Human Organs: On Ernst Kapp’s “Elements of a Philosophy of Technology”

May 2, 2019   •   By William Stewart

Elements of a Philosophy of Technology

Ernst Kapp

ONE OF THE STRIKING things about the canonical “failures” in the nascent fields of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data is how human they all are. Facial recognition and Google imaging algorithms are notoriously racist. Microsoft’s chatbot Tay is a Holocaust denier. Chinese systems of social credit are oppressive forms of surveillance, pace whatever resemblance they bear to a metastasized Yelp.

It is possible to conceive of this list as a catalog of human mistakes (for instance, on the part of the programmers) or a projection of human wrongdoing onto patterned calculation. But it is equally plausible to wonder if these algorithmic failures aren’t also “successes” in artificial intelligence in their indistinguishability from average human thought. The frontiers of digital science might often be closest to us when they are nearest to error. As far as a computer passing the Turing test goes, bigotry is pretty convincingly human. One could ask to what extent these examples reveal the darker mechanics of the mind, the specific ways that: our visual senses are discriminatory; we peddle as fact conclusions drawn from faulty evidence around us; and we use reputation as a vector for passive violence and hegemonies of shame. Perhaps the algorithms are not an allegory of human behavior, but rather reveal something real about the operation of our thoughts and actions.

This, at least, would be the explanation offered by the 19th-century German philosopher of culture and technology Ernst Kapp in his 1877 book, Elements of a Philosophy of Technology: On the Evolutionary History of Culture. The book, long known in German-speaking media and technology circles though virtually absent from those of the Anglosphere, is now available for the first time in an English translation, edited by scholars of media history Jeffrey Kirkwood and Leif Weatherby and translated by Lauren K. Wolfe. Over the course of 12 chapters that address topics spanning from prehistoric hammers to telegraph systems to language to the state, Kapp lays out a theory of culture and technology rooted in humans’ instinctual drive to make tools, a faculty that he calls “organ projection.” While Kapp’s refrain might be understood as a variation on the old adage that man is the measure of all things, his isn’t a purely anthropocentric position. The way Kapp imagines it, the human scale orients all knowledge, but it does so unconsciously. Our “humanness” only becomes apparent to us through the study of the outside world, an outside world that paradoxically reveals the human interior. “Self-consciousness,” he writes, “proves to be the result of a process in which knowledge of an exterior is transformed into knowledge of an interior.” Remarkably prescient, Kapp makes an argument that subtly anticipates the current discourse of the posthuman, presenting the conditions for knowledge as always external to the knower.

The history of how Kapp came to this inside-out theory of consciousness is complex. A leftist, Kapp found himself on the wrong side of the failed revolutions that swept through Germany in 1848. After the movement was quelled by the institution of a constitutional monarchy under Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV, Kapp was charged with sedition over an article he wrote in 1849 critical of the new regime: “Der konstituierte Despotismus und die konstitutionelle Freiheit” (Constituted despotism and constitutional liberty). Kapp, along with many other progressive Germans, fled to the United States, where they established settlements with a utopian hue, predominantly in Missouri, Wisconsin, and the new state of Texas. Kapp helped found and lead the “Latin colony” in Sisterdale, Texas, a designation named after the settlement members’ affinity for the ideals of liberal education traditionally cultivated in Germany’s “Latin schools” (Lateinschulen). Kapp had in fact taught at one of these Latin schools before his exile but had lost his post as a consequence of the 1849 article.

These Deutschtexaner undertook the challenge of not only building a new life from scratch in the wilds of the Texas Hill Country, but also basing their society in progressive principles of equality, liberty, and collective labor. Work and its tools were as much intellectual as physical for Kapp: on the long voyage across the Atlantic, he packed not only German axes, but also the collected works of Hegel. As politically conscious in the New World as they were in the Old, the settlers in Sisterdale, who themselves subsisted on cotton farming, became active abolitionists in the years leading up the American Civil War. (Sisterdale’s founding precedes most of Karl Marx’s oeuvre, but it is safe to assume that Kapp was familiar with his ideas, most certainly later in his life, given that Sisterdale counted among its members Marx’s brother-in-law, Edgar von Westphalen.) When Kapp finally returned to Germany in 1865, he set to work on a magnum opus that would explain how culture, technology, and the body were intimately implicated.

Considering the frontier life that for nearly two decades served as Kapp’s laboratory for social experiment, it is no wonder that his theory of culture would center not on art or religion, but rather on a complicated relationship between nature, machine, and organism. The challenges of the settler life hammered home the notion that human existence — whether defined in terms of sustenance, culture, society, or politics — is always and everywhere bound up in a relationship to tools. For this reason, Kapp’s theory of culture relies on a philosophy of technology, accounting for the significance of the tool in the development (or “evolution,” in Kapp’s words) of human self-consciousness. “The tool,” Kapp writes,

is so fundamentally and intimately affiliated with the human being that he finds himself beholding something of his own being in the creation of his hand, his world of representation embodied in matter, a mirror- or after-image [Nachbild] of his interior, a part of himself.

Stated most simply, Kapp’s thesis holds that all tools are unconscious projections of human organs. By this, he means not only that the hammer is a better fist and the knife is a better tooth. Rather, his argument also plays on the deeper etymological roots of “organ” and “organic,” which derive from the Greek ὄργανον, organon: that is, a tool or instrument, as well as a bodily organ or a sense faculty. Literally, organon means “that with which one works.” For Kapp, then, “organ” and all its linguistic derivatives signal “tool.” Citing Benjamin Franklin’s quip that man is a “tool-making animal,” Kapp assigns to “organic” the valences of the apparatus as much as of the living creature.

This leads Kapp to what at first glance appears to be a rather far-fetched conclusion: tools and instruments produced by human hands conform to already existing organic structures, even in the absence of the slightest notion about how those already existing structures might work. Kapp offers a number of concrete illustrations of the idea. For instance, in 1604 Johannes Kepler discovered that the structure of the human eye is utterly analogous to that of the camera obscura: an image appears inverted on the retina in the same way that an image appears inverted on the camera’s back wall. Kapp’s analysis, however, flips the dynamic, understanding the camera obscura as having always already been analogous to the eye, an unconscious projection of the organ that the scientist Kepler only belatedly, and by means of an understanding of the camera obscura, comprehends. The tool of the camera obscura, inasmuch as it embodies principles shared by the eye, informs our understanding of how the eye also functions. The tool is an analogy of the organ. Knowledge of the exterior is turned into knowledge of the interior.

As Kapp moves through extended discussions of ancient hand tools, systems of measurement, mechanical apparatuses, the skeleton, steam engines, and railroads, he proposes a law of tool formation centered on unconscious intention and anachronistic logics. A tool gains form according to a functional principle that only later, when we study the tool, becomes apparent: “Form is given to the tool long before the formulation of the law that is only then later experienced and acknowledged as an unconscious endowment accompanying the form itself.” According to Kapp, the subject undergoes self-externalization without being aware of it. As a result, however, it is the tools themselves — organs externalized, projected, made into objects — that ultimately render the tool-maker intelligible. The tool, the organon unconsciously intended to perform the function of one of our own organs, conditions our understanding of the organic as such. “What we make makes us,” as the editors remark in the introduction.

In its conviction that the human can be understood as human only through the close consideration of that which humans make — that is, of human artifacts — Kapp’s theory of culture participates in a tradition of what can be called “artifactuality.” Such a position traces roots to the father of cultural theory, Giambattista Vico. In his 1725 New Science, Vico expounds on the principle distinction between truth and fact, the former having to do with metaphysical realms beyond human comprehension, the latter having to do with human deeds (factum in Latin meaning “the thing done”), and for that reason being alone intelligible to humans. Similarly, Kapp’s theory of organ projection argues that, as humans, we become aware of ourselves through our technicity — that is, our practice of producing, studying, and then improving artifacts. Here, the artifact is understood in a supremely literal sense — from the Latin arte and factum — namely, something made (factum) through craft (arte). For Kapp, artificiality, the artifact, that which is produced by the human: these are the primary conditions for the “evolution” of human consciousness.

Kapp’s theory of organ projection does not rank tools based on chronologies of progress or hierarchies of developmental complexity. In part, this view arises from his claim that the human is the ideal animal (Idealthier), a claim that by necessity relegates human artifacts to a subordinate status: “the human being himself, in life and limb, represents the ideal-machinal system!” Kapp writes. “Machinal” development for Kapp has little to do with technical intricacy and far more to do with how well a tool projects an organ’s functional image. For this reason, Kapp orders the steam engine in the same organic category as language, because they serve the same function: they give out force. Language — which Kapp does not take up until the penultimate chapter, long after the discourses on telegraphs and railroads that open the book — is in this regard superior to the steam engine, as the force of culture and human self-expression that language allows marks it as functionally more advanced than the steam engine.

The only tool more organic, more organized, more reflective of human projection than language, according to Kapp, is the state, which he reserves for the culminating chapter. In the organs and organization inherent in the state, Kapp sees a total reflection of the human organism: “[T]he whole human being is in the state and the entire state is in human beings. The human being, it is true, is the zoon politikon; but the state is a polisma anthropikon!” The purest image of organ projection, the state is the most authentic tool, designed to carry out the most fundamental work: externally organizing humans in the same way that the human itself is, internally, organized. For Kapp, the state is the human’s “greatest real structure” and a testimony to our “progressively higher conception of the organic idea.”

Kapp’s insistence on the necessity of the state’s organic quality draws from Hegel’s political theory, and in doing so, it carries with it an implied critique of the mechanical. The category of the organic might signal tools and instruments, but Kapp goes to great lengths to separate these from the principles of the machine. His theory is deeply skeptical of the “mechanistic” worldviews of the 17th century — certainly the Cartesian imagination of the body as machine, but more importantly Thomas Hobbes’s conceptualization of not only the body, but the state, too, in mechanical terms. Such an image of the mechanistic state apparatus has particular relevance for a Left Hegelian and exile of the democratic revolutions of 1848. In his “Constituted Despotism” essay, Kapp writes that “the more mechanically a state is ruled, the more despotically it is ruled; the more organically a state rules itself, the freer it is.” Where the organic is organized by an internal, self-regulating dynamic in order to accomplish work, the mechanical deploys command-logics, in which an order or force is passed despotically along a chain of functional parts that have no choice but to obey. Thus, it is only at the book’s conclusion that the true stakes of Kapp’s argument come into focus. Kapp’s analysis ultimately situates technology in extreme proximity to politics. A theory of tools is not only a theory of the organic, but more importantly a theory of the state, humankind’s greatest (and thus most consequential) technological endeavor.

Kapp’s arguments also represent an important forerunner in theories of media and culture. In the 20th century, German sociological discourse was shaped by two canonical arguments about the prosthesis, one posed by Sigmund Freud, the other by Arnold Gehlen. Freud’s definition of man as a prosthetic god appears in his 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents. Gehlen presents his Mängelwesen (literally: a being defined by lack) in the 1940 Man, His Nature and Place in the World. In both cases, the theory of prosthesis argues that human organs can and need to be strengthened in their function, protected or outright substituted by the prosthesis. The prosthesis compensates an inherently under-equipped human. (The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan belongs in this tradition, too, with his notion of media as “extensions of man.”) What unites Freud and Gehlen, however, is the way that their theories drive a hard distinction between nature and culture. The natural body must be superseded in its shortcomings by the assistance of culture in the form of the technical prosthesis. Kapp’s notion of organ projection precedes both Freud and Gehlen and belongs to neither. For Kapp, the prosthesis cannot be cleanly distinguished from the human and its body, to which it always fundamentally relates as an instance of organ projection. If the prosthesis stands in relation to the body like culture stands in relation to nature, then for Kapp the very nature/culture distinction dissolves into the insignificance of a tautology.

As one might expect, Kapp’s argument contains some problematic idiosyncrasies that mark its age: an (inaccurate) conviction about the prevalence of the golden ratio in the human body, and remarks about the connection between physiological traits and linguistic sound production that border on phrenology, to name two. Moreover, his notion of “body” remains regrettably general and universalizing. Despite his abolitionist politics, race is not thematized in the text, much less any notion of gender. Nevertheless, Kapp’s work rewards close reading. Early chapters on human scale, the first tools, and the morphological law are critical for understanding the anthropological (rather than mechanistically functional) bent of his theory of technology, and the most far-reaching insights occur in his most abstract considerations of the “tool,” namely in the concluding chapters on language and the state.

The accessibility of this edition of Kapp’s magnum opus is helped by Lauren K. Wolfe’s excellent translation, and the particular place of Elements of a Philosophy of Technology within German intellectual history over the past decades is laid out in an afterword by Siegfried Zielinski. As Zielinski’s anecdotes show, Kapp’s work belongs to a certain category of Teutonic thinker whose ideas, despite long being common coin in Germany, have struggled to leap into other linguistic contexts, Anglophone or otherwise. Zielinski’s essay further plots the rich genealogy of philosophies of technology and culture in which Kapp’s theory was self-consciously embedded, as well as the long list of works concerning the relationship between civilization and technology that Kapp would influence, from Martin Heidegger, Sigfried Giedion, and Max Horkheimer, to Georges Canguilhem, Gilbert Simondon, and Michel Foucault.

But Kapp’s work deserves renewed study today not simply on account of its canonical place in German media-studies traditions or because of an antiquarian interest in the prehistory of contemporary theory. Kapp’s arguments encourage a reflection on just what it is that lends tools their significance in the first place: his notion of a tool-being emphasizes not our fundamentally teleological relationship to the technical — in other words, that the hammer was invented in order to hit the nail, or the computer in order to send emails — but rather that we are tool-beings because tools not only condition our existence, but reveal its essential facts. We are as much tools as the tools that we make. Kapp reminds us that an understanding of the human begins and ends with an understanding of what it makes and uses, because the tool it employs is nothing — that is, neither intelligible nor useful — if not a reflection of the human employing it.

Indeed, it is this vantage point that helps render visible the particular conceptual framework underlying Kapp’s thesis, in which Technik (often translated clumsily in other contexts as “technics”) is not at all synonymous with Technologie (“technology”). Here, Technologie, in the same linguistic family as Biologie or Geologie, signals the “study of production,” not its artifacts. According to Kapp, “technology” refers not to an iPhone or an automobile but, instead, describes the human’s relationship to that iPhone or automobile. Technology “is the relation between humans and the world and the precondition for the emergence of both,” Kirkwood and Weatherby write. If we come to know ourselves as we deploy our tools, that is, our Technik, then technical practice is epistemological practice because it is through technology — as an operation of tools and a relation of interior to exterior — that the world appears to us.

The key to Kapp’s significance is not as esoteric as such a theoretical formulation would imply. In fact, one might argue that we have only just recently broached a paradigm within the digital and internet ages that allows Kapp’s work to reenter with a relevant theoretical intervention. With the advent of “digital natives,” a term whose prevalence is hardly 15 years old, we observe a condition in which, for many (this author included), it is nearly impossible to comprehend the world as world absent screen interfaces, digital networks, and search algorithms. Of course, Kapp’s theories indicate that such technological imbrication is far from novel. But it is the particular banality of this condition for the digital native that gives new meaning to Kapp’s arguments about unconscious organ projection and the technical operations that produce the things we know.

The digital native’s relationship to the Technik of artificial intelligence and machine learning has (unwittingly, perhaps) aligned itself with Kapp’s idea of organ projection, in that we expect that these tools will shed light on the fundamental workings of our own bodies and minds. Contemporary technology so often manifests in the promise of a more refined notion of the self, be that in deep learning’s claim to render legible our invisible patterns of activity or in the ever faster and more agile algorithms for biometric recognition. Regardless of whether we trust the neutrality of these techniques or balk at their perceived malevolence, we take for granted that what they show us is us. Kapp couldn’t have agreed more.


William Stewart is a PhD candidate in the German Department and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University.