The Use of Examples in Philosophy of Technology

Bantwal Rao, Mithun


This paper is a contribution to a discussion in philosophy of technology by focusing on the epistemological status of the example. Of the various developments in the emerging, inchoate field of philosophy of technology, the “empirical turn” stands out as having left the most enduring mark on the trajectory contemporary research takes. From a historical point of view, the empirical turn can best be understood as a corrective to the overly “transcendentalizing” tendencies of “classical” philosophers of technology, such as Heidegger. Empirically oriented philosophy of technology emphasizes actual technologies through case-study research into the formation of technical objects and systems (constructivist studies) and how they, for example, transform our perceptions and conceptions (the phenomenological tradition) or pass on and propagate relations of power (critical theory). This paper explores the point of convergence of classical and contemporary approaches by means of the notion of the “example” or “paradigm.” It starts with a discussion of the quintessential modern philosopher of technology, Martin Heidegger, and his thinking about technology in terms of the ontological difference. Heidegger’s framing of technology in terms of this difference places the weight of intelligibility entirely on the side of being, to such an extent that his examples become heuristic rather than constitutive. The second part of the paper discusses the methodological and epistemological import of the “example” and the form of intelligibility it affords. Drawing on the work of Wittgenstein (standard metre), Foucault (panopticism), and Agamben (paradigm), we argue that the example offers an alternative way of understanding the study of technologies from that of empirical case studies.