The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (1927)
The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (1929/30)
The Age of the World Picture (1938)
Letter on ‘Humanism’ (1947)
The Question Concerning Technology (1954)
As it turns out, a lot can happen in boredom—for Heidegger, at least. In Part II of the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger begins his elucidation of human existence by asking what happens in being bored. Phenomenologically speaking, boredom is the state of being such that one’s time feels lengthened. This sense is captured in the German word, Langeweile, literally a “long while.” Boredom is not only a potentially depressing state, the feeling of being left empty and withdrawn. It can also be an oppressive experience. Boredom becomes oppressive when time becomes something whose duration one has to endure, like waiting for a train, listening to a long lecture, or reading and writing about boredom for your advisor, perhaps. In boredom, time weighs heavily; it presses in on us in such a way that one feels dragged by a time that seems to endlessly drag on. In this way, boredom induces a kind of Sartrean nausea: to endure boredom is to be reminded of our dependency to bodily existence. Yet, for Heidegger, when boredom is this enduring of time, there holds forth another possibility. It can inspire what Heidegger calls a fundamental attunement, a profound mood, which enables a keener insight into our being, as when Proust’s Marcel, finding himself in solitary ennui with only his madeleine and tea, begins to ruminate a more profound meaning in time’s passing. What is so boring about being bored is precisely in being withheld in the company of one’s own sheer beingness: I am bored because I, simply, am there, as Heidegger might say. Yet it is in this very awareness of our merely being-there, its utter gnawing mundaneness, that an opening into the true nature of being becomes possible. In a word, boredom becomes something ontological.
Modernity seems to be the perennial condition of being bored, yet it has forgotten boredom’s ontological truth. Modern man is oppressed by what elsewhere the Frankfurt School calls man’s alienation in the social atomization of his being. “The challenge,” writes Heidegger, is “to assume his Dasein once again”—to seize the “mystery of his Dasein” (Fundamental Concepts, 172). This is achieved in the awakening attunement, of which boredom is the occasion and for which a philosophical mind cultivates. A great many and significant things can therefore reveal themselves in boredom. The problem, of course, is that often when one is bored, one is in the habit of merely finding ways to “pass” the time, rather than taking boredom as the occasion to reflect upon the nature of being. Heidegger thus wishes to radicalize boredom to bear the potential for the “liberation of the Dasein in man” (Fundamental Concepts, 172). That horizon of being in which Dasein manifests itself . . . that possibility in which man encounters what is most essential in him . . . —such are the truths Heidegger’s philosophical inquiry seeks to discover by way of asking what boredom really means, existentially. For when properly attuned, our boredom demands in us the question: What, exactly, is world?
According to Heidegger, the question of world (Welt) becomes unrecognizable in a modern era awashed in technical-material obsession. This is because a certain mode of thinking has become dominant: thinking has been straightjacketed to a technical reason that beholds everything merely for their instrumental value, an appraisal of beings merely for their actual utility, effectivity, and so on. Even time is reckoned as something with calculable value, something not to be wasted. As Heidegger argues in “The Question Concerning Technology,” the kind of instrumental thinking behind modern technology obscures world from man, or better yet, technology is that which deprives man of world. Technological man forgets and fails to reckon with the consequences of this privation of world because thinking (Denken) has been laid hostage by a merely derivative kind of instrumental thinking: as a consequence, man regards everything, including himself, as a product of technical reason and action. Hannah Arendt would appropriate this Heideggerian insight in her own diagnosis of modernity: she writes, “The modern age, with its growing world-alienation, has led to a situation where man, wherever he goes, encounters only himself. All the processes of the earth and the universe [i.e., world] have revealed themselves either as man-made or as potentially man-made” (“The Concept of History,” 89). Such, then, is the urgency with which Heidegger reaffirms the importance of philosophy and the faculty of thinking it cultivates: to affirm a mode of thinking capable of restoring what he describes as the “proper dignity of man” (“Letter on ‘Humanism'”, 251), that is, to counteract man’s world-alienation by retrieving and returning to a fuller meaning of world, toward man’s essence as being-in-the-world.
This is the polemical basis on which Heidegger puts forward philosophy as a “world-view,” or Weltanschauung. Heidegger insists that philosophy is not an individual science but a universal one, whose position above all other sciences affords it just such world-view. Yet it should be clarified at the outset that whatever “view” or “way of seeing” philosophy’s world-view makes possible, it is not, strictly speaking, a rendering of the world as image or picture. World-view is not world-picture. The latter is what Heidegger ascribes as the distinguishing historical tendency of modernity. In “Age of the World Picture,” Heidegger makes the historical argument that modernity is the age of the world-picture (Weltbild), an era marked by the becoming obsolescent of philosophy’s world-view and its supersession by world-picture. Indeed, the “fundamental event” of modernity is “the conquest of the world as picture” (World Picture, 71). For Heidegger this is a negative phenomenon because world-picture forebodes more than a theoretical view of the external world; it is the becoming-picture of world. The world is rendered as though it were something before, something that stands apart as something distinct from man. As Heidegger writes, “‘world picture’ does not mean ‘picture of the world’ but, rather, the world grasped as picture. Beings as a whole are now taken in such a way that a being is first and only in being insofar as it is set in place by representing-producing humanity” (World Picture, 67-68, my emphasis). Here, Heidegger equates “world” to “beings as a whole” in order to suggest that the becoming-picture of world names a certain relation of subject and world in which the former is regarded as separate from world such that it postures as master over it. Modern man is not only an external observer of world but indeed its representer and producer (vorstellend-herstellenden Mensch). Man is master over the world rather than its “shepherd,” to invoke a trope Heidegger privileges later in “Letter on ‘Humanism.'” Thus, the world-alienation of man with which we began can be understood in this context as man becoming alienated from world in the literal sense: man inhabits world, but only as a setting-before and standing-apart from world which he renders as image or picture—rather than dwelling in world. As a consequence, man loses what is most proper to him, namely, world: modernity leaves man homeless, without world.
Heidegger’s diagnosis of modernity and its forgetting of the true meaning of world points to what he regards as man’s baleful existential condition. Philosophy, however, holds forth the possibility of undoing modernity’s world-alienation not through a counter world-picture but in its making possible a world-view. What meaning does Heidegger give to world-view? World-view is a concept Heidegger traces back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment where Kant spoke of mundus sensibilis, a world-intuition issuing from the contemplation of world as given to the senses. Heidegger expands this Kantian definition of world-view to include not only the world of phenomenal experience but to what Heidegger calls the “conscious way of apprehending and interpreting the universe of beings” (Basic Problems, 5, my emphasis). World-view is thus not a picture of world but something with and on the basis of which we view into the “universe of beings.” However, world-view is not a matter of theoretical knowledge, as though world-views were some kind of empirical datum of cognition. Rather, world-view is something like a “view of life,” or “conviction,” which issues from the manner in which we comport and relate the being of ourselves and of others (Basic Problems, 6). Heidegger defines the goal of philosophy as the apprehension of this sense of world-view: to make possible the view of “what is universal in the world and ultimate for the Dasein—the whence, the whither, and the wherefore of the world and life” (Basic Problems, 7-8). In characterizing philosophy as world-view, Heidegger is also distinguishing philosophy from other sciences, such as math, geometry, physics, history, religion, politics, etc. These he calls “positive sciences” because their objects of inquiry can be said to be positive qua human senses. Philosophy is a science—a science of beings, ontology—albeit not a positive one because it is concerned with the question of being, which cannot be “positive” because being is precisely that which eludes the human senses. The being of beings is not something we can see and apprehend, like a parallelogram on a graph or the speed of a train. As such, philosophy can be said to lie at the realm of the obscure. It is, as Heidegger writes, the “science of the inverted world” (!) — an interpretation borrowed from Hegel’s assertion that being and nothing co-belong (Basic Problems, 7, 13). Hence, insofar as philosophy is a science of being, it is a science of “nothing” in the sense that it concerns itself to that which is more than objective presence, that is, beyond what is merely actual.
Yet something is engendered out of this nothing, namely world-view. At this point, we can make the following contrast: world-picture is inauthentic because it presupposes beings as a whole (i.e., world) as something already given, something that is external to man which he then subsequently apprehends; in contradistinction, world-view is authentic because it does not start from something already actual but from the beyond of nothing out of which grows “an all-inclusive reflection on the world and the human Dasein” (Basic Problems, 5). For Heidegger, philosophy bears the task to make possible this authentic world-view to thereby disclose the “universe of beings.” It bears this task because it alone is that which possesses as its essence a mode of thinking that is higher than everyday-thinking. As a science of being that does not take beings for granted but grasps the being of beings, philosophy’s world-view constitutes a framework, or enframing (Gestell) in the ontological sense. It is important to note that Heidegger limits the meaning of philosophy as world-view to this function only. Heidegger cautions regarding the formation of some world-view as part of philosophy’s scope. Philosophy cannot “form” and subsequently impose a world-view because world-view is always something that is particular and multiply posited: “Every world-view and life-view posits; that is to say, it is related being-ly to some being or beings” (Basic Problems, 9). Everything thus turns on understanding just how to interpret the “as” in “philosophy as world-view.” In a rather schematic fashion, we can delineate Heidegger’s characterization of world-view in the following way: (a) a world-view is always particular to a factical Dasein, yet (b) is never alone but always related to a specific world and to other beings, and, as such, (c) it bears the quality of relatedness to beings and to world that always already is. Heidegger emphasizes the fundamental historical character of world-view: “world-view is something that in each case exists historically from, with, and for the factical Dasein” (Basic Problems, 6). Consequently, Heidegger concedes that even his phenomenological investigation into the question of being is itself historical, limited to certain possibilities and means of approaching beings and conditioned by past interpretative traditions. This is why philosophy’s world-view cannot be translated into a particular program or doctrine of life that is then dogmatically universalized. Philosophy as world-view refers merely to the way in which philosophy makes the meaning of being intelligible. If philosophy has a say in real world-affairs, its normative claims lie in the understanding of the a priori presuppositions and essential conditions of being that it makes possible. “We are able to grasp beings as such, as beings, only if we understand something like being,” Heidegger writes (Basic Problems, 10). Thus to put it as succinctly as possible, philosophy as world-view means the giving-perspective to the a priori-ness of being, hence, of world.
What needs to be clarified at this point is how to understand the concept of world in the Heideggerian interpretation of philosophy as the scientific construction of world-view. I would like now to turn to the “The Question Concerning Technology” in order to get a better sense of the significance of philosophy’s world-view—indeed, its signification, if you will, as a kind of worlding. In this essay, Heidegger argues that technological modernity limits our notion of world to merely that which is present-at-hand, something that can be used and used up by man. According to Heidegger, modern understandings of technology obscure a more originary, ontological meaning of technology, and thus with it, the concept of world. If the Heidegger of “Age of the World Picture” announces that modernity conquers world as image (Weltbild), the Heidegger of “The Question Concerning Technology” diagnoses technological modernity as the privation of world. In the modern era, whatever world there is, it is merely derived by technicy or by an instrumental rationality. Heidegger therefore finds it necessary to pursue a different interpretation of technology in order to arrive at a truer meaning. Characteristically, Heidegger turns to the Greeks. We recall that in the ancient Greek usage, techne refers to both the power of making as well as that which is produced or fabricated by that power—in other words, techne as both art and artifice. As we know, the Greek sense of techne (art/artifice) is opposed to the Greek concept of phusis (nature) in terms of their respective causality. Where phusis refers to organic forms of nature which are self-generating and self-developing, techne refers to crafted forms which are not in fact self-causing. Techne therefore entails a supplementary mediation by a subject to an object in order to bring about change, which means that the principle of change under technical production is foreign and external to the object. What will be decisive for Heidegger’s critique is that techne in the original Greek sense of making is fundamentally a kind of revealing: it reveals by bringing-forth into presence what it cannot by definition be brought about by itself.
In order to identify technology’s essence as revealing, Heidegger rejects the derived, everyday meaning of techne as instrumental causality. Heidegger expands techne to encompass poiesis and episteme, Greek words that involve the engendering of truth. In doing so, Heidegger asserts the fundamental imbrication of techne, poiesis, and episteme in order to foreground technology’s essential purpose as revealing. What is meant by technology as revealing? Firstly, before it is a making, techne is poiesis, or bringing-forth. Poiesis, the Greek word from which we get the word poetry, names that which brings-forth something into being. This bringing-forth is that on which the potentiality of something not-yet is brought into the realm of possibilities, or what Heidegger in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics describes as the realm of “the possible in its possibly being made possible…into something possibly actual” (363). Any activity which is the cause of a thing, in the sense of making-possible or bringing-forth, belongs to the realm of poiesis, or poetic production. As Heidegger has it, “techne belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poetic” (Question, 294). Secondly, techne-as-poiesis is linked to episteme (knowledge/science) not only because every design is enabled by a certain knowledge, but, and more importantly, because what is brought-forth reveals a certain truth. The building of a bridge, for example, can be said to belong to poiesis because it is a bringing-forth of one’s artificial fabrications of nature, in which the materialization of ends unfolded in the making reveals behind it the truth of one’s worldliness as a being in the world. Thus, stitching together techne, poiesis, and episteme, Heidegger elaborates the power of making (techne) as primally a bringing-forth (poiesis), in which what is brought-forth and revealed is truth (episteme). Heidegger therefore departs from the everyday, instrumentalist conception of technology as “means to ends” toward a more profound philosophical notion of technology as an originary mode of revealing in which beings are disclosed.
The fundamental specificity of technology as revealing is what Heidegger calls “enframing” (Gestell). Enframing, in other words, is the name of technology in the ontological sense: it means, the “opening up” that sets up and gathers “to reveal the real [Wirklicheit]” (Question, 302). Heidegger argues that enframing is always prior to any technological use because it is not something in the order of the apparatus or the machine. It is not something one wields or even a capacity one has or one obtains in order to reveal something in any transitive sense. This is why one “can never take up a relationship to it only subsequently” (Question, 305). The important point here is that, for Heidegger, one is always already in the realm of enframing. It is in this register that Heidegger understands the essence of technology as enframing (Question, 307).
What happens in the modern era is that the ontological understanding of enframing recedes in place of an instrumental notion of enframing. The latter discloses beings only as materials disposable to human use and reason, which parallels the process by which world is apprehended as image. Heidegger argues that the essence of modern technology appears to show itself exclusively within this instrumental mode of enframing, one that positions (stellen) and orders (bestellen) concrete reality as resource or standing-reserve (Bestand). This produces in turn the illusion that “everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct” (Question, 308). According to Heidegger, critical, philosophical reflection or thinking is one way to undo or, to use the text’s idiom, free oneself from, this instrumental notion of enframing in modern technology. As he writes: “Questioning builds a way” (Question, 287). The pathway prepared here by Heidegger is one oriented toward the original co-belongingness of techne, poiesis, and episteme, wherein lies for him the essence of technology as a disclosive, revelatory mode of enframing. If we follow Heidegger, technology in its essential aspect as revealing can be said to be poetic inasmuch as it unconceals a world in the manner of poiesis (i.e., of bringing-forth), whose special causality, like poetry, “let[s] what is not yet present [to] arrive into presencing [Anwesen]” (Question, 293). This is what constitutes the original, ontological meaning of technology. For if I understand Heidegger correctly the essence of technology does not consist in the instrumentalizing relation of means to ends, but rather in the poetical process of bringing-forth, of disclosing possible worlds. Under Heidegger’s analysis, technology becomes radically reinterpreted not simply belonging to means-ends but as indeed a poetic form of worlding.
Such reinterpretations of ordinary concepts demonstrates the power of Heidegger’s philosophical investigation of Dasein’s experience of world in its everydayness. It is an analysis performed in light of philosophy’s world-view, an analytical operation which Heidegger calls the phenomenological method. We recall from Basic Problems the three primary operations Heidegger gives to the phenomenological method, namely: (1) reduction, or the movement back to Being; (2) construction, or the elucidation of the projection of the Being of beings; (3) and destruction, or the overcoming of prior conventional concepts and understandings of being toward a more originary, ontological meaning of Being (see §5 The Character of Ontological Method, pp. 19-23). These three operations co-belong; they interlink. As he writes: “Construction in philosophy is necessarily destruction, that is to say, a de-constructing of traditional concepts carried out in a historical recursion to the tradition. And this is not a negation of the tradition or a condemnation of it as worthless; quite the reverse, it signifies precisely a positive appropriation of tradition” (Basic Problems, 23). As already elaborated upon in the foregoing, we saw how the concept of technology undergoes this phenomenological operation to arrive at a more fundamental, originary meaning of technology as a form of poetic worlding. A similar operation can be seen in his essay “Letter on ‘Humanism’,” in which Heidegger levels a critique of philosophical humanism in order to reground metaphysics in a more supreme form of humanism.
The concept of world will also be phenomenologically clarified in a similar manner: “world” will undergo deconstruction (Ab-bildung). As established in Being and Time, Dasein is always already a being-in-the-world (In-der Welt-sein), albeit world in a non-everyday sense. What is world in the non-everyday sense? We can arrive at a definition by contrasting the concept of world with the concept of earth. For Heidegger, world and earth are not synonymous concepts; they are in fact concepts in opposition to one another. World is beings as a whole. The earth is simply nature, the natural world. As itself an entity, earth can be said to be a part of this “beings as a whole” which the syntagm “world” names. Thus, world is something always prior to and in excess of the earth. Earth is merely coextensive with world. World cannot therefore be interpreted as an extant entity; it is not nature but that which in fact makes possible the disclosedness of nature as such. Heidegger makes explicit this point in the sixth chapter of Fundamental Concepts: “World is not the totality of beings, is not the accessibility of beings as such, not the manifestness of beings as such that lies at the basis of this accessibility—world is rather the manifestness of beings as such as a whole” (284). Another way of putting it is that “world” in this originary sense is in virtue of which human Dasein has a world. This more fundamental meaning of world is counterposed to the everyday, naive understanding as something that stands outside, hence, as something that one can see, apprehend, and technologically master. In Basic Problems, Heidegger clarifies the particular “mode of being of the world” not as the simple presence of objects that populate around us but in the whence and wherefore of how they exist: “The mode of being of the world is not the extantness of objects; instead, the world exists (Basic Problems, 299, my emphasis). World is thus not the sum total of actual or extant beings or things that are ready-to-hand. Rather world is the determination of human Dasein’s being. We can restate the Heideggerian thesis this way: So long as Dasein is, world exists. As a basic constitution of Dasein, world is not something from which we stand apart or render as image or picture. World is always already world. By “always already” Heidegger means that world is a priori, that is to say, transcendent. Indeed Heidegger writes that world is “the truly transcendent”! (Basic Problems, 299). It is transcendent not in the traditional sense as something that lies beyond, an otherworldly being like God. Rather, that world is transcendent means that human Dasein is antecedently, originally, constituted as always already being-in-the-world. It is in this respect that Heidegger understands the relation of self and world as belonging in the single entity he gives the name “Dasein”: “Self and world are not two beings, like subject and object, or like I and thou, but self and world are the basic determination of the Dasein in the unity of the structure of being-in-the-world” (Basic Problems, 297). In “Letter on ‘Humanism,'” Heidegger characterizes world’s non-extantness as a kind openness: “For us ‘world’ does not at all signify beings or any realm of beings but the openness of being” (266). Thus we return to the trope of disclosure with which Heidegger identifies as the ontological meaning of technology as enframing. Here, world is that openness on the basis of which beings disclose and reveal themselves to us. World is in virtue of which we exist as being-in-the-world.
It seems to me that the significance of Heidegger’s deconstruction of world, along with concepts like world-view and technology, lies in the way it points us toward another more fundamental mode of thinking, a thinking which in turn suggests a more radical way of relating to that which we take as world. It is a relating to world that is non-possessive and non-instrumental. The Heideggerian interpretation of world as a priori—world as that in virtue of which we exist—demands a rethinking of the very conditions of world and thus also the manner in which we comport ourselves beyond the will to acquire a world, that is, worldliness as world-forming (weltbilden). For modernity is not only the conquest of world as picture but the conquest of its materials as though it were not finite. World’s openness may function here also as the antidote to the condition of being without world that leads to what Heidegger characterizes as the state of man’s homelessness in the age of modernity. “This is where we are driven in our homesickness: to being as a whole. Our very being is this restlessness,” Heidegger writes (Fundamental Concepts , 5). To return to the topic of boredom, is this not the kind of restlessness that happens when one tarries with profound boredom and the existential weight it places on us? Is this not precisely the kind of restlessness that is engendered by the critical reflection on one’s being, of one’s sheer beingness of being-there? Heidegger suggests that we exist such that we are always underway toward this “being as a whole,” we are thrown toward world. Yet it is a thrownness that leaves us neither in it nor outside it because we are always “oscillating to and fro between this neither/nor” (Fundamental Concepts, 6). It is a restless movement that the Heidegger of “Age of the World Picture” describes as the transporting of man into that “‘in-between’ in which he belongs to being and yet, amidst beings, remains a stranger” (World Picture, 72, my emphasis). In what does this unrest and man’s oscillation in the “in-between” consist and manifest itself? Heidegger gives it the name finitude.
Image: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, “Two Planets: Manet’s ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ and the Thai Villages,” 2008. Courtesy of Tyler Rollins Fine Art (NY).