Dessauer, Friedrich

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Friedrich Dessauer (1881–1963) was born in Aschaffenburg, Germany, on July 19, and died in Frankfurt am Main on February 16. He led an active life as an inventor, entrepreneur, politician, theologian, and philosopher who put forth a strong ethical justification of technology as being even more significant than science. On the basis of his experience with technological creativity Dessauer argued that the act of invention goes beyond appearance to provide contact with Kantian things-in-themselves and, in theological terminology, realizes the imago dei in which human beings have been created.

Early in his life Dessauer became fascinated with Wilhelm Röntgen's (1845–1923) discovery of X-rays (1895), which promised a penetration of appearances, and his design of high-energy X-ray power supplies earned him a doctorate in 1917. As an inventor and entrepreneur he developed techniques for deep-penetration X-ray therapy in which weak rays are aimed from different angles to intersect at a point inside the body where their combined energy can be lethal to a tumor while having less of an effect on the surrounding tissues. While continuing his work in biophysics, after 1924 Dessauer was a Christian Democratic member of the Reichstag until he was forced to leave Germany in 1933 because of his anti-Nazi stance. After World War II Dessauer returned to lead the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics until he died from cancer brought on by X-ray burns incurred during his experimental work.

Beginning in the 1920s, Dessauer also pursued a wide-ranging intellectual dialogue about the meaning of modern technology. Especially in Philosophie der Technik (1927) and Streit um die Technik (1956), Dessuaer defended a Kantian and Platonic theory of technology. In the Critique of Pure Reason Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) had argued that scientific knowledge is limited to appearances (the phenomenal world) and unable to grasp "things-in-themselves" (noumena). Subsequent critiques of moral reasoning and aesthetic judgment required the positing of a "transcendent" reality but precluded direct contact with it. In his "fourth critique" of technological making Dessauer argued for existential engineering contact with noumena:

The Platonic idea descends into the imagination, recasting it. The airplane as thing-in-itself lies fixed in the absolute idea and comes into the empirical world as a new, autonomous essence when the inventor's subjective idea has sufficiently approached the being-such of the thing. …[And] it is possible to verify … [that] the thing-in-itself … has been captured [when] the thing works. (Dessauer 1927, p. 70)

Invention creates "real being from ideas," that is, engenders "existence out of essence" (Dessauer 1956, p. 234).

In conjunction with this metaphysics Dessuaer further articulated a moral assessment of technology that went beyond a simple consideration of practical benefits or risks. The autonomous, world-transforming consequences of modern technology bear witness to its transcendent moral value. Human beings create technologies, but the results, resembling those of "a mountain range, a river, an ice age, or a planet," extend creation.

It is a colossal fate, to be actively participating in creation in such fashion that something made by us remains in the visible world, continuing to operate with inconceivable autonomous power. It is the greatest earthly experience of mortals (Dessauer 1927, p. 66).

For Dessauer invention is a mystical experience.

Although seldom stated as forthrightly as Dessauer put it, this view of technological activity as a supreme participation in the dynamics of reality arguably has influenced the ethos of cutting-edge engineering practice, as is discussed in David Noble's The Religion of Technology (1997). It is a view that merits more conscious examination in terms of both its strengths and its weaknesses than it has received.


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics; German Perspectives.


Dessauer, Friedrich. (1927). Philosophie der Technik: Das Problem der Realisierung [Philosophy of technology: the problem of realization]. Bonn: F. Cohen. Dessauer's most important book. Partial English version: "Philosophy in Its Proper Sphere," trans. William Carroll, in Philosophy and Technology, ed. by Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackey. New York: Free Press, 1972.

Dessauer, Friedrich. (1956). Streit um die Technik [The controversy of technology]. Frankfurt am Main: Klett. A revised and expanded edition of Philosophie der Technik (1927).

Noble, David. (1997). The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Knopf. Criticizes religious faith in technology.