Yuk Hui: “Philosophy and technology have a very intimate relationship."

Picture of the campus
Yuk Hui portrait picture
Alexander Santos Lima

In September 2023, ESPhil welcomed the new Chair of Human Conditions: world-renowned scholar Yuk Hui. Professor Hui has been working on the multifaceted philosophical questions surrounding technology ever since he encountered a phenomenological critique of AI in the early 2000s. February 15 marked the start of his lecture series on the philosophy of technology. We spoke to Professor Hui about his research, teaching, and adjustment to the Netherlands to commemorate this occasion.

Hui has received impressive international accolades; Il Manifesto - a reputable Italian paper - describes him as '‘one of the most interesting contemporary philosophers of technology,” El Mundo calls him “a new superstar of thought.” Hui downplays this praise, as he admits to feeling somewhat embarrassed by such descriptions. Yet he finds it an encouraging sign that his work has reached the public and that his research could become inspiring for researchers who have similar interests.

After studying Computer Engineering at the University of Hong Kong, Hui finished his doctoral thesis under the prolific French philosopher Bernard Stiegler at Goldsmiths College in London. He obtained his Habilitation in philosophy of technology from Leuphana University in Germany in 2020. Hui authored several monographs such as On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016), The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016), Recursivity and Contingency (2019), and Art and Cosmotechnics (2021), all of which were translated into German, French, Japanese and many more languages. His next book, Machine and Sovereignty (2024), is being published this year by the University of Minnesota Press. Hui's work defies comprehensive description in a few words, but it has been acclaimed for fostering a discourse that bridges European and Chinese philosophy, art, technology, and media theory, extending its influence far beyond academic circles. His thinking closely monitors the prevailing trends and dynamics of our era. In this context, questions of technology and universality assert themselves upon all inhabitants of the Earth, given the increasingly recognized environmental vulnerability and the expanding reach of technological globalization. 

A copy of the book 'The Question Concerning Technology in China'
A copy of 'The Question Concerning Technology in China'

Hui holds the chair of the Human Conditions research programme at Erasmus School of Philosophy. A chair that has been established after Jos de Mul's departure as Professor of Philosophical Anthropology last year. Human Conditions, which  Professor Hui oversees, addresses questions concerning social and ecological crises as well as the growing technological complexity of our life-world. These questions call for an ongoing reflection on who we are as human beings. Due to his philosophical and academic background, Hui is well-prepared to face the diverse challenges that the leadership of this research programme presents.

Your research focuses on the intersection of philosophy, technology, and culture. What draws you to these topics?

“Originally, I was trained as a computer scientist. During my studies, I was drawn to artificial intelligence and machine learning. Then, I encountered the work of Hubert Dreyfus, who, in the 1960s and ’70s, developed a strong phenomenological critique of AI. He wrote a critical report against the AI Lab at MIT, claiming that their AI scientists understood intelligence in a Cartesian way, and thus, they could only produce a Cartesian AI. What he meant by this, is that AI was very much based on the objectification of reality via symbolic logic. Dreyfuss thought that this would lead to an impasse in the development of AI.

"A Heideggerian AI sounds somewhat awkward, something Heidegger himself would immediately reject."

“In contrast to the Cartesian AI, he proposed what he called Heideggerian AI by following Heidegger’s critique of Descartes in Being and Time. In this book, Heidegger expounded on the Cartesian vision between subject and object that manifested in what he calls ‘present-at-hand (Vorhanden)’ in contradistinction to ‘ready-to-hand ’(Zuhanden). Zuhanden is more situated and embodied than Vorhanden; there is a more intimate relationship between Dasein and the world, which cannot be explained by a mere objective description of objects being encountered. A Heideggerian AI sounds somewhat awkward, something Heidegger himself would immediately reject. Still, I very much enjoyed this debate because it opened a new horizon for me to think about cognition, embodiment, and so on. This was one of the reasons I went into philosophy and went to study philosophy, especially phenomenology.

“And then I encountered the work of Bernard Stiegler,” Hui elaborates, “who later became my professor and my thesis supervisor. Much like Bernard, I think that we are not actually working on philosophy of technology in the narrow sense as it is understood today, because I think philosophy and technology have a very intimate relationship. What Stiegler and Derrida, as well as others, have shown, is that the question of technology was repressed—in the Freudian sense—in and by the history of philosophy. If it is repressed, however, then that means that it is always already there from the beginning. Thus, we can understand the centrality of technology in Western philosophy in the question of anamnesis in the work of Plato, for example, in Meno or Phaedrus. In this sense, the question of logos should be better formulated as that of techno-logos.

“Then, one might want to ask, how could this reading of philosophy allow us to have a better understanding of our technological world? How could we understand, for example, the relation between automation and autonomy - a question that we are now pressed to answer regarding the impact of artificial intelligence? How do we practice philosophy, if one tends to follow what Heidegger claims: that cybernetics marks the end of Western philosophy and metaphysics? And how might such an understanding give new vitality to philosophy and allow philosophers as well as scholars in the arts and humanities to respond to challenges concerning - among others - the development of artificial intelligence, transhumanism, geopolitical conflicts and ecological crises? These have been the questions that occupied me, and for sure, many others.”

What have you been working on in the past few months?

“I have been preparing for my course in the bachelor curriculum, Contemporary Thought of Technology. It’s a generic title. My idea for the course is that hopefully, I’m able to both introduce thoughts on technology to students, as well as to think together with them from differing perspectives, year by year. This year we dedicate our attention to the work of Gilbert Simondon; next year the course may feature another particular subject, for example the question of artificial intelligence, and so on. In terms of research, I have edited a book titled Cybernetics for the 21st Century Vol.1 Epistemological Reconstruction; and I’m finishing two monographs, of which one is called Post-Europe, a concept developed by the phenomenologist Jan Patočkaand a much bigger one is called Machine and Sovereignty—for a planetary thinking.”

"The technological and economic competition between nation-states is getting worse. At the same time, we are experiencing global warming and other ecological crises. These competitions will not resolve our problems."

A copy of the book 'Cybernetics for the 21st Century'
A copy of 'Cybernetics for the 21st Century'

Could you elaborate a bit on Machine and Sovereignty?

“It’s the third volume of a trilogy, the first book being Recursivity and Contingency and then Art and Cosmotechnics. The three volumes articulate the centrality of the concept of the organic since early modern philosophy, respectively, epistemology, aesthetics and political thought. In part, this third volume is about the global political and ecological impasse that we are confronting now, especially since the pandemic. The technological and economic competition between nation-states is getting worse and worse. At the same time, we are experiencing global warming and other ecological crises. These competitions will not resolve our problems, they will only worsen the situation because competition only means exploitation of resources, as well as exaggeration of productivity. So even though there are some policies to reduce carbon emissions, competitions continue intensifying; there is really not a way, not a future, that is promised to us.

"My expectation for my professorship at Erasmus University would be not only to resolve a particular European problem related to Western philosophy but to develop a way for us to think about the planetary condition that we are in now."

“The book is about what I term epistemological diplomacy, based on an exposition of the concept of political epistemology - a concept that underlies political forms. The book is also at the same time in dialogue with and a critique of Hegel’s organic state and Schmitt’s Großraum. I try to work on political thought through the lens of political epistemology and its corresponding political forms in order to think what could be possible for the future. A single exodus is not possible, but there might be different ways to look at the problem, which allow us to move away from the current impasse.

“My expectation for my professorship at Erasmus University would be not only to resolve a particular European problem related to Western philosophy but to develop a way for us to think about the planetary condition that we are in now. Thus, my main interest is really to develop a research community to deepen this inquiry.”

How do you like the Netherlands so far?

“At the faculty, everyone is very friendly and supportive. And when I arrived in Rotterdam in September, I immediately bought a bike. It makes life easier because cycling pathways are very developed in Rotterdam. I bought my bike on campus. The gentleman at the bike shop convinced me that I should buy it from him. Actually, I bought two. One for my partner as well. In the summer, we went cycling around to look at the city, the university, and the Kralingse Plas. And I visited some museums, such as Het Nieuwe Instituut. It was a nice way to discover Rotterdam.”

“At the faculty, everyone is very friendly and supportive. And when I arrived in Rotterdam in September, I immediately bought a bike."

Hui’s visit to HNI was no coincidence, as he is setting up a collaboration between ESPhil and the museum in the form of a faculty colloquium. It’s worth mentioning that a methodological focal point of his Human Conditions research programme is to aim at “alternative modes of imagination” to solve the problems that are addressed within the programme and, in this fashion, to reach out to the public to find new ways of dealing with those problems. One explicit way to find the desired outreach and connection is the promotion of performative practices between art and philosophy. Hui: “They are going to host my talk, and we invited Antoinette Rouvroy, a philosopher and legal scholar who works on digital technology, as there is a lot of concern from the public on subjects related to AI. It will be good to open it to the public, as people can benefit from the philosophical perspective we have on things. The colloquium is scheduled to take place on the 6th of May this year.”

Lastly, what do you do for fun, outside of academia?

“I like traveling and doing sports like cycling, and especially swimming. Also, I used to learn guitar. And I like listening to classical music and jazz, especially Django Reinhardt, who is a great guitarist with wonderful music. He lost two fingers on his left hand, so as a guitarist, you think you are doomed. But then he became an even better guitarist by making this accident necessary. Because of this, he is a philosophical figure to me, or maybe even better put: a tragic hero in the classical Greek sense.”

More information

Visit Yuk Hui’s website Digital Milieu.

Interview by: Sieme de Wolf (dewolf@esphil.eur.nl)

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