Somewhere between everything and nothing

Essay, 2004

6 Pages, Grade: distinction+



1 Formatting the statement: How to deal with If-Questions

2 Awarding meaning: How to deal with semantic illusions
2.1 Sustainability: A potpourri of meanings
2.2 To achieve something: Is an ideal achievable?
2.3 Developing smarter technologies: A three-part problem

3 Summary: A reformulation of the statement

4 References

5 Appendix: The tautology in detail

Can we give answers when we are still unsure of the meaning of the simplest terms in the question? Isn't this like trying to solve equations of higher algebra before we have the laws of arithmetic straight? The appeal to abandon problems of detail and to turn to the great issues is an appeal to abandon method and to jump to conclusions.

Nelson Goodman

1 Formatting the statement: How to deal with If-Questions

The statement "Sustainability can be achieved by developing smarter technologies" can be seen as an affirmative answer to the following question:

[1] If: Sustainability can be achieved by developing smarter technologies?

If- or respectively decision-demanding-questions allow two possibilities to answer: an affirmative and a negative one. Someone who wants to claim the proposition of the question is obliged to give a proof. Someone who wants to dispute the proposition of the question is obliged to give a refutation. To identify what such a proof or rather a refutation has to contain, it is helpful to note down the question again to show the logical structure more clearly: Is it the case, that

[1'] If developing smarter technologies then Sustainability can be achieved?

Obviously it concerns an implication clause, which demands further propositions that allow the transition from the antecedent to the succedent.

A tautological transition can be constructed neither taking any scientific 'proofs' into consideration, nor making any vague prognoses. Only the arbitrary meaning of the term 'smart' has to be fixed in a goal-directed way:

[2] A technology is smart iff[1] it meets the needs of the present without

compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Making use of the rule of complete substitution of the definiendum and the definiens we get a tautology by putting line [2] in line [1'] and taking the Brundland definition for Sustainability. Someone who accepts the definition [2] and the Brundland one is forced to agree with the statement simply because of locical reasons (↑ 6). This finding, indeed, leaves one unsatisfied. Thus, further investigations have to be undertaken.

Although explications are often given by scientists, it seems to me particulary characteristic of philosophical work that a great part of it is devoted to proposing and discussing explications of certain basic general concepts.

Rudolf Carnap

2 Awarding meaning: How to deal with semantic illusions

Terms do not have definite meanings in themselves. Nevertheless, there are subtle feelings, manifold associations, and diffuse ideas connected with them, particularly with 'Sustainability' and 'smarter technologies'. One can have the illusion of intactness of these terms and is seduced to argue straight away either as an opponent or a proponent of the statement. However, to me this modus operandi does not seem fruitful and is even hazardous. There's a risk to get into heated and deceptive disputes, which occur only because of a different use of (central) terms. Therefore, the meanings of the speech-parts ought to be fixed.

2.1 Sustainability: A potpourri of meanings

Meanwhile, an immense number of definitions of the terms 'Sustainability' and 'sustainable development'[2] have been published. Numerous drafts have been presented, which are rich in nuances and attach importence to different details. Almost all of them are driven by one core idea that arose from ethical deliberations: the idea of inter- and intragenerational justice.

The discourse of Sustainability extends across the fields of ecology (environment and nature), social systems (education, culture,…), and economy. The interdependence of these three fields is considered so that they are seen as one unit.

Also, in the discourse of Sustainability, different actors have different positions and interests.[3] As a result, Sustainability is discussed between the two extremes of 'very strong' conceptions on the one hand and 'very weak' ones on the other hand. One significant difference that distinguishes competing camps is how they maintain 'the capital stock'. While 'strong' concepts focus on the maintenance of the 'natural' capital stock, 'weak' versions focus on the 'total' capital stock, which includes human-made capital.

In order to discuss the statement one has to name which version of Sustainability she/he is talking about.

2.2 To achieve something: Is an ideal achievable?

The expression 'achieve Sustainability' insinuates that Sustainability is something like a goal or a terminus that can be reached or gained by executing certain acts in a certain manner. This linguistic usage seduces one to understand Sustainability as somesthing static, and misses the dynamic nature of Sustainability, which became obvious since the development of the term in 1987. Rather, Sustainability can be seen as a leitmotiv, a keynote, or a guiding principle that orientates decisions and actions. Decisions and actions ideally ought to contribute to approach or to move towards the ideal of Sustainability.[4]

2.3 Developing smarter technologies: A three-part problem

(i) Who develops what? (ii) What could be the meaning of 'smart' in this context? (iii) Which entities or affairs are included by the term 'technologies'?
(i) First, a short reflection about the autonomy of technology can be made. If technology follows its own unavoidable and unforeseeable course of development, regardless of any social, political, economic, and cultural context, then it is superfluous to discuss the statement any further. All we can do is wait and see what will happen.
(ii) A case study of a technology of our time can illustrate the problems occuring in connection with the term 'smart'. A smart car: If someone marks his car as smart, does it mean then, that it is a brainy, clever, and intelligent one or rather an elegant, stylish, and chic one? In keeping with the latter the question of whether a technology is smart or not would be an aesthetical one. What would it mean in the other case? If the predicate 'intelligent' is awarded to a person, this will be according to an intelligence test. Does it work with a car? With another technology? What is the extension of the term 'technology'?


[1] 'Iff' is used as a short form for 'if and only if'.

[2] The terms 'Sustainability' and 'sustainable development' can be linked as follows:

Sustainable development is a development which is oriented by the ideal of Sustainability.

[3] To my amazement, there can be found a fullness of 'luxurious western worries' which are declared as aims

of sustainable development.

[4] Isn't the term 'ideal' used to express that it can never be completely reached or achieved?

Excerpt out of 6 pages


Somewhere between everything and nothing
Murdoch University  (Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy)
Policy, Technology, Democracy
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
480 KB
Short essay, 1000 words
Somewhere, Policy, Technology, Democracy
Quote paper
Stefan Krauss (Author), 2004, Somewhere between everything and nothing, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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