The Illusion of Technique

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization, William Barrett, author of Irrational Man, champions the cause of liberty in the modern world. His book is, he says, “an attempt at a connected argument for human freedom,” and it is apparent that this argument is directed forthrightly at B. F. Skinner and other behavioral scientists who would seek to thrust upon man a “technology of behavior.”

Divided into three sections, each of which centers upon a major philosopher, the main part of Barrett’s study is taxing even for the most sophisticated reader. Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and William James are his foci, each of whom represents a type of modern philosophizing: respectively, analytic philosophy, phenomenology/existentialism, and pragmatism. In addition, Barrett adds a fourth, briefer section which endeavors to give a glimpse of the future. Stylistically, his study speaks one moment in sharp, everyday prose; at other times, it appears in dense, philosophic ruminations; on occasion, it drifts into rhapsody and metaphor. Its style, then, is a self-conscious illustration of “open-endedness,” one of the book’s major arguments about the nature of language and resulting human freedom.

Early in The Illusion of Technique, Barrett pits against closed systems (his example is the mathematical logic of Principia Mathematica) such open systems as ordinary language (which Wittgenstein embraced in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). What these systems illustrate for Barrett is the choice between enslavement and liberty. A behaviorist, he argues, seeks to regulate a subject’s mental life by shaping it as a series of bodily responses. That is, he does not obliterate the inner life (far less does he wed it to the outer life) so much as he renders it inconsequential. Yet it is apparent that in daily life, the most lasting, meaningful changes of human behavior come from within, prompted by a transformation in the “inner person.” They are, in short, acts of the will. This conflict, stripped to its essentials, is for Barrett one between “technique” (a closed, methodological system) and “choice” (an open, freedom-flexing indeterminacy). Thus, Wittgenstein’s rejection of mathematical logic and his eventual accommodation of ordinary language is seen here as a movement from a closed to an open world—a world of flexibility, potentiality, and alternative choice.

It is in the first quarter of his study (entitled “Technique”) that Barrett uses the example of Wittgenstein to engage the problem of man’s self-enclosure. His thesis, set out both here and in the preceding lucid Prologue, is that man has bound himself with Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” by gradually crafting a mechanical world in which he is both physically and philosophically a mechanical human. His technology, at whose altar he has come to worship, is itself a demigod in a pantheon, the Lord of which is Technique.

By “technique,” of course, Barrett means the attitude of mind so familiar to us all in a world of self-help books and “how to” manuals on everything from acquiring instant wealth to achieving surefire orgasm—the attitude that for every problem there is a system, a methodology which will work if only we learn to use it properly. At its most trivial, though still dangerous, level, we see this attitude of mind in the standardized-testing mania which infects American schools and colleges and in such programmed-learning schemes as those for teaching university students how to write a decent essay. They are fundamentally noncreative, closed systems. Our belief in their efficacy, Barrett would argue, is a dominant myth of our time, akin to a Frankenstein monster. At its most serious level, he adds, we see this attitude of mind in behaviorism and Communism. The former, in effect, hypothesizes that some technique can readily shape humans, whatever situation arises in their lives. The latter is straightforward indoctrination in obedience. Both fail to understand that any attempt to turn a human into a closed system is bound to beget a zombie, not a creative intelligence. The very essence of man is not his limitation or enclosure, but his sense of participation and belonging in a universe of “Being.” Technique, then, may achieve momentary victories. Over the long run, it may even succeed in crafting our oblivion; but by its very nature, it does not seek to preserve the elements of our humanness.

In the second part of his book, where he turns to the concept of Being by drawing liberally upon Descartes and Heidegger, Barrett posits freedom as a possibility for man. This second part is detailed and tough, not always as lucid as one could wish, but filled with those “swoops and darts” of insight that Barrett finds so characteristic of Wittgenstein.

Beginning with Descartes, Barrett surveys the idea of man’s living in two worlds—the inner (subjective) and outer (objective)—and so being fraught with the doubt that arises from a divided consciousness. Yet even here, as in the phenomenology of Husserl, man’s will is manifest in the free choices it makes: to pursue nature’s secrets, despite the doubt of physical reality, or (in Husserl) to “bracket” the very idea of objective reality as though it were not now significant. What follows next is far and away the most “poetic” section of The Illusion of Technique—a strange, rhapsodic interlude entitled “Homeless in the World,” wherein Barrett tries to wrest into clarity the idea of our coming into light, into illumination, into the revelation that we are part of universal Being. In some ways this is the heart of his study. It encroaches upon something that elsewhere in his book he refers to as the region of the inarticulable; yet here, interestingly, it is language that Barrett uses to suggest the sense of our “Being-in-the-world.” Just as we grope with the actualities and possibilities of language toward illumination in a sentence, so language...

(The entire section is 2474 words.)