Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (1953) Part One

Summary

In this lecture, Heidegger is concerned with uncovering the essence of modern technology, which he argues is distinct from previous technologies. Furthermore, the essence which he aims to uncover is not technological, and not accesible through a technological mode of thought.

Technology, quoth Heidegger, is colloquially understood as instrumental (a means to an end) and anthropological, as a specifically human activity. This definition, concedes Heidegger, is correct, but it does not follow from this that it says anything about technology’s essence, correctness cannot be understood as synonymous with truth. A simply instrumental understanding of technology as a means to an ends obfuscates the essence of technology, since an end is always also a cause. Instrumentality is not a sufficient explanation.

Poeisis

Drawing on Aristotle, Heidegger posits four forms of causality, understood as four senses in which something can be responsible for something else;

1) Causa materialis; the material which is to constitute the thing in question

2) Causa formalis; The shape which the thing in question is to assume

3) Causa finalis; the ultimate use to which the thing in question is to be put.

4) Causa efficiens; that which engages in the act of manufacture, ie a craftsman.

These four causes are moments in the process of bringing forth, or bringing something into presence, poesis;

“Every occasion for whatever passes beyond the nonpresent, and goes forward into presencing is poeisis, bringing forth” (Plato, Symposium, 205b)

This bringing forth can be further distinguished as self sufficient (en heautoi), such as the blossoming of a flower, or supervening on human agency (en alloi). In any case, bringing forth is a process of unconcealment. The Greek word alethia is translated to Latin as veritas and thus truth; poeisis is an uncovering of truth, it is truth-revealing activity. This is the essence of technology, as witness by its origin in Greek techne, a term covering crafts as well as the arts and philosophy. Techne is a mode of aletheuin, it reveals what does not reveal itself, whatever’s presence is contingent (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book VI, chapters 3 & 4).

“Whoever builds a house or ship, or forges a sacrificial chalice, reveals what is to be brought forth, according to the terms of the four modes of occasioning. This revealing gathers together [my emphasis] in advance the aspect and the matter of the ship or house, with a view to the finished tjing envisaged as completed, and from this gathering determines the manner of construction” (Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, pg 319)

What is significant about techne (and thus technology), then, is not primarily the act of manufacture, it is the co-ordinating of the four modes of occasioning to bring something forth.This seems a reasonable account of traditional crafts, but is less intuitive when applied to modern technology. The occasioning is in practice differentiated.

Enframing

The key distinction between techne and modern technology, however, is for Heidegger tha fact that the bringing forth of modern technology is formulated as a demand, a challenge. Modern technology challenges nature to give up energy to be stored. The difference between a traditional windmill and, say, a nuclear power plant, is that the latter takes energy out of nature and stores it. This, for Heidegger, invasively alters nature’s character; the river dammed is a storehouse of energy, and can no longer be conceived otherwise. Modern technology relates to nature aggresively, through challenge and appropriation;” the revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of setting-upon” (ibid 321)

“such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is s stored up, and what is stored up is in turn distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew” (ibid, 322)

This is also a revealing, but it is a revealing without end. Not chaotic, mind, it is a revealing which is regulating and securing. Everything must be on standby, ready to be put to use, it becomes what Heidegger terms Standing-reserve. That which is occasioned by modern technology is not really an object, in that it lacks autonomy entirely and only makes sense as part of the wider order of things.

Man is not really the instigator of this challenging, Man too is subject to it. Man is not quite subsumed into standing reserve however, being somehow primary in the process of challening. Man drives technology forwards, he is compelled to unconceal; “He has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research” (ibid, 324). The overall challenge which brings man into the activity of revealing the actual as standing reserve, Heidegger terms “enframing”. Enframing is not technological; bits of technology and their assembly are a response to the challenge of enframing, not its constituent parts.

Physics

Man is compelled by enframing to to reveal nature as a storehouse of energy. The correlate and predicate of this form of technology is the science of physics. Physics, being experimental, is as much predicated on modern technology as vice versa. Modern physics also partakes of the essence of modern technology, in that it understands the world as a calculable coherence of forces. This assumption is the starting point for physics, all subsequent experimentation is about how the world is instantiated in this way. The essence of modern technology is thus present in physics too, the drive towards ordering.

Heidegger argues that while physics preceedes modern technology chronologically, the essence of modern technology, enframing, is historically primary, as it is a prerequisite for physics itself. Heidegger is unclear as to how physics, as an attempt to conceive of the world as an ordered system of information, comes from.

Destining

As mentioned above, Man is not the initiator of enframing; it is imposed on him in a process which Heidegger terms destining;  “The destiny of revealing holds complete sway over man”.

There is a danger in the particular form of uncovering which is the essence of modern technology, as it threatens other forms of revealing, tending to displace or subsume them. Furthermore, it conceals from man its own essence, namely bringing forth/uncovering, behind the awe of technology itself and the preoccupation with instrumentality. The revealing of the calculable complex drowns the true in the correct.

This precludes Man relating to his own essence, which is the destiny to reveal and bring forth. It is thus enframing, as particular mode of this destiny, which is the essence of modern technology.

Saving Power

“But where danger is, grows

the saving power also”

Holderlin, Patmos

Since Heidegger situates the danger of modern technology in its essence, saving power, the possibility of fetching something home to its essence, grows in the essence of modern technology too. Growing of course, impliers that it is not necesarilly immeadeatly visible, but is rather potential and emergent. To find it, we must engage with said essence.

Enframing is the essence of modern technology in the sense that it is what endures, over and beyond various transient and apparent forms of technology. If we set aside naive wonder at technology itself and the notion of instrumentality, and begin to engage with enframing as such, we can see modern technology as an activity which binds us to the act of bringing forth, albeit in a specific and potentialy pernicious form.

Conclusion

1) The essenc of technology is ambigious, as truth tends to be.

2) Enframing compels us to reveal by way of ordering, which obfuscates the act of revealing and thus our relationship to truth

3) Enframing, if properly engaged with, could grant us a better understanding of Man as fundamentally engaged in the workd of revealing and safekeeping emergent truths. In this lies the saving power

4)The tensions between ordering and truth is embodied in enframing.

Seeing the latent possibility of saving power does not bring it about though. Heidegger sees in the classical notion of Techne, art, and poetry, as a form of engagment with enframing which can bring out this saving power, provided it is able to track the enframing and not lose focus.

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