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The technological view of the world of Martin Heidegger

Verbeek explains the Philosophy of Technology of Martin Heidegger. Phenomenology. Question concerning technology.
Who is Martin Heidegger? The easy answer to the question would be Heidegger was a very influential thinker of the past century, and some people even say that he was the most influential thinker of the past century. A thinker with many interesting ideas about technology. A more embarrassing answer would be that Heidegger was, in fact, also a Nazi. He was actively engaged with the Nazi party, and, in fact, never took a distance from it. And texts keep appearing to show how deep his engagements to the party was and how deep is anti-Semitism was. And what I want to share here with you, I do not see any fascistic elements.
But if you would see this otherwise, in an other way, please contact me right away.
So what is technology according to Heidegger? In his book, The Question Concerning Technology, he gives, in fact, three main answers to that question. He says, first of all technology is not an instrument. We think technology is a means for an end. It is not. It’s much bigger than that. Second, technology is not a product of human activity. We think we make technologies. but, in fact, technologies come from somewhere else. And third, we think technologies are nice and convenient to have, but in fact, they are dangerous and not just a little bit dangerous, technologies are the highest danger.
Let’s first look at Heidegger’s first claim, technology is not an instrument. What does he mean when he says technology is not an instrument. Technologies are instrumental, obviously, right. Well, for Heidegger ultimately seeing technologies as just a neutral instrument is already a very technological way to look at the world. What does it mean to be a pure instrument? Do we ever have things that are purely instrumental? Are things not more meaningful than only that? So for Heidegger, ultimately, technology is not an instrument, but is a way to understand the world. And you can understand that, in fact, if you understand our technology of today with all the technologies of the ancient Greeks, for instance.
The Greeks had the word techne for technology, which was actually a word indicating both art and technique. And when the Greeks spoke about techne, they always spoke about something like helping to come into being. A crafts person would never see him or herself as the ultimate source of the reality of what he or she was making, but he would see her or himself as helping something to come into being. Together with the materials, the purpose for which it was used, the form in which the materials were shaped. That’s what the work of a crafts person was. Modern technology is not seen as helping to come into being, but in a sense, Heidegger says it’s forcing into being.
How we somehow see ourselves as the ultimate source of the existence of all the entities that we make, and we demand nature to show itself as raw materials that we can work with that we can somehow deal with to our own disposal. It is this will to power you could say. We exert power over nature that constitutes technology. A good way to understand the difference is to take a look at the examples that Heidegger gives.
For instance, a power plant built into the river Rhine that forces the Rhine to show itself as a supplier of energy versus a bridge built over the Rhine that respects the floating of the Rhine itself and doesn’t force it to show itself as a supplier of energy. Or another example would be a windmill that’s always dependent on the question whether there’s wind or not for its functioning. It doesn’t force the winds to show itself as a supplier of energy, but it feeds itself into nature. So technology is not an instrument.
It seems instrumental, but the fact that we see things as instrumental reveals that we already think in terms of exerting power over nature, and ultimately, technology is a way of understanding the world.
Heidegger’s second claim is that technology is not a product of human activity, which is also maybe a bit puzzling, because obviously, all the systems and devices in our world are the outcome of human doings. But Heidegger says that that analysis does not go deep enough. Because ultimately, as we saw, technology is a way of understanding the world. And we do not decide ourselves how we understand this world around us. We are born in a specific age where there are frameworks of interpretation in place that we have not chosen ourselves. The Greeks had not chosen for their framework just like we have not chosen for ours. Our way of understanding the world comes over us.
It’s bigger than us as it were. It’s like a fate, “Geschick” as he would call it. Something that was sent to us from outside somewhere where we do not– can– and well, we cannot exert any control over.
Heidegger’s third claim is that technology is the ultimate danger. And technology is not just a little bit dangerous, because there’s always the danger that you have maybe a bit too narrow or shallow understanding of the world around you, but it’s the ultimate danger for two reasons. First of all, because we might stop to see our self as the beings that can have those deeper interpretations of the world. As soon as we become raw material for ourselves we can manipulate with, then we stop seeing ourselves as the ultimate place where new interpretations of the world can show themselves.
But second and maybe more importantly, every attempt to develop a new understanding of the world is itself a way of exerting power over that on the standing of the world. So we try to overcome the will to power by exerting power over the will to power. Every attempt to step out of it throws us back into it. Every attempt to overcome the will to power only shows how deep that will to power, in fact, is. There is no escape. There is no way out. The only way out, Heidegger says, might be an attitude of what you would call releasement, saying yes and no at the same time.
Accepting that there is technology, and that technology’s helped to shape how we understand the world around us. At the same time saying no, keeping some kind of a distance from technology. It is the will not to will as it were to say it with a paradox. That’s the only way in which we can let things be, and we can maybe develop an openness for different interpretations of the world around us beyond that will to power manipulation where everything becomes raw material.
So let’s now take a look at how Heidegger, in fact, conceptualizes technology. How does he make sense of the phenomenon of technology in our society. I think in Heidegger you clearly see this movement of what you would call some form of, you could say, transcendentalisme with a mouthful. Transcendentalisme meaning reducing technologies to their conditions, and then starting to speak about the conditions as if you’re speaking about the technologies themselves. For Heidegger, here the interpretation of nature, the interpretation of the world functions as the condition for technology.
If you take a close look at how he discusses the power plant in the Rhine, in fact, he does not show that the power plant lets us see the Rhine as a supplier of energy. What he, in fact, shows is that we could build a power plant in the first place, because we have already been interpreting the river Rhine as something technological, something that was raw material ready for human manipulation. It’s because of that interpretation already being in place that we can build such a power plant. The plant itself doesn’t do so much. It’s the outcome of an understanding of the world rather than the beginning of it. You can say the same thing for cars.
Obviously, cars are based on the will to power. We have to interpret nature as raw materials in order to construct a car, to have the idea of building a car in the first place. Which you would never have if you would live in an earlier age where you would be part of a divine order in which you would just have your own place. And the self-driving cars are maybe embodying the ultimate will to power also replacing humans, human activities, human perceptions, intentions, and responsibility. But trying to reduce cars to what lies behind them in terms of an interpretation of the world does not exhaust how we can understand the role of cars in our society. What will cars do?
What are they doing to the ways in which we experience nature, if we are in a car, the ways in which we experience other people on the road? A self-driving car, what will it do to our understanding of taking responsibility for being in a car? There are many ways in which technologies also are a source of interpretations of the world rather than only being the outcomes of it. And how that works, we will see later in this course.
In this video we introduce you to several important concepts of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology. In the text below you can read some more about Heidegger’s view on technology.

Why is technology not neutral?

Heidegger strongly opposes the view that technology is “a means to an end” or “a human activity.” These two approaches, which Heidegger calls, respectively, the “instrumental” and “anthropological” definitions, are indeed “correct”, but do not go deep enough; as he says, they are not yet “true.” Unquestionably, Heidegger points out, technological objects are means for ends, and are built and operated by human beings, but the essence of technology is something else entirely. Just as the essence of a tree is not itself a tree, Heidegger points out, so the essence of technology is not anything technological.
What, then, is technology, if it is neither a means to an end nor a human activity? Technology, according to Heidegger must be understood as “a way of revealing” (Heidegger 1977, 12). “Revealing” is one of the terms Heidegger developed himself in order to make it possible to think what, according to him, is not thought anymore. It is his translation of the Greek word alètheuein, which means ‘to discover’ – to uncover what was covered over. Related to this verb is the independent noun alètheia, which is usually translated as “truth,” though Heidegger insists that a more adequate translation would be “un-concealment.”

How can technology be ‘a way of revealing’?

What does this have to do with technology? And what does Heidegger mean when he says that technology is “a way of revealing”? Answering these questions requires a short but important detour. What we call “reality”, according to Heidegger, is not given the same way in all times and all cultures (Seubold 1986, 35-6). “Reality” is not something absolute that human beings can ever know once and for all; it is relative in the most literal sense of the word – it exists only in relations. Reality ‘in itself’, therefore, is inaccessible for human beings. As soon as we perceive or try to understand it, it is not ‘in itself’ anymore, but ‘reality for us.’
This means that everything we perceive or think of or interact with “emerges out of concealment into unconcealment,” in Heidegger’s words. By entering into a particular relation with reality, reality is ‘revealed’ in a specific way. And this is where technology comes in, since technology is the way of revealing that characterises our time. Technology embodies a specific way of revealing the world, a revealing in which humans take power over reality. While the ancient Greeks experienced the ‘making’ of something as ‘helping something to come into being’ – as Heidegger explains by analysing classical texts and words – modern technology is rather a ‘forcing into being’. Technology reveals the world as raw material, available for production and manipulation.

Why is technology not a human activity?

According to Heidegger, there is something wrong with the modern, technological culture we live in today. In our ‘age of technology’ reality can only be present as a raw material (as a ‘standing reserve’). This state of affairs has not been brought about by humans; the technological way of revealing was not chosen by humans. Rather, our understanding of the world – our understanding of ‘being’, of what it means ‘to be’ – develops through the ages. In our time ‘being’ has the character of a technological ‘framework’, from which humans approach the world in a controlling and dominating way.
This technological understanding of ‘being’, according to Heidegger, is to be seen as the ultimate danger. First of all, there is the danger that humans will also interpret themselves as raw materials. Note that we are already speaking about “human resources”! But most importantly, the technological will to power leaves no escape. If we want to move towards a new interpretation of being, this would itself be a technological intervention: we would manipulate our manipulation, exerting power over our way of exerting power. And this would only reconfirm the technological interpretation of being. Every attempt to climb out of technology throws us back in. The only way out for Heidegger is “the will not to will”. We need to open up the possibility of relying on technologies while not becoming enslaved to them and seeing them as manifestations of an understanding of being.



24 Reviews
Heidegger, Martin. “The question concerning technology (W. Lovitt, Trans.) The question concerning technology: and other essays (pp. 3-35).” (1977).
Seubold, Günter. Heideggers Analyse der neuzeitlichen Technik. Freiburg-München: Alber, 1986.
Have a look at the glossary in STEP 1.2 for more detailed explanations of some crucial German words used by Heidegger.
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