Heidegger, 'The Question Concerning Technology'

Posted 1/21/2019

Oh, for enough knowledge of German to be freed from this hyphenated nightmare of language!

Heidegger seeks in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” to find what he calls the “essence” of technology. In the modern world, we are everywhere “unfree and chained to technology. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology” (3).

In the act of contemplation of the essence of technology, we can deliver ourselves from its greatest dangers.

Technology is an instrumentum, (4) but we don’t really understand what instrumentality is as moderns: “Today we are too easily inclined either to understand being responsible and being indebted moralistically as a lapse, or else to construe them in terms of effecting. In either case we bar to ourselves the way to the primal meaning of that which is later called causality. So long as this way is not opened up to us we shall also fail to see what instrumentality, which is based on causality, actually is” (6).

Technology is finally all about revealing. Technology is a “mode” of revealing. What is “new” about “modern” technology? The revealing that rules modern technology is a “challenging,” which requires of nature to bring forth (“presence” as verb) something which “can be extracted and stored as such.” Heidegger draws a distinction between this “challenging” of nature as opposed to the “setting in order” of nature which the old farmers did in the sense of “to take care of and to maintain.”

What is “bringing-forth”? “Bringing-forth comes to pass only inso- far as something concealed comes into unconcealment” (7). “Reavealing” is truth. The essence of technology is wrapped up in the “revelation” of truth, “The possibility of all productive manufacturing lies in revealing” (7).

It is the kind of revealing that modern technology does that makes it so dangerous. “The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging-forth” (9). “Setting upon,” as a translation of the German stellen. I cannot help but think of Uncle Buck in Faulkner’s novel The Unvaquished with his “strange notions” about people belonging to the land, or perhaps of the agrarian writing of Wendell Berry.

Because it is man who accomplishes this setting upon of nature for the sake of storing-up, man himself is viewed as a part of the “standing reserve” which is modern technology’s object. As a result, the “spirit” of modern technology is something outside of man. “We now name that challenging claim which gathers man thither to order the self-revealing as standing-reserve: Gestell or “Enframing”. We dare to use this word in a sense that has been thoroughly unfamiliar up to now” (11).

The “essence” of modern technology is then for Hegel this Gestell, or “en-framing,” or, “apparatus-making,” which he defines as “the gathering together of that setting-upon (stellen) which sets upon man to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.” Basically, then, as I understand it, the essence of “modern” technology for Heidegger is its seeing or “revealing” of the world as an industrial store or reserve of energy, rather than an organic life-source to be cultivated and lived in. Perhaps I am reading too much into Heidegger at this point?

This is connected to human freedom. Freedom governs the revealed. Original freedom is not immediately connected with the causality of man’s willing, but rather in man’s dwelling in the “realm of destining,” i.e., not a fate which compels. I quote Heidegger here, but I am deeply confused as to how “not being in the realm that compels” is an explanation of freedom which is “not connected to the will,” since it seems to me that the acts of the will being “free” or “not free” are determined by the presence or absence of external compelling. I believe this ultimately comes from a misunderstanding of what is in my translation rendered as “destining.”

The “destining of revealing” is an important technical term for H in this paper. To “consider” or think about the essence of technology, as H does in this essay, is to experience Gestell or the essence of technology as the “destining of revealing.” “Destining” is the “way of revealing” from which the “essence of all history” is determined, history being neither simply activity or recording, but activity becoming history “as something destined.” The “destining” of “revealing” then, in these senses, seems to represent in plain terms something like the “making into a tool that thing by which we understand the real truth about the nature of the world,” since Heidegger says later “The essence of modern technology lies in Enframing. Enframing belongs within the destining of revealing.” To “destine,” is to start man on a “way of revealing.”

This “destining of revealing,” or really, way of looking at technology is dangerous: “Yet when destining reigns in the mode of Enframing, it is the supreme danger. This danger attests itself to us in two ways. As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve. Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth” (16).

Finally Heidegger embraces this danger, making technology into a kind of mystical art, the knowledge of which can shield us from its worst effects.

“The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that every- thing will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing-reserve. Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same time kindred to it.” (18) “The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought” (19).

This revelation, this “coming close to the danger,” is supposed to take place through art:

“Once there was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called techne. And the poiesis of the fine arts also was called techne. In Greece, at the outset of the destining of the West, the arts soared to the supreme height of the revealing granted them. They brought the presence, [Gegenwart] of the gods, brought the dialogue of divine and human destinings, to radiance. And art was simply called techne. It was a single, manifold revealing. It was pious, promos, i.e., yielding to the holding-sway and the safekeeping of truth.

“The arts were not derived from the artistic. Art works were not enjoyed aesthetically. Art was not a sector of cultural activity. What, then, was art – perhaps only for that brief but magnificent time? Why did art bear the modest name techne? Because it was a revealing that brought forth and hither, and therefore belonged within poiesis. It was finally that revealing which holds complete sway in all the fine arts, in poetry, and in everything poetical that obtained poiesis as its proper name…

“Could it be that the fine arts are called to poetic revealing? Could it be that revealing lays claim to the arts most primally, so that they for their part may expressly foster the growth of the saving power, may awaken and found anew our look into that which grants and our trust in it?