inner logic of systems
shows an extension of the idea of technology as organic projection onto society itself. Society
becomes a cybernetic human-machine system in which humans can objectify the world and
themselves, while in turn be fully integrated into the technical apparatus. Accordingly, Haber-
mas’ social critique calls for solutions to ethical-political problems not via technology but in
the realm of symbolic interaction: most especially with a revitalization of democratic agency
through public deliberation.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
There is a fundamental conceptual continuity on the notion of technology in Habermas’ think-
ing: although technology can assume various roles and meanings depending on the socio-his-
torical contexts, it is an essentially unchanging transhistorical activity (“transhistoricism”) and
it is exclusively associated with instrumental, success-oriented action (“instrumentalism”). Be-
cause tracing accurately the place of technology throughout Habermas’ whole work would
require a separate paper, I primarily refer to existing interpretations. Celikates and Jaeggi
(2018) stress the continuity of Habermas’ thinking on Technik around the notion of reification.
Fernandes (2020) provides a very detailed reconstruction of Habermas’ writings on technol-
ogy, which suggests a significant conceptual continuity throughout different theoretical con-
cerns. Voskuhl’s (2014) analysis of Habermas’ relationship with the techno-scientific world
does not indicate any significant conceptual innovation on the concept of technology from the
early period of TSI to the mature writings (e.g. The Theory of Communicative Action, TCA)
and the late ones (e.g. The Future of Human Nature, FOHN). These elements suggest that
Habermas’ core conception of technology was already developed in TSI.
Overall, although Habermas is not often thought of as a philosopher of technology, it has been
an important (though often implicit) theme in his writings. Firstly, his re-elaboration of West-
ern Marxism into an ethics of communication committed him to take a position toward the
techno-scientific world. Secondly, dynamics of instrumentalization and reification typical of
capitalist societies led him to denounce the “colonization of the lifeworld” (1984), which con-
sists of the systematic expansion of the logic of profit and power into the public and personal
In the same spirit, he wrote an explicit critique of technology in FOHN, an essay on
the relationship between human autonomy and prenatal genetic engineering. Technology has
been relevant in his work all along. Although one might object that Habermas could not have
imagined the technologies we have today in 1968, it is sufficient to focus on TSI for the pur-
poses of this paper. The core categories with which he approached the question of technology
were already developed in it.
Feenberg’s Criticism: Instrumentality and Social Values
Andrew Feenberg is one of the main proponents of a critical theory of technology in the tradi-
tion of Frankfurt School theorists. As a leading commentator of Habermas’ conception of
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
technology, Feenberg’s central criticism is that if technology is a project of the human species,
and not the expression of a particular historical epoch, then technology is purely neutral. For
its essence would not reflect specific group interests, but only the general interest of human-
kind to modify nature to its own advantage. In the transhistorical-instrumentalist conception,
technology would supposedly reflect an instrumental action that is free from values and par-
ticular social interests. On this basis, it would be impossible to identify harmful biases and
hidden interests of domination. However, as Feenberg argues, instrumental rationality is not
immune from the surrounding values in which it occurs. Qua social action, instrumental action
is not pure means-to-end rationality, but the means and ends are always filtered through social
values: “Pure instrumentality is not opposed to social norms since all attitudes have a social
dimension” (Feenberg 1996, 55). The idea of a neutral technical rationality leads Feenberg to
a very sceptical judgment of Habermasian critical theory of technology:
The notion of a nonsocial instrumental rationality seems to put the critique out of ac-
tion. Where technical designs embody normative biases that are taken for granted and
placed beyond discussion, only a type of critique Habermas's theory excludes can open
up a truly free dialogue (1996, 64).
Feenberg’s point brings attention to how critical theory should conceptualize the relationship
between technology, rationality, and society. In my view, Habermas’ theory does not exclude
a critical theory of technology that enquires into the normative prejudices and political conse-
quences of technology. Contra Feenberg, I contend that transhistoricism is not the main prob-
lem for a critical theory of technology. It is only when transhistoricism combines with a con-
ception of technology based on the idea of neutral technical rationality that a critical analysis
becomes problematic. If technology is seen as nothing but the expression of neutral means-to-
end rationality, then technology analysis is effectively depoliticized. The implicit ethical
norms and political consequences of technology remain underappreciated within such an ap-
The transhistorical position potentially contributed to Habermas’ inability to theorize technol-
ogy beyond its conceptual association with instrumental action, which then expresses itself in
the systemic forces of economic and political domination.
Yet transhistoricism merely deter-
mines the permanence of the phenomenon understood as “technology” throughout historical
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
ages, but it does not specify its form. Such form, in Habermas’ position, is established by
instrumentalism. In this perspective, technology is the result of human action based on tech-
nical rationality, which is differentiated from action based on communicative rationality. Tech-
nical rationality refers to means-to-end procedures to achieve goals aimed to modify and con-
trol the external environment; communicative rationality describes those norms which make
human understanding possible in communication.
Hence it is a combination of transhistori-
cism and technological instrumentalism that hinders thinking about technology in broader
terms, namely as a possible force of human expression and driver of emancipation.
Feenberg claims that Habermas’ conception of technical rationality implies the idea of neu-
trality. The “neutrality thesis” states that technologies are neither good nor bad, but their ethi-
cal evaluation is dependent on their use. Feenberg is correct because Habermas’ idea of tech-
nical rationality owes to Weber’s concept of the pure means-to-end rationality, which later has
been subject to the historicist critique of Marcuse and social constructivism. Yet Feenberg’s
objection applies only insofar as technology is reducible to technical rationality. It is thus bet-
ter interpreted as a critique of the neutrality of technical-instrumental rationality, rather than
the neutrality of technology itself. Therefore, the main problem in Habermas’ conception is the
conflation of technology and technical rationality.
Feenberg takes his critique of neutral instrumentality as valid ground to discard the transhis-
torical element in Habermas’ conception. Neutrality and transhistoricism are related ideas: if
technical rationality is immune from socio-historical influence, then it maintains a transhistor-
ical core of continuity. However, I would suggest that it is not transhistoricism per se that leads
to neutrality: rather, it is precisely the commitment to the idea that technological action is the
domain of pure technical-instrumental rationality. Transhistoricism exacerbates the problem
by naturalizing instrumentality as the condition of technology, but it only has a secondary and
subordinate function in depoliticizing technology. A critique of neutral instrumentality does
not need to imply a rejection of transhistoricism. The existence of “general interests” to control
and orient the external environment to human purposes does not automatically mean that tech-
nologies are ethically and politically neutral. In addition, Feenberg’s conflation of neutrality
and transhistoricism, as well as his critique of transhistoricism, runs in tension with the gener-
alist spirit of his project, which leads him to speak of a transhistorical “basic technical relation”
(2000a, 232), whose core of attributes differentiate it from other relations to reality. It is thus
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
better to enlarge the focus of technology analysis so as to be able to distinguish between spe-
cific group interests and anthropologically deep-seated human interests, instead of implicitly
assuming the latter while focusing on the former.
Feenberg acknowledges technological instrumentalism being the problem, when he claims that
“the idea that technology is neutral, even with Habermas's qualifications, is reminiscent of the
naïve instrumentalism so effectively laid to rest by constructivism” (1996, 47).
Yet firstly, as
a response, he provides a historicist account (with marked constructivist hints, which brings
him to define his approach as “critical constructivism”; Feenberg 2017, 44), instead of offering
a non-instrumentalist perspective. Secondly, it would seem that for Feenberg, the main prob-
lem is not instrumentalism per se, but only the supposed naivety of Habermas’ conceptualiza-
tion of it. One could argue that Feenberg’s theory of technology does not move beyond instru-
mentalism itself, even though it refines the relationship between technology and instrumental-
ity: not only by providing a specifically technological logic of instrumentality (see Table A in
the appendix), but also with his theory of primary and secondary instrumentalization (1996,
65-66). Here, technology is defined by a double moment of instrumentalization. Primary in-
strumentalization refers to an extra-historical “basic technical relation,” whereas the secondary
points to the reflexive dimension of technology, expressed in its socio-historical configura-
Instrumentalism is not fully overcome because the reflexive and expressive qualities of
technological action are still referred to as “instrumentalization”: such reflexivity is always
associated with technical rationality.
Consequently, Feenberg’s position effectively substitutes a naive instrumentalism with a less
naive instrumentalism. His analysis calls for enquiry on the particular interests that penetrate
technological design. The historicist and constructivist positions indeed have the advantage of
opening up the possibility for an alternative and more democratic technology. Insofar as there
is no transhistorical “essence” of technology, the definition of technology is open and subject
to change: each socio-historical context contributes its definition. Nonetheless, the rejection
of “naïve” instrumentalism need not occur at the expense of considering technology merely a
“historical project.” While sharing Feenberg’s aim of developing a theory of technology that
serves emancipatory goals, the strategy adopted here is slightly different. Rather than taking
the critique of “naive” instrumentality as a rejection of transhistoricism, the relationship be-
tween technical rationality and technology is problematized, such that the latter is not confined
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
to the realm of the former. This implies an understanding of the place of technology in life and
society that goes beyond mere instrumentalism.
So as to account for the lasting presence of technologies throughout human history, transhis-
toricism deserves more explicit appreciation than Feenberg concedes. Social critique is not
incompatible with an element of transhistoricism however shrunken, thereby allowing for
diversity of attitudes to and meanings of technology. Adopting a philosophical anthropology
where technology constitutes a key human way of dealing with the world throughout historical
ages beyond modernity can only benefit critical theory in understanding the subtleties of hu-
man-technology relations. In my position, similarly with Habermas, the transhistorical element
is drawn from Gehlen’s anthropological conception of technology as an organic projection of
activities. Instead of retreating to a merely historical understanding of technology, a critical
theory of technology should follow and expand the project that Habermas hints at in TSI: on
one hand, technology is an everlasting domain of human activity, while, on the other, it takes
variable forms in socio-historical contexts.
II. Technology and Technique
Habermas’ position exposes itself to Feenberg’s critique because of an implicit assumption on
the identity between technical rationality and technology. While this criticism would effec-
tively exclude the possibility of a critical theory of technology on Habermasian grounds, I
suggest that such an effort is possible, but it needs a conceptual clarification that Habermas
does not provide. Nonetheless, Feenberg’s reflection calls for an expansion and amelioration
of Habermas’ positions concerning technology that he himself has not provided.
Many thinkers have distinguished between technology and technical rationality in various
ways, as well as between technology and “technics” or “technique” (e.g. Mitcham, Heidegger,
Ellul, Ihde). Often this distinction denotes the uniqueness of modern technology. Rather than
focusing on the modern-traditional dichotomy, I distinguish between technique and technology
on the basis of the instrumentality of action. Our concepts of “technology” and “technique”
are inherited from the classical Greek meaning of techne as “art” or “craft,” i.e. a form of
knowledge on the creation of objects and modification of nature. Techne contains two analyt-
ically independent concepts that are worth spelling out: instrumentality and artificiality.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
The former deals with procedures, or techniques, whereas the latter indicates action mediated
by artifacts. The “art” of cooking consists of a set of knowledge of the procedures necessary
to cooking well: actors engage in the instrumental act of cooking with success if they know
the technique. This is the realm of instrumental action and technical rationality. On the other
hand, the technological dimension refers to the domain of human-made objects, tools, and
artifacts that were not in nature before human intervention. The Internet, washing machines,
and windmills are technologies because they are human creations which were not in nature
before us. Hence technology is associated with the artificial realm.
Technical action is precisely a form of instrumental action, regardless of artificiality. Its va-
lidity lies in finding successful means to specific ends. Technical action, as based on technique,
deals merely with procedures: it only responds to “how to?” questions. The (instrumental) act
of cooking a meal requires a set of procedures (technique) that turns cooking into cooking well.
Following such procedures means to engage in technical action. On the other hand, technology
or technological action is not simply a collection of technical procedures: it is a way of
relating to the world through tools or artificial systems.
Technique and technology also differ etymologically in their relationship with logos.
As a
form of discourse, technology involves a systematic dimension of knowledge: it can be thus
construed as the comprehensive study of techniques, i.e. rules, skills, and procedures for the
achievement of ends. In this sense, technology is a kind of “scientized technique,” analogously
to what Habermas (1968) described in TSI as “the scientization of Technik”: the technical
attitude is extended into a comprehensive field of study. In relation to its discursive character,
there is another sense in which technology cannot be reduced to mere technique: the techno-
logical attitude, unlike the technical attitude, is not merely instrumental. Because of its world-
mediating function, non-instrumentalized, genuine meaning can occur in direct relation to ar-
tifacts and technologies. Hence, not all technologically mediated action is “purely technical.”
The valence of this distinction is twofold: first, it enables for a separation between an abstract,
merely procedural, technical rationality from the concrete form it embodies within social con-
texts; second, it points out that technology is not reducible to technique because the dimension
of artifacts is analytically separate from instrumentality. One can speak of a “technological
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
lifeworld,” when artifacts are conceived as more than mute instruments. Technology is not
only “invading” the lifeworld structures, but it always has a constitutive dimension within it.
There is reason to believe that Habermas himself thought implicitly along the lines of such a
distinction at least in the first layer, i.e. between pure technique and concrete, non-neutral
technology. He was not completely naive about the fact that societal interests penetrate tech-
nological design. In the 1954 essay Dialectic of rationalization, a young Habermas revises
Marx’s idea of pauperism and alienation; there he disagrees with the “popular conclusion” that
technology is a purely neutral instrument, whose good or bad directions are entirely up to
humans’ moral energy (Voskuhl 2014, 486). Similarly, in TSI, he acknowledges that, along-
side the general human interest of modifying nature, there are specific interests that influence
technological development: “It is true that social interests still determine the direction, func-
tions, and pace of technical progress” (1968, 105). Moreover, when he explains the connection
between productive forces and rational-instrumental action, his claim that “the knowledge im-
plemented in forces of production” is “embodied in technologies, organisations and competen-
cies” (my emphasis) seems to precisely presuppose a distinction between abstract technical
rationality and the concrete process of construction of technologies (Habermas 1982, 267).
The process of concretization allows for non-neutral penetration of interests from social actors.
This separation between the pure procedure of technical rationality and the socially embedded
construction of technologies can save Habermas’ theory from a commitment to the neutrality
of technology, regardless of the commitment to an idea of technical neutrality.
Moreover, a separation between technical rationality and technology allows for the expansion
of the general interest behind technology as a double interest: one towards material control,
and one towards symbolic expression. Broadening Habermas’ focus on technical action as the
general interest behind technology paves the way to overcoming technological instrumental-
ism. Though elaborating such a project fully requires a separate inquiry, the following exam-
ples indicate how the symbolic dimension of artifacts makes the instrumentalist conception of
technology inadequate. The coexistence between technical mediation and symbolic activity
applies to several art and communication forms such as writing, cinema, and music. Commu-
nication technologies, especially when combined with digital technology, make an instrumen-
talist interpretation too simplistic. There is a qualitative difference between a hammer and
online social networks: the notion of “cyberspace” embodies the idea that such technologies
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
are spaces of interaction. Analogously, video games cannot be understood purely as “instru-
ments” either: as such, they are spaces of expression. The telephone is also a domain of inter-
action. While the hammer or the modern assembly line “reveal” a world, using Heidegger’s
terminology, they do not constitute per se spaces of human interaction. Their monological
structure associates them with “work,” while communication technologies entail dialogic
structures akin to symbolic “interaction.” Even if one could apprehend the symbolic signifi-
cance of the hammer or the assembly line since they connect the user to an external world that
is modifiable, controllable, and exploitable, their monological structure makes an instrumen-
talist perspective more suitable to them than to telephones or video games.
Overall, if along with the general interest of acting upon external environments there can be
particular interests, then the potential for critique that Feenberg saw as impossible becomes
renewed on Habermasian grounds. There is nothing, in my view, contradictory between de-
claring the existence of general, transhistorical interests (as provided by a philosophical an-
thropology), and particular, context-specific ones. This allows for a transhistorical concept of
technology to entail a corresponding politics of artifacts. Further, when the general interest
encompasses both material control and symbolic expression, it becomes easier to conceive of
how even transhistorical interests can assume forms that have a political character. Accord-
ingly, a transhistorical conception of technology can sustain the idea that technology is politi-
cal in an even deeper sense that Feenberg’s historicist-constructivist critique implies.
III. Transhistorical and Political Technology: on Winner’s Political Ar-
Here, I shall briefly sketch how the transhistorical conception of technology can be accompa-
nied by a politics of artifacts as outlined by Langdon Winner. Like Feenberg, Winner points
out that technologies are susceptible to penetration of social interests: technologies are ways
of ordering reality and settling issues in communities (Winner 1980). Democratization of tech-
nology would thus call for political participation in the design process. I shall here follow
Winner in his more audacious claim that technologies can be intrinsically political insofar as
they embody and relate to political relationships in particular ways. This will allow us to im-
agine how, on the basis of a distinction between mere technical procedure and concrete
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
technology, Habermas’ depoliticized general interest behind technology can assume concrete
forms that have a political cast.
In Winner’s model of intrinsically political technologies there is a double distinction to be
drawn: firstly, the political dimension of a technology can be external and internal to the tech-
nological system; secondly, the relation between the artifact/system to a political relationship
can be either strong or weak. External political salience occurs when the consequence of the
adoption of some technology has a political cast for society at large. For example, the nuclear
bomb has external political salience in that it entails the potential effect of destroying planet
Earth very quickly. In this case, the political salience is not internal to the socio-technical
system of the bomb itself. Similarly, the collection of personal data through apps and websites
has extrinsic political salience in that some of their uses can deeply affect personal and political
life (e.g. surveillance, propaganda, influencing elections). On the other hand, the idea of polit-
ical salience internal to the technical system is well expressed in Engels’ essay On Authority,
in which he outlines how railways and cotton mills exert authority on individuals who work in
them. Both the architecture and pace of the machinery require the workers to structure their
activities in a way that accommodates the “interests” of the machine. Otherwise, success-ori-
ented action fails.
Engels’ position entails that some technical arrangements exercise a strong political relation-
ship. In this sense, some technologies require a certain type of social organization around it to
function properly. Winner takes the atom bomb to demand a highly hierarchical and central-
ized control system to avoid destructive unpredictability: “The internal social system of the
bomb must be authoritarian; there is no other way” (Winner 1980, 131). On the other hand, in
a weaker version of this thesis, proponents of environmental technologies have emphasized
how solar energy is more compatible with a democratic and egalitarian society (Argue 1978).
Solar energy can well exist in an authoritarian society, but it is believed that its decentralized
structure is more compatible with democratic control than large-scale centralized plants.
The differentiation between the technical procedure of transformation and the concretized
technological artifact allows for an analysis of the political salience of the artifact (whether
internal or external, strong or weak) on Habermasian grounds. The political import of technol-
ogy can be seen as springing directly from the general, anthropologically deep-seated human
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
interest to exercise a degree of control over external environments; yet, within this tendency,
technologies relate to political relationships (as outlined in Winner’s model) in context-spe-
cific ways, and they can embody particular interests, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Hence the declaration of technology as a project of the human species does not automatically
imply its depoliticization through the idea of neutrality.
The direct relation between general interest and political salience can be illustrated by a tech-
nology that has accompanied human existence throughout history: weapons. In noting that
“technology is as old as Man,” Gehlen outlined that “the rough flint wedge already hides within
itself the same ambiguity that today is typical of atomic energy: it was a work tool and at the
same time a deadly weapon”
(Gehlen 1984, 10). In my view, weapons can be characterized
as inherently political technologies throughout all ages because any user of a weapon must
always divide the world into friends and enemies. The very act of looking through the scope
of a sniper rifle invites such discrimination. This is political in the literal sense that the limits
of the polis are delineated through the use of weapons: the decision to kill implies that the
target is to stay irreversibly outside the human realm of possible interaction.
In Dussel’s
theory of resistance, the history of weapons has a definite political cast too. Weapons origi-
nated as life-affirming tools, whose principal function was the survival of the human species
through the collection of fruits and the killing of animals; now, weaponry constitutes a life-
threatening apparatus whose ultimate expression is the atom bomb with precise political
consequences (e.g. geopolitical dominance).
On these grounds, Feenberg’s equation of the political dimension of technology with particular
interests appears to be limited. Indeed, particular interests play a role, but the political cast of
technology is inherent in the potential of artifacts in direct consequence of the general human
interest to modify and orient nature. The transhistorical conception favours a technological
anthropology whereby humans have historically related to the world via technology. The pro-
cess of finding a home, a shelter, and a place within the ecosystem is always a socio-technical
enterprise. From branches to fire, to railways and computers, the definition of the human place
in the world is a history of technological mediations. Such an anthropological model suits best
the necessary contemporary experimentations to find a new “home” in the planet in face of the
ecological crisis, while escaping both techno-enthusiasm and short-sighted anti-technological
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
The relevance of this discussion has been to consolidate the point that a political analysis of
technology is not excluded by Habermas’ commitment to a transhistorical conception. Win-
ner’s model offers a political analysis of technology that is richer than Habermas’ in particular
details, but it does not surrender to mere particularism. By claiming that technologies are ways
of ordering reality, and that the potential of artifacts is intrinsically political, Winner’s model
implicitly relies on a picture of technology where general and particular interests coexist. Thus,
if transhistoricism does not automatically exclude the political character of technologies, then
it does not preclude the possibility of a critical theory of technology, whose aim is to identify
such political relationships and orient technology towards emancipatory purposes. Although
underlying social interests in design are no less important, when attached to a distinction be-
tween technique and technology, the Habermasian transhistorical conception favours a politi-
cal analysis of technology where coexistence between particular and general interests is pos-
sible. In this sense, a commitment to a conception of technology that includes a transhistorical
element is not a priori inferior in its political analysis than one that declares no essence beyond
the social context. The transhistorical conception is inferior only when a depoliticized general
interest transfers uncritically to the concrete existence of technologies, i.e. when it fails to
incorporate a distinction between mere technique and technology.
This paper offers a critical commentary on Habermas’ philosophy of technology. This inquiry
can hopefully stimulate reflection on the conditions for an emancipatory technology. The arti-
cle engages with Feenberg’s scepticism on the potential of a Habermasian critical theory of
technology. Feenberg’s criticism brought to the fore the point that Habermas’ position requires
amelioration on the issues of instrumentality and neutrality. Nonetheless, Habermas’ concep-
tion does not exclude a critical theory of technology. Habermas did not do much to dispel the
myth of neutrality, but I argued that a separation between technique and technology can save
his theory from a naive depoliticization of technology.
The conception of technology as more than technique allows to account for the process of
translation of abstract procedural rationality into concrete contexts in non-neutral ways, and
the potential of artifacts as vehicles of symbolic expression. Drawing from Winner’s political
artifacts, I highlighted how technologies can be politically salient in particular contexts while
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
being traceable to the general interest of acting upon physical and social environments around
us. In addition, the distinction between instrumentality and artificiality provides the basis for
overcoming technological instrumentalism by expanding Habermas’ concept of technology to
include symbolic expression.
Technology studies can gain from Habermas’ critique of technocracy, and his commitment to
public deliberation can be renewed in relation to technology once we understand that technol-
ogies are more than a technical issue. Because technology is not reduced to a project of a
particular historical age, the Habermasian framework is more fit to understand the coexistence
between general and particular interests than Feenberg’s historicist-constructivist position.
The transhistorical conception does not hinder a critical and political analysis of technology;
rather, it supports a more complex picture of the relationship between technology and politics.
On one hand, technology can be both a “project of the human species” and relate to social
contexts and political relationships in particular ways. On the other, the awareness of a deep-
seated anthropological tendency to relate to the world technologically paves the way to deal
with twenty-first century global challenges, avoiding both utopian and dystopian attitudes to
I wish to thank several people who have in some way shaped my reflections during the pro-
duction of this article: Prof. Maeve Cooke for her comments and the general encouragement,
Prof. Brian O’Connor for his very helpful feedback, Liliana and Enrico for the constant sup-
port, my friends Andrea, Paul, Thao, and Matteo for the many conversations, and finally the
anonymous reviewers who have pushed me to clarify some aspects of the text.