Albert Borgmann (1937-2023)


Albert Borgmann, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Montana, has died.

Professor Borgmann was known for his work in philosophy of technology and philosophy of society and culture, authoring, among other things, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984), Crossing the Postmodern Divide (1992), Holding onto Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (1999), Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (2003), ands Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for Our Country (2006). You can learn more about his writings here and here.

He started at the University of Montana in 1970 and retired in 2020. Before that, he taught at DePaul University and the University of Hawaii. He earned his PhD from the University of Munich, his MA from the University of Illinois, and his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas.

Montana Department of Philosophy Chair Armond Duwell sent along the following remembrance:

I met Albert in 2006 when I had my campus interview at the University of Montana. Before the interview, I had asked Burke Townsend, then Chair of the Department, whether anyone might take me skiing at Snowbowl, the hill located 20 minutes outside of Missoula. Albert and his wife Nancy volunteered. I spent the entire day with them. At the time I was in the middle of my second year in Germany after finishing my Ph.D. Albert was born and raised in Germany and got his Ph.D. there. He and Nancy had both lived there for some time before he started teaching in the US. Conversation came easy given our overlapping interests and lived experiences. Albert and Nancy were terrific hosts: they brought a sandwich for me to avoid suffering through the ski hill grill and took me out for beer and pizza after we finished on the slopes. It was a fulfilling day, the kind of day that passes Albert’s test for living the good life. You are doing things right when you can assent to the following: There is nowhere I’d rather be; there is nothing I’d rather be doing; there is no one I’d rather be with; and this, I will remember well.

Albert was a monumental figure in philosophy of technology. His seminal work Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life forever changed the discussion in philosophy of technology. In this book Albert articulated what he called the device paradigm, a recurrent pattern that he identified with the introduction of new technologies (47):

Devices,[…], dissolve the coherent and engaging character of the pretechnological world of things. In a device, the relatedness of the world is replaced by a machinery, but the machinery is concealed, and the commodities, which are made available by a device, are enjoyed without the encumbrance of or the engagement with a context.   

The appropriate antidote to the disengaged and unfulfilling consumption that technology encourages is to cultivate focal practices in our lives. Focal practices are repeated patterns of activity that demand skillful and embodied engagement with the world. Albert writes (210):

Countering technology through a practice is to take account of our susceptibility to technological distraction, and it is also to engage the peculiarly human strength of comprehension, i.e., the power to take in the world in its extent and significance and to respond through an enduring commitment.  

Quite recently, when reminiscing about his career, Albert said that he was lucky to find a hole and something to fill it with. While that was uncharacteristically ineloquent way of expressing himself, it was characteristically modest of Albert to describe his contributions in that way.

Albert taught at the University of Montana for fifty years. Beloved by both his students and colleagues, he was a consummate gentleman and scholar.  I have depended on his advice, experience, and influence many times. I think one of the reasons that Albert was so beloved was that he invited us to be our best selves: more generous, more kind, more discerning, more informed, more engaging, more engaged, more athletic, and more productive.  He did this by simply being Albert Borgmann. I’ll never forget the year one of the Department’s favorite students printed up T-shirts that read “What would Borgmann do?”.  Albert Borgmann was simply the finest human being I’ve ever had the pleasure and honor of knowing.

Professor Borgmann died on May 7th, 2023.


Obituary at Legacy.com.

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Fellow Hermeneut
9 months ago

While I didn’t know him personally, I found his work on technology and focal practices to be both prescient and troubling. He will be missed.

Ian
Ian
9 months ago

I just want to echo what Armond has said above. I was a student of Albert’s, although I was in the English MA program he was kind enough to sit on my thesis committee and I took a class from him. He supported me multiple times as a student and a job candidate by providing letters of recommendation, suggesting I try to publish work written for his class, and even inviting me to present at a UM colloquium, an opportunity I happily accepted. He was kind, generous, rigorous, and thoughtful. I can say that his thought has influenced my own, but we were not always on the same page–even in the work of mine he valued. I am saddened by his loss and that I haven’t touched base with him in a few years.

Justin Sloan Whitaker
9 months ago

I’m saddened to hear of the passing of Albert Borgmann, who helped guide me through my undergraduate and partial-MA studies in philosophy at the University of Montana.

Albert had an aura of sternness that concealed a deep sense of joy and curiosity about the world and the pursuit of the good life. His presence when I was a student (2000-2004 BA, 2005-7 MA studies) was tremendous, but I’ll never forget the time I visited campus for a small talk around 2015 and he greeted me with the warmest hug anyone could imagine.

He was a prolific writer and a great teacher. Those who wished to do well knew that they had to work hard. He did not meet us at our level, but instead inspired us to strive for his. Once, he brought our attention to a YouTube star just to remind us of the incredible amount of work that had to go into this musician’s craft in order to be great.

His teaching on focal things and practices, in contrast with the prevailing tides of technology and convenience, has informed my life and quest for balance as I’ve repeatedly up-rooted myself after my undergraduate degree.

John Paul James
9 months ago

“A hole to fill”; cutting edge Black Hole Natural phenomena and the ability to bridge the sweet gap of the evolution of knowledge: to technically speak. 😇🌹🙏

Last edited 9 months ago by John Paul James
Christopher Preston
9 months ago

My remarks at Albert’s remembrance service on May 11th:

Hello, everybody. I am Christopher Preston and I had the pleasure of being Albert’s colleague in the philosophy department here at the university of Montana.

I would like to start with an anecdote. I first came to UM in 1998 when Albert was three decades into his UM career. Shortly after I arrived I gave a presentation in Albert’s colloquium series. I had just wrapped up my PhD and I was keen to impress. I filled my presentation with nifty moves and intelligent-sounding references and I adorned it with all the philosophical bells and whistles I could muster. I was a little nervous but I thought it went ok. The next day, I sidled up to Albert – a bit intimidated in the presence of this philosophical giant – and asked him how he thought my presentation had gone.

“It was a wonderful presentation, Christopher,” he said with a big smile. “Bravo.” “But one thing. I don’t want you to wake up in middle-age and wonder what you are doing with your life. You must make your work matter to the world. You must make it count.”

Albert made everything he did count. To those of us lucky enough to fall in his orbit, he showed us how to make the intellectual life relevant. He was a world-renowned philosopher of society and culture. He examined how technological devices give shape to our lives and our communities. He was also an ethicist, exploring ways to live that help ourselves, our families, and our communities to flourish. At the heart of his thinking was the notion of a “focal practice,” an activity that takes time and skill to master but one that brings depth and resonance to our lives. When discussing these practices, Albert always took care to speak and write in an open and engaging way, inviting the listener to recognize where in their own lives his insights could take root.

Albert lived his own philosophy every day. Skiing once in the Rattlesnake with him and Nancy, the temperature was wrong for the wax they had put on their skis. After struggling to get up the first gentle incline, they removed their skis, scraped off the bad wax, and deliberated at some length about what wax to use next. It was around then that I offered some ill-considered advice. “Albert, how about you get a pair of cheap waxless skis like mine? They work great.” There was a pause before Albert looked at me from beneath those thick eyebrows. Christopher, he said kindly, do you not know of the importance of focal practices?”

Albert’s reach was world-wide. An environmental policy expert I know from Australia told me reading his books quite literally changed the direction of her life. On a different occasion, a philosopher from Arctic Norway told me exactly the same thing. Last summer, when walking between venues at an event in Europe, an Italian asked me where I taught. I said ‘Montana’ and he stopped in his tracks, grabbed my forearm, and with his voice quavering he said these three words: “Montana….Albert Borgmann.” For decades in the philosophy world, Albert has been everywhere that you go.

And closer to home, Albert’s presence will forever inhabit the soul of Missoula. Today is a service of remembrance, but the memories will remain crisp. Albert at the farmer’s market, jogging on the M-trail, supporting political candidates, skiing at Snowbowl, listening intently to a lecture in the Dennison Theatre, offering guidance to students at graduation, showing visitors warmth around countless dinner tables. And….sitting here in prayer at the Holy Spirit Church.

If it were Albert Borgmann giving this remembrance, he would have done it without notes. It would have been pithier, more erudite, and more composed. It would have made you laugh out loud and smile from deep within. There would probably have been a moment when a ball would form tight in your chest. The words would stick long in your memory … and they would prompt you to have deep conversations around the dinner table for days to come with those you love, talking about the things that really matter.

Because that is who Albert was… as a speaker, as a thinker, and as a friend. Noble, Inspirational, Irreplaceable. That was the man all of us came to love.  

Stephen Grimm
Reply to  Christopher Preston
9 months ago

Beautifully said, Christopher.

Rhiannon Funke
9 months ago

He helped fund my ethics bowl team to attend national competition. We called ourselves “Albie’s Anschauung.” My fondest memories of Missoula were in the halls and after classes with Prof. Borgmann, Prof. Townsend, and Prof. Walton. They changed my life for the better and when I’m inclined to stop and help someone, I know it was at least in part inspired by their wisdom, patience, and guidance. My senior seminar was on happiness and I think it helped me live a much better life even as an attorney. I will miss him beyond words. I had wanted to visit with him in 2020 but the pandemic was raging and he was not feeling well. I’m sad my family didn’t get one final class, but I know his lessons will live on in the lives of his students.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Rhiannon Funke
9 months ago

I don’t know if that was a name passed down to multiple teams, but the year that I competed in the Ethics Bowl in Missoula with a group from Bozeman (go ‘cats!), the local team was named “Albie’s Anschauung”. This would’ve been 2003 or 2004, I think. It was a clever name, and it stuck with me. I only met Borgmann once, briefly, but I know Corky Brittan of MSU (emeritus) holds him in high regard.

Rhiannon Funke
Reply to  Preston Stovall
9 months ago

That was us! Not sure if you knew us as the trio in tie dye at regionals or the 5-person chaos at nationals, but either way, I’m glad we crossed paths, and I wish you’d gotten to know Prof. Borgmann more because he worked hard to help us reach eudaimonia.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Rhiannon Funke
9 months ago

Thanks, that’s cool to know. This would have been the regionals meeting, but I confess I don’t remember the tie-dyed shirts. To be honest, I’m not even sure what our team name was; I think it was a quantified formula that was supposed to have the significance of “nothing is greater than itself”, which is pretty cringeworthy. But “Albie’s Anschauung” stuck with me, and it’s nice to hear how he was regarded.

Animal Symbolicum
9 months ago

Albert was the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. I feel undeserving of the great fortune I had to be mentored by him.

He argued forcefully that, contrary to what tech stans and marketing agencies tell us, technology has exhibited a “mind-numbing sameness” since technological culture crystallized around the time of the industrial revolution. The power loom, the interstate system, the supermarket, the laptop, the latest iPhone: variations on a single theme.

I doubt his insight as been properly absorbed. Perhaps this is why the second version of the SEP article on philosophy of technology — the field he helped inaugurate — only superficially mentions him. In technological culture, the new and shiny is always thought to represent a decisive break from the old and a leap forward into the future, toward something better.

I suppose it’s fitting. Albert warned us of the fickleness of academic fashions. His ideas are deeply unfashionable. But they are thereby deeply relevant.

Aaron K. Kerr
6 months ago

After providing a blurb for my book, we talked by email a few times. I sent him some feedback from undergraduate philosophy students about the device paradigm, he generously corresponded with one of those students. When I read his 1984 book, I was hooked, he then wrote an article on Thomas Merton and technology and I realized I must immerse myself in his thought. I never knew him personally, but I knew that if I read what he wrote, I would be a better person.