Anders, Günther

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Philosopher of technology Günther Anders (1902–1992), who was born in the city of Breslau (then a part of Germany) on July 12, developed a unique moral critique of modern technology. He studied psychology, history of art, and philosophy at the universities of Hamburg and Berlin, and, as a student of Edmund Husserl, received his Ph.D. from the university of Freiburg in 1923. Anders's escape from Nazi Germany in 1933, his exile in North America, and, most importantly, the events of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, formed the experiential background to his thought. He returned to Europe in 1950 and lived in Vienna until his death on December 17.

Anders's philosophy exemplifies that tradition of critical and enlightened thought that engages with the world and the concrete problems of its time, seeking to ground human actions and the necessity of morality and ethics from within actual historical conditions. Anders's extensive body of work analyzes the changes to which human beings, both individually and collectively, are subject in a technological world. In the early period of his development, he undertook socio-political analyses of human practice (e.g., studies on fascism and unemployment), while writing poems, philosophical novels, and other books on philosophy, literature, and art.

Concern with the world is such a strong feature of Anders's philosophical identity that, for him, theoretical analysis and practical engagement are inextricably linked. He was one of the first intellectuals who warned against the Nazis and he took part in the resistance against Hitler and fascism. Later he was an active anti-Vietnam War protester, and an initiator of the anti-nuclear and environmental movements. But as much as he was a political activist, he nonetheless recognized the vital role of theory in an increasingly scientific and technological world, and, in reversing Karl Marx's famous formulation, he emphasized: "It is not enough to change the world, we do this anyway. And it mostly happens without our efforts, regardless. What we have to do is to interpret these changes so we in turn can change the changes, so that the world doesn't go on changing without us—and does not ultimately become a world without us" (Anders 2002b [1980], p. 5).

Anders regarded the destruction of Hiroshima as year one of a new era, and as the event that crystallized a newly acquired human capacity for self-destruction. This step into a future continually threatened with its own finality represented for him a radically new context for human action, demanding a new ethics. Anders confronted this changed global reality, and from this point on concentrated his efforts on thinking through the new moral situation and elucidating the relationship between human beings and technology.

Human activity, through its development of technology, had begun to overreach itself in a fatal way. Because human faculties such as emotion, perception, or even the ability to assume responsibility, are relatively circumscribed when compared to the capacity to create new things, human beings are now faced, he says, with a Promethean discrepancy between the world of technology and human abilities to visualize it. The divide is primarily attributable both to the accelerated pace of technological development, and to the enormous complexity of the created things and their effects. In this paradoxical situation, whereby humans are smaller than themselves, Anders sees the basic dilemma of the twenty-first century, a dilemma that can only be resolved by a moral imagination reconnecting production and visualization, creation and representation.

In his two-volume major work Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Human Beings) (2002a, 2002b), Anders develops the project moral imagination using a specific thing-cognizant approach. Because he realizes that acting has shifted (of course through human action) from the province of humans to the sphere of work and products, and that the created things are not simply neutral means to an end, but in fact represent incarnated or reified actions, he places the question of morality primarily in the realm of the things themselves. Therefore he is less concerned with listening to the voice of the heart (or examining the social processes of making or use), than with articulating the mute principles of work and the secret maxims of products, and trying to imagine how these embedded precepts are changing human beings and the fabric of daily life. Anders's work constitutes a new form of practical reason that attempts to reconnect modern technology to its human origins. "Have only those things," he formulates as a new categorical imperative, "whose inherent action maxims could become maxims for your own actions" (Anders 2002a [1956], p. 298).


SEE ALSO Arendt, Hannah; Atomic Bomb; German Perspectives; Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Anders, Günther. (1960). Franz Kafka, trans. A. Steer, and A. K. Thorlby. New York: Hillary House. A critical philosophical interpretation of the writings of Franz Kafka; the original German version appeared 1951 under the title "Kafka, pro und contra: die Prozessunterlagen." Munich: Beck.

Anders, Günther. (1962). "Theses for the Atomic Age." Massachusetts Review 3: 493–505.

Anders, Günther. (1989 [1962–]). Burning Conscience: The Case of the Hiroshima Pilot, Claude Eatherly, Told in his Letters to Günther Anders. New York: Paragon House. An influential dialogue on the moral situation in the atomic age; translated into more than 50 languages. The chapter "Commandments in the Atomic Age" appeared 1972 in Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology, eds. Carl Mitchum and Robert Mackey. New York: Free Press.

Anders, Günther. (2002a [1956]). Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Band 1: Über die Seele im Zeitalter der zweiten industriellen Revolution [The obsolescence of human beings, volume 1: The soul in the age of the second industrial revolution]. Munich: Beck. First volume of Anders's major work. A precise and thoughtful philosophical critique on how modern technologies are changing individual and social life; unfortunately, still not available in English.

Anders, Günther. (2002b [1980]). Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Band 2: Über die Zerstörung des Lebens im Zeitalter der dritten industriellen Revolution [The obsolescence of human beings, volume 2: The destruction of life in the age of the third industrial revolution]. Munich: Beck. Second volume of Anders's major work; unfortunately, still not available in English.