Feenberg’s Rational Critique of Rationality

In his attempt to work out a “rational critique of rationality,” philosopher Andrew Feenberg blends Frankfurt School critical theory with science and technology studies and a sprinkling of Weberian rationalization theory. The result is the articulation of a framework for understanding structural similarities among the development of technology, technological systems, and systems of rationality.

The concept of instrumentalization plays a crucial role in Feenberg’s critique. Here Feenberg describes the initial stage of instrumentalization:

“The initial insight that opens up an object to incorporation into a rational system presupposes two conceptual operations. First the object must be decontextualized, split off from its original environment. And second, it must be reduced or simplified to bring to prominence just those aspects that can be functionalized in terms of a goal. These operations describe the original imaginative relation to the world in which affordances are identified that expose objects and persons to technization, commodification, and bureaucratic control. This vision plays out in actions that exhibit a decontextualizing and reductive aspect. For example, a tree in the forest is situated in a specific place and an ecological niche but to become lumber it must be removed and stripped of its complex connections to other living things and the earth. A person enters the purview of a bureaucracy as a ‘case,’ abstracted from the totality of a life process and simplified of extraneous elements. Goods become commodities through an interpretation which strips them bare of human connections and throws them into circulation. ‘In short, rationalization might be defined as the destruction or ignoring of information in order to facilitate its processing’ (Benziger, 1986: 15).”

What has been abstracted and decontextualized must then be reintegrated:

“Before it can be developed as a working artifact, the decontextualized object must be placed in the context of pre-existing devices and systems. ‘Systematization,’ as I call this process, links the artifact or system to its technical and natural environment, for example, to the prevailing electrical voltage and weather conditions. In addition, the reductions it has undergone must be compensated by new mediations drawn from the ethical and aesthetic registers of the society in which it is to function. Legal, moral, and aesthetic constraints intervene in the design and production process, determining an artifact capable of entering a specific social world.”

Feenberg describes these two stages as primary and secondary instrumentalization. You can read the whole article here: “From Critical Theory of Technology to the Rational Critique of Rationality.”

2 thoughts on “Feenberg’s Rational Critique of Rationality

  1. It would be interesting to apply Feenberg’s theory of instrumentalization to people inhabiting a bureaucratic, corporate society. He seems to begin this analysis already – “A person enters the purview of a bureaucracy as a ‘case,’ abstracted from the totality of a life process and simplified of extraneous elements.” When one’s humanity has been removed, what, then, steps in to take its place? I believe this could explain how large corporations can consider their minimum-wage employees “costs” (instead of humans, that is).

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