Notes: Verbeek, 2008, Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology of human–technology relations


Citekey: @Verbeek2008-qt

Verbeek, P.-P. (2008). Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology of human–technology relations. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 7(3), 387–395.


Summarize: An illuminating essay about hybrid intentionality and human–technology relations.

Particularly relevant to current thinking on learning analytics. The author has also written on “moralizing technology” and “design for socially responsible behavior”. Worth checking…


Abstract This article investigates the types of intentionality involved in human– technology relations. It aims to augment Don Ihde’ s analysis of the relations between human beings and technological artifacts, by analyzing a number of concrete examples at the limits of Ihde’ s analysis. The article distinguishes and analyzes three types of “ cyborg intentionality,” which all involve specific blends of the human and the technological. Technologically mediated intentionality occurs when human intentionality takes place “ through” technological artifacts; hybrid intentionality occurs when the technological actually merges with the human; and composite intentionality is the addition of human intentionality and the intentionality of technological artifacts. (p. 1)

A cyborg is a border- blurring entity, uniting both human and nonhuman elements. (p. 1)

What is more, authors like Bernhard Stiegler argue that we have always been cyborgs in a sense, since technology can be seen as constitutive for humanity. For Stiegler, humanity is an invention of technology, rather than the other way round; human beings exist by realizing themselves technologically (cf. Stiegler 1998). (p. 2)

In this article, I will use the figure of the cyborg to reconceptualize a specific phenomenon which has long been considered to be exclusively human: the phenomenon of intentionality. (p. 2)

Intentionality and technology (p. 2)

In the phenomenological tradition, especially in the existential and embodied directions it took in the work of Jaspers, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, intentionality is the core concept to understand the relation between human beings and their world. (p. 2)

Just like human beings can only be understood from their relation with reality, so can reality only be understood from the relation human beings have with it. (p. 2)

Don Ihde has introduced a technological dimension in this phenomenological tradition of understanding human– world relations. In our technological culture, many of the relations we have with the world around us are either mediated by or directed at technological devices (p. 3)

Mediated intentionality (p. 3)

Ihde (1990) discerns several relationships human beings can have with technological artifacts (p. 3)

Firstly, technologies can be embodied by their users, establishing a relationship between humans and their world (p. 3)

Secondly, technologies can be the terminus of our experience. (p. 3)

A third human – technology relation is the “ hermeneutic relation.” In this relation, technologies provide representations of reality, which need interpretation in order to constitute a “ perception”– like a thermomete (p. 3)

The fourth human – technology relation Ihde distinguishes, is the background relation, where technologies are not experienced directly, but rather create a context for our perceptions, like the humming of the air conditioning (p. 3)

Intentionality can work through technological artifacts, it can be directed at artifacts and it can even take place against the background of them. (p. 3)

Fig. 1 Human– technology rela- tionships (Ihde 1990) (p. 3)

Experiences like reading off a thermometer and having a telephone conversation, therefore, involve “ cyborg intentionality”– intentionality that is partly constituted by technology. (p. 4)

Intentionality beyond mediation (p. 4)

I would like to distinguish two other forms of intentionality related to human– technology associations. First, I would like to introduce the concept of hybrid intentionality, indicating the intentionality of human– technology hybrids, in which the human and the technological are merged into a new entity, rather than interrelated, as in Ihde’ s human– technology relations. And second, I will develop the notion of composite intentionality to indicate situations in which not only human beings have intentionality, but also the technological artifacts they are using. (p. 4)

Because Ihde’ s primary focus is on the relations between humans and technologies rather than the intentionalities involved, his analysis tends to blackbox the various forms of intentionality involved in these relations. (p. 4)

Ihde’ s schematic representations of human– technology relations do not only contain arrows, indicating intentionality, but also dashes, indicating a relation between entities which is not specified further. (p. 4)

It is precisely by investigating the nature of these dashes that a closer characterization can be developed of what can be called “ cyborg intentionality.” (p. 4)

Hybrid intentionality (p. 4)

a fifth variant could be added to Ihde ’ s (p. 4)

Yet, prior to the embodiment relation there are human– technology relations in which the human and the technological actually merge rather than “ merely” being embodied. (p. 5)

(human/technology) → world (p. 5)

This fifth human– technology relation is the basis for what can be called hybrid intentionality. Rather than being a technologically mediated form of human intentionality, this form of intentionality is “ beyond the human.” (p. 5)

to distinguish two distinct ways of moving beyond the human (p. 5)

First of all, a “ posthumanist” approach can be taken (p. 5)

we need to take into account how the human and the technological co-constitute each other. (p. 5)

Second, there is a “ transhumanist” approach, which does not see human– technology relations in terms of constitution but in terms of an actual, physical fusion (p. 5)

Peter Sloterdijk ’ s analysis of “ anthropotechnol- ogies” in his infamous lecture (p. 5)

Composite intentionality (p. 6)

A third form of cyborg intentionality that deserves a closer analysis, beside its mediated and hybrid variants, can be called composite intentionality. In this case, the intentionalities of technological artifacts themselves play a central role, in cooperation with the intentionalities of the human beings using these artifacts. (p. 6)

Don Ihde elaborated the example of the sound recorder as having a different intentionality for sound than human beings have, recording background noises at a louder volume than perceived by human beings who only focus on the sounds that are meaningful to them in that specific situation (Ihde 1979: 77– 78; Ihde 1983:56;Ihde1990:102– 103). (p. 6)

is added to human intentionality, composite intentionality comes about: a form of intentionality which results from adding technological intentionality and human intentionality. (p. 7)

ermeneutic relations always involve a technologically generated representation of the world, which inevitably is the product of a specific technological directedness at the world: thermometers focus on temperature, spectrographs on light frequencies, sonograms on how material objects reflect ultrasound. (p. 7)

The concept of composite intentionality, therefore, urges us to augment Ihde’ s analysis of the hermeneutic relation. There is a double intentionality involved here; one of technology toward “ its” world, and one of human beings toward the result of this technological intentionality. In other words: humans are directed here at the ways in which a technology is directed at the world. (p. 7)

The night photographs of Wouter Hooijmans embody the “ mildest” form of composite intentionality. Hooijmans makes landscape photographs using shutter times of several hours. This allows him to make use of starlight for exposing his pictures, which has stunning effects (p. 7)

Hooijmans’ s photographs embody an extreme mechanical makeover of the intentionality of the human vision. Contrary to the most common use of the photo camera, Hooijmans does not create instantaneous exposures, but rather “ sustained exposures.” His photographs blend together an infinite number of visual impressions into one single representation of the world, which the human eye could never produce itself. We could call this form of composite intentionality “ augmented intentionality,” since it consists in making accessible to the human eye an artificially expanded form of human intentionality. (p. 8)

These photographs do not aim to represent reality in any sense, but to generate a new reality which can only exist for human intentionality when it is complemented with technological intentionality. (p. 8)

The “ intentionality” that De Realisten gave to their stereographic camera is not directed at making visible an existing reality but at constructing a new reality. For this reason, the intentionality involved here can be called “ constructive intentionality.” (p. 8)

Conclusion (p. 8)

Intentionality used to be one of these concepts which belonged to the realm of the exclusively human, but by now it has become clear that it needs to be extended to the realm of technology – and to the realm of human– technology amalgams (p. 8)

By re-articulating phenomenological and philosophical – anthropological concepts philosophers can contribute to a better understanding of the “ posthuman” or perhaps even “ transhuiman” beings we are becoming – and to the development of a better sense of the limits of humanity. (p. 8)

Bodong Chen
Associate Professor of Learning Technologies

Associate Professor in learning technologies at the University of Minnesota.