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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.
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‘Who is Martin Heidegger?’ The easy answer to this question can be that Heidegger was a very influential thinker of the past century. And some people even say that he was the most influential thinker of the 21st century. A thinker who also had many interesting ideas about technology and its implications for society, for culture, for human beings. More embarrassing answer to the question would be that Heidegger was also a Nazi. He was actively engaged with the Nazi Party, and in fact, he never took a distance from it. And texts keep appearing that show how deep his engagement with the Nazi Party actually was and how deep his anti-Semitism went.
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So to be honest, this makes it a bit hard to teach about his work. And what I want to share I’m quite sure that there are no fascistic elements. But if you will see this differently, please contact us about that. But I also believe that a good introduction to the philosophy of technology can simply not do without an introduction to Heidegger. So what is technology according to Heidegger? In his book, the Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger gives, in fact, three main answers to that question. He says, first of all, that technology is not an instrument. We think that technology is just a means for an end, but it’s not. Technology is much bigger than that.
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And second, he says that technology is not the product of human activity. We think that we make technologies, but in fact, technologies come from somewhere else. Sounds a bit somehow cryptical. But we will learn how that works. And third, Heidegger says, we think that technologies are just nice and convenient to have. But in fact, they are dangerous and they are not just a bit dangerous. Technologies are for him, the highest danger. So let’s first take a look at Heideggers claims that technology should not be seen as an instrument. What does he mean when he says that? Because, I mean, technologies are instrumental, obviously, right? We use them as tools.
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For Heidegger, in fact, seeing technologies as just neutral tools, just neutral instruments 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 just being pure instruments? For Heidegger the question or the idea that technology could be instrumental already embodies a specific way of understanding the world. And technology for Heidegger is indeed a way of understanding the world. Technology is a way of reducing the world to raw material, a way to see the world only as things that we can intervene in.
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To understand that better, it’s important to contrast the technology of today with the technology of the past. In the ancient times Greeks had the word ‘techné’ for technology, and the Greeks by this meant actually both art and technique. Craft is maybe a good word. When the Greeks spoke about ‘techné’, they always spoke about something like helping a thing to come into being. It was not the engineer that would make something. The work of a craftsperson was to help a thing to emerge. A craftsperson would never see him or herself as the ultimate source of the reality or what he or she was making. But they would rather see themselves as helping something to come into being according to Heidegger.
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Helping, because they do it together with the materials that they use. The purpose for which the thing will be used that they are making, the form in which the materials are shaped. So that’s what the work of a craftsperson was. Modern technology to the country is not seen as helping to come into being. But it’s forcing into being as Heidegger says. We have come to see ourselves as the source of what we are making. We are the origin of it all. That’s how technology has to be seen, according to Heidegger. A highly specific way of interpreting the world around us and, giving us, as it were, the power to control everything around us. Examples can help to see that.
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A good way to understand the difference between the Greeks and the present is to take a look at Heideggers own examples. For instance, a power plant built into the river Rhine. According to Heidegger, such a power plant forces the Rhine to show itself as a supplier of energy. This is not just a way to feed an artifact into the river, but it forces the river to be there as giving us the energy to do something with it. It clearly embodies this will to power that we now have in our time. This is totally different for a windmill, for instance. It’s always dependent on the question whether there’s wind or not for its functioning.
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So the windmill doesn’t force the wind to show itself as a supplier of energy, but it rather feeds itself into nature. That’s the difference between older technologies and modern technology. So technology, according to Heidegger, is not an instrument. It seems instrumental, but the fact that we see things as pure instruments actually show that we should see technology more as a way of understanding the world. A way of exerting power over nature. Technology is revealing the world in a specific way, revealing the world as raw material.
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So what about his second claim? The claim that technology is not a product of human activity. That might also sound a bit puzzling, because obviously all the systems and artifacts and devices in our world are the outcome of human activity. But Heidegger says that that analysis does not go deep enough, because ultimately, as we already saw, technology should be seen as a way of understanding the world. And we do not decide by ourselves how we understand the 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 their frameworks, and neither did we choose ours.
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Our current way of understanding the world as raw material, our technological interpretation of the world comes over us, it’s bigger than us, as it were Heidegger says. It’s like a fate, a ‘Geschick’ with the German word, which means something like it was sent to us from outside. It’s something at least that we cannot exert any control over. So technology is bigger than ourselves. That’s what Heidegger basically says. And then what about his third claim that technology is the highest danger, the highest and the ultimate danger? He says technology is not just a little bit dangerous because there is always a danger that you might have to narrow or shallow understanding of the world around you or something.
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No, it’s the ultimate danger for two reasons. First of all, he says technology might stop us to see ourselves as the beings that can have those deeper interpretations of reality. As soon as we become raw materials for ourselves that we can manipulate with, then we stop seeing ourselves as the ultimate place where new interpretations of the world could emerge. But beside this technological self understanding, there’s a more important reason, and that is that actually technologies can lock us up in a specific worldview. Because as soon as we try to develop a new way of interpreting the world, we try to exert power over the will to power. We try to control the fact that we try to control everything.
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Every attempt to overcome the will to power will only reaffirm the will to power and therefore show how deep that will to power, in fact is. There is no escape. There is no way out. Technology locks us up in a very specific way of interpreting the world. Every attempt to get out of it throws you back into it. But there might be a paradoxical way out Heidegger says. The only way out would be an attitude of releasement, which for him means something paradoxical as saying yes and no, at the same time. Saying ‘yes’, accepting that there is technology and that technology is helping to shape how we understand the world around us, but also saying ‘no’.
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Keeping some kind of distance from technology. It is for Heidegger, the will not to will, as it were, to say it again with a paradox. And that’s the only way in which we can let things be, in which we can maybe develop an openness for a new interpretation of reality to emerge. Beyond that will to power and the will to manipulation from which everything becomes raw material.
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So that’s Heidegger in a nutshell. Way too small nutshell. But at least it’s the basics and it’s all grounded in a whole theory about the history of being for Heidegger. It takes us too far to go into that now. But let’s take a closer look at how he conceptualizes technology. How does Heidegger make sense of the phenomenon of technology in our society? I think here we can see the same pattern of transcendentalism - with a mouthful - that we saw earlier in Jaspers his work. Also, Heidegger seems to reduce the actual technologies in our society to their conditions and then starts to speak about the conditions as if he’s speaking about the technologies themselves.
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That’s actually what happens with its interpretation of the power plant in the river Rhine. He seems to be saying that the power plant reveals the Rhine as a supplier of energy and therefore that it is the source of this highly technological interpretation of the river Rhine. But in fact, what his work means is that we have built the power plant in the first place because we already live in this era in which everything becomes raw material, in which there is this way of interpreting the world, in which we are thrown, from which everything is read in a technological way. So the power plant is not the source of a technological interpretation of the river Rhine.
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It’s rather the outcome of a technological interpretation of the world at large. 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 actually the same thing for cars to go back to the example that we are using more often in this course. Of course, cars are based on the will to power.
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We have to interpret nature as raw materials in order to construct the car, to have the idea of building a car in the first place, but reducing the car to what lies behind it, in terms of the interpretation of the world for which we can make it, does not exhaust how we can understand the role of cars in our society, because then we need to ask ourselves what cars do. And it’s not true that they only help us see the world as something that we can exert control over.
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Then we need to ask ourselves: ‘Ok, how do they change the ways in which we experience nature from a car?’ The ways in which we experience other people on the road. A self-driving car, what will that do to our understanding of taking responsibility for being in a car? So there are many ways in which technologies are also a source of interpretation of the world rather than only being the outcomes of it. 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.

References

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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