Remembering Albert Borgmann (1937-2023)
Wow, “the tyranny of tiny tasks.” This captures perfectly my unease with many of the time-saving conveniences that busy workers are encouraged to adopt. I sat through a presentation at work that meant to empower women by encouraging them to hire out their household tasks so that they could spend more time on career advancement. It was hard to pinpoint my exact objections to this approach, because culturally there are not a lot of good alternatives. It’s an economic reality for many families to have both parents working full time. And with how privatized our homes have become, it can be stultifying and lonely to be home all day long as a homemaker, when everyone else around you is away at a workplace or school.
But, I like doing many household tasks, like grocery shopping, growing food, cooking, baking, keeping the house clean. I want a life where my partner and myself have more time to spend at home, with each other, with our kids, and yes, with our household chores. As more “time-saving” devices become available, it’s expected that you will use them and then be able to devote more time to being “productive” at work. But this feels like a trap that benefits company shareholders and bosses more than workers and families.
I, too, had the privilege of studying under Dr. Borgmann. Last year, after successfully defending my dissertation, he invited me to call him Albert, but it seemed irreverent then and even more so today. I met him in 2008 just after returning from Paraguay where I was a young, naïve Peace Corps Volunteer. At that time, rural Paraguay (where I was assigned), was still just on the outskirts of the techno-culture, and after spending over three years there, my eyes were opened to what had been in my country and what could be...but I had no idea how to conceptualize the experience formally. Dr. Borgmann did that for me. I sat down for his first seminar--Dr. Borgmann did it the old German way, lecturing straight from his manuscript--and my mind raced up to the clouds and down to the center of the earth. I didn't stop working with him for 13 years.
But this isn't the most significant thing Dr. Borgmann did for me. Many know that he was a devout Christian man. I grew up in the church but had rejected the faith, severely educated out of it at the elite private so-called liberal arts college I attended. Out of the technoculture and into the woods of Paraguay, I experienced a revelation, but, again, I lacked the conceptual tools to make sense of it all. Dr. Borgmann helped put that together for me too. Even better, he, more than anyone, helped me discern a call into ministry. We were sitting in his office one day, plotting out next steps for my life. I was convinced that I should become a philosophy professor, just like my hero. "No, no," he said, "You like to talk about God too much. You'll be extremely unhappy here. Go to seminary instead. Become a pastor...who you were meant to be." He sent me off to Garrett seminary in Evanston to study with his colleague, Brent Waters, and I've never looked back.
I thank God for Dr. Borgmann. He was, as someone else noted, the most gentle of gentlemen. Gracious and generous. I will miss him, this true friend of my mind and my soul. May he rest in peace.
I had the great privilege of studying with Albert at U of M while doing my graduate work in linguistics and he profoundly shaped my personal philosophy. You mentioned his generosity and it’s true— he was the most generous and thoughtful person I’ve ever met. He also had great humor and it was a joy to debate with him
Very interesting! I'm intrigued that the idea of "availability" was important to Borgmann. It's a key concept for the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa - a recent book of his is called "Unverfügbarkeit", literally "unavailability" (or "inaccessibility"), but the English title is "The Uncontrollability of the World" (https://www.wiley.com/en-ie/The+Uncontrollability+of+the+World-p-9781509543175). Are you familiar with his work? It seems to resonate with the ideas here and elsewhere in your blog - actually "resonance" is another key term for him. Put overly simply, his theory is that human beings seek "resonance" in their experiences and relationships, and resonance requires the right balance (or productive tension) between availability and unavailability. Total, frictionless availability makes for a lack of healthy stimulus and space for people to develop and relate to themselves and the world. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resonance_(sociology)
I'm writing this comment while I sit cross-legged on a hotel bed in a room overlooking the Clark Fork river in Missoula, Montana. It's the day after Albert's funeral, and I still don't know how to put into words what Albert was for this world.
My favorite story I heard during all the reminiscences was this. One of the younger faculty at UM was traveling around the Italy countryside one summer not too long ago. A local asked what he did for a living. He said he taught philosophy at the University of Montana. The Italian grabbed the faculty member's arm and with great excitement said exactly three words: "Montana! Albert Borgmann!"
That's the reach this man's ideas has. He's one of the most important philosophers the academy will never know.