Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 24, “Wealth and the Good Life”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

As we saw in the last chapter, Borgmann thinks focal things and practices (gathered together under the heading of ‘focal concerns’) are central to the kind of reform of technology we need. In this and the next chapter, he wants to (a) defend focal concerns from any philosophical worries, and (b) show how focal concerns constitute the kind of reform of technology that we need. This chapter looks at focal concerns on a personal level, and so connects them up with a reform of technology in our personal, more than our public, lives. This is why the name of this chapter is “Wealth and the Good Life”: focal concerns constitute “wealth”, and lead to the much-sought-after “good life” that technology has been promising to us but failing to deliver.

The main philosophical worry about focal concerns as presented in the last chapter is their plurality. I take it that Borgmann sees two potential problems under this heading:

  1. We have to ask: is it even possible to figure out what all the focal things and practices out there have in common? Is there, in other words, some kind of necessary and sufficient definition we can give of what focal concerns are? If not, then it appears on the surface that Borgmann’s idea of focal concerns may not be formulated clearly enough to bear the weight of technological reform.
  2. What about the sheer diversity of focal concerns? Doesn’t this bring up issues around which concerns are to be considered more or less focal? If my focal concern is so grounding and enriching in my life, won’t I be forced (out of genuine sympathy) to attempt to convert others away from their focal concerns and over to mine? How can a bunch of varied practices (even if we can answer the first problem above) present a unified front when it comes to technological reform?

We might say that these are the ‘philosophical’ and ‘practical’ problems of plurality for focal concerns.

Let’s take the ‘philosophical’ problem first. What could philosophically tie focal concerns together? Borgmann examines what he takes to be the most likely candidate, in the form of John Rawls’ ‘Aristotelian Principle’, which says that the excellence of our life is determined by the complexity of the faculties that we develop. In other words, the more complex skills we cultivate, the more we partake of ‘excellence’ (something Borgmann definitely cares about as well in the context of focal concerns). Could this principle suffice to capture what we mean by ‘focal concerns’? Let’s examine a few examples: on this view, people should prefer chess to checkers because chess is more complex and demanding. Likewise people would prefer checkers to watching TV, for the same reason.

So far, so good. But when we come to examine technology, it seems the principle loses some of its bite: complexity is in no way a counterforce to technology. Couldn’t technological devices (like highly targeted workout machinery) be more ‘complex’ than their analog equivalents? Isn’t a machine that allows individual muscle groups to be sensed and worked with precision more complex than the simple act of walking or running? So it appears the Aristotelian Principle as it stands does not capture what is essential about the difference between technological devices and focal concerns. Could it be extended, though? Let’s take the contrast between a great chef or a great runner and a fast food junkie or a treadmill enthusiast. What is different between the two sets? Well, the difference is engagement. The chef and the runner are fully (mentally, physically, perhaps even spiritually) engaged with their activity, whereas the fast food junkie is merely consuming, and the treadmill runner is merely using their body for some extraneous end (fitness). So perhaps ‘engagement’ can replace ‘complexity’ as the philosophical essence of focal concerns?

Unfortunately, we run into problems here as well. Borgmann envisions a fan of computer games arguing that their games are just as engaging as something Borgmann takes to be a paradigmatic focal practice, e.g., fly-fishing. And nowadays, thirty years after TCCL was published, we would in some cases find ourselves hard-pressed to deny this (take for example the meteoric rise of eSports and the high level of training, dedication, strategy, and teamwork involved in professional video gaming). So our problem is this: it seems on the surface at least that ‘engagement’ can be technological, but all along we have said that focal concerns are meta-technological.

One way out is to say that technological engagement is only apparent, not real. We could argue that they are one-dimensional in that they don’t connect us to the wider physical universe of which we are a part. A computer game does not (in the way other mental practices like musical composition or poetry do) gather together some meaningful aspect of reality and present it to us in a new and engaging way. The reply to this would then be that games do help us connect with a deeper reality—the reality of the computer world. Borgmann thinks this is disingenuous in that he sees being at home in the ‘computer world’ as equivalent to being at home with the device paradigm’s pattern of commodity consumption. But what about computer engineers themselves? Aren’t they in touch with something deeper than their users might be? Indeed hardware or software engineering is often practiced as art for art’s sake (something I know full well, being a software engineer myself). And Borgmann grants that, “inasmuch as computers embody and illuminate phenomena such as intelligence, organization, determination, decidability, system, and the like, they surely have a kind of focal character, and a concern with computers in that sense is focal as well.” But he goes on to say, “the focal significance of work with computers seems precarious to me and requires for its health the essentially complementary concern with things in their own right. Otherwise the world is more lost than comprehended” (217). In other words, focal things in the computer world are not strong enough to grace us in their own right, something we appreciate in the more traditional kind of focal things and practices Borgmann has discussed so far.

On this point, Borgmann does ask in passing this important question: can a device ever become a focal thing, “one that, whatever its genesis, has taken on a character of its own, that challenges and fulfills us, that centers and illuminates our world?” We can’t know for certain, he says; we will have to wait and see. But for the time being that is no reason to abandon the focal things that are still in front of us! Anyway, it appears that we have exhausted the search for a philosophical unity behind focal concerns that truly captures what is distinct about them. What about the other problem, the ‘practical’ problem of focal concern plurality?

The problem, again, is that fly-fishing and running can’t both matter in the most ultimate sense. In pre-technological times, this was not a problem because it was only the religious life that mattered in the most ultimate sense—every other focal concern was arranged underneath it. But eventually the primacy of the church’s control over our understanding of reality was dissolved, in the course of various reform movements, the scientific revolution, the rise of democracy, and finally technology itself. We have begun to see the actual world as one out of a great range of possible states of affairs.

Borgmann’s first response to the issue of plurality of focal concerns in this regard is to say that perhaps this isn’t so much a problem for the theory as it is for us. The fact that George Sheehan’s focal practice is running rather than music implies not a deficiency in music enthusiasts but in Sheehan himself! As he says: “When a musician tells me Beethoven’s Opus 132 is not simply an hour of music but of universal truth, is in fact a flood of beauty and wisdom, I envy him. I don’t label him a nut” (213). We must understand that no one person can realize everything we as humans are capable of when it comes to focal experiences. But by cultivating our own focal practices we can join with the rest of humanity by contributing our own experience. In other words, we can see this plurality of concerns positively rather than negatively.

Ultimately, Borgmann thinks the plurality problems are not really problems for focal concerns. Still, it would be nice to be able to discern affinities between them, not as a way of describing a cogent philosophical umbrella per se, but as a set of ‘family resemblances’ that help us to say, with regard to a particular thing or practice we are considering, “Aha! Now that looks like a focal concern!” (Likewise, religion is still available as an umbrella concern, and no doubt for many people it is very effective in ordering their other focal practices, but Borgmann assumes for the time being that we will not find a generally-accepted umbrella concern like this that can serve as the basis for public reform of technology, given the fundamental pluralism of religious views in our country.) What we can say regarding focal concerns is this: “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, of body, and the world, of myself and others, and in a social union” (219). So, how does this understanding of focal concerns lead to a reform of technology (remembering from previous chapters that what we need is a reform of the paradigm, not a reform from the paradigm)?

Well, on one hand, it would not look like a restructuring of the Device Paradigm itself. The Device Paradigm can’t really be restructured because it is already perfectly architected according to the terms it takes to be valid. I.e., the process of taking goods and making them progressively more ‘available’ (in Borgmann’s technical sense) can’t be improved upon. Any failure is deemed to be a failure of availability, and that is precisely what the Paradigm is constantly working to achieve. On the other hand, it would also not look like the dismantling of technology itself. But what it would look like is the “recognition and restraint of the paradigm,” restricting it from access to the sphere of focal concerns. Technology becomes no longer the dominant, unrecognized, default way of being, but one that we can take up and put down in a new maturity.

How does this look in practice? Well, someone whose focal practice is running might still acquiesce to using a car to drive to work; i.e., they would not insist on running everywhere. And, consonant with the Device Paradigm, they would want their car to be safe, fast, and so on (in addition to being as environmentally-friendly as possible, given their love for the outdoors, etc…). But when it comes to the focal practice itself, they would leave the car behind. Engagement with running would not take place on the terms of the Device Paradigm. In other words, focal practices engender a selective attitude with regard to technology, not a wholesale adoption of it. Technology is relegated to a place of lesser importance in our lives, and only judiciously allowed into the foreground. People whose focal things have radiated out from their surroundings and into their lives might appear quixotic or quaint to others, and this must be accepted, in the face of a culture that values mainly the display of commodities.

Of course, this attitude could also lead to an overzealous self-sufficiency or insistence on a do-it-yourself methodology, wherein life becomes so full of the preparation for focal things that the things themselves and their enjoyment are not to be found. Imagine people who are constantly buying backpacking gear but never going outside, or constantly remodeling their home but never enjoying it. At some level, Borgmann says, we must, while holding on to our criticality, allow technology to do its job of disburdening us, to “allow celebration and world citizenship to prosper in the time that has been gained” (222). Our lives can benefit from the fruits of technology while not being ensnared by the deadening commoditization that the Device Paradigm brings, or by the endless cycle of labor for leisure’s sake. Focal practices allow us to put technology in its proper place. And this is where we get the idea that they constitute ‘wealth’ for us:

Such a life is centrally prosperous, of course, in opening up a familiar world where things stand out clearly and steadily, where life has a rhythm and depth, where we encounter our fellow human beings in the fullness of their capacities, and where we know ourselves to be equal to that world in depth and strength. (223)

This is very different than ‘affluence’, the possession of many commodities. This kind of wealth will be connected with politics and economics in the next chapter, but for now we connect it to the private sphere, with the traditional concepts of ‘excellence’ (cashed out in terms of world citizenship, gallantry, musicianship, and charity), and ‘family’.

  • World citizenship: within the technological paradigm we learn about our world from a firehose of too much information, shredded into colorful bits of data and delivered in as entertaining a way as possible. We need a center from which to appropriate the world; we cannot comprehend it from the disembodied ‘nowhere’ that is the Internet. Focal things can help give us that grounding.
  • Gallantry: Borgmann defines ‘gallantry’ today as the fitness of our bodies for greatness and for responding to the playfulness of the world. Technology has co-opted the depth of this idea and turned physical fitness into something which is sheer surface: the cultivation of a perfect body in appearance, achievable by science, diets, conforming to norms of fashion, etc… Focal practices can help us rediscover what it is to be fit, not for the sake of appearance or according to an external standard, but as a way of engaging with the world through running, hiking, etc…
  • Musicianship: this virtue has survived somewhat unscathed in the transition to a technological world, and retains connections with traditional excellence. However, technology commoditizes it, makes it available in a way that cheapens the practice of making music. So wealth in this area will look like reminding ourselves of the treasure that music actually is, restraining our consumption of it so as to appreciate the focal practice that results in transcendental live performances in the company of others.
  • Charity: our technological society is depressingly self-oriented, and we have by and large lost touch with the virtue of charity. Focal practices can help us encounter life in a more raw way, one where we are not simply given what we want, which helps us to grow in empathy. Technological citizens are so disengaged as to be calloused by default. Deliberately choosing to live more simply would put us in touch with the plight of others, whom technology does not benefit as it has us.
  • Family: as we discussed in Chapter 18, the modern family has been disintegrated by technology. One consequence is that it has left parents with nothing to do in the service of raising their children. Focal practices allow families to share in an engaging pursuit and form traditions. They give the parents something meaningful to impart. And of course they enable the possibility of enjoyable shared experiences.

This was just a sketch of how this life of ‘wealth’ generated by focal concerns can begin a reform of the technological paradigm, not by destroying technology or banishing it out of our lives, but by refusing to let it take the place of what is ultimately meaningful for us. In the next chapter, we will carry these ideas forward into the realm of politics, the public sphere of engagement, and see how a reform of technology in that sphere would benefit not just us as individual persons but society as a whole.

[Photo: Badlands, taken by the author]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 23, “Focal Things and Practices”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

The previous chapter took Nature as an intuitive source of helpful challenges to the technological paradigm. But Borgmann’s insight, spelled out in his concept of “focal things and practices”, is that what is true about Nature can be explored in a more general fashion. Moreover, Borgmann actually thinks that technology, while it can be a challenge to what we find meaningful in life, for that very reason heightens its beauty. We therefore don’t need to be pessimistic about its survival; we just need to pay attention to how and where we can cultivate focal things and practices despite the challenge that goes along with such effort.

So, what is a focal thing or practice? First of all, what is ‘focus’? We can find two senses of it: the first is from the Latin word for ‘hearth’, where we can see a focus as that which gathers social reality and arranges it around itself. The other sense is later, meaning the “burning point of a lens or mirror”, in other words, where optical lines converge. As Borgmann says, “Figuratively they suggest that a focus gathers the relations of its context and radiates into its surroundings and informs them. To focus on something or to bring it into focus is to make it central, clear, and articulate” (197).

Examples of focal things are not hard to find, and extend beyond the wilderness: music, gardening, the culture of the table, and running constitute a few. We might intuitively understand that these are ‘focal’ in some sense, but we’d all have to agree that they are scattered and disparate, totally unlike the focal things of pre-technological times, like temples, which had a place of physical and cultural prominence (in addition to “focusing” the divinity of their surroundings into one structure).

For Heidegger, this role of the temple—gathering in and disclosing the givenness of its surroundings—is central to art and historical existence. Technology, on the other hand, is for him a metaphysical development that deals in pure conditionality—what might (or might not) be the case in whatever circumstance. Conditionality (potential realities based on lawlike extrapolations of variable states of affairs) is totally different from givenness (what truly is). Heidegger tried to recover this givenness, finding it in simple, concrete artifacts like an earthenware jug. A simple jug by its shape and purpose discloses what it means to hold as well as to give. It gathers together sky, earth, rain, and grape together in the wine it serves, revealing them to us, teaching us about refreshment and invoking the divine (via the tradition of libations, or something else).

While Borgmann is sympathetic to this way of thinking, he fears that we moderns have lost the ability to listen to earthenware jugs the same way we have discarded temples; outside of a very specific set of circumstances, a jug will just be a jug, and a temple a building. What is essential is to uncover the pattern of technology, to perceive its central emptiness, so that focal things regain a place in our ontology, where they had before been crowded out. Moreover, we need to go beyond focal things to practices, and to an engagement with society and politics, which of course is where things themselves exist. Essentially, we need through a cultivation of focal practices and political engagement to strip the gag from focal things and allow them to have a voice in deictic discourse.

Now to more examples. Nature was a good one! What about one that’s “closer to home”? Borgmann examines two in the course of the chapter: running and the culture of the table. He picks these in part because he believes that we have all experienced in some way or another the feeling of a run (or at least a brisk walk), and a simple good meal at home in the presence of good company, and that we will understand the contrast between them and sitting indoors for weeks, or grabbing a quick meal from a fast-food chain.

Unfortunately running outside and homemade meals are nowadays fleeting experiences. Philosophers, politicians, and technologists have not developed them as part of a wider discourse. Instead, practitioners (the runners themselves, for example) have been the ones who have been witnesses of the focal power of these practices. This is excellent, as far as Borgmann is concerned, for these people can actually speak deictically to us! Melville, Thoreau, Pirsig, and Maclean are all helpful. Even instruction manuals for hiking or backpacking can have strikingly deep philosophical reflection and insight.

For running, Borgmann chooses George Sheehan’s Running & Being to bear the torch. Running is different than driving. In both activities we can say we have ‘achieved’ something, but in driving it is the technological achievement of having extracted stored energy from the earth, which of course I had no particular hand in making happen. I can’t really take any credit for it even though I benefit. “I am a divided person; my achievement lies in the past, my enjoyment in the present. But in the runner, effort and joy are one; the split between means and ends, labor and leisure is healed” (202). Running engages the mind and body, which is different from “exercise”, which works the body while leaving the mind disengaged. Running on a treadmill is an efficient, disassociating kind of activity in which I use my body while doing the best I can not to be bored, often by watching TV or listening to music—a perfect example of a ‘divided person’. In outdoor running, mind and body are intimate with the world. We know the world more deeply by running through it than driving past it in an enclosed cage. Not only that, “serious running takes us to the limits of our being” (204) through encountering the pain of effort and working with our bodies.

Another example of a focal practice is the “culture of the table”, i.e., cultivating homemade meals accompanied by conversation in the presence of others. Because of our technological capabilities or our human uniqueness, we often stand over or against the world; coming into immediate contact with the world is therefore something special, and this happens in a meal: “Truly human eating is the union of the primal and the cosmic. In the simplicity of bread and wine, of meat and vegetable, the world is gathered” (204). The great meal is a focal event which gathers the family and the gifts of nature and delivers them to us in the flow of our unique culinary traditions, recollecting our ancestral research into food and our particular branch of humanity’s customs. Technological eating is divided into form and function; in a festive family meal, eating once again engages us fully.

Borgmann acknowledges that in the course of any meal there is an element of sheer consumption. In the great meal, that is only part of the structure, however; there is also a moment of reflection (or prayer), a sequence of courses, memorable conversation, all clothed with the desire to respect one another and the event via the discipline of table manners. Activities are embodied in persons—the dish and cook, the vegetable and gardener, etc… This meal is not characterized by consumption and anonymity. It could even be called religious, or sacred (and many special traditional meals have that character explicitly).

In our technological setting, the great meal is necessarily understood differently than in a pre-technological one; for us, rather than it being the necessary way of things, it can become something more: a place of calm, of memory. A place where there is respite from the striving for consumption and a restoration of the depth of the world.

Engaging in focal practices like running or cultivating homemade meals is clearly possible for all of us to do (even if only because our technological society has given us that opportunity!). Everyone can run or make a meal from scratch. So why don’t we, as a society? Well, first of all, our labor—that which we spend most of our time doing—is exhausting. When we return home from it, it’s easy to say “yes” to the least burdensome diversion that approaches us (e.g., TV). And so ultimately the rule of technology, which we have been examining all these chapters, is stronger than any ad hoc willpower we might possess. The whole framework of our world validates my desire to simply kick back in the easy chair and watch a movie, beer in hand. If we care about running or making meals from scratch, the only thing that will suffice is turning them into an actual practice, not a series of one-off events we hope will be the norm. Borgmann says, “…without a practice, an engaging action or event can momentarily light up our life, but it cannot order and orient it focally… Through a practice we are able to accomplish what remains unattainable when aimed at in a series of individual decisions and acts” (207).

How are focal practices established? In pre-technological societies, they were often done so with some mythic purpose or backstory, showing how this particular practice enacts something we all know or desire to be true cosmically, for example as in the Eucharist, a practice established to commemorate not just a specific event but the cosmic reality that event signified: God giving himself for the world. Practices were established in the face of some obvious antagonist, like chaos (thinking, “if we but keep this practice it will keep chaos and disorder at bay”). Our antagonist today is the deadening effect of technology, but this antagonist is hard to see. It is the backdrop, the stage setting, not easily visible as a character itself. Unless we have seen its patterns and felt its debilitating effect on our lives, it will be hard to find energy to found focal practices in opposition to it. But if we have observed the “persuasiveness and consistency of its pattern”, we will be encouraged to engage in focal practices that restore depth and integrity to our lives.

Practices, in their recurring and faithful nature, protect focal things from being subverted by technology and from being lost because of our own frailty or natural inconsistency. Practices remind us that focal goods, far from being delivered automatically whenever we engage in the practice, are hard-won, and all the more satisfying for remaining in the practice despite difficulty or long seasons without apparent advancement. And as Alisdair MacIntyre says, a practice always contains the notion of the goods it obtains, so the technological split between means and ends is healed—the focal practice and focal good cannot be disentangled as with a machine and its product.

In sum, focal practices are essential to counteract the pattern of technology and to guard focal things from extinction. They come into being through either our explicit resolution or an implicit nurturing that becomes a solid custom. Our focal practices today will differ from those of our pre-technological ancestors. Theirs were social, public, and enshrined in buildings, public offices, roles, clothing, etc… Ours are more humble, homely, scattered, and often more private. This is a limitation of focal practices that we need to examine if, as Borgmann thinks, they can be the ground for a more widespread reform of technology that reaches into the public sphere. And so we set the stage for the next chapter, which will begin to tie together the notion of focal practices with the “good life”, and how that pushes inevitably into politics.

[Photo: breakfast at our table, by Jessica Lipps]