Saturday, 22 October 2011

Heidegger & Technology

In this essay I am going to look at Martin Heidegger’s critique of the essence of modern technology as “enframing” outlined in The Question Concerning Technology. Ultimately I hope to defend the notion that Heidegger’s critique will not fit into a technological determinist framework.

Before we begin, a crucial notion in the philosophy of Heidegger must briefly be made clear. In Being and Time Heidegger distinguishes between the being [sein] of something, and beings [seindes] in general.[1] The disanalogy between being and beings is called the ontological difference. For Heidegger, one cannot get at the essence of what a thing is (the being [sein] of beings [seindes]) by looking at and listing the properties of the thing itself as it appears already intelligible. For this reason the being of beings is not a simple distillation of essential properties identified in a group of objects which are then organised into a genus (Heidegger, 2010).

Things are not, for Heidegger, directly intelligible to us – we must have a mode of access to beings in order to achieve intelligibility at all. To make this clearer, consider how it is only by having a pre-conceptual understanding of how something can be for something that any given thing can be understood by us as something with-which we might achieve some end. This “being-for” in general is understood by us pre-conceptually by means of our fundamental dependence upon beings in order to do things we need to do. It is an irreducible aspect of our facticity that we need more than our bodily appendages to make music, to cook, or even to survive at all (King, 2001). Our very relationship to technology emerges first of all from this fact.

To give an example of how intelligibility is secured by understanding the being of beings, consider how the mug is intelligible to us as something which we might drink out of. This results from a possibility of being that we have already built into us – namely, that we drink things. The being of beings we make use of for-the-sake-of all types of ends is accordingly understood in advance as readiness-to-hand [zuhandenheit]. With the being of equipment as ready-to-hand we see quite clearly, then, how “the being of beings is not itself a being” (Heidegger, 2010). Understanding the being of something as ready-to-hand is an order quite distinct from knowing the properties this thing can exhibit (e.g. that the hammer is too heavy) in the practical context made possible by that understanding of the thing’s being.

The significant result of Heidegger’s ontological difference, then, is that things can only demonstrate what they are within an a priori understanding of their being. You could not understand how the coffee mug could be unsuitable for drinking out of (perhaps it has a series of fissures in it) unless you already understand the coffee mug in its being as ready-to-hand (e.g. as for drinking from). The fissures as they are perceived demonstrate their very meaning for us against the practical context in which they are involved and which is already understood by us before we apprehend the coffee mug itself. In this way our understanding of being grants us our mode of access to beings and enables them to demonstrate their properties to us.[3]

The later Heidegger, however, is not so much interested in these ahistoric existential features of man, but rather in the historic disclosures of being [sein] which grant us intelligibility. That we have a relationship to technology as a result of our always-already being delivered over to beings by virtue of our fundamental dependence on them is an ahistoric fact of human life. How this relationship is manifest, Heidegger holds, is not ahistoric. Heidegger begins his critique of modern technology by affirming the ontological difference, still present in his philosophy, asserting that the essence of technology is not itself discoverable in any particular item of technology. What Heidegger has in mind by the essence of technology is a historic a priori understanding of being [sein] as apart from the particular qualities of those items of technology revealed within this understanding of being.[3]

Heidegger considers at first an anthropological definition of technology, that technology is characterised in its essence as means to ends. Heidegger considers this definition correct but not true in that it captures an aspect of the phenomenon but does not penetrate to its essence. The anthropological definition is untenable as essence of technology. The essence of technology is rather grounded in how technology reveals beings. The essence of technology, he says, is truth (Heidegger, 2009). Things are still understood by us as being something with-which we might achieve some end, however the specific character of our understanding renders salient different aspects of the beings understood. It is by virtue of these different aspects of beings which are revealed by different historic understandings of being that, for Heidegger, makes the anthropological definition untenable owing to its inability to account for this revealing.

It might be objected at this point that as the anthropological definition is correct from epoch to epoch that it is itself in fact the true essence of technology. However, as we will come to see, this presupposes an understanding of making present which Heidegger does not accept. The very notion that what is guaranteed in beings (their unchanging, calculable qualities) is what is essential to them is a principle which is only present in Heidegger’s philosophy insofar as it stands as the subject of a fundamental rejection. What is essential to a thing is its condition of possibility. As the anthropological definition cannot discriminate between what makes a given epoch’s technology possible it cannot, for Heidegger, be its essence.

How, then, is technology related to truth? In approaching this question it will be helpful to follow Heidegger in comparing the understanding of being which underpins modern technology with that of previous technologies. We’ll borrow an example from Lee Braver who compares the farmer who looks after the crops in his field with someone who grows crops with hydroponics (Braver, 2009). The farmer who tills his field does so in a receptive manner. They plant the seeds in the soil and then leave the forces of nature to unfold themselves - the rain, the ecology of the soil, organic processes, etc.

Now, the farmer might intervene in some way by uprooting weeds which begin affecting their crops (or something similar) but they are in each case letting nature come forward in embracing her powers. The hydroponic grower, however, has broken nature down into its constituent parts and “unlocked nature’s energies”. Hydroponics even eliminates the need for soil as the relevant nutrients and pH balancing chemicals have already been extracted from the natural world and stored for just such an occasion. In fact this breaking nature down into its most malleable and useful form, energy, and storing it is for later use is one of the chief characteristics of enframing (Heidegger, 2009)

What is manifest in the two different technologies are two different understandings of being (unconcealment). In the case of the farmer, nature is revealed as something to be respected. The way of the natural world is not interrupted – the farmer goes to the field and lets nature be. This mode of unconcealment Heidegger calls poiesis, i.e. bringing-forth. The hydroponic grower, however, has intervened in nature, has taken it apart and distilled the essential processes in order to grow more efficiently. This Heidegger calls enframing i.e. challenging-forth. The crucial distinction between poiesis and enframing is captured in the phrase “to grow more efficiently”. Whereas poiesis is a bringing-forth, enframing challenges nature. It wants to break nature apart and make its processes lend themselves to more immediate availability. Heidegger’s discussion of Aristotle’s four causes may help us further distinguish the two modes of revealing and in this way come to see enframing in a clearer light.

Aristotle discriminates between the formal (the form of the coffee mug), the material (the matter which assumes the form of a mug), the efficient (the hand which created the mug), and the final (ithe reason why a mug is) causes. The understanding of causation manifest in pre-modern technology is captured by the Greek term “aition” which derives from “aitios”, i.e. “responsible” (Heidegger, 2009). Accordingly, each of the four causes are understood as mutually responsible for any given being under poiesis. The understanding of causality which goes along with enframing, however, stresses the efficient cause as primary – it puts the human being at the front. Braver observes that, despite the enframing attitude which reveals nature as something to order around, we are still in fact dependent upon what we inherit from the natural world. If nature herself did not grant it possible to remove the soil and simply fasten the roots of a plant in nutrient-enriched water, hydroponics would not be possible at all (Braver, 2009).

Despite the fact that this is so, it is not the accomplishment but aim of enframing to control nature. Even though enframing is still rendered possible by the factical being [seindes] of nature itself, and even if enframing feels itself as opposed by, or even pressed upon by nature to control it, it is the feeling of this opposition which manifests only in enframing. If the hydroponics researcher acts in full understanding of their having to deal with their factical inheritance, the thrust towards greater forms of control is nevertheless manifest. It does not matter to enframing if absolute control is ultimately unattainable.

Enframing, then, as the essence of technology is an understanding of being [sein] which reveals beings [seindes] and makes them intelligible in a certain way (specifically, as that which is ours to command). Enframing reveals nature as a “gigantic gasoline station” (Braver, 2009). Everything must be immediately available and readily calculable. Heidegger mentions Werner Heisenberg’s lament that the subject matter of physics in no longer even the object but is mathematical formalism (Heidegger, 2009). Even human beings are understood with respect to this historic disclosure of being, evidenced in the term “human resources”. Zygmunt Bauman in fact even sees modernity as the condition of possibility for the concentration camps of the Third Reich – a consequence of the way of ordering expressed in the modern understanding. This is one aspect of the “danger” Heidegger sees in enframing. The other aspect of the danger is in the forgetting of being, a common theme in the later Heidegger, present in all understandings of being hitherto inherited.

Heidegger has it that all ways of understanding being (ancient Greek physis, Medieval theism, modern enframing) have an uncanny way of forgetting being (Braver, 2009), which is to say, any way of achieving intelligibility forgets that it has gained its understanding of beings [seindes] in a particular way. The illusion is that things just are the way they stand in a given mode of unconcealment, and that the reason they are grasped by us in this particular manner is that we have direct access to them as they are. The actual fact of the matter, according to Heidegger, is that we can only reveal one aspect of beings at a time. Beings for the modern age, then, are those which are under our command.

Another difference between the Heidegger of Being and Time and the later Heidegger is that the later Heidegger sees the understanding of being as given to man rather than as emerging from man’s existential structure (Braver, 2009). Heidegger has it that enframing as understanding of being cannot be changed by mere human effort:

“[…] the essential unfolding of technology gives man entry into something which […] he can neither invent nor [...] make.” (Heidegger, 2009)

Man is commanded by being to command nature - the irony, of course, is that man has no choice in this (Braver, 2009). This way of speaking would certainly at least suggest that Heidegger is a technological determinist. Technological determinism is defined as “the claim that technology causes or determines the structure of the rest of society and culture” (Dusek, 2006). On page 312 we even see Heidegger affirming that the possibility of a radar station emerges from a meeting of technical-industrial production processes (Heidegger, 2009). It might seem to follow from this that the patterns of societal discourse rendered possible by such a technology (the necessity of building stealth aircraft, the possibility of detecting airborne invasion, etc.) are ultimately founded by this technology.

As we cannot actually stop enframing by a will to mastering technology (as this simply expresses the attitude of enframing and therefore undercuts itself) it would seem that the essence of technology will continue to unfold in this way and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. The hope Heidegger identifies is that we cultivate a receptive attitude to being [sein]. We ought not to hope to change our mode of unconcealment - we can only become aware of it as one way of many in which we can reveal beings. The fact that enframing propriates as a way of grasping beings Heidegger hopes is the key to its solution – that it can still be grasped as historic understanding of being and not “how things absolutely are”, even if we cannot change it. However, what it is crucial to realise about Heidegger’s account is that it’s unconcealment itself which is what’s essential to technology:

“Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology.” (Heidegger, 2009)

It is not technology per se which determines our way of revealing but the essence of technology which is our understanding of being (and accordingly the condition of the possibility of the particular artefacts of technology manifest through history). Whereas a type of Marxist might say it is economics which drives society, and therefore also technology, I feel that Heidegger would have rather said it is being [sein] which drives society (and therefore also technology). Although technological determinism does not necessarily presuppose autonomous technology, it does suppose that it is technology itself which motivates societal structure and progress. This conclusion, I feel, is anathema to Heidegger’s critique.

Technological determinism itself has come under fire by those who champion the social determination of technology. Val Dusek recommends that assessments of social or technological determinism ought to be handled on a “case by case basis”, and voices scepticism regarding a homogenous technological or social base (Dusek, 2006). Contrary to this, I contend that Heidegger would see both the technological and social as deriving from unconcealment. We recall that not just items of equipment are intelligible to us in the unconcealed region, but people are too (Heidegger, 2009). Braver identifies enframing even in the structure of teaching which he says:

“[…] has become the academic ‘business’ ruled by the need to reduce waste and maximize output.” (Braver, 2009)

Heidegger’s resolution itself is curious. If there is hope in our becoming aware of enframing as one of many ways of having access to beings, presumably Heidegger must feel that we as human beings have some way of moving our understanding of being. If our understanding of being as being is any hope at all for us and not merely the way in which we at last discover the inevitable force of our doom it would seem to follow that this very awareness itself has some impact on our understanding of being. But what could Heidegger mean, if this was so, by the claim that no human action itself could possibly overturn the way in which we see things? How could cultivating a sense of the historicity of being really change anything? I freely admit that I do not know how to answer these questions.

In the foregoing we’ve identified in Heidegger’s work the “turn” in which he no longer proceeds from the existential structure of man but from the historic disclosure of being. Through this we have followed the consequences of this change with respect to his view of the essence of technology as delivered historically from being. In identifying being in Heidegger as the source of intelligibility, we’ve seen an interpretation of Heidegger which does not, on Dusek’s definition, render him a technological determinist despite initial appearances to the contrary.

- Jordan Adshead (October 2011)


Braver, L. (2009). Heidegger's Later Writings: A Reader's Guide. Continuum.

Dreyfus, H. (1991). Being-in-the-World. MIT Press.

Dusek, V. (2006). Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction. Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. (2009). The Question Concerning Technology. In M. Heidegger, Basic Writings (pp. 307-343). Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. SUNY.

King, M. (2001). A Guide to Heidegger's Being and Time. SUNY.

[1] The English language does not discriminate between “being” as sein and “beings” as seindes. Where this distinction must be made salient, I’ve included the German term in brackets.

[2] It’s important to make clear the notion that readiness-to-hand is not the only understanding of being we have available to us. Against other understandings, other properties not related to a context of use are able to become salient.

[3] At this stage in his career, Heidegger often expressed “understanding of being” by “unconcealment”.