Heidegger’s Critique of Modern Technology: On “The Question Concerning Technology”

Heidegger understands the question concerning technology as essentially linked to the question of being.  Technology, he argues, points to something essential about the constitution of our ontology, our way of being-in-the-world (see also my posts on Heidegger’sBeing and Time and “Letter on Humanism”).  What compelled him to write on technology lies in his observation that “everywhere [in Europe], [man] remain[s] unfree and chained to technology,” (QT, 287) a situation in which the more technology advances itself the more it “threatens to slip from human control” (QT, 289).  Hence, a questioning of technology became necessary and urgent for Heidegger because modern technology brought with it a new way of ordering the world, which he saw as contaminating man’s authentic sense of being, thus signaling a certain crisis at bay in European industrial modernity.  Although Heidegger’s essay is a text of philosophy, we can say it is also a work of critique in precisely the way he calls our attention to the (ontological and social) crisis brought out by modern technology’s new, albeit distorting, ways of ordering the world and hence also the reorganization of our cognitive perception of reality.  Seeing the rise of modern technology’s dominance as tantamount to the sundering of man’s essential relation to being, Heidegger undertakes a questioning of technology in order to trace back a more primary meaning that has been lost and forgotten in technological modernity.
So let us begin with the question that Heidegger begins with, “What is technology?”  The word “technology” stems from the Greek word techné, which designates “skill,” “art,” and “craft,” a mode of doing or making.  It is in this spirit that Plato understood politics as fundamentally belonging to the domain of techné, politics as first and foremost a political skill to be learned, an art or, better yet, a kind of technology of the polis (city).  Techné in the original Greek usage referred to both the skill or power of doing/making as well as that which is performed, produced, or fabricated—in other words, techné as designating both art and artifice.[1] (In Filipino, gawa/gamit, approximates this sense of techné as both art and art-object.)  Now, crucially, techné (art/artifice) is opposed to physis (nature), most fundamentally in terms of causality.  On the one hand, the organic forms of nature are self-developing in the sense that they exhibit the principle of change within themselves (physis as the “arising out of something from itself,” a natural self-genesis).  Techné, on the other hand, implies a mediation by an external agent (Reason) to an object in order to bring about change in it, which means that the principle of change is here foreign to the object.  The opposition between physis and techné has generated the traditional divisions we have in Western philosophy of nature/culture and organic/inorganic, or that which is engendered “by nature” or that “by culture/art.”
All of the above is at play behind our common, colloquial understanding of technology, defined minimally as the human activity of furnishing means to effect a desired end.   So, a bridge can be said to be a thing of technology because, as a product and performance of man’s dealings with physis through techné, nature by art, the bridge is the materialization or actualization of an intended, desired end: namely, the enabling of connection and transportation across discontinuous spaces.[3] “The manufacture and utilization of equipment, tools, and machines, the manufactured and used things themselves, and the [social] needs and ends that they serve, all belong to what technology is” (QT, 288).  The colloquial understanding of technology as availing means for an end, of man’s transactions with nature, is what Heidegger calls the merely instrumental and anthropological definition of technology.[4]
This definition, however, is insufficient, even dangerous, for it leads to man’s hubris and does not allow one to get at the essence of technology.  If we restrict our understanding of technology merely in the domain of techné, technology remains moored to a means-end schema of human instrumentality against nature.  This theme is elaborated, of course, in the work of the Frankfurt School – Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and others – who viewed the culmination of Western Enlightenment in the early 20th century as precisely technology’s domination of nature, which, as they argue, ineluctably leads to the domination of man by man.  In Adorno and Horkheimer’s words: “What human beings seek to learn from nature [physis] is how to use [techné] to dominate wholly both it and human beings.  Nothing else counts.”[5] Because Western Enlightenment has become “totalitarian,” the world becomes intelligible to man only to make its multiple forms calculable, hence, “the control of internal and external nature has been made the absolute purpose of life.  Now that self-preservation [of man] has been finally automated, reason is dismissed.”[6] But not only is reason dismissed, reason itself becomes subsumed under technical or instrumental reason.  As Marcuse writes: “Rationality is being transformed from a critical force into one of adjustment and compliance.  Autonomy of reason loses its meaning in the same measure as the thoughts, feelings and actions of men are shaped by the technical requirements….Reason has found its resting place in the system of standardized control, production, and consumption.”[7] The subsumption of reason under the technical attitude leads to “the subordination of thought to pregiven external standards,” in which thinking becomes routinized, standardized, made quantifiable and predictable. The Frankfurt School’s critique of the instrumentalization or technicalization of Reason under the sign of civilizational modernity is in line with Heidegger’s critique of technology as being fixed and exploited in a means-end schema of human instrumentality. For Heidegger, this obfuscates a more originary, essential meaning of technology, namely, technology not as mere process of making, but as a fundamental mode of revealing.
To identify technology’s essence as revealing, Heidegger expands techné to encompass poiesis and episteme, Greek words that belong to the domain of revealing (aletheia) and, hence, have something to do with engendering and truth.  In doing so, Heidegger denies the initial meaning of techné as making, whose social implications become the basis of the Frankfurt School’s critique of technology, insisting instead its fundamental imbrication with poiesis and episteme, in order to foreground what Heidegger describes as technology’s essential relation to a revealing (aletheia).  First, techné is related to poiesis because before it is a making, it is a bringing-forth.  Poiesis, the Greek word from which we get the word poetry, names that which brings-something-forth into presence, or that which renders the potentiality of the not-yet into explicit actuality.  Hence, any activity or action which is the cause of a thing in the sense of bringing-something into presence belongs to poiesis.  Second, techné-as-poiesis is linked to episteme (knowledge/science) not only because every rational design is enabled by a certain knowledge, but also because what is brought-forth, what is disclosed, is a truth.  So, to return to our example, a bridge is a kind of poiesis because it is a bringing-forth of man’s artificial fabrications of nature (physis), in which the materialization of ends embodied in the finished bridge displays the truth of man’s rational power.  Thus, stitching together techné, poesis and episteme, that is to say, linking the power of making (techné) as primarily a mode of bringing-forth (poiesis), in which what is revealed is truth (episteme), Heidegger takes us away from the conventional and instrumentalist definition of technology as “a means to an end” toward an idea of technology as an originary form of truth-revealing, a disclosing of worlds, hence, a form of worlding.  If we follow Heidegger’s reformulation of technology as a mode of revealing (aletheia), technology, in its essence, can be said to be poetic because it is a bringing-forth, whose causality, like poetry, “let[s]what is not yet present [to] arrive into presencing,” into the order of the presence or the real (QT, 293).  This is what constitutes the original, essential meaning of technology.  For if I understand Heidegger correctly, the essence of technology, then, is the poetic process of bringing something forth into presence and, as a mode of revealing, “frames” a world that is unfolded or unconcealed in the process.
Now, in its modality as revealing, the essence of technology is what Heidegger calls “enframing” [Ge-stell].  But, what is important is that the fundamental specificity of technology in Heidegger – a mode of revealing as enframing which pulls together techné, poiesis, and episteme – is nothing technological, it does not belong to the domain of the machine or the mechanical.  Rather, “enframing” names the fundamental, ontological process of “revealing.” Hence, “to enframe“ refers to the process of an opening up“ as a “gathering together of that setting-upon that sets-up man, [that] challenges him forth, to reveal [to himself] the real” (QT, 302).  Enframing is not a tool or an apparatus, but (and this is the crucial point in Heidegger’s argument) the very condition of possibility for the truth of the real to be revealed, poetically, to man.
Modern technology, however, is not poetic.  It does not belong to the essence of technology as a bringing-forth and revealing of a world.  And this is precisely what is dangerous about it.  The poetry of techné-as-poiesis is denied for a certain positivism or scientism.  “Anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility,” as Adorno and Horkheimer write, is “viewed with suspicion,” becomes relegated as mere myth or superstition.[8] Modern technology does not share the essence of technology because it is a different kind of truth-revealing:  where the original essence of technology is the poetic revealing of bringing-something-forth, in modern technology the kind of revealing is what Heidegger describes as a “challenging” [Herausforden], a challenging that “puts to nature an unreasonable demand that it supply energy, which can [then] be extracted and stored” for man’s purposes (QT, 296). While it is true that modern technology is also a kind of “enframing,” it is an enframing that enframes nature only in order to capture it, that is to say, not as the occasion for the truth of being to disclose itself, but nature disclosed merely as a valuable material resource to be extracted, expropriated, and used-up for whatever man desires or wills of it.  Under conditions of modern technology, “the earth,” as Heidegger notes, “reveals itself as [only] a coal mining district, [its] soil as a mineral deposit” (QT, 296).  Heidegger writes:
“The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging-forth.  Such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up, in turn, distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew.  Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing [that dominate the age of technological modernity]” (QT, 297-298)
The essence of technology as enframing (an ontological mode of revealing and bringing-forth truth) is thus perverted in modern technology.  The essence of technology as enframing transmogrifies in European modernity precisely as “technological enframing,” an enframing that reduces the originary process of revealing and the organic power bringing-forth (poiesis) to mere instrumental ends.  That is to say, “technological enframing” in modern technology reveals the world only insofar as it reveals the world as an energy resource, a thing to be used, what Heidegger describes as a “standing-reserve.” In the mechanization and industrialization of everyday life, reality becomes technologically enframed as a standing-reserve, which for Heidegger denies man to “enter into a more original revealing…to experience the call of a more primal truth” (QT, 309).  (See also my post on Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism,” for the critique of the instrumentalization of thinking qua what is proper to man). As he says, what is dangerous about modern technology is that its ways of enframing reality “conceals a former way of revealing,” it “blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth” (QT, 309).  Under these conditions, man, in modern technology, becomes himself merely something technological.
The Philippine nation, under state priorities of development, becomes enframed in the sense we’ve outlined above: the Philippines and Filipinos, in sum, become “standing-reserves,” in the Heidegerrian sense of reservoirs of energy-resource to be stored, used, and expropriated.  To make the Philippines more competitive in the global market, President Arroyo, for example, declared in 2007 at a gathering in the Cebu International Conventional Center that her last two years in office would be dedicated to the following main objective, and I quote, “invest, invest, and invest some more in our nation.”  Under the technological frame of infrastructure development, the Philippines and Filipinos become a precious resource, whose value can be maximized through capital investments: this is why Arroyo can say, at the same time in one phrase, “human and physical infrastructure.”   Arroyo flaunts the successes of her infrastructure plans in the following way: because foreign investments have been steady and strong, “London cited us [the Philippines] as the offshore destination of the year while International Data Corporation cited us as the top global outsourcing destination after India” (3/29/2008). Under the technological frame of modern development, the Philippines is viewed only as a mere subsidiary appendage to the global economy as a regional zone of outsourced labor and service industry.  Hence, Philippines and Filipinos become “developed” only insofar as they function this “modern” technological role in contemporary globalization.

[1] It should be noted that the sense of techné here as making, or poiesis (see below), is not yet praxis (action); Heidegger distinguishes the former, precisely as a technical activity, as having an aim (telos) toward producing an object from the latter, which does not. Marx, as we know, undoes this distinction in order to articulate praxis as the unity of practice.
[2] See Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 118.
[3] Incidentally, under Arroyo’s  P40 billion Bridge Program ($870 M), about 1,275 bridges were constructed since 2001, which were financially backed by loan agreements between the Philippine government and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.  According to DPWH Secretary Victor Domingo, Arroyo’s government has constructed 289,944 lineal meters of bridges from 2001-2010, compared to a combined total of 272,747 lineal meters attributed to the past three presidents (1986-2000), see “Arroyo Did More Than Estrada, Ramos, Aquino, Dpwh Insists,” June 27, 2010, Sun Star Cebu, available online at http://www.sunstar.com.ph/cebu/arroyo-did-more-estrada-ramos-aquino-dpwh-insists, July 26, 2010.  Of course, there is also a symbolic value behind bridges, and this symbolicity is perhaps why there are many examples of bridges in Heidegger; but perhaps more pertinent to our political context, see Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the bridge as concept-image in Kidlat Tahimik’s 1977 internationally acclaimed Filipino film, Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare): “As a ‘concept’, [the bridge] has something to do with the relationship between cultural stages (Third and First Worlds); between the ‘levels’ of social life itself…which passes abruptly from technology to work, art to politics, anthropology to gentrification without smoothing over the races or making the ‘transitions’ (the bridges) any less bumpy; between the past and the future, as well, and between confinement and freedom,” Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 196.
[4] One recalls here that Marx, insofar as he understood the capitalist mode of production as essentially progressive, subscribed to a positive notion of technology and technological progress.  In his writings, technology, as the sum totality of the instrumental capacities of man, is often viewed as the means by which to augment man’s material life through the development of practical activity (Entwicklung), a view not mutually exclusive from his critique of the alienating effects he saw in the mechanization of labor and life under industrialization.  This is because he saw the latter as merely the perversion of man’s recursive, metabolic relationship with the organic forms of nature. See, for instance, Marx’s anthropocentric argument about the essentially metabolic relationship between man and nature through purposive human instrumentality (techne), i.e., labor: “Man is ….an active natural being…the objects of his instincts exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects that he needs – essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers.  To say that man is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective being full of natural vigour is to say that he has real, sensuous objects as the object of his being or of his life, or that he can only express his life in real, sensuous objects,” in Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, Early Writings (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1974, 1992), p. 389.  This is why, as John Bellamy Foster notes in his discussion of the differences between “natural technology” and “human technology” in Marx’s writings, “[h]uman evolution…had to be traced through the development of tools [technology]…because tools [for Marx] represented the development of human productive organs–the evolution of the human relation to nature,” in John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), p. 201. Marx’s view of the metabolic relation of man to nature through labor as a purposive form of techne (human technology or instrumentality) became the premise on which he viewed colonial imperialism as having the benefit of bringing development in non-European spaces:  “The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, trans. Samuel Moore (London: Penguin, 1967, 2002), p. 220.  As we shall see, this Marxian presupposition about technology is fundamentally brought into question by Heidegger.
[5] See Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 2.
[6] Ibid., pp. 24-25.
[7] See Herbert Marcuse, “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,” Technology, War and Fascism: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Volume One, ed. Douglas Kellner (London and New York: Routledge, 1998, 2004), p. 49.
[8] See Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 3.  Also, “Knowledge does not consist in mere perception, classification, and calculation but precisely in the determining negation of whatever is directly at hand.  Instead of such negation [of the immediate], mathematical formalism, whose medium, number, is the most abstract form of the immediate, arrests thought at mere immediacy.  The actual is validated, knowledge confines itself to repeating it, thought makes itself mere tautology,” p. 20.
This entry was published on July 12, 2010 at 7:30 PM. It’s filed under Critical Theory, Development, Heidegger, Philosophy, Reading Notes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “Heidegger’s Critique of Modern Technology: On “The Question Concerning Technology”

  1. Ivan on said:

    This is beyond briliant. Thank you so much. I loved the way you ended it.

  2. An excellent rendition of Heidegger’s thoughts on modernity though perhaps more could be said about the present mathematical and rational interpretation of “techne” prevents us from truly being in touch with the phenomenon of being itself.

  3. You’re a legend. I’m using Heidegger in my dissertation and was so lost when reading his work but this has helped so much! Thanks!!!

  4. Thanks for this, Paul. I’m working my way through some Heidegger essays right now, and it’s helpful to see someone else’s glosses.

  5. Pingback: Technology as Revelation: Heidegger, Tractors and the Problem with Social Media | Vaux.Net

  6. marcus on said:

    Thanks for the writing. Your thoughts are very clearly expressed, really helped me to understand Heidegger’s essay better

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