Reifying Technology: Critical Theory between Functionalism and Phenomenology

David Theodore Schafer, Fordham University


My dissertation develops a new account of reification – the phenomena of viewing human relations with a detached, objectifying stance – in order to revitalize a Frankfurt School approach to the critique of technology. Reification on my ‘normative functionalist’ view is a failure to perceive the normative basis of social institutions: as for instance on some liberal theories that view the economy as an ethics-free sphere for the mere assertion of individual self-interest. My account of reification, developed in the first of two parts of my dissertation (Chapters 1 and 2), brings together Jürgen Habermas’s claim that reification is problematic because it causes social disturbances, with Axel Honneth’s view that reification undermines our ability to lead meaningful lives. In the second part (Chapters 3-5), I use my theory of reification to critically engage phenomenological and functionalist accounts of technology. I argue against the phenomenological theories of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, for whom science and technology are interpretive frameworks through which we understand the natural world. Though they rightly maintain that the scientific-technical view is not really ‘unbiased,’ but rather a threat to our very capacities for meaningful life, nevertheless, they fail to provide any account of the social forces that impede our ability to overcome this view. By contrast, Habermas’s functionalist critique of technology finds no problem with the objectifying nature of science and technology. For him, technology only becomes reifying when it replaces human interaction in personal domains like family life. I argue that Habermas is unable to account for the legitimate worries about technology itself that concern the phenomenologists. The advantage, however, is that he avoids their hyper-critical conclusions, and so can offer concrete suggestions about how to resist the reifying influence of technology in personal spheres. The view I defend seeks middle ground between these positions. Technology seems to be outside our control, but both technology and the reified view of it are products of social interests. I conclude with historical analyses of individual technologies for the purpose of exposing the social forces behind their development and the crises that arise from reified engagement with them.

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Recommended Citation

Schafer, David Theodore, "Reifying Technology: Critical Theory between Functionalism and Phenomenology" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10283661.