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Technological Determinism, Scientific Reasoning, and Leslie White October 1, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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For the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, the sum of technological accomplishments in contemporary civilization formed the “Technique,” which was the “new and specific milieu in which man is required to exist” and which replaced “nature.” This milieu was artificial, autonomous, self-determining, not directed towards any specific end but only established through specific means, and interconnected to such a degree that all of its elements are impervious to analysis by its constituent parts ( In Philosophy and Technology, ed. Carl Mitcham, Robert Mackey, 86.)

Leslie White (1900-1975)

Technology, according to Ellul, had become the all-pervasive material reality and rationality which defined the superstructure of contemporary society.  Culture or politics, according to Ellul, does not determine the growth and development of technology.  Rather, it is technology or technique which determines the culture or political life of a society.  Nor was the understanding of technology as autonomous rationality a concern of French philosophers.  German philosophers were as concerned with interaction of technology and human freedom and were as anxious to establish its roots in the philosophic and scientific thinking of the West.

As Jan Patočka noted, Edmund Husserl argued that the sciences from Descartes forward introduced a dangerous mathematical reduction of reality which threatened to destroy the subjectivity and the experience of the first-person perspective.   Extending Husserl’s critique, Martin Heidegger contended that technology and the reduction of the physical universe to abstract mathematical formula does not merely lead to a diminution of perspective from a phenomenological point of view.  Instead, Heidegger claims, human beings lived increasingly in a world populated by man-made objects rather than organic nature.  This demonstrates our control and mastery over the natural world .  At the same time however, technology made human beings themselves equally open to that same dominance and control. (Jan Patočka: philosophy and selected writings ed. Erazim V. Kohák, 115.)

For Lewis Mumford, on the other hand, “Our age has not overcome the particular utilitarian bias that regards technical invention as primary, and aesthetic expression as secondary or even superfluous. ”  It is less tools and technology which define human beings but his cognitive ability which allows him to use tools to his greatest advantage.  Thus, Mumford continues, “trapping and hunting call less for tools than for sharp observation of animal habits and habitats….”   He concluded, “man’s technological expressions were less for the purposes of directly increasing the food supply or controlling nature than for utilizing his own immense internal resources and expressing his latent superorganic potentialities” (Philosophy and Technology, 80)

It was the emergence of language rather than the  development of hand tools which was far more consequential for the advancement of human beings into a complex social order.  Only when language was developed could human beings ensure the consolidation and transmission of knowledge and practices in “symbolic forms.”  The domestication of plants and animals followed only when this type of transmission and reduction became possible.   Mumford’s emphasis on the civilizational importance of language argues that man is primarily a “mind-using, symbol making, and self-mastering animal…” (Philosophy and technology, 79-80.)

Leslie White, beginning in 1935, but largely through a series of articles published in the 1940s, began to articulate an evolutionary perspective contrary to that of anthropology of Franz Boas.  In the piece “Energy and the Evolution of Culture,” published in 1943, White first put forward the “law” that “energy” times “technology” equals “culture,” meant to be understood as, William J. Peace notes, “culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year increases or as the efficiency of the means of putting this energy to work is increased” (Leslie A. White, 101.)  Such a formulation came from specific methodological provisions.

In a 1938 essay “Science is Sciencing,” White underscored that “science” was not simply a “body of data but a technique of interpretation” and considered Boas’ and his school’s methods to be flawed due to their fetishism of “induction” (Leslie A. White, 102.) In “Science is Sciencing,” White also maintained that sociologists and anthropologists “have repudiated the philosophy of evolutionism along with the errors of some evolutionists….”  By the evolutionary process, White meant specifically the “temporal-alteration-of-forms” ( Science is Sciencing, 377.)  Evolution was a process which occurred in both space and time.  As there were three fundamental categories which defined the nature of experience in human reality- things or events situated in space, time, or in space and time- so too were there three fundamental levels of reality:  the inorganic, organic, and superorganic “realms.”

By the “superorganic” realm, White meant the “phenomenon called by the anthropologist culture.”  Culture included, White continued, “tools, clothing, art, social organization…” or an “organization of extra-organic mechanisms by means of which a particular animal, man, adjusts, and strives to adjust himself to his environment….”  A critical part of this adjustment is through the use of symbols, arguing in much the same manner as Lewis Mumford.   Only human beings “endow any perceptible phenomenon…with a meaning that can not be perceived by the senses” (Science, 381.)

Each class of phenomenon may be studied as unique to itself, without reducing the logic of one category to that of another, or the anthropologist may consider the relationship between any of the categories.   Thus, it would be perfectly appropriate, according to White, to tie discussions of agricultural productivity and the development of specific civilizations to specific geographical factors.

White was not simply a “technological determinist” and can not be said to argue for the “autonomy of technology” in the same manner as Heidegger and  Ellul.  Much of his account of the relationship between mankind and technology agreed with that of Lewis Mumford.   The progress of human beings and the outward forms of civilization, White argued,  was facilitated not simply by the technology available to individuals but also was formed by a continual adaptation of the human body to environmental conditions.

White’s “technological determinism” was, moreover, the outgrowth of his view of the importance of deductive reasoning, the necessity of general theory, and a view of reality which viewed social life as a material interrelationship between humans as organic beings and the possession of their lived environment.  Much like Mumford, White believed that an essential part of the process defining cultural development was the capacity of the human being to “do work,”  technology was only the means through which man himself labored more efficiently.   Culture was then “a means of serving the needs of man,” of harnessing energy and putting it to work (The Evolution of Culture, 40.)

As White detailed in his 1943 article “Energy and the Development of Culture,” culture was an organization of energy in the form of “material objects, bodily acts, ideas, and sentiments.”   Culture,  as behaviors serving the needs of human beings, additionally, can be divided into two types.  The first were those needs which could be satisfied by drawing upon the energies of the human being alone.  Singing, dancing, social gatherings for companionship, signify and fulfill specific needs.   The second class of needs may only be satisfied through an appropriation of the environment.  Culture, artistic and religious expression, was only possible once man’s basic needs for food, shelter, and protection were satisfied (335-336.)

Only when human energy, that generated by man alone, is augmented by energy harnessed from the wind or water by windmills and steam engines, does culture progress at a quick pace.  As importantly, only when wind or water energy is harnessed technologically, does that source of energy become significant as part of human culture.  White summarizes the impact of the utilization of non-human sources of energy (wind, water, animal power) upon cultural development: “culture advances as the proportion of nonhuman energy to human energy increases” (The Evolution of Culture, 47.)

As the works of Ellul, Heidegger, Mumford, and White underscore, a concern with the ethical and civilizational importance of technological growth and development was a frequent touchstone of social theory. White’s concern with discovering an economy to the progress and advancement of civilization demonstrates the continual recurrence of the nineteenth-century notion of “science” as discovering the law-governed nature of things, as understood by nineteenth-century positivists and sociologists, in the works of twentieth-century thinkers.



1. Killer Links from Outer Space | Evolving Thoughts - October 6, 2010

[…] Technological Determinism, Scientific Reasoning, and Leslie White discusses, among other things, Jacques Ellul, a name I haven’t heard in a long while. […]

2. VISUALS & REPRESENTATIONS: Giant’s Shoulders #28 « From the Hands of Quacks - October 16, 2010

[…] Christopher Donohue discusses technological determinism and scientific reasoning within French philosopher Jacques’ Ellul’s Technique, in which technology has “defined the superstructure of contemporary society. A thought-proving blog on the theoretical elements of the history of technological determinism as discussed by great thinkers such as Leslie White and Lewis Mumford, among others. Donohue also has another great post on the various developing enterprises of “environmental determinism” in the 20th century foundation of the discipline of human geography. […]

3. Scribbly - October 20, 2010

Nice summary. Since Prigogine proved that increasing energy in a system increases its complexity, and since the modern thermoeconomics is showing a constant relationship between wealth and energy input, White is looking more and more like the necessary link that was missing these days.

4. Barry Shell - December 8, 2010

I need someone to elaborate on the term “sciencing”. What does it really mean? What is the exact definition of sciencing? It is not in many dictionaries, nor can it easily be found online anywhere. I would greatly appreciate if someone would communicate with me on this. You can simply google my name and find my email address.

5. Killer Links from Outer Space – Evolving Thoughts - June 21, 2018

[…] Technological Determinism, Scientific Reasoning, and Leslie White discusses, among other things, Jacques Ellul, a name I haven’t heard in a long while. […]

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