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Focal Things and Practices

Albert Borgmann

23 Focal Things and Practices a center of warmth, of light, and of daily practices. For
the Romans the focus was holy, the place where the
To see that the force of nature can be encountered housegods resided. In ancient Greece, a baby was truly
analogously in many other places, we must develop the joined to the family and household when, it was carried
general notions of focal things and practices. This is the about the hearth and placed before it. The union of a
first point of this chapter. The Latin word focus, its mean- Roman marriage was sanctified at the hearth. And at
ing and etymology, are our best guides to this task. But least in the early periods the dead were buried by the
once we have learned tentatively to recognize the hearth. The family ate by the hearth and made sacrifices
instances of focal things and practices in our midst, we to the housegods before and after the meal. The hearth
must acknowledge their scattered and inconspicuous sustained, ordered, and centered house and family.1
character too. Their hidden splendor comes to light Reflections of the hearth’s significance can yet be seen in
when we consider Heidegger’s reflections on simple and the fireplace of many American homes. The fireplace
eminent things. But an inappropriate nostalgia clings to often has a central location in the house. Its fire is now
Heidegger’s account. It can be dispelled, so I will argue, symbolical since it rarely furnishes sufficient warmth.
when we remember and realize more fully that the But the radiance, the sounds, and the fragrance of living
technological environment heightens rather than denies fire consuming logs that are split, stacked, and felt in their
the radiance of genuine focal things and when we learn grain have retained their force. There are no longer
to understand that focal things require a practice images of the ancestral gods placed by the fire; but there
to  prosper within. These points I will try to give often are pictures of loved ones on or above the mantel,
substance  in the subsequent parts of this chapter by precious things of the family’s history, or a clock,
calling attention to the focal concerns of running and of measuring time.2
the culture of the table. The symbolical center of the house, the living room
The Latin word focus means hearth. … [According to with the fireplace, often seems forbidding in comparison
what I call the device paradigm,] the hearth or fireplace, with the real center, the kitchen with its inviting smells
a thing, [appears] as the counterpart to the central and sounds. Accordingly, the architect Jeremiah Eck has
heating plant, a device. It [has been] pointed out that rearranged homes to give them back a hearth, “a place of
in  a  pretechnological house the fireplace constituted warmth and activity” that encompasses cooking, eating,

Albert Borgman, “Focal Things and Practices” and “Wealth and the Good Life,” from Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 196–226, 285–289, abridged. Reprinted by permission of the University of Chicago Press.

Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: An Anthology, Second Edition. Edited by Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
330 albe rt borgmann

and living and so is central to the house whether it liter- To see the work of art as the focus and origin of the
ally has a fireplace or not.3 Thus we can satisfy, he says, world’s meaning was a pivotal discovery for Heidegger.
“the need for a place of focus in our family lives.”4 He had begun in the modern tradition of Western
“Focus,” in English, is now a technical term of geome- philosophy where … the sense of reality is to be
try and optics. Johannes Kepler was the first so to use it, grasped by determining the antecedent and controlling
and he probably drew on the then already current sense of conditions of all there is (the Bedingungen der Möglichkeit
focus as the “burning point of lens or mirror.”5 as Immanuel Kant has it). Heidegger wanted to outdo
Correspondingly, an optic or geometric focus is a point this tradition in the radicality of his search for the
where lines or rays converge or from which they diverge fundamental conditions of being. Perhaps it was the
in a regular or lawful way. Hence “focus” is used as a verb relentlessness of his pursuit that disclosed the ultimate
in optics to denote moving an object in relation to a lens futility of it. At any rate, when the universal conditions
or modifying a combination of lenses in relation to an are explicated in a suitably general and encompassing
object so that a clear and well-defined image is produced. way, what truly matters still hangs in the balance because
These technical senses of “focus” have happily everything depends on how the conditions come to be
converged with the original one in ordinary language. actualized and instantiated.8 The preoccupation with
Figuratively they suggest that a focus gathers the rela- antecedent conditions not only leaves this question
tions of its context and radiates into its surroundings and unanswered; it may even make it inaccessible by leaving
informs them. To focus on something or to bring it into the impression that, once the general and fundamental
focus is to make it central, clear, and articulate. It is in the matters are determined, nothing of consequence remains
context of these historical and living senses of “focus” to be considered. Heidegger’s early work, however,
that I want to speak of focal things and practices. already contained the seeds of its overcoming. In his
Wilderness on this continent, it now appears, is a focal determination to grasp reality in its concreteness,
thing. It provides a center of orientation; when we bring Heidegger had found and stressed the inexorable and
the surrounding technology into it, our relations to unsurpassable givenness of human existence, and he had
technology become clarified and well-defined. But just provided analyses of its pretechnological wholeness and
how strong its gathering and radiating force is requires its technological distraction though the significance of
further reflection. And surely there will be other focal these descriptions for technology had remained con-
things and practices: music, gardening, the culture of the cealed to him.9 And then he discovered that the unique
table, or running. event of significance in the singular work of art, in the
We might in a tentative way be able to see these things prophet’s proclamation, and in the political deed was
as focal; what we see more clearly and readily is how crucial.This insight was worked out in detail with regard
inconspicuous, homely, and dispersed they are. This is in to the artwork. But in an epilogue to the essay that
stark contrast to the focal things of pretechnological develops this point, Heidegger recognized that the
times, the Greek temple or the medieval cathedral that insight comes too late. To be sure, our time has
we have mentioned before. Martin Heidegger was brought forth admirable works of art. “But,” Heidegger
deeply impressed by the orienting force of the Greek insists, “the question remains: is art still an essential and
temple. For him, the temple not only gave a center of necessary way in which that truth happens which is
meaning to its world but had orienting power in the decisive for historical existence, or is art no longer of this
strong sense of first originating or establishing the world, character?”10
of disclosing the world’s essential dimensions and Heidegger began to see technology (in his more or
criteria.6 Whether the thesis so extremely put is defens- less substantive sense) as the force that has eclipsed the
ible or not, the Greek temple was certainly more than focusing powers of pretechnological times. Technology
a self-sufficient architectural sculpture, more than a jewel becomes for him … the final phase of a long metaphysi-
of well-articulated and harmoniously balanced elements, cal development. The philosophical concern with the
more, even, than a shrine for the image of the goddess or conditions of the possibility of whatever is now itself
the god. As Vincent Scully has shown, a temple or seen as a move into the oblivion of what finally matters.
a  temple precinct gathered and disclosed the land in But how are we to recover orientation in the oblivious
which they were situated. The divinity of land and sea and distracted era of technology when the great
was focused in the temple.7 embodiments of meaning, the works of art, have lost
focal thi ngs and practice s 331

their focusing power? Amidst the complication of condi- of technology and remain vaguely enthralled by that
tions, of the Bedingungen, we must uncover the simplicity promise, so long simple things and practices will seem
of things, of the Dinge.11 A jug, an earthen vessel from burdensome, confining, and drab. But if we recognize the
which we pour wine, is such a thing. It teaches us what central vacuity of advanced technology, that emptiness
it is to hold, to offer, to pour, and to give. In its clay, it can become the opening for focal things. It works both
gathers for us the earth as it does in containing the wine ways, of course. When we see a focal concern of ours
that has grown from the soil. It gathers the sky whose threatened by technology, our sight for the liabilities of
rain and sun are present in the wine. It refreshes and mature technology is sharpened.
animates us in our mortality. And in the libation it A second point of Heidegger’s is one that we must
acknowledges and calls on the divinities. In these ways develop now. The things that gather the fourfold,
the thing (in agreement with its etymologically original Heidegger says, are inconspicuous and humble. And
meaning) gathers and discloses what Heidegger calls the when we look at his litany of things, we also see that they
fourfold, the interplay of the crucial dimensions of earth are scattered and of yesterday: jug and bench, footbridge
and sky, mortals and divinities.12 A thing, in Heidegger’s and plow, tree and pond, brook and hill, heron and deer,
eminent sense, is a focus; to speak of focal things is to horse and bull, mirror and clasp, book and picture, crown
emphasize the central point twice. and cross.17 That focal things and  practices are incon-
Still, Heidegger’s account is but a suggestion fraught spicuous is certainly true; they flourish at the margins of
with difficulties. When Heidegger described the focus- public attention. And they have suffered a diaspora; this
ing power of the jug, he might have been thinking of too must be accepted, at least for now. That is not to say
a rural setting where wine jugs embody in their material, that a hidden center of these dispersed focuses may not
form, and craft a long and local tradition; where at noon emerge some day to unite them and bring them home.
one goes down to the cellar to draw a jug of table wine But it would clearly be a forced growth to proclaim such
whose vintage one knows well; where at the noon meal a unity now. A reform of technology that issues from
the wine is thoughtfully poured and gratefully received.13 focal concerns will be radical not in imposing a new and
Under such circumstances, there might be a gathering unified master plan on the technological universe but in
and disclosure of the fourfold, one that is for the most discovering those sources of strength that will nourish
part understood and in the background and may come principled and confident beginnings, measures, i.e.,
to the fore on festive occasions. But all of this seems as which will neither rival nor deny technology.
remote to most of us and as muted in its focusing power But there are two ways in which we must go beyond
as the Parthenon or the Cathedral of Chartres. How can Heidegger. One step in the first direction has already
so simple a thing as a jug provide that turning point in been taken. It led us to see … that the simple things of
our relation to technology to which Heidegger is yesterday attain a new splendor in today’s technological
looking forward? Heidegger’s proposal for a reform of context. The suggestion in Heidegger’s reflections that
technology is even more programmatic and terse than we have to seek out pretechnological enclaves to
his analysis of technology.14 Both, however, are capable of encounter focal things is misleading and dispiriting.
fruitful development.15 Two points in Heidegger’s con- Rather we must see any such enclave itself as a focal
sideration of the turn of technology must particularly be thing heightened by its technological context. The turn
noted. The first serves to remind us of arguments already to things cannot be a setting aside and even less an escape
developed which must be kept in mind if we are to make from technology but a kind of affirmation of it. The
room for focal things and practices. Heidegger says, second move beyond Heidegger is in the direction of
broadly paraphrased, that the orienting force of simple practice, into the social and, later, the political situation
things will come to the fore only as the rule of technol- of focal things.18 Though Heidegger assigns humans
ogy is raised from its anonymity, is disclosed as the ortho- their place in the fourfold when he depicts the jug in
doxy that heretofore has been taken for granted and which the fourfold is focused, we scarcely see the hand
allowed to remain invisible.16 As long as we overlook the that holds the jug, and far less do we see of the social set-
tightly patterned character of technology and believe ting in which the pouring of the wine comes to pass. In
that we live in a world of endlessly open and rich oppor- his consideration of another thing, a bridge, Heidegger
tunities, as long as we ignore the definite ways in which notes the human ways and works that are gathered and
we, acting technologically, have worked out the promise directed by the bridge.19 But these remarks too present
332 albe rt borgmann

practices from the viewpoint of the focal thing. What this engagement that they have reached for the pen to
must be shown is that focal things can prosper in human become witnesses and teachers, speakers of deictic
practices only. Before we can build a bridge, Heidegger discourse. Melville and Thoreau are among the great
suggests, we must be able to dwell.20 But what does that prophets of this tradition. Its present health and extent
mean concretely? are evident from the fact that it now has no overpower-
The consideration of the wilderness has disclosed ing heroes but many and various more or less eminent
a center that stands in a fruitful counter-position to tech- practitioners. Their work embraces a spectrum between
nology. The wilderness is beyond the procurement of down-to-earth instruction and soaring speculation. The
technology, and our response to it takes us past span and center of their concerns vary greatly. But they
consumption. But it also teaches us to accept and to all have their mooring in the attention to tangible and
appropriate technology. We must now try to discover if bodily things and practices, and they speak with an
such centers of orientation can be found in greater prox- enthusiasm that is nourished by these focal concerns.
imity and intimacy to the technological everyday life. Pirsig’s book is an impressive and troubling monument
And I believe they can be found if we follow up the hints in this tradition, impressive in the freshness of its
that we have gathered from and against Heidegger, the observations and its pedagogical skill, troubling in its
suggestions that focal things seem humble and scattered ambitious and failing efforts to deal with the large
but attain splendor in technology if we grasp technology philosophical issues. Norman Maclean’s A River Runs
properly, and that focal things require a practice for their through It can be taken as a fly-fishing manual, a virtue
welfare. Running and the culture of the table are such that pleases its author.22 But it is a literary work of art
focal things and practices. We have all been touched by most of all and a reflection on technology inasmuch as it
them in one way or another. If we have not participated presents the engaging life, both dark and bright, from
in a vigorous or competitive run, we have certainly taken which we have so recently emerged. Colin Fletcher’s
walks; we have felt with surprise, perhaps, the pleasure of treatise of The Complete Walker is most narrowly a book
touching the earth, of feeling the wind, smelling the rain, of instruction about hiking and backpacking.23 The focal
of having the blood course through our bodies more significance of these things is found in the interstices of
steadily. In the preparation of a meal we have enjoyed the equipment and technique; and when the author explic-
simple tasks of washing leaves and cutting bread; we have itly engages in deictic discourse he has “an unholy awful
felt the force and generosity of being served a good wine time” with it.24 Roger B. Swain’s contemplation of
and homemade bread. Such experiences have been gardening in Earthly Pleasures enlightens us in cool and
particularly vivid when we came upon them after much graceful prose about the scientific basis and background
sitting and watching indoors, after a surfeit of readily of what we witness and undertake in our gardens.25
available snacks and drinks. To encounter a few simple Philosophical significance enters unbidden and easily in
things was liberating and invigorating. The normal the reflections on time, purposiveness, and the familiar.
clutter and distraction fall away when, as the poet says, Looking at these books, I see a stretch of water that
extends beyond my vision, disappearing in the distance.
there, in limpid brightness shine, But I can see that it is a strong and steady stream, and it
on the table, bread and wine.21 may well have parts that are more magnificent than the
ones I know.26
If such experiences are deeply touching, they are To discover more clearly the currents and features
fleeting as well. There seems to be no thought or of this, the other and more concealed, American main-
discourse that would shelter and nurture such events; not stream, I take as witnesses two books where enthusiasm
in politics certainly, nor in philosophy where the prevail- suffuses instruction vigorously, Robert Farrar Capon’s
ing idiom sanctions and applies equally to lounging and The Supper of the Lamb and George Sheehan’s Running
walking, to Twinkies, and to bread, the staff of life. But and Being.27 Both are centered on focal events, the great
the reflective care of the good life has not withered away. run and the great meal. The great run, where one exults
It has left the profession of philosophy and sprung up in the strength of one’s body, in the ease and the length
among practical people. In fact, there is a tradition in of the stride, where nature speaks powerfully in the hills,
this  country of persons who are engaged by life in its the wind, the heat, where one takes endurance to the
concreteness and simplicity and who are so filled with breaking point, and where one is finally engulfed by the
focal thi ngs and practice s 333

good will of the spectators and the fellow runners.28 The the past, my enjoyment in the present. But in the runner,
great meal, the long session as Capon calls it, where the effort and joy are one; the split between means and ends,
guests are thoughtfully invited, the table has been labor and leisure is healed.33 To be sure, if I have trained
carefully set, where the food is the culmination of tradi- conscientiously, my past efforts will bear fruit in a race.
tion, patience, and skill and the presence of the earth’s But they are not just cashed in. My strength must be
most delectable textures and tastes, where there is an risked and enacted in the race which is itself a supreme
invocation of divinity at the beginning and memorable effort and an occasion to expand my skill.
conversation throughout.29 This unity of achievement and enjoyment, of compe-
Such focal events are compact, and if seen only in their tence and consummation, is just one aspect of a central
immediate temporal and spatial extent they are easily wholeness to which running restores us. Good running
mistaken. They are more mistakable still when they are engages mind and body. Here the mind is more than an
thought of as experiences in the subjective sense, events intelligence that happens to be housed in a body. Rather
that have their real meaning in transporting a person the mind is the sensitivity and the endurance of the
into  a certain mental or emotional state. Focal events, body.34 Hence running in its fullness, as Sheehan stresses
so  conceived, fall under the rule of technology. For over and over again, is in principle different from exercise
when a subjective state becomes decisive, the search for designed to procure physical health. The difference
a machinery that is functionaly equivalent to the tradi- between running and physical exercise is strikingly
tional enactment of that state begins, and it is spurred by exhibited in one and the same issue of the New York
endeavors to find machineries that will procure the state Times Magazine. It contains an account by Peter Wood of
more instantaneously, ubiquitously, more assuredly and how, running the New York City Marathon, he took in
easily. If, on the other hand, we guard focal things in their the city with body and mind, and it has an account
depth and integrity, then, to see them fully and truly, we by  Alexandra Penney of corporate fitness programs
must see them in context. Things that are deprived of where executives, concerned about their Coronary Risk
their context become ambiguous.30 The letter “a” by Factor  Profile, run nowhere on treadmills or ride
itself means nothing in particular. In the context of stationary bicycles.35 In another issue, the Magazine
“table” it conveys or helps to convey a more definite shows executives exercising their bodies while busy-
meaning. But “table” it turn can mean many things. It ing their dissociated minds with reading.36 To be sure,
means something more powerful in the text of Capon’s unless a  runner concentrates on bodily performance,
book where he speaks of “The Vesting of the Table.”31 often in an effort to run the best possible race, the mind
But that text must finally be seen in the context and wanders as the body runs. But as in free association we
texture of the world. To say that something becomes range about the future and the past, the actual and the
ambiguous is to say that it is made to say less, little, or possible, our mind, like our breathing, rhythmically
nothing. Thus to elaborate the context of focal events is gathers itself to the here and now, having spread itself to
to grant them their proper eloquence. distant times and faraway places.
“The distance runner,” Sheehan says, “is the least of all It is clear from these reflections that the runner is
athletes. His sport the least of all sports.”32 Running is mindful of the body because the body is intimate with
simply to move through time and space, step-by-step. the world. The mind becomes relatively disembodied
But there is splendor in that simplicity. In a car we move when the body is severed from the depth of the world,
of course much faster, farther, and more comfortably. But i.e., when the world is split into commodious surfaces
we are not moving on our own power and in our own and inaccessible machineries. Thus the unity of ends and
right. We cash in prior labor for present motion. Being means, of mind and body, and of body and world is one
beneficiaries of science and engineering and having and the same. It makes itself felt in the vividness with
worked to be able to pay for a car, gasoline, and roads, we which the runner experiences reality. “Somehow you
now release what has been earned and stored and use it feel more in touch,” Wood says, “with the realities of
for transportation. But when these past efforts are a  massive inner-city housing problem when you are
consumed and consummated in my driving, I can at best running through it slowly enough to take in the grim
take credit for what I have done. What I am doing now, details, and, surprisingly, cheered on by the remaining
driving, requires no effort, and little or no skill or occupants.”37 As this last remark suggests, the wholeness
discipline. I am a divided person; my achievement lies in that running establishes embraces the human family too.
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The experience of that simple event releases an equally cultivating edible plants, in domesticating and butch-
simple and profound sympathy. It is a natural goodwill, ering animals; it brings into focus closer relations of
not in need of drugs nor dependent on a common national or regional customs, and more intimate
enemy. It wells up from depths that have been forgotten, traditions still of family recipes and dishes. […] this
and it overwhelms the runners ever and again.38 As Wood living texture is being rent through the procurement
recounts his running through streets normally besieged of food as a commodity and the replacement of the
by crime and violence, he remarks: “But we can only be culture of the table by the food industry. Once food
amazed today at the warmth that emanates from streets has become freely available, it is only consistent that
usually better known for violent crime.”And his response the gathering of the meal is shattered and disintegrates
to the spectators’ enthusiasm is this: “I feel a great prox- into snacks, T.V. dinners, bites that are grabbed to be
imity to the crowd, rushing past at all of nine miles per eaten; and eating itself is scattered around television
hour; a great affection for them individually; a commit- shows, late and early meetings, activities, overtime
ment to run as well as I possibly can, to acknowledge work, and other business. This is increasingly the nor-
their support.”39 For George Sheehan, finally, running mal condition of technological eating. But it is within
discloses the divine. When he runs, he wrestles with our power to clear a central space amid the clutter and
God.40 Serious running takes us to the limits of our distraction. We can begin with the simplicity of a meal
being. We run into threatening and seemingly unbear- that has a beginning, a middle, and an end and that
able pain. Sometimes, of course, the plunge into that breaks through the superficiality of convenience food
experience gets arrested in ambition and vanity. But it in the simple steps of beginning with raw ingredients,
can take us further to the point where in suffering our preparing and transforming them, and bringing them
limits we experience our greatness too. This, surely, is a to the table. In this way we can again become free-
hopeful place to escape technology, metaphysics, and the holders of our culture. We are disfranchised from world
God of the philosophers and reach out to the God of citizenship when the foods we eat are mere commodi-
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.41 ties. Being essentially opaque surfaces, they repel all
If running allows us to center our lives by taking in efforts at extending our sensibility and competence into
the world through vigor and simplicity, the culture of the the deeper reaches of the world. A Big Mac and a Coke
table does so by joining simplicity with cosmic wealth. can overwhelm our taste-buds and accommodate our
Humans are such complex and capable beings that they hunger. Technology is not, after all, a children’s crusade
can fairly comprehend the world and, containing it, con- but a principled and skillful enterprise of defining and
stitute a cosmos in their own right. Because we are satisfying human needs. Through the diversion and
standing so eminently over against the world, to come in busyness of consumption we may have unlearned to feel
touch with the world becomes for us a challenge and a constrained by the shallowness of commodities. But hav-
momentous event. In one sense, of course, we are always ing gotten along for a time and quite well, it seemed, on
already in the world, breathing the air, touching the institutional or convenience food, scales fall from our
ground, feeling the sun. But as we can in another sense eyes when we step up to a festively set family table. The
withdraw from the actual and present world, contem- foods stand out more clearly, the fragrances are stronger,
plating what is past and to come, what is possible and eating has once more become an occasion that engages
remote, we celebrate correspondingly our intimacy with and accepts us fully.
the world. This we do most fundamentally when in To understand the radiance and wealth of a festive
eating we take in the world in its palpable, colorful, meal we must be alive to the interplay of things and
nourishing immediacy. Truly human eating is the union humans, of ends and means. At first a meal, once it is on
of the primal and the cosmic. In the simplicity of bread the table, appears to have commodity character since it is
and wine, of meat and vegetable, the world is gathered. now available before us, ready to be consumed without
The great meal of the day, be it at noon or in the effort or merit. But though there is of course in any
evening, is a focal event par excellence. It gathers the eating a moment of mere consuming, in a festive meal
scattered family around the table. And on the table it eating is one with an order and discipline that challenges
gathers the most delectable things nature has brought and ennobles the participants. The great meal has its
forth. But it also recollects and presents a tradition, the structure. It begins with a moment of reflection in which
immemorial experiences of the race in identifying and we place ourselves in the presence of the first and last
focal thi ngs and practice s 335

things. It has a sequence of courses; it requires and spon- distinguished as a place of healing, one that restores us to
sors memorable conversation; and all this is enacted in the depth of the world and to the wholeness of our
the discipline called table manners. They are warranted being.
when they constitute the respectful and skilled response As said before, we all have had occasion to experience
to the great things that are coming to pass in the meal. the profound pleasure of an invigorating walk or a festive
We can see how order and discipline have collapsed meal. And on such occasions we may have regretted the
when we eat a Big Mac. In consumption there is the scarcity of such events; we might have been ready to
pointlike and inconsequential conflation of a sharply allow such events a more regular and central place in our
delimited human need with an equally contextless and lives. But for the most part these events remain occa-
closely fitting commodity. In a Big Mac the sequence of sional, and indeed the ones that still grace us may be
courses has been compacted into one object and the dis- slipping from our grasp. … we have seen various aspects
cipline of table manners has been reduced to grabbing of this malaise, especially its connection with television.
and eating. The social context reaches no further than But why are we acting against our better insights and
the pleasant faces and quick hands of the people who aspirations?43 This at first seems all the more puzzling as
run the fast-food outlet. In a festive meal, however, the the engagement in a focal activity is for most citizens of
food is served, one of the most generous gestures human the technological society an instantaneous and ubiqui-
beings are capable of. The serving is of a piece with gar- tous possibility. On any day I can decide to run or to
nishing; garnishing is the final phase of cooking, and prepare a meal after work. Everyone has some sort of
cooking is one with preparing the food. And if we are suitable equipment. At worst one has to stop on the way
blessed with rural circumstances, the preparation of food home to pick up this or that. It is of course technology
draws near the harvesting and the raising of the vegetables that has opened up these very possibilities. But why are
in the garden close by. This context of activities is they lying fallow for the most part? There is a conver-
embodied in persons. The dish and the cook, the gence of several factors. Labor is exhausting, especially
vegetable and the gardener tell of one another. Especially when it is divided. When we come home, we often
when we are guests, much of the meal’s deeper context feel  drained and crippled. Diversion and pleasurable
is socially and conversationally mediated. But that consumption appear to be consonant with this sort of
mediation has translucence and intelligibility because it disability. They promise to untie the knots and to soothe
extends into the farther and deeper recesses without the aches. And so they do at a shallow level of our exist-
break and with a bodily immediacy that we too have ence. At any rate, the call for exertion and engagement
enacted or at least witnessed firsthand. And what seems seems like a cruel and unjust demand. We have sat in the
to be a mere receiving and consuming of food is in fact easy chair, beer at hand and television before us: when
the enactment of generosity and gratitude, the affirma- we felt stirrings of ambition, we found it easy to ignore
tion of mutual and perhaps religious obligations. Thus our superego.44 But we also may have had our alibi
eating in a focal setting differs sharply from the social and refuted on occasion when someone to whom we could
cultural anonymity of a fast-food outlet. not say no prevailed on us to put on our coat and to step
The pretechnological world was engaging through out into cold and windy weather to take a walk. At first
and through, and not always positively. There also was our indignation grew. The discomfort was worse than
ignorance, to be sure, of the final workings of God and we had thought. But gradually a transformation set in.
king; but even the unknown engaged one through Our gait became steady, our blood began to flow vigor-
mystery and awe. In this web of engagement, meals ously and wash away our tension, we smelled the rain,
already had focal character, certainly as soon as there was began thoughtfully to speak with our companion, and
anything like a culture of the table.42 Today, however, the finally returned home settled, alert, and with a fatigue
great meal does not gather and order a web of thorough- that was capable of restful sleep.
going relations of engagement; within the technological But why did such occurrences remain episodes also?
setting it stands out as a place of profound calm, one in The reason lies in the mistaken assumption that the
which we can leave behind the narrow concentration shaping of our lives can be left to a series of individual
and one-sided strain of labor and the tiring and elusive decisions. Whatever goal in life we entrust to this kind of
diversity of consumption. In the technological setting, implementation we in fact surrender to erosion. Such
the culture of the table not only focuses our life; it is also a policy ignores both the frailty and strength of human
336 albe rt borgmann

nature. On the spur of the moment, we normally act out in important regards from its grand precursors. A mythic
what has been nurtured in our daily practices as they focal practice derived much force from the power of its
have been shaped by the norms of our time. When we sit opposition. The alternative to the preservation of the
in our easy chair and contemplate what to do, we are cosmos was chaos, social and physical disorder and
firmly enmeshed in the framework of technology with collapse. It is a reduction to see mythic practices merely
our labor behind us and the blessings of our labor about as coping behavior of high survival value. A myth does
us, the diversions and enrichments of consumption. This not just aid survival; it defines what truly human life is.
arrangement has had our lifelong allegiance, and we Still, as in the case of pretechnological morality, eco-
know it to have the approval and support of our fellows. nomic and social factors were interwoven with mythic
It would take superhuman strength to stand up to practices. Thus the force of brute necessity supported,
this order ever and again. If we are to challenge the rule though it did not define, mythic focal practices. Since
of  technology, we can do so only through the practice of a  mythic focal practice united in itself the social, the
engagement. economic, and the cosmic, it was naturally a prominent
The human ability to establish and commit oneself to and public affair. It rested securely in collective memory
a practice reflects our capacity to comprehend the world, and in the mutual expectations of the people.
to harbor it in its expanse as a context that is oriented by This sketch, of course, fails to consider many other
its focal points. To found a practice is to guard a focal kinds of pretechnological practices. But it does present
concern, to shelter it against the vicissitudes of fate and one important aspect of them and more particularly
our frailty. John Rawls has pointed out that there is one that serves well as a backdrop for focal practices in
decisive difference between the justification of a practice a technological setting. It is evident that technology is
and of a particular action falling under it.45 Analogously, itself a sort of practice, and it procures its own kind of
it is one thing to decide for a focal practice and quite order and security. Its history contains great moments
another to decide for a particular action that appears to of innovation, but it did not arise out of a founding
have focal character.46 Putting the matter more clearly, event that would have focal character; nor has it …
we must say that without a practice an engaging action produced focal things. Thus it is not a focal practice, and
or event can momentarily light up our life, but it cannot it has indeed, so I have urged, a debilitating tendency to
order and orient it focally. Competence, excellence, or scatter our attention and to clutter our surroundings. A
virtue, as Aristotle first saw, come into being as an éthos, focal practice today, then, meets no tangible or overtly
a settled disposition and a way of life.47 Through a prac- hostile opposition from its context and is so deprived of
tice, Alasdair MacIntyre says accordingly, “human pow- the wholesome vigor that derives from such opposi-
ers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the tion. But there is of course an opposition at a more
ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.”48 profound and more subtle level. To feel the support of
Through a practice we are able to accomplish what that opposing force one must have experienced the
remains unattainable when aimed at in a series of subtly debilitating character of technology, and above
individual decisions and acts. all one must understand, explicitly or implicitly, that
How can a practice be established today? Here, as in the peril of technology lies not in this or that of its
the case of focal things, it is helpful to consider the manifestations but in the pervasiveness and consistency of its
foundation of pretechnological practices. In mythic pattern. There are always occasions where a Big Mac, an
times the latter were often established through the exercycle, or a television program are unobjectionable
founding and consecrating act of a divine power or and truly helpful answers to human needs. This makes a
mythic ancestor. Such an act … set up a sacred precinct case-by-case appraisal of technology so inconclusive. It
and center that gave order to a violent and hostile is when we attempt to take the measure of technologial
world.  A sacred practice, then, consisted in the regular life in its normal totality that we are distressed by its
reenactment of the founding act, and so it renewed and shallowness. And I believe that the more strongly we
sustained the order of the world. Christianity came into sense and the more clearly we  understand the coher-
being this way; the eucharistic meal, the Supper of the ence and the character of technology, the more evident
Lamb, is its central event, established with the instruction it becomes to us that technology must be countered by
that it be reenacted. Clearly a focal practice today should an equally patterned and social commitment, i.e., by a
have centering and orienting force as well. But it differs practice.
focal thi ngs and practice s 337

At this level the opposition of technology does play with reality. To be sure there are developments and
become fruitful to focal practices. They can now be seen innovations in sporting equipment. But either they
as restoring a depth and integrity to our lives that are in quite change the nature of the sport as in pole vaulting,
principle excluded within the paradigm of technology. or they are restrained to preserve the identity of the
Maclntyre, though his foil is the Enlightenment more game as in baseball.
than technology, captures this point by including in his It is certainly the purpose of a focal practice to guard
definition of practice the notion of “goods internal to in its undiminished depth and identity the thing that is
a  practice.”49 These are one with the practice and can central to the practice, to shield it against the technologi-
only be obtained through that practice. The split between cal diremption into means and end. Like values, rules and
means and ends is healed. In contrast “there are those practices are recollections, anticipations, and, we can now
goods externally and contingently attached” to a practice; say, guardians of the concrete things and events that
and in that case there “are always alternative ways for finally matter. Practices protect focal things not only
achieving such goods, and their achievement is never from technological subversion but also against human
to  be had only by engaging in some particular kind frailty. It was emphasized … that the ultimately signifi-
of  practice.”50 Thus practices (in a looser sense) that cant things to which we respond in deictic discourse
serve external goods are subvertible by technology. But cannot be possessed or controlled. Hence when we reach
MacIntyre’s point needs to be clarified and extended to out for them, we miss them occasionally and sometimes
include or emphasize not only the essential unity of for quite some time. Running becomes unrelieved pain
human being and a particular sort of doing but also the and cooking a thankless chore. If in the technological
tangible things in which the world comes to be focused. mode we insisted on assured results or if more generally
The importance of this point has been suggested by we estimated the value of future efforts on the basis of
the  consideration of running and the culture of the recent experience, focal things would vanish from our
table. There are objections to this suggestion […] Here lives. A practice keeps faith with focal things and saves for
I  want to advance  the  thesis by considering Rawls’s them an opening in our lives. To be sure, eventually the
contention that a practice is defined by rules. We can practice needs to be empowered again by the reemer-
take a rule as an instruction for a particular domain of gence of the great thing in its splendor. A practice that is
life to act in a  certain way under specified circum- not so revived degenerates into an empty and perhaps
stances. How important is the particular character of deadening ritual.
the tangible setting of the rules? Though Rawls does We can now summarize the significance of a focal
not address this question directly he suggests in using practice and say that such a practice is required to coun-
baseball for illustration that “a peculiarly shaped piece ter technology in its patterned pervasiveness and to
of wood” and a kind of bag become a bat and base only guard focal things in their depth and integrity. Countering
within the confines defined by the rales of baseball.51 technology through a practice is to take account of our
Rules and the practice they define, we might argue in susceptibility to technological distraction, and it is also to
analogy to what Rawls says about their relation to par- engage the peculiarly human strength of comprehension,
ticular cases, are logically prior to their tangible setting. i.e., the power to take in the world in its extent and
But the opposite contention seems stronger to me. significance and to respond through an enduring com-
Clearly the possibilities and challenges of baseball are mitment. Practically a focal practice comes into being
crucially determined by the layout and the surface of through resoluteness, either an explicit resolution where
the field, the weight and resilience of the ball, the shape one vows regularly to engage in a focal activity from this
and size of the bat, etc. One might of course reply that day on or in a more implicit resolve that is nurtured by
there are rules that define the physical circumstances a focal thing in favorable circumstances and matures into
of the game. But this is to take “rule” in broader sense. a settled custom.
Moreover it would be more accurate to say that the In considering these practical circumstances we must
rales of this latter sort reflect and protect the identity of acknowledge a final difference between focal practices
the original tangible circumstances in which the game today and their eminent pretechnological predecessors.
grew up. The rules, too, that circumscribe the actions of The latter, being public and prominent, commanded
the players can be taken as ways of securing and order- elaborate social and physical settings: hierarchies, offices,
ing the playful challenges that arise in the human inter- ceremonies, and choirs; edifices, altars, implements, and
338 albe rt borgmann

vestments. In comparison our focal practices are mode of developing one’s faculties which is guided by
humble and scattered. Sometimes they can hardly be the so-called Aristotelian Principle. It defines a notion of
called practices, being private and limited. Often they excellence which revolves about a notion of complexity.
begin as a personal regimen and mature into a routine The more complex the faculties to whose cultivation we
without ever attaining the social richness that distin- are devoted, the more excellent our life. This turns out to
guishes a practice. Given the often precarious and be an ambiguous result. Excellence so defined is no
inchoate nature of focal practices, evidently focal things longer a counterforce to technology. On the other hand, it
and practices, for all the splendor of their simplicity and is compatible with a notion of engagement that seems to
their fruitful opposition to technology, must be further capture the most important aspirations of focal concerns
clarified in their relation to our everyday world if and at the same time avoids the occasionally, perhaps
they are to be seen as a foundation for the reform of essentially, constricting effects of the latter. When  we
technology. measure these findings against an actual focal concern, we
will see, however, that it is misguided to think of focal
things as being entered in a competition with the concept
24 Wealth and the Good Life of engagement and the Aristotelian Principle in a quest to
reform technology. Only things that we experience as
Strong claims have been made for focal things and greater and other than ourselves can move us to judge and
practices. Focal concerns supposedly allow us to center change technology in the first place.
our lives and to launch a reform of technology and so to Given this clarification of focal concerns we can
usher in the good life that has eluded technology. […] without fear of misunderstanding explicate their generic
focal practices today tend to be isolated and rudimentary. features. On the basis of this generic definition of focal
But these are marginal deficiencies, due to unfavorable things and practices, an explicit definition of the reform
circumstances. Surely there are central problems as of technology becomes possible. A reform so defined is
well that pertain to focal practices no matter how well neither the modification nor the rejection of the techno-
developed. Before we can proceed to suggestions about logical paradigm but the recognition and restraint of
how technology may be reformed to make room for the the  pattern of technology so as to give focal concerns
good life, the most important objections regarding focal a central place in our lives. The remainder of this chapter
practices, the pivots of that reform, must be considered provides a twofold application and elaboration of that
and, if possible, refuted. These disputations are not reform proposal. First and applied to the private and
intended to furnish the impregnable defense of focal personal realm, it will be seen to engender an intelli-
concerns, which … is neither possible nor to be wished gently selective attitude toward technology and a life of
for. The deliberations of this chapter are rather efforts to wealth in a well-defined sense. Second and in regard to
connect the notion of a focal practice more closely with traditional excellence and the family, the reform of
the prevailing conceptual and social situation and so to technology makes possible a revival of these institutions.
advance the standing of focal concerns in our midst. First, then, we must consider the question of the
To  make the technological universe hospitable to plurality of focal commitments. A focal concern, it has
focal things turns out to be the heart of the reform of been said, centers one’s life. It is a final and dominant end
technology. What follows are first steps in this direction. which alone truly matters and fulfills and which there-
Among these, the first in turn requires us to consider fore assigns all other things and activities their rank and
the problem of the plurality of focal things and practices. place. But it is obvious that the ultimacy and dominance
It has a negative and positive aspect; negative because my of a focal concern is contradicted by the fact that there
devotion to a focal concern is rejected or challenged by are a number of different and apparently competing
the commitment of other people to contrary focal concerns. It cannot be that both running and fly-fishing
practices; positive because the plurality can have the matter ultimately. If one does, the other cannot. Focal
character of a complementary richness in what is called practices in pretechnological times clearly possessed this
a social union. The latter possibility, however, may be dominance and exclusiveness. In the early Middle Ages,
realized in the superficial diversity of various styles of everyone went to church on Sundays and holy days, and
consumption. As a counterforce to such shallowness I Hubert, who went hunting, was a sinner for that reason.
will consider in the first half of the present chapter the If focal practices were to become prominent in the life of
focal thi ngs and practice s 339

this country, there surely would be a diversity of them. I may have difficulty comprehending the grasp that music has
And would not sympathy require me to question other on its enthusiasts, but I see that as a deficiency in myself, not
focal concerns and to win other people over to mine? the music lovers. When a musician tells me Beethoven’s Opus
Even if we heed the counsel of tolerance, the situation 132 is not simply an hour of music but of universal truth, is
in fact a flood of beauty and wisdom, I envy him. I don’t label
would remain unsettled and troubling. In reply we first
him a nut. And being a city kid, I may be slow to appreciate
must note how far removed we are from such a state of
the impact of nature on those raised differently, but, again, I
affairs and how many salutary measures would have to be regret that failure. And when Pablo Casals said, as he did on
taken before a prominent controversy about focal his ninety-fifth birthday, “I pass hours looking at a tree or a
practices could arise. flower. And sometimes I cry at their beauty,” I don’t think age
But let us assume that there will be an evident plurality has finally gotten to old Pablo. I cry for myself.52
of focal concerns. How controversial would it be? It may
be helpful to begin by considering the origins of that But can we not instead take the diversity of people’s
plurality. It became possible in the West when at the engagements in a positive way? Wilhelm von Humboldt,
beginning of the modern era the unity of the Christian who is one of the authors … of the liberal democratic
church was shattered through reform movements, scien- notion of self-realization, has also pointed out that no
tific and geographical discoveries, and finally through the one person can hope to realize all that human beings are
liberating forces of democracy and technology … we saw capable of; we would in fact weaken our development if
that in light of the new scientific laws our actual world we tried. But far from being frustrated by our inevitable
appears as one instantiation of all that is physically pos- one-sidedness, we should embrace and develop our
sible. Similarly, within the context of the immense infor- peculiarity and join it with those of others and through
mation and the varied practical possibilities that this connection experience and enjoy the fullness of
technology has procured, every actual concern now humanity.53 This is the idea of social union which Rawls
appears as one surrounded by alternatives. The severing has rediscovered and elaborated.54 Clearly, it is an idea
of the ties between focal concerns and social and that affirms, deepens, and conjoins the notions of sympa-
economic necessity that has been repeatedly noted is just thy and tolerance.
a corollary of this phenomenon. It appears then that the plurality of focal concerns
But we also must remember that we would not want must be accepted and perhaps can even be seen in
to regain the support of cogency when testifying on a positive light. But the latter possibility must be further
behalf of a focal power. This would, on the one hand, pursued and taken to the point where it seems possible
compromise the grace and depth of such a power and, clearly to discern a unity underlying the plurality. We can
on the other, degrade us as respondents to that power. begin with the apparent susceptibility of a social union
Our parents in their old age, as said before, address us not to technological subversion. One might reply, as Rawls
inasmuch as we are weak and helpless but insofar as we would, that the shallow and distracting diversity of self-
are capable of gratitude and receptive to wisdom, realization that the consumption of commodities offers
tradition, and mortality. In short, the new adulthood and conflicts with the kind of self-development suggested by
maturity that are required of us are of a piece with the the Aristotelian Principle which is an integral part of a
peculiar radiance and dignity that focal concerns now social union. The Principle says that “other things equal,
have. This status of the focal thing has the technological human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capaci-
setting for a necessary condition, and it has the plurality ties (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment
of alternative concerns as a compatible background. increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater
Perhaps one should take “compatible” in the original and its complexity.”55 Accordingly, people will not only pre-
strong sense. We should be able to suffer the contradic- fer chess to checkers, as Rawls has it, but checkers to
tion that the background of alternatives constitutes along watching television and cooking a meal from basic
with the joy that comes from our focal practice. And ingredients to warming a frozen dinner. Rawls recognizes
what we suffer is not just the implicit denial of what that the Principle is but a tendency and can be overrid-
matters most to us; we suffer being deprived of great and den. Yet he is confident that “the tendency postulated
unreachable things that are sometimes placed not only should be relatively strong and not easily counterbal-
beyond our time and energy but outside our very anced.”56 But as we have seen, … technology has not just
comprehension. Sheehan is an eloquent witness: counterbalanced but very nearly buried it. There is a
340 albe rt borgmann

difference, however, between technological obliteration among people but also within the life of one person.
and subversion. Technology can overcome the wilderness Sheehan, for instance, finds engagement not only in
by brute force, but it cannot bring it (easily and obvi- running but also in literature, and Capon finds it not
ously) under its rule and procure it as a  commodity. only in the culture of the table but also in music.
Conversely, technology could hardly annihilate values Engagement is a more flexible and inclusive principle
(such as freedom, prosperity, or pleasure), but it can of ordering one’s life, and being so it meets the critique
surely subvert them by specifying them in terms of the of dominant ends that Rawls puts forward. If such an end
availability and consumption of commodities. Accordingly, deserves its name and is clearly specified, Rawls argues,
the Aristotelian Principle is not impugned as a counter- there is a danger of “fanaticism and inhumanity”
force to technology if it can be technologically overrun so because the narrowness of the goal docs violence to the
long as it resists technological subversion. But does it? breadth of human capacities.58 There seems to be intui-
Clearly the concept of complexity is crucial here. Rawls tive confirmation of Rawls’s claim. Initially, the firm
contends that “until we have some relatively precise the- guidance that a dominant end affords in one’s life is
ory and measure of complexity” we can intuitively grasp appealing, as Rawls notes.59 Taking up some thing and
the nature of complexity and rank various activities by practice as a focal and dominant end, one does, as
complexity in accordance with a principle of inclusiveness Sheehan did, experience a sense of clarity and liberation.
where “cases of greater complexity are those in which one One is no longer caught in obliging other people’s
of the activities compared includes all the skills and dis- expectations and in struggling to balance a plethora of
criminations of the other activity and some further ones conflicting and confusing aims. Having centered my life
in addition.”57 Thus the computer game Defender might in an ultimate concern, I have clear and principled
rank higher than fly-fishing since the former requires answers to life’s endless and distracting demands. But
quicker hand-eye coordination, more intricate strategy, both Sheehan and Capon testify to the dark night of the
and evasive as well as aggressive skills. Similarly, exercis- soul that settles upon one from time to time, not when
ing with a Nautilus might be more complex than run- one has allowed distraction to erode the core of one’s life
ning since the former allows one to sense and to work but just when dedication to the focal thing has been
many more muscle groups. Theory here seems to con- vigorous and faithful.60 And such darkness, depression,
flict with considered judgment. Whether both can be and collapse can be witnessed among people who have
saved in their essence and balanced in a reflective equi- dedicated themselves to a cause that is more selfless and
librium is a question that will concern us in a moment. sublime than running or the culture of the table. These
Meanwhile let us note that the theory, i.e., the failures are so much more threatening if not devastating
Aristotelian Principle, is attractive not only in helping to than those that occur under the guidance of inclusive
reconcile the variety of human endeavors within a social ends because the former case admits of no alibi. One has
union but also in suggesting ways in which the variety of dedicated oneself to one’s highest aspiration and
focal practices can be similarly united. It was pointed profoundest experience, and one has failed. Where to
out … that there is an apparent kinship among signifi- turn now? In a life of an inclusive end, disappointment
cant or focal things; and, symmetrically, there are com- here allows one to turn elsewhere for consolation. The
mon traits to be found among focal practices. These can question then is whether the collective plurality and the
be seen when we consider that although both Capon individual restrictiveness of focal concerns can be
and a fast-food junkie are deeply concerned with food, overcome through the notion of an inclusive end, placed
Capon, I expect, would have a deeper appreciation of in a social union of persons who shape their lives
Sheehan’s concern than the junkie’s. Unlike the latter, according to the Aristotelian Principle or according to
both Capon and Sheehan practice the acquisition of the concept of engagement. This problem is best
skills, the fidelity to a daily discipline, the broadening of approached by connecting it with a still further problem,
sensibility, the profound interaction of human beings, the question, i.e., whether there can be engagement of
and the preservation and development of tradition. These an essentially technological or purely mental sort. We
traits we may bring together under the heading of have touched on this area in discussing complexity as a
engagement. The good life, then, is one of engagement, mark of excellence in human activities. It seemed that
and engagement is variously realized by- various people. playing the computer game Defender is more excellent
Engagement would not only harmonize the variety in this sense than fly-fishing. Moreover it, or more
focal thi ngs and practice s 341

generally the playing of computer games, seems to satisfy a continent, considering the ravages of acid rain. To
the conditions of engagement. It certainly requires maintain the conditions that are conducive to big fish
skill,  discipline, and endurance; as the games develop and to peaceful fishing is to take the measure of the
technologically, more human capacities are called upon; world at large. In contrast, it appears, playing Defender
and the computer game arcades have a social setting of requires a narrow range of highly sharpened skills, and it
their own and can lead to close human ties.61 In fact, is proceeds in utter indifference to the surrounding world.
not the computer game console a focal thing? It certainly It is an activity that, given a sufficient store of energy
seems to challenge and fulfill the player and to center the and  food, could proceed well underground should the
player’s life. “There’s not a lot of fun things in life,” says natural environment have become unlivable.
one. “It’s taken away my boredom. I’ve never been as The claim has been made, of course, that computer
serious about anything as Pac Man.”62 games allow one to become at home in the computer
The status of focal concerns as the basis of a reform of world. “We have a whole generation growing up,” an
technology is now challenged in two ways. First, it educational consultant says, “who have no problem at all
appears that the ultimate givenness of a focal thing as approaching the computer. They could become the
something that unforethinkably addresses us in its own haves.”64 “Kids are becoming masters of the computer,”
right is denied by the Aristotelian Principle or the an astrophysicist contends. “When most grown-ups talk
concept of engagement. If the latter have independent about computers, they fear the machines will dominate
standing and guiding force, focal things are mere and displace. But these kids are learning to live and play
complements that are chosen according to convenience. with intelligent machines.”65 What the kids are learning
Second, the essentially metatechnological status of focal to master is the enjoyment of a commodity; but with the
things and practices which in the abstract would be supporting electronic and logical machinery they are as
compatible with the Aristotelian Principle and the little familiar as consumers are with the substructure of
notion of engagement is denied by the apparent existence the technological universe.66
of essentially technological engagement.63 Let us try to But what of the people who devote their lives to the
meet these challenges by pursuing Rawls’s goal of design and construction of computers? Surely they have
achieving a reflective equilibrium and assume to begin an intimate and competent grasp of what characterizes
with that in our considered judgment fly-fishing is our era. Tracy Kidder has provided an illuminating
more excellent than playing Defender. Can we align this account of work at the leading edge of technology, the
judgment with the cluster of theories composed of the story of the design and construction of a computer.67
Aristotelian Principle, the notion of engagement and of Such work is among the best technology has to offer. It
a technological focal concern? Fly-fishing is more is challenging and skillful, requiring creativity, enor-
complex, we might say, because it requires more encom- mous dedication, and discipline. Clearly it engages,
passing and discriminating knowledge. One must know excites, and fulfills its practitioners. It occupies the
in what season and at what time of day certain insects are center of their lives and enforces profound personal
hatching and trout are feeding. One must be able to read interactions. It is practiced, at least by a good number of
the water to recognize the riffles and the pools where the the workers, as art for art’s sake, without emphasis on
big rainbows are lying in wait. There are more intricate remuneration, with seemingly little support from the
bodily skills in casting a line that involves not just the firm’s executives, with no hope of gaining fame in the
pushing of buttons and the movement of a stick but the world at large, and with diffidence or indifference
harmonious interplay of rod, line, and fly, compensating regarding the uses to which the product will be put. Still
for the wind, avoiding the willows, using hand, arm, and it seems to me, judging by the evidence of Kidder’s
shoulder while maintaining one’s stance in a slippery book, that computer design is deeply flawed as a focal
streambed. And to have a line and finally the fly settle practice. Some of the flaws are due to unhappy social
gently on the river, as gently nearly as a real insect might, arrangements. It is at least conceivable that the accom-
is one of the most delicate maneuvers humans are capable plishments that are rightly celebrated in Kidder’s story
of. Fly-fishing also centers one’s life more clearly and could come about under socially more balanced and
discriminatingly. Just as the grizzly is a symbol of the stable circumstances. A more serious flaw is the purely
vastness and power of the open land, so the trout is mental and essentially disembodied character of this
a focus of the health and fertility of a drainage or even of kind of engagement. But this one-sidedness it has
342 albe rt borgmann

in common with writing music, poetry, and philosophy, nature; and so it is as a guide to the excellence of human
with playing chess and reading novels. activities.69 Rawls’s Aristotelian Principle is not, to be
Yet the poet in the stillness of writing and in the calm sure, accidentally tied to a formal notion of complexity70
of speaking gathers and presents the world in the The thrust of A Theory of Justice, consistent with its
comprehensive and intimate ways that distinguish human allegiance to the deontological tradition, is to keep the
beings. Through the poet’s deictic discourse we come to contingent and historical world at bay.71 Thus Rawls’s
comprehend the world more fully and are so empowered theory screens out the presence of those things that
to inhabit it more appropriately in our tangible and bodily alone, I believe, can orient our lives. To say this is, of
activities. Between poetry and practical engagement there course, to speak approximately and ambiguously. It is
is the complementary rhythm of comprehension and after all not finally decisive whether and how we succeed
action, of systole and diastole. The focal significance of a in securing an ordered and excellent life for world-lessly
mental activity should be judged, I believe, by the force conceived subjects. The point is to remind or to suggest
and extent with which it gathers and illuminates the that in all significant reflection of the good life things in
tangible world and our appropriation of it. their own right have already graced us.
Is the design and construction of computers a focal But if this is the pivot of ethics, is it not possible that
concern by that standard? Not in the setting that Kidder a technological device or, more generally, a technological
presents. Work on the computer alienates most of the invention may someday address us as such a thing, one
workers from the larger world. And the object of their that, whatever its genesis, has taken on a character of its
endeavors to which they devote themselves as an end own, that challenges and fulfills us, that centers and
they know at the same time to be a means for whatever illuminates our world? … it is possible that such an
ends. They know that the intoxicating and engaging invention will appear and that technology will give birth
circumstances of their work have been granted them to a focal, thing or event. But none are to be found now,
because for the company and the world at large the and we must not allow vague promises of technological
new  computer will be a mere means. But these again magnificence to blight the simple splendor of the things
are  contingent circumstances. Inasmuch as computers that now center and sustain our lives. At the same time
embody and illuminate phenomena such as intelligence, we must, in a new kind of maturity and adulthood,
organization, determinism, decidability, system, and accept the plurality of focal concerns, and we can take
the like, they surely have a kind of focal character, and pleasure in the social union that is fostered by that
a concern with computers in that sense is focal as well.68 plurality. But the diverse and complementary nature of
But the focal significance of work with computers seems our concerns should not be seen as the convergence of
precarious to me and requires for its health the essen- the Aristotelian Principle and human finitude. That
tially complementary concern with things in their own would diminish focal things to the indifferent furniture
right. Otherwise the world is more likely lost than of an abstract principle. The threat of one-sidedness that
comprehended. Rawls fears if focal things and practices are taken as
Have we reached a reflective equilibrium? It may dominant ends does not really obtain. Significant or focal
seem as though a more precise inquiry of activities, things … have an unsurpassable depth which surely
traditionally thought to be excellent, will show them distinguishes them from a dominant end in Rawls’s
to  be more complex than their more recent and precise sense where such an end “is clearly specified as
technological rivals. Perhaps this welcome result is due to attaining some objective goal such as political power or
the fact that a more meticulous scrutiny comes closer material wealth.”72 A dominant end in this sharp
to  Rawls’s “relatively precise theory and measure of conception is more consonant with technology where
complexity” which presumably would settle compari- gifted and ambitious people, dissatisfied with the shal-
sons conclusively. But all this is semblance.What we have lowness of consumption, seek a transcendent goal and
really done is to bring activities back to the things to yet remain enthralled by technology in choosing a goal
which we respond in those activities. It is the dignity and that has in principle procurable and controllable, i.e.,
greatness of a thing in its own right that give substance measurable, character.
and guiding force to the notion of complexity. There remains one possibility of unity and coherence
Complexity by itself and as a formal property is … too arising among the dispersed focal concerns. It appears
flexible a notion to serve as a guide to the value of wild when we remember that the variety of “focal” practices
focal thi ngs and practice s 343

in pretechnological societies was centered about one dedication to a focal thing. It sponsors discipline and skill
focus proper, religious in nature. The focus proper did which are exercised in a unity of achievement and enjoy-
not unite all the subordinate engaging activities as a rule ment, of mind, body, and the world, of myself and others,
covers its applications. Rather the central focus sur- and in a social union.
passed  the peripheral ones in concreteness, depth, and This is just a summary of issues discussed before. An
significance. … there may be a hidden focus of that sort additional point must now be made. Focal practices are
now, or one may emerge sometime. But who is to say? To at ease with the natural sciences. Since focal things are
the blight of the enthrallment with technology there concrete and tangible, they are at home in the possibility
corresponds symmetrically the impatient waiting or space that the sciences circumscribe. Because the given-
insistence on the great epiphany of the world’s central ness of these things is so eloquent and articulate, the
focus. Instead we should gratefully record the present scientific investigation of such things is not found to
wealth of focal things and practices, take these things to be  a  dissolution but an illumination of them. Corres-
heart, and work toward a republic of focal concerns. pondingly, the human being, as it is engaged and oriented
Having secured, to some extent, a place for the by great things and is so an eminent focus itself, suffers
plurality, concreteness and simplicity of focal concerns, no threat or diminishment from scientific examination.
we must now show more soberly and specifically how Capon and Sheehan testify to this openness. They use
they serve as a basis for the reform of technology. And scientific insight gladly, easily, and often to bring out the
the first question is: How broad a basis will it be? I have splendor and depth of the things that matter to them. It
suggested … that there is a wide and steady, if frequently is clear … that the reform of technology would rest on
concealed, current of focal practices that runs through a  treacherous foundation if focal things and practices
the history of this country. It is the other American violated or resented the bounds of science.
mainstream. Its various stretches are linked by the generic We now turn explicitly to the reform of technology. It
features that focal things have in common, and it may be is evident … that the reform must be one of and not
helpful to outline this kinship more formally as a set of merely one within the device paradigm. It is reasonable to
traits that focal things and practices exhibit for the most expect that a reform of the paradigm would involve
part. These traits are not conditions that are sufficient to a  restructuring of the device, perhaps the deletion,
qualify something as focal. Nor is each of these traits addition, and rearrangement of internal features. And this
necessary. Rather these features reflect general recollec- would lead, one might think, to the construction of
tions and anticipations of focal concerns. different, perhaps intrinsically and necessarily benign
These generic features are divided between the things technological devices. But I believe the device paradigm
and practices of focal concern. But the division is not is perfect in its way, and if concrete pefections within the
sharp since things and practices are tightly and variously overall pattern are to be achieved, this will be the task of
interwoven. The practice of fly-fishing is centered around research and development scientists and engineers, not
a definite, independent, and resplendent thing: the trout. of philosophers. A reform of the paradigm is even less, of
The thing in backpacking is expansive, broadly defined, course, a dismantling of technology or of the techno-
and it exists in its own right: the wilderness. In the logical universe. It is rather the recognition and the restraint
practice of running, the thing is always and already there, of the paradigm. To restrain the paradigm is to restrict it
Sheehan’s ocean road, for instance, or the course that the to its proper sphere. Its proper sphere is the background
New York City Marathon takes. But it lies there, or periphery of focal things and practices. Technology so
inconspicuous and indistinct, till the runners bring it reformed is no longer the characteristic and dominant
into relief. And the great meal and its courses must be way in which we take up with reality; rather it is a way
prepared and brought forth by the cook and the host. of proceeding that we follow at certain times and up
Still we might say this about focal things in general. They to  a  point, one that is left behind when we reach the
are concrete, tangible, and deep, admitting of no func- threshold of our focal and final concerns. The concerns
tional equivalents; they have a tradition, structure, and that move us to undertake a reform of the paradigm lead
rhythm of their own. They are unprocurable and finally to reforms within the paradigm as well. Since a focal
beyond our control. They engage us in the fullness of our practice discloses the significance of things and the
capacities. And they thrive in a technological setting. dignity of humans, it engenders a concern for the safety
A  focal practice, generally, is the resolute and regular and well-being of things and persons. Consequently,
344 albe rt borgmann

focal concerns will stress and support the paradigm’s concern is running, but he does not run everywhere he
native tendency toward safety, both locally and globally. wants to go. To get to work he drives a car. He depends
It will concur with the efforts of consumer advocates on that technological device and its entire associated
and environmentalists, not of course to save and entrench machinery of production, service, resources, and roads.
the rule of technology but to provide a secure margin for Clearly, one in Sheehan’s position would want the car to
what matters centrally. be as perfect a technological device as possible: safe,
But is this really a radical and remarkable reform reliable, easy to operate, free of maintenance. Since
proposal? Is it not indistinguishable from all the programs runners deeply enjoy the air, the trees, and the open
that are worried about the excesses of technology, about spaces that grace their running, and since human vigor
the imbalance between means and ends, about the and health are essential to their enterprise, it would be
suppression of the value question, and about the enslave- consistent of them to want an environmentally benign
ment of humankind by its own invention? Would it not be car, one that is free of pollution and requires a minimum
fair to say that these programs have anticipated the goal of of resources for its production and operation. Since
the present reform proposal, namely, to restrict technology runners express themselves through running, they would
to the status of a means and to introduce new ends? The not need to do so through the glitter, size, and newness
question is simply unanswerable because it is deeply of their vehicles.73
ambiguous. If by new ends we mean different commodi- At the threshold of their focal concern, runners
ties, then the present proposal differs sharply from leave technology behind, technology, i.e., as a way of
traditional programs of reform. Reform must make room taking up with the world. The products of technology
for focal things and practices. In a broad sense, these arc the remain ubiquitous, of course: clothing, shoes, watches,
ends that technology should serve. But this broader sense and the roads. But technology can produce instru-
of the means-ends relation is in conflict with the means- ments as well as devices, objects that call forth engage-
ends structure, embodied in the device paradigm. We can ment and allow for a more skilled and intimate contact
put the point at issue clearly, if baldly, this way. Both the with the world.74 Runners appreciate shoes that are
common and the present reform proposals revolve about light, firm, and shock absorbing. They allow one to
a means-ends distinction. In the common view, the move faster, farther, and more fluidly. But runners
‘distinction is placed within the device paradigm, in align- would not want to have such movement procured by a
ment with the machinery-commodity distinction. Thus motorcycle, nor would they, on the other side, want to
the role of technology remains invisible and unchallenged. obtain merely the physiological benefit of such bodily
The present proposal is to restrict the entire paradigm, movement from a treadmill.
both the machinery and the commodities, to the status of A focal practice engenders an intelligent, and selective
a means and let focal things and practices be our ends. The attitude toward technology. It leads to a simplification
conflict between these two views is easily overlooked. It is and perfection of technology in the background of one’s
that unresolved conflict that infects the question above focal concern and to a discerning use of technological
with ambiguity. More important, as argued repeatedly … products at the center of one’s practice. I am not, of
the sharpness, pervasiveness, and concealment of the course, describing an evident development or state
technological means-ends relation exert a nearly irresisti- of  affairs. It does appear from what little we know
ble pressure toward resolving the ambiguity in favor of statistically of the runners in this country, for instance,
technology. Most traditional reform proposals are finally that they lead a more engaged, discriminating, and
ensnared by the device paradigm and fail to challenge the a socially more profound life.75 I am rather concerned to
rule of technology and its debilitating consequences. draw out the consequences that naturally follow
Hence a radical reform, as said above, requires the recogni- for  technology from a focal commitment and from
tion and the restraint of the device paradigm, a recognition a  recognition of the device pattern. There is much
that is guided by a focal concern. Such recognition can diffidence, I suspect, among people whose life is centered,
[…] shade over into an implicit understanding though even in their work, around a great concern. Music is
explication, it is hoped, would sharpen it. surely one of these. But at times, it seems to me, musi-
Let me now draw out the concrete consequences of cians confine the radiance, the rhythm, and the order of
this kind of reform. I begin with particular illustrations music and the ennobling competence that it requires to
and proceed to broader observations. Sheehan’s focal the hours and places of performance. The entrenchment
focal thi ngs and practice s 345

of technology may make it seem quixotic to want to lead appropriate acceptance of technology. In one or another
a fully musical life or to change the larger technological area of one’s life one should gratefully accept the
setting so that it would be more hospitable and attentive disburdenment from daily and time-consuming chores
to music. Moreover, as social creatures we seek the and allow celebration and world citizenship to prosper in
approval of our fellows according to the prevailing stand- the time that has been gained.
ards. One may be a runner first and most of all; but one What emerges here is a distinct notion of the good life
wants to prove too that one has been successful in the or more precisely the private or personal side of one.
received sense. Proof requires at least the display, if not Clearly, it will remain crippled if it cannot unfold into
the consumption, of expensive commodities. Such the world of labor and the public realm. … To begin on
inconsistency is regrettable, not because we just have to the side of leisure and privacy is to acknowledge the
have reform of technology but because it is a partial presently dispersed and limited standing of focal powers.
disavowal of one’s central concern. To have a focal thing It is also to avail oneself of the immediate and undeniably
radiate transformatively into its environment is not to large discretion one has in shaping one’s free time and
exact some kind of service from it but to grant it its private sphere.77 Even within these boundaries the good
proper eloquence. life that is centered on focal concerns is distinctive
There is of course intuitive evidence for the thesis that enough. Evidently, it is a favored and prosperous life. It
a focal commitment leads to an intelligent limitation of possesses the time and the implements that are needed to
technology. There are people who, struck by a focal con- devote oneself to a great calling. Technology provides us
cern, remove much technological clutter from their lives. with the leisure, the space, the books, the instruments,
In happy situations, the personal and private reforms take the equipment, and the instruction that allow us to
three directions. The first is of course to clear a central become equal to some great thing that has beckoned us
space for the focal thing, to establish an inviolate time for from afar or that has come to us through a tradition. The
running, or to establish a hearth in one’s home for the citizen of the technological society has been spared the
culture of the table. And this central clearing goes hand abysmal bitterness of knowing himself or herself to be
in hand, as just suggested, with a newly discriminating capable of some excellence or achievement and of being
use of technology.76 The second direction of reform is at the same time worn-out by poor and endless work,
the simplification of the context that surrounds and with no time to spare and no possibility of acquiring the
supports the focal area. And then there is a third endeavor, implements of one’s desire. That bitterness is aggravated
that of extending the sphere of engagement as far as when one has a gifted child that is similarly deprived,
possible. Having experienced the depth of things and the and is exacerbated further through class distinctions
pleasure of full-bodied competence at the center, one where one sees richer but less gifted and dedicated
seeks to extend such excellence to the margins of life. persons showered with opportunities of excellence.
“Do it yourself ” is the maxim of this tendency and “self- There is prosperity also in knowing that one is able to
sufficiency” its goal. But the tendencies for which these engage in a focal practice with a great certainty of physi-
titles stand also exhibit the dangers of this third direction cal health and economic security. One can be relatively
of reform. Engagement, however skilled and disciplined, sure that the joy that one receives from a focal thing will
becomes disoriented when it exhausts itself in the build- not be overshadowed by the sudden loss of a loved one
ing, rebuilding, refinement, and maintenance of stages on with whom that joy is shared. And one prospers not only
which nothing is ever enacted. People finish their in being engaged in a profound and living center but also
basements, fertilize their lawns, fix their cars. What for? in having a view of the world at large in its essential
The peripheral engagement suffocates the center, and political, cultural, and scientific dimensions. Such a life is
festivity, joy, and humor disappear. Similarly, the striving centrally prosperous, of course, in opening up a familiar
for self-sufficiency may open up a world of close and world where things stand out clearly and steadily, where
intimate relations with things and people. But the life has a rhythm and depth, where we encounter our
demands of the goal draw a narrow and impermeable fellow human beings in the fullness of their capacities,
boundary about that world. There is no time to be and where we know ourselves to be equal to that world
a  citizen of the cultural and political world at large and in depth and strength.
no possibility of assuming one’s responsibility in it. The This kind of prosperity is made possible by technology,
antidote to such disorientation and constriction is the and it is centered in a focal concern. Let us call it wealth
346 albe rt borgmann

to distinguish it from the prosperity that is confined to tions it is evident that the real circumstances and forces
technology and that I want to call affluence. Affluence to which the traditional values, virtues, and rules used to
consists in the possession and consumption of the most answer are all but beyond recollection, and there is little
numerous, refined, and varied commodities. This superla- in the technological universe that they can anticipate
tive formulation betrays its relative character. “Really” to and ready us for. The peculiar character of technological
be affluent is to live now and to rank close to the top of the reality has escaped the attention of the modern students
hierarchy of inequality. All of the citizens of a typical tech- of ethics.
nological society are more affluent than anyone in the To sketch a notion of excellence that is appropriate to
Middle Ages. But this affluence, astounding when seen over technology is, in one sense, simply to present another
time, is dimmed or even insensible at any one time for all version of the reform of technology that has been devel-
but those who have a disproportionately large share of it. oped so far. But it is also to uncover and to strengthen
Affluence, strictly defined, has an undeniable glamour. It is ties to a tradition that the modern era has neglected to
the embodiment of the free, rich, and imperial life that its peril. As regards world citizenship today, the problem
technology has promised. So at least it appears from below is  not confinement but the proliferation of channels
whence it is seen by most people. Wealth in comparison is of communication and of information. From the mass
homely, homely in the sense of being plain and simple but of available information we select by the criteria of util-
homely also in allowing us to be at home in our world, ity and entertainment. We pay attention to information
intimate with its great things, and familiar with our fellow that is useful to the maintenance and advancement of
human beings. This simplicity, as said before, has its own technology, and we consume those news items that
splendor that is more sustaining than the glamour of afflu- divert us. In the latter case the world is shredded into
ence which leaves its beneficiaries, so we hear, sad and colorful bits of entertainment, and the distracted kind of
bored.78 Wealth is a romantic notion also in that it continues knowledge that corresponds to that sort of information
and develops a tradition of concerns and of excellence that is the very opposite of the principled appropriation
is roofed on the other side of the modern divide, i.e., of the of  the world that is meant by world citizenship.80
Enlightenment. A life of wealth is certainly not romantic in The realm of technically useful information does not
the sense of constituting an uncomprehending rejection of provide access to world citizenship either. Technical
the modern era and a utopian reform proposal.79 information is taken up primarily in one’s work. Since
[…] I will conclude this chapter by considering the most work in technology is unskilled, the demands on
narrower sphere of wealth and by connecting it with technical knowledge are low, and most people know
the traditional notions of excellence and of the family. … little of science, engineering, economics, and politics.
I  suggested that the virtues of world citizenship, of The people at the leading edge of technology have dif-
gallantry, musicianship, and charity still command an ficulty in absorbing and integrating the information that
uneasy sort of allegiance and that it is natural, therefore, pertains to their field.81 But even if the flood of technical
to measure the technological culture by these standards. information is appropriately channeled, as I think it can
Perhaps people are ready to accept the distressing results be, its mastery still constitutes knowledge of the social
of such measurement with a rueful sort of agreement. machinery, of the means rather than the ends of life.
But obviously the acceptance of the standards, if there is What is needed if we are to make the world truly and
one, is not strong enough to engender the reforms that finally ours again is the recovery of a center and
the pursuit of traditional excellence would demand. This, a standpoint from which one can tell what matters in the
I believe, is due to the fact that the traditional virtues world and what merely clutters it up. A focal concern is
have for too long been uprooted from the soil that that center of orientation. What is at issue here comes to
used to nourish them. Values, standards, and rules, I have the fore when we compare the simple and authentic
urged repeatedly, are recollections and anticipations of world appropriation of someone like Mother Teresa with
great things and events. They provide bonds of continuity the shallow and vagrant omniscience of a technocrat.
with past greatness and allow us to ready ourselves and Gallantry in a life of wealth is the fitness of the human
our children for the great things we look forward to. body for the greatness and the playfulness of the world.
Rules and values inform and are acted out in practices. Thus it has a grounding and a dignity that are lost in
A virtue is the practiced and accomplished faculty that traditional gallantry, a loss that leaves the latter open to
makes one equal to a great event. From such considera- the technological concept of the perfect body where
focal thi ngs and practice s 347

the  body is narcissistically stylized into a glamorous When people deliberately choose to live closer to the level
something by whatever scientific means and according of material sufficiency, they are brought closer to the reality
to the prevailing fashion. In the case of musicianship the of material existence for a majority of persons on this
tradition of excellence is unbroken and has expanded planet. There is not the day-to-day insulation from material
poverty that accompanies the hypnosis of a culture of
into jazz and popular music. What the notion of wealth
can contribute to the central splendor and competence
of music is to make us sensible to the confinement and
the procurement of music. Confinement and procure- The plight of the family, finally, consists … in the
ment are aspects of the same phenomenon. The discipline absorption of its tasks and substance by technology.
and the rhythmic grace and order that characterize music The reduction of the household to the family and the
are often confined, as said above, to the performance growing emptiness of family life leave the parents
proper and are not allowed to inform the broader bewildered and the children without guidance. Since
environment. This is because the unreformed structure less and less of vital significance remains entrusted to
of the technological universe leaves no room for such the family, the parents have ceased to embody rightful
forces. Accordingly, music is allowed to conform to tech- authority and a tradition of competence, and corre-
nology and is procured as a commodity that is widely spondingly there is less and less legitimate reason to
and inconsequentially consumed. A focal concern for hold children to any kind of discipline. Parental love is
musicianship, then, will curtail the consumption of music deprived of tangible and serious circumstances in
and secure a more influential position for the authentic which to realize itself. Focal practices naturally reside
devotion to music. in the family, and the parents are the ones who should
Finally, one may hope that focal practices will lead to a initiate and train their children in them. Surely paren-
deepening of charity and compassion. Focal practices pro- tal love is one of the deepest forms of sympathy. But
vide a profounder commerce with reality and bring us sympathy needs enthusiasm to have substance. Families,
closer to that intensity of experience where the world I have found, that we are willing to call healthy, close,
engages one painfully in hunger, disease, and confinement. or warm turn out, on closer inspection, to be centered
A focal practice also discloses fellow human beings more on a focal concern. And even in families that exhibit
fully and may make us more sensitive to the plight of those the typical looseness of structure, the diffidence of par-
persons whose integrity is violated or suppressed. In short, a ents, and the impertinence of children, we can often
life of engagement may dispel the astounding callousness discover a bond of respect and deep affection between
that insulates the citizens of the technological societies from parent and youngster, one that is secured in a common
the well-known misery in much of the world. The crucial concern such as a sport and keeps the family from
point has been well made by Duane Elgin: being scattered to the winds.

1 See Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertums- 7 See Vincent Scully, The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods
wissenschaft (Stuttgart, 1893–1963), 15:615–17; See also (New Haven, 1962).
Fustel de Coulanges, “The Sacred Fire,” in The Ancient City, 8 See my The Philosophy of Language (The Hague, 1974), pp.
trans. Willard Small (Garden City, N.Y., n.d. [first published 126–31.
in 1864]), pp. 25–33. 9 See Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and
2 See Kent C. Bloomer and Charles W. Moore, Body, Memory, Edward Robinson (New York, 1962), pp. 95–107, 163–68,
and Architecture. (New Haven, 1977), pp. 2–3 and 50–51. 210–24.
3 See Jeremiah Eck, “Home Is Where the Hearth Is,” Quest 3 10 See Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 80.
(April 1979): 12. 11 See Heidegger, “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought,
4 Ibid., p. 11. pp. 163–82. Heidegger alludes to the turn from the
5 See The Oxford English Dictionary. Bedingungen to the Dinge on p. 179 of the original, “Das
6 See Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Ding,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze (Pfullingen, 1959). He
Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New alludes to the turn from technology to (focal) things in
York, 1971), pp. 15–87. “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question
348 albe rt borgmann

Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt Sheehan, Running and Being: The Total Experience (New
(New York, 1977), p. 43. York, 1978).
12 See Heidegger, “The Thing.” 28 See Sheehan, pp. 211–20 and elsewhere.
13 See M. F. K. Fisher, The Cooking of Provincial France (New 29 See Capon, pp. 167–181.
York, 1968), p. 50. 30 See my “Mind, Body, and World,” Philosophical Forum 8
14 Though there are seeds for a reform of technology to be (1976): 76–79. …
found in Heidegger as I want to show, Heidegger insists 31 See Capon, pp. 176–77.
that “philosophy will not be able to effect an immediate 32 See Sheehan, p. 127.
transformation of the present condition of the world. 33 On the unity of achievement and enjoyment, see Alasdair
Only a god can save us.” See “Only a God Can Save Us: MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind., 1981), p. 184.
Der Spiegel’s Interview with Martin Heidegger,” trans. 34 See my “Mind, Body, and World,” pp. 68–86.
Maria P. Alter and John D. Caputo, Philosophy Today 20 35 See Peter Wood, “Seeing New York on the Run,” New York
(1976): 277. Times Magazine, 7 October 1979; Alexandra Penney,
15 I am not concerned to establish or defend the claim that “Health and Grooming: Shaping Up the Corporate
my account of Heidegger or my development of his views Image,” ibid.
are authoritative. It is merely a matter here of acknowledg- 36 Sec New York Times Magazine, 3 August 1980, pp. 20–21.
ing a debt. 37 See Wood, p. 112.
16 See Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 38 See Sheehan, pp. 211–17.
p. 43; Langdon Winner makes a similar point in “The 39 See Wood, p. 116.
Political Philosophy of Alternative Technology,” in 40 See Sheehan, pp. 221–31 and passim.
Technology and Man’s Future, ed. Albert H. Teich, 3d ed. 41 There is substantial anthropological evidence to show that
(New York, 1981), pp. 369–73. running has been a profound focal practice in certain pre-
17 See Heidegger, “The Thing,” pp. 180–82. technological cultures. I am unable to discuss it here. Nor
18 The need of complementing Heidegger’s notion of the have I discussed the problem, here and elsewhere touched
thing with the notion of practice was brought home to me upon, of technology and religion. The present study,
by Hubert L. Dreyfus’s essay, “Holism and Hermeneutics,” I believe, has important implications for that issue, but to
Review of Metaphysics 34 (1980): 22–23. draw them out would require more space and circumspec-
19 See Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Poetry, tion than are available now. I have made attempts to pro-
Language,Thought, pp. 152–53. vide an explication in “Christianity and the Cultural
20 Ibid., pp. 148–49. Center of Gravity,” Listening 18 (1983): 93–102; and in
21 Georg Trakl, quoted by Heidegger in “Language,” in “Prospects for the Theology of Technology,” Theology and
Poetry, Language, Thought, pp. 194–95 (I have taken some Technology, ed. Carl Mitcham and Jim Grote (Lanham,
liberty with Hofstadter’s translation). Md., 1984), pp. 305–22.
22 See Norman Maclean, A River Runs through It and Other 42 See M. F. K. Fisher, pp. 9–31.
Stories (Chicago, 1976). Only the first of the three stories 43 For what social and empirical basis there is to this question
instructs the reader about fly fishing. see Chapter 24.
23 See Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker (New York, 1971). 44 Some therapists advise lying down till these stirrings go
24 Ibid., p. 9. away.
25 See Roger B. Swain, Earthly, Pleasures:Tales from a Biologist’s 45 See John Rawls, “Two Concepts of Rules,” Philosophical
Garden (New York, 1981). Review 64 (1955): 3–32.
26 Here are a few more: Wendell Berry, Farming: A Handbook 46 Conversely, it is one thing to break a practice and quite
(New York, 1970); Stephen Kiesling, The Shell Game: another to omit a particular action. For we define our-
Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence (New selves and our lives in our practices; hence to break a prac-
York, 1982), John Richard Young, Schooling for Young tice is to jeopardize one’s identity while omitting a
Riders (Norman, Okla., 1970); W. Timothy Gallwey, The particular action is relatively inconsequential.
Inner Game of Tennis (New York, 1974), Ruedi Bear, Pianta 47 See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the beginning of Book
Su: Ski Like the Best (Boston, 1976). Such books must be Two in particular.
sharply distinguished from those that promise to teach 48 See MacIntyre, p. 175.
accomplishments without effort and in no time. The lat- 49 Ibid., pp. 175–77.
ter kind of book is technological in intent and fraudulent 50 Ibid., p. 176.
in fact. 51 See Rawls, p. 25.
27 Sec Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A 52 See George Sheehan, Running and Being (New York, 1978),
Culinary Reflection (Garden City, N.Y., 1969); and George p. 102.
focal thi ngs and practice s 349

53 See Wilhelm von Humboldt, “Ideen zu einem Versuch, 70 Aristotle’s Principle is not so dependent on complexity
die Gränzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestinnnen,” in since it is balanced by the rightful assumption and careful
Werke, ed. Andreas Flitner and Klaus Giel (Stuttgart, explication of a definite and articulate world. …
1960–64), 1:64–69. 71 Rawls attempts to control the empirical world by admit-
54 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), ting it into the design of the just society in an orderly
pp. 520–29. sequence of four stages (see A Theory of Justice, pp. 195–
55 Ibid., p. 426. 201). This procedure does succeed in occluding the good
56 Ibid., p. 429. life of focal things and practices. The apparent opening, so
57 Ibid., p. 427. Rawls hopes, will be filled with the good life that springs
58 Ibid., p. 554. from rationality, the Aristotelian Principle, and social
59 Ibid., p. 552. union. But as we saw, the hope is not fulfilled. Instead …
60 See Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb (Garden the technological society emerges as the only possible but
City, N.Y., 1969), pp. 182–91; and Sheehan, pp. 238–40. unacknowledged realization of Rawls’s just society. One
61 See Aaron Latham, “Video Games Star War,” New York might argue, incidentally, that technology is not only an
Times Magazine, 25 October 1981; “Invasion of the Video indispensable aid but also a guide for Rawls’s theory
Creatures,” Newsweek, 16 November 1981, pp. 90–94; which is designed to make justice available in the techno-
“Games That Play People,” Time, 18 January 1982, logical sense. I believe, however, that, appearances to the
pp. 50–58. contrary, the formidable machinery of Rawls’s theory
62 See Time, p. 56. bespeaks a commitment to fairness, openness, and com-
63 How can there be technological engagement if technol- passion primarily and secondarily, at most, to technology.
ogy is defined as disengaging? The answer is that technol- 72 See Rawls, p. 554.
ogy in this essay is defined according to the device 73 On the general rise and decline of the car as a symbol of
paradigm, and so defined it becomes disengaging primar- success, see Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for
ily (a) in consumption and (b) in the mature phase after it Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (Toronto,
has taken the ironical turn. Hence the possibility of tech- 1982), pp. 36–39.
nological engagement suggests that technology could 74 Although these technological instruments are translucent
achieve an alternative maturity. relative to the world and so permit engagement with the
There is already technological engagement in the sense world, they still possess an opaque machinery that mediates
that certain activities essentially depend on technological engagement but is not itself experienced either directly or
products as alpine skiing or bicycle racing do. But note through social mediation. See also the remarks in n. 63 above.
that the technological devices do not procure but mediate 75 See “Who Is the American Runner?” Runner’s World 15
engagement. The engagement is finally with slopes, snow (December 1980): 36–42.
conditions, courses, turns, etc. And there is full and skilled 76 Capon’s book is the most impressive document of such
bodily engagement too. discriminating use of technology.
64 See Newsweek, 16 November 1981, p. 94. 77 A point that is emphatically made by E. F. Schumacher in
65 Ibid., p. 90. Small Is Beautiful (New York, 1973) and in Good Work
66 Along similar lines one could show that running is more (New York, 1979); by Duane Elgin in Voluntary Simplicity
excellent than exercising with a Nautilus. (New York, 1981); and by Yankelovich in New Rules.
67 See Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine (Boston, 1981). 78 See Roger Rosenblatt, “The Sad Truth about Big
68 Remember Daniel Bell’s remark … that the computer is Spenders,” Time, 8 December 1980, pp. 84 and 89.
the “thing” in which the postindustrial society is coming 79 On the confusions that beset romanticism in its opposition
to be symbolized. For a treatise in support of the thesis, see to technology, see Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization
Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal (New York, 1963), pp. 285–303.
Golden Braid (New York, 1979). 80 See Daniel J. Boorstin, Democracy and Its Discontents (New
69 Engagement, too, taken as a formal notion or as a concept York, 1975), pp. 12–25.
of a certain sort of worldlessly conceived human existence, 81 Sec Elgin, pp. 251–71. In believing that the mass of com-
fails as a guide to enduring excellence. But understood as plex technical information poses a mortal threat to
a term that recollects and anticipates the human response bureaucracies, Elgin, it seems to me, indulges in the
to focal things, it is a helpful vocable, and I will continue unwarranted pessimism of the optimists.
so to use it. 82 Ibid., p. 71.