The term technicism is parallel in construction to "scientism" and serves many of the same purposes, although it is less common. While closely associated with the process of "technicization," technicism, like all "isms," offers a special perspective on the world and its character. The belief in technology as central to the world can take different forms, but is most commonly manifest in what may be called ethical technicism.
In the Gorgias Plato (c. 428–347 b.c.e.) already identified the character of technicism, the belief in means as in some sense primary over ends. Gorgias, a sophist, has separated his rhetorical skills (technai) from any firm subordination to substantive social or cultural traditions, not to mention to the good. This is a position that Socrates (c. 470–399 b.c.e.) strongly criticizes, but according to Karl Polanyi (1886–1964), Lewis Mumford (1895–1990), and other historians, it is precisely such a project of separating culture into various components and then pursuing each on its own terms that is the foundation of modern technology. When technics is pursued in terms of its own logic it becomes technology.
According to Max Weber (1864–1920), in his posthumously published studies titled Economy and Society (1922), traditional societies contain "techniques of every conceivable types of action, techniques of prayer, of asceticism, of thought and research, of memorizing, of education, of exercising political or hierocratic domination, of administration, of making love, of making war, of musical performance, of sculpture and painting, of arriving at legal decisions" (vol. 1, p. 65). But in traditional societies these techniques are embedded in mores and counter-mores institutions. The planting of crops is done efficiently, but also in accord with certain religious rituals. The building of houses is done effectively, but also with respect for various craft traditions and social distinctions. Efficiency and effectiveness do not operate independently of other social, culture, religious, aesthetic, ethical, and political constraints.
In the German tradition Max Scheler (1874–1928) was among the first to use the term Technizismus (technicism) to name an attitude toward the world that takes the pursuit of material effectiveness in means as itself a fundamental ideal. The term appears in Scheler's 1926 book Die Wissensformen und die Gesellschaft, but was also used in papers as early as 1914 in which he provided phenomenological sketches of different types of persons and leaders. For Scheler, it is the historical development of modern technological civilization that gave rise to technicism as a form of discourse (Janicaud 1994) or consciousness (Stanley 1978) that chooses to privilege means over ends—that is, to center public life around the pursuit of ever more effective means, while relegating questions of ends to issues of personal or private choice and decision-making. From this perspective, technicism has become a pejorative term especially among nonbehavioral social scientists.
Among the first philosophers to analyze the ethical implications of separating out means from ends was José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955). In the English translation of his The Rebellion of the Masses (1929), Ortega identifies three principles as fundamental to the twentieth century: liberal democracy, scientific experiment, and industrialism. "The two latter may be summed up in one word: technicism" (1932, p. 56). In fact, insofar as liberal democracy is also committed to public policies that promote the maximization of means, leaving ends to be determined by individuals, technicism covers the first principle as well. (In Spanish Ortega actually used the word técnica, but the translation "technicism" is significant as one of the earliest English occurrences in a new sense. In the previous century "technicism" meant simply excessive reliance on technical terminology.)
The next decade, in Meditación de la técnica (1939), Ortega outlined a historical movement from the chance inventions that characterize archaic societies, through the trial-and-error techniques of the artisan, to the scientific technologies of the engineer. According to Ortega, the difference between these three forms of making lies in the way one creates the means to realize a human project—that is, in the way technicalness or technicity is manifest. In the first epoch technicity is hidden behind accidents, whereas in the second, technicity is cultivated and protected in craft traditions. In the third, however, the inventor has undertaken scientific studies of technics and, as a result, "prior to the possession of any [particular] technics, already possesses technics [itself]" (Obras completas V, p. 369). It is this third type of technicity that constitutes "modern technicism" (and here Ortega himself uses the term tecnicismo).
But technicism understood as the science of how to generate all possible means independent from any lives making and using context creates a unique existential problem. There is a temptation to pursue technical invention as a good in itself, to become lost in the technical means as exciting or valuable in their own right. Prior to the modern period human beings were limited by circumstances in which they at once acquired a way of life and the technical means to realize it. Now in liberal societies they are given in advance a plethora of technical means but no well-defined sense of the good other than personal choice. "To be an engineer and only an engineer is to be everything possibly and nothing actually" (Obras completas V, p. 366). In the midst of modern technicsm Ortega discovers a crisis of imagination and choice. Insofar as people can be anything at all, why should they be any one thing? What Ortega imagined has become real in the case of those who play with their avatars in cyberspace while failing to become something in the world.
The engineer Billy Vaughn Koen, however, proposes the engineering method as the fundamental way of knowing and acting in the world in a way that turns technicism from an ethical problem into an epistemological method. Koen does not use the term technicism, perhaps because of its negative connotations. But his argument is that engineering is the method that all human beings use, and indeed must use, whenever they solve problems. "To be human is to be an engineer" (2003, p. 7; italics in original) whether one knows it or not. There is simply no alternative.
For Koen, "The engineering method is the use of heuristics to cause the best change in a poorly understood situation within the available resources" (p. 59). Heuristics are simply strategies based on some hunch, rule of thumb, or intuition, about what might work, that include both a rejection of any absolute sense or certainty and a willingness to revise in response to experience in order to make things better. In Koen's perspective, the engineering method is universal precisely because it does not claim to be universal. The engineering response to Ortega's problem is simply to try something. No situation of even apparently unlimited possibilities can remain that way forever. There is in the end an excitement about an epistemological technicism that sees necessity as unnecessary and is therefore willing to play with possibilities and see what happens.
WILHELM E. FUDPUCKER
Janicaud, Dominique. (1994). Powers of the Rational: Science, Technology, and the Future of Thought, trans. Peg Birmingham and Elizabeth Birmingham. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Originally published as La puissance du rationnel. (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).
Stanley, Manfred. (1978). The Technological Conscience: Survival and Dignity in an Age of Expertise. New York: Free Press.