The Responsible Self: A Levinasian human(ism) for mediation theory

Jan Peter Bergen (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Conference presentation.

In the philosophy of technology, mediation theory is an amodern approach to the study of human-technology relations. As such, it eschews strict subject/object dichotomies and modern humanism (whether based on biological essence or a human monopoly on agency)(e.g., Verbeek, 2005, 2011). Rather, intentionality and agency are seen as hybrid affairs in which humans and technologies partake together, thus doing away with the modern autonomous subject. Similarly, modern ethical theories will no longer do. Instead, Verbeek (2011) proposes an Foucaultian ethics of self-subjectivation.
At first glance, this suggestion is somewhat puzzling in light of Ihde’s (2003, p. 11) contention that post-phenomenology has substituted embodiment for subjectivity, rejecting the transcendentalist tradition from Descartes and Kant to Husserl, instead embracing Merleau-Ponty. The latter provides a foundation for the experiential or phenomenal self (as an alternative to different versions of the transcendental ego)(Zahavi, 2005) in the form of an embodied being-in-the(-technological)-world, which in turn provides the basis for the description of human-technology relations. However, in proposing the abovementioned ethics for mediation theory, Verbeek (2011) goes beyond phenomenal selfhood which focuses on the mineness of experience. Inspired by Foucault, he adds a normativity-oriented, narrative conception of the self (Zahavi, 2005), living through technology and continually self-subjectivating through embodied ‘technologies of the self’. For Foucault, subjectivation was a practice of freedom, leading to a critical ethics of resistance; an implication Verbeek does not wish to follow (he aims for constructive engagement rather than resistance). However, if it is not the spark of freedom that mobilizes subjects, what is left to fuel an ethics of self-subjectivation? Mediation theory has yet to provide a satisfactory ethical foundation for subjectivation that is in line with its methodological, ontological or metaphysical assumptions (e.g., the primacy of experience, embodiment, human/technology co-constitution, etc).
In this paper, I propose that part of such a foundation lies in the ‘model’ of selfhood implied in Emmanuel Levinas’ explicitly ethical phenomenology (e.g., Levinas, 1969, 1981). First, I show that it includes a) embodied being-in-the-world (i.e., enjoyment) as the origin of the phenomenal self, b) the birth of subjectivity in our responsibility to the infinite Other, and c) a narrative conception of the self, the continual reconstruction of which is demanded by justice. Secondly, I elaborate on the origin of subjectivity as responsibility, which has likely eluded mediation theory due to the latter’s tendency to ontologize (the appropriate question being not what the subject is, but who). Thirdly, I explore the compatibility of this Levinasian conception of ‘self’ with mediation theory. This includes reflection on the role of technologies in the different ‘stages’ of the Levinasian Self and a reappreciation of transcendence and the ‘alterity’ relation.
Interestingly, this Levinasian conception of subjectivity and selfhood opens op possibilities for a humanism based in radical passivity rather than a monopoly on agency, on alterity rather than sameness, on responsibility for others rather than biological genus or unbridled freedom (Levinas, 1987). This could possibly be the basis for a profoundly ethical, decidedly amodern, but nevertheless humanist foundation for mediation theory.
Period9 Nov 2018
Event title6th Annual OZSW Conference in Philosophy 2018
Event typeConference
Conference number6
LocationEnschede, Netherlands
Degree of RecognitionNational


  • mediation theory
  • philosophy of technology
  • Levinas
  • Foucault
  • Humanism
  • Selfcare
  • Selfhood