Heidegger on Modern Technology

In dealing with the topic of technology, Heidegger is concerned with a certain danger we face in the modern age. This danger threatens to monopolize thebasis upon which we understand our world, ourselves, and thinking.

Heidegger’s argument is tied to what he calls the “ontological difference.” For Heidegger, there is an distinction between beings [seinde]- that is,“entities” or “things”- and the Being [Sein] of these beings, that is:

“…that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood, however we may discuss them in detail” (B&T, 25-26).

In Being and Time, Heidegger points out that we no longer ask about Being- that:

“This question today has been forgotten” (21).

The Greeks touched upon the question of Being, and Heidegger sees that the Presocratics especially understood what was meant by the question of Being. Even if the Presocratics missed the ontological difference, they still at least understood that which the question of Being was asked about. Thales, for instance, when he says that everything is water,

“…is here explaining beings my means of a being, something that is, although at bottom he is seeking to determine what that which is, is as a being. In the question he therefore understands something like Being, but in the answer he interprets Being as a being” (BP, 319).

In the modern world, we no longer ask the question of Being. However, Dasein (the being that we are) always lives in a certain understanding of what it means for something to be. The modern era, by means of technology and science, has a certain understanding of what it means for beings to be as beings. This modern understanding has become so pervasive that it threatens to make it impossible to encounter beings in any other way. The way in which modern technology reveals beings as beings threatens to close us off to other ways of encountering beings as beings. Additionally, it closes off our way of access to Being by no longer allowing us to see the need to ask the question of Being. Accordingly, it disallows us to thinking about the basis upon which we understand beings as beings, for Being is that basis. We are therefore chained to the technological interpretation of Beings.

In his lecture, The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger points toquestioning as something which “builds a way” (QT, 3). Here, Heidegger is telling us how we are to follow his lecture, but this is not all he is saying. Heidegger is also pointing to the importance of questions as leading us to the basis upon which we understand beings as beings. His questions lead us to the way in which Being is understood by modern technology. Heidegger’s method is then similar to Aristotle’s in that Heidegger sees philosophy charged with the task of questioning the basis upon which we understand beings as beings. In chapter four of the Physics, for instance, Aristotle’s discussion of time questions time in regard to its Being. Aristotle is looking for the basis upon which we understand time as time. This basis shows itself to be motion. Likewise, Heidegger is questioning thebasis upon which we understand beings in general, which is Being.

Modern technology is a

“…challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such” (QT, 14).

This attitude differs strikingly from premodern technology, take for example Heidegger’s example of the windmill:

“Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it” (ibid).

What is important is that the wind is not challenged upon by the windmill. The wind is there blowing as it blows, and accordingly man encounters nature in its own Being.

Take the premodern peasant sowing seeds. In so doing he encounters the forces of growth, which are part of nature. Today, the agricultural industry sets upon nature, challenging the forces of growth, manipulating them, setting them in order to maximize productivity. Nature is no longer encountered according to itself. The soil no longer reveals itself in terms of nature. Rather, it is encountered in order to turn it into something which can deliver forth what man demands of it. The natural processes are not good enough for us. We wish to break them down and instrumentalize them.

This sheds light on why Heidegger says that modern science has paved the way for modern technology (ibid). We can now, with modern chemistry and biology, break down the natural processes into chemical relations and relationships, which we can now manipulate (in those terms) in order to service us. We control the mode of revealing in view of that which we want.

The way in which things are revealed in light of modern technology Heidegger calls das Bestand, which Lovitt translates as “the standing reserve.” Heidegger illustrates this with the example of an airliner standing on the runway. The aeroplan

“…stands on the taxi strip only as standing-reserve [Bestand], inasmuch as it is ordered to ensure the possibility of transportation” (ibid, 17).

Now, if the same description were applied to the soil the modern architectural industry challenges upon, nature itself is organized in such a way that, like the aeroplane:

“…it must be in its whole structure and in every one of its constituent parts,”as soil ready for growing.

Modern science gives us access to the constituent parts of something like the soil,

“…because physics, indeed already as pure theory, sets nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance”


“…therefore orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how much nature reports itself when set up in this way” (ibid, 21).

Our inquiry into soil is for the purpose of making them “stand-by” for the growing of plants, which in turn stand-by for the making of food for the restaurants which are arranged to satisfy our appetites.

Modern technology, then, is characterized by this

“…challenging claim which gathers man thither to order the self revealing[that is, the way in which nature had previously revealed itself in its own terms] as standing reserve “das Gestell” (19, my italics).

The Gestell, or “enframement” is dangerous. The danger presented by this mode of revealing is that man will be closed to all other modes in which things are revealed, which closes his way of access back to Being by covering the Being of beings up.

Heidegger wishes to free thinking from the confines of the technological understanding of Being to upon up other ways in which things may be revealed (such as the poetic and artistic understandings of Being).

The technological interpretation of Being privileges a certain kind of thinking called “calculative thinking.” Calculative thinking is a ‘thinking for the sake of something.’ Action or accomplishment is what validates this kind of thinking. But:

“…thinking, when taken for itself, is not ‘practical’” (BW, 218).

In the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger addresses the way in which practical oriented thinking has been privileged in the French intellectual community, particularly in Sartre’s “philosophy of action.” The roots of this tendency towards calculative thinking can be found in the heavy influence of Marx upon French thinkers.

In his “Thesen über Feuerbach,” Marx writes:

The question whether human thinking can reach objective truth- is not a question of theory but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, actuality and power, this-sideness of this thinking (99).

Marxism privileges thinking which results in action.

In a television interview, Heidegger critiques Marx’s famous saying

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it” (101).

Heidegger points out that for the the world to be changed at all, there must be a certain interpretation of the world which allows this change to take place. If Marx is to even make this statement, there is a certain interpretation of the world by which the statement is given. Changing the world, since it requires a change in interpretation, requires philosophy- and thus Marx’s famous statement proves itself to be without foundation.

In his “Memorial Address,” Heidegger wishes to call us back to a kind of thinking he calls “besinnliche Nachdenken.” Although we will keep Anderson’s translation of this: “meditative thinking,” we should take into account the “sinn”and the intransitive “be-”, which emphasize that this kind of thinking thinks about the depth of meaning contained within the things in themselves. This meaning is, of course, the Being of these entities. Meditative thinking is not thinking about these things in terms of quantity or calculus. It is not inherently practical. When translated “meditative thinking,” it should not be confused with “meditation” in a religious or mystical connotation. Rather, it should be taken as that kind of thinking we mentioned earlier: the kind of thinking which asks the question of being.

The kind of thinking which is called forth by Marx is calculative. It thinks in order to change. This thinking, since it is informed by a certain understanding of Being, reveals beings as beings in a certain aspect. Thus the understanding of Being is revealed in these entities. At the same time, however, our way of access back to Being is cut off. This is because, in the privileging of calculative thinking, meditative thinking (the way of access back to the basis upon which beings are determined as beings) is no longer permitted as a meaningful kind of thinking. Meditative thinking is seen as no longer “productive,” and is therefore dismissed. Thus, Being is revealed and covered up simultaneously.

In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger wishes to remind us that the Gestell is not the only way in which beings may be encountered as beings. He wishes to bring us back to remembering the way in which nature reveals itself as itself. He wishes to remind us of the nature the poets praised.

Likewise, in his “Memorial Address,” Heidegger wishes to remind us of the importance of homeland, which modern technology has covered up. There is an “uncanny” [unheimlich] change which moves upon us (DT, 42), which threatens to take away man’s rootedness– his feeling of being connected to a place. Heidegger writes:

Week after week the movies carry them off into uncommon, but often merely common, realms of imagination, and give the illusion of a world that is no world. Picture magazines are everywhere available. All that with which modern techniques of communication stimulate, assail, and drive man- all that is already much closer than the sky over his fields around his farmstead, closer than the sky over the earth, closer than the change from night to day, closer than the conventions and customs of his village, than the tradition of his native [heimatlichen] world (DT, 48).

This was written more than half a century ago, but does it not ring even more true? Heidegger warned us of the danger that this posed, and indeed Heidegger’s prophesy has fulfilled itself.

When I read this passage, I immediately realized something about howdisconnected my generation is from that which was once close to us (and, indeed, a part of who we were). I thought of how I was not even familiar with the stars above my native land. Even if I were to teach myself their names, it would merely be facts “thrown on top of” them. It would never provide me with an essential connection to the stars- they would only be a trivial part of my “care.” In reflecting upon it, I find the part of my childhood which remembers hot Texas days, fishing on my grandfather’s farm. I remember pieces and images that should stick out: things worthy of verse, somewhere. But the meaning of these memories have long since been covered up. Their significance to me has been trivialized.

Heidegger speaks, warning us to cling to these things, lest they be forgotten. He recognizes the danger. The danger, when recognized as danger, shows itself to be the “saving power,” as Heidegger points out in Hölderlin’s “Patmos(QT, 28). It saves us because we recognize that, if our connection to nature, homeland, and meditative thinking is to be preserved, we must recognize that modern technology has the power to cover them up.

In my own time period, we are faced with a different problem. Heidegger’s warning has not been heeded. Our way of access to homeland, nature, and meditative thinking has been covered up. A new path must be cleared back to thinking, but we cannot be reminded of where it leads because we are too young to remember its destination. Our task is then to engage with Heidegger and the Greeks, asking of them how to question, and then begin questioning afresh- bringing these things back into unconcealment.

When poets once again uncover nature in its essence, when we once again feel drawn to the familiar as something that is not dull but essential to who we are, when habituation never loses its excitement, when we find ourselvesattached to a place as the point from which the world spreads out- only then will we have uncovered that which modern technology has succeeded to covered up.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Macquarrie, John; Robinson, Edward. New York: Harper & Row P Inc, 1962

Discourse on Thinking. Trans. Anderson, John; Freund, Hans. New York: Harper & Row P Inc, 1969.

The Question Concerning Technology and Other Writings. Trans. Lovitt, William. New York: Harper & Row P Inc, 1977.

“Letter on Humanism.” Basic Writings. Ed. Krell, David Ferrell. New York: Harper & Row P Inc, 2008.

The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Trans. Hofstadter, Albert. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1988.

Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Selected Writings. Ed. Simon, Lawrence. Indianapolis: Hackett P Co, 1994.

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