tribute by Carl Mitcham
Albert Borgmann seldom if ever referenced the work of Jacques Ellul, yet many of those influenced by Ellul felt a certain kinship with him.
Of the three main approaches that emerged during the classic European period of the development of the philosophy of technology – the analytic (centered in England and North America), the phenomenological (centered in Germany), and the sociological (centered in France) – Borgmann continued and deepened the phenomenological as it was initially found in Heidegger. His direct relationship with Ellul’s sociological criticism was slight. Yet his phenomenological description of what he termed the “device paradigm” (see Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, 1984) can be read as revealing another way in which Ellul’s La Technique colonizes and distorts material culture. Ellul focused on the distortions of economy, politics, and human relations; Borgmann added the colonization of our quotidian lifeworld of consumer goods. Borgmann’s persistent theme was the ways in which techno-material culture was cutting us off from another reality – or more simply, reality.
I discovered Borgmann when reading his small article on “Orientation in Technology” (Philosophy Today, Summer 1972). Shortly after we met in person at the first North American philosophy and technology conference organized by Paul Durbin at the University of Delaware in 1975. It was there that Albert and I initiated a friendship that spanned almost 50 years. During that time I took nourishment from his measured criticism and patient work for renewal, manifest not just in his writing but in years of dedicated teaching at the University of Montana and a life of political engagement in his adopted home. Born in Freiburg, Germany, of Catholic parents, as a young student he immigrated to the United States, married, had a family, and became intentional rooted in Missoula, Montana.
In what is perhaps his last published article, “The End of Technology and the Renewal of Reality” (Glen Miller et al., eds., Thinking through Science and Technology: Philosophy, Religion, and Politics in an Engineered World, 2023), Borgmann describes “technology as the term and the force that is characteristic of the modern era and that began with the Industrial Revolution. But as an animating power it may well have both crested in power and reached the bottom of possibility…. As an animating force that gets us out of bed in the morning and makes us go after more comfort and consumption, it has reached its end, except of course for the poor in this country and around the globe, for the people who are lacking the basic comforts of life. But for the upper and middle classes of the advanced industrial countries, the renewal of the world cannot come from one more iteration of the pattern of comfort and consumption.”
For Borgmann, “The three best-organized and visible enterprises of renewal are the new urbanism, the artisan economy, and organic farming.” How many people are devoted to these tasks? “You can piece together some information from scattered sources, a task beyond my time, I say with sadness. But the mutual awareness of constructive people may yet rise, and if it does, their impact on politics and culture may bring about a wider and deeper renewal of reality.”
For two extended testimonies to Borgmann as teacher by former students, see:
Also see the wikipedia webpage (includes a list of his main writings)
In the final years of Albert Borgmann’s life, he agreed to do a Theme article for this website on “Ellul and Heidegger,” but sadly, he was not able to fulfill this. If there is someone else who would like to fulfill this request, please contact me.
In the year 2021 I had a chance to visit Borgmann in his home. We sat in his library which included full sets of the works of Heidegger in German and English. Borgmann was born and grew up in the German town Freiburg which held the university where Heidegger did most of his teaching.