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Just like any great thinker, Martin Heidegger elevated human thinking into a realm where the ordinary seems extraordinary. Not that he’s just making things more complicated by assigning difficult explanations and terminologies to simple concepts, but he was only exposing the irony that pervades reality: the simplest is often the hardest to explain.
Heidegger wrote about the simplest of concepts. All throughout his early and later writings, he dwells on the following basic themes: truth, freedom, being, man, and time. In spite of his great mind, he has struggled to put into words the meaning of these basic concepts, concepts we often take for granted. For him, to know the basic and foundational concepts is the first step in climbing the ladder of knowledge.
Some scholars describe Heidegger as a “prophet.” They say there is an element of mystery in his words. A mystery that is derived from the very nature of his subject matter. His words express a sense of unity that unarguably foretell an imminent event in the development of human history. Briefly he says that the truth of reality develops according to its “destiny.”
His philosophy is really a puzzle to the minds of the lay people. More often that not, people simply disregard his thoughts because of their obscurity and seeming uselessness. For them, Heidegger’s thoughts are best left for the philosophers to ponder upon. Sadly, this is the very mentality Heidegger wants to correct. His writings express the importance of “awareness”; awareness of reality, of nature, of others, and of one’s very self. He wants us to be “conscious” about our existence; that we are beings who are capable of directing our very lives and the lives of other beings. We are the beings who are aware of the world flung open for discovery. So that through this awareness of our existence, we may take the responsibility of being agents of truth.
In his later thought, technology stood out as one of the more essential things he discussed. This will be the main concern of this article. In his lecture paper entitled “The Question Concerning Technology”1, he gave his view on technology. This lecture paper will be the main source of our discussion on his philosophy of technology.
In must be noted that Heidegger used technical words to explain his thoughts on the subject. This often bars the lay people from reading his works. For this reason, I will explain as simple as possible the meaning of his words although at the danger of discarding their original meanings. What is more important anyway is the message of his work, not the technicalities that articulate it.
The Main Thrust of his Philosophy
Before going to his philosophy of technology, let us first discuss some fundamental topics of his philosophy. So, “what is Heidegger’s philosophy all about?”
The answer: Being. Throughout his career as a thinker, Heidegger probed into the question of the meaning of Being. This question was the binding theme that united his thinking. But what is Being? For the record, Heidegger was not able to answer this question. He wrote about Being but he did not directly express what Being was. It was after all something that always withdraws its full significance.
But to talk about something you do not know is impossible. So in some ways Heidegger already knows the meaning of Being but just can’t get the right word for it. For him, Being is not an entity. It is not this or that object, nor is it a concept or a specific event. Rather, it is the “unfolding” of things around us, and more importantly, it is also the “unfolding” that happens in our very lives.
If this sounds very obscure, consider the following sentences containing the word “being”: 1) It is hard Being (to be) a student; 2) That stubborn being over there is a student. Notice the difference between the usage of being in the two statements. The first statement, on the one hand, uses the word Being2 as an occurrence in the life of a person, i.e. “to be” a student. The sense of being here does not denote an entity or an object or a person, but a happening or an “unfolding” of some sort. Being then in this first sense is primarily a “process” as linguistically denoted by its verb-like usage. In fact, Being in the first sense is also expressed by the infinitive verb ”to be.” The second statement, on the other hand, uses the word being to denote an object or an entity. It is taken grammatically as a noun.
Heidegger is concerned with the first sense of the word Being. He is concerned about Being as a process, an “unfolding”, and not as an entity. However, he says that we can only understand this Being as “unfolding” through beings as “entities” because Being happens in beings. The process of unfolding transpires in the existence of beings, as when flowers bloom and become the flowers they ought to be, or when a pony grows into a strong stallion and become the horse it ought to be. Every entity participates in this unfolding process (Being) of reality.
Heidegger elaborates further that it is through the being (second sense) called man that Being sheds its light. It is through man that the reality is revealed in the unfolding process of Being. The key word to understand what Heidegger means here is the word “OPENNESS.” Man is said to be placed in the center of this Openness known as the world. Through man, the unfolding process comes into play. He discovers objects of nature, names them, elaborates them, makes poems and songs about them, and brings them forth into the light of knowingness. What man does, his very existence and connection to things, is itself a process of unfolding. In his existence, Being comes into play.
If in man the unfolding process of reality comes into play, then the answer to the question of the meaning of Being must therefore be found in the very existence of man. And this is precisely what Heidegger took as the course for his thinking. The question of the meaning of Being is also the question of the existence of man. Being and man are always interconnected.
How is the Question Concerning Being connected to the Question Concerning Technology?
Being is the unfolding process of reality, and by unfolding we mean a process of letting be known that which was first unknown. For Heidegger, the process of unconcealing something from its previous concealment is “truth.” In short Being is also Truth.
Heidegger favors the Greek rendition of truth as aletheia, meaning unconcealment or revelation. Truth as aletheia is a process from being concealed to being revealed. It is not merely truth as the correspondence of statements to reality but truth as a revealing process. Everything undergoes the process of truth. Our lives are themselves processes of truth. From our childhood to our present age, we have undergone the ongoing processes of revelation. Everything as long as it opens itself to the world undergoes the revelation process.
For Heidegger, truth is very limited. Using his own word words, “truth is untruth.” This statement simply means no truth is absolute. What has been revealed in the revelation process is not, and will never be, the whole truth. Truth is very limited and untruth participates in its very essence. Our existence again is a fairly good example. What is revealed in the process of our lives does not give a final say about who we are. Your being students of Nursing today does not describe the entirety of the truth of your being persons.
Truth is elevated by Heidegger into the level of History. For him, the ongoingness of history is also truth. Reality is revealed in history in different epochs. At the beginning, when man was not yet aware of the world he lives in, truth is in its initial stage, i.e. untruth or concealment. For truth to be, there must be something for it to uncover. From untruth comes truth. The first moment of truth as revelation came when man became aware of the world he lived in. In this stage of truth as unconcealment, the world suddenly flung open to man. The veil of untruth was somewhat removed and man was given the chance to see the glory of the truth of reality. This moment of history signaled an age of “openness” that enabled man to connect with nature. For Heidegger, it was the Greeks who first embraced this moment of revelation.
Like a prophet, Heidegger redirected his gaze to a dangerous spot in history – the modern age. In what sense is the modern age dangerous? Heidegger answers this by invoking that the modern age is the twilight zone of the revelation process of history. This modern age endangers the revelation process of reality. In what way? When the modern age mechanizes not only nature but also man. It is in here that the problem of technology comes into the discussion.
Since it is still part of the revealing process of reality, technology is also a form of “revealing.” Heidegger questions how this “revealing” in modern technology transpires. And this is the topic of his philosophy of technology. He asks in what way modern technology is a form of revelation. Restating it, in what way does modern technology participate in the unfolding process of reality, in Being?
What is the main concern of Heidegger’s Philosophy of Technology?
In his The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger states his topic of concern: The Essence of Technology. You might be wondering why Heidegger still seeks for the meaning of technology if everyone already knows what technology is. Two statements may serve as the answer for this question. One, Technology is a means to an end; it is an “instrument” to meet our needs. Second, Technology is a human activity. These two statements about technology are interconnected “for to posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them is a human activity.”3 These two current conceptions of technology are called instrumental and anthropological definitions of technology.
By “essence of technology”, Heidegger does not mean the “nature” of the “concept” of technology, or the definition of technology. By “essence of technology”, he means how the “phenomenon” of technology “comes to presence.” Why he understands it this way is a matter of philological concerns. He understands the word “essence” in its literal sense, and not in its normative sense, which he often abhors. Instead of taking essence as “nature” he maintains that it must bear the meaning of its root word. He states, “The noun (essence) is derived from the verb pre-sencing (wesen) and is the same as to last or endure (wahren).”4 In some ways, he retains the verb-like function of the word as manifested in his incessant use of the prefix an to the word essence (wesen). An-wesen means “to-come-to-presence”. Thus, in questioning what the essence of technology is, what we are asking is how the “occurrence” or “phenomenon” of technology “comes into presence.” How does this technological occurrence happen or develop?
Heidegger starts with the Greek rendition of technology as techne…
Heidegger found his way back to the Greeks in answering the problem of technology. The Greeks use the word techne for technology. Techne does not only refer to activities and skills of craftsman, but also for the fine arts. This is why techne as craftmaking is also techne as art. More than the idea of making and manipulating, techne is a way of bring-forth something. It is a way of letting something be known. The techne of making a statue for example is a way of bringing forth or showing the nature of the human body.
Techne in this sense is very much related to the idea of poiesis. Poiesis is the origin of the word poetry. Poetry is an “art” of bringing forth into imagery the reality. Like the basic meaning of its etymology, poetry is a way of “revealing” something.
Furthermore, both poiesis and techne are connected to the idea of episteme. Episteme means being at home, to understand, and be expert in something. In other words, episteme has something to do with knowledge in the broadest sense of the word. Today words taking its root from episteme, like epistemology, connote “knowledge.” Epistemology means the study of knowledge.
These three Greek terms (techne, poiesis, episteme), although different, have the same essence; they are all processes of revealing, bringing-forth, and opening up. Thus, going back to the question of technology, what is decisive in techne or technology does not lie at all in making and manipulating, nor in using of means, but in the aforementioned revealing. Heidegger maintains: “Technology is a mode of revealing. Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.”5
In what way is modern technology a revealing process?
Much as Greek technology is a revealing process, modern technology too is an event of unconcealemnt. Natural objects in the revealing process of modern technology make themselves open to the light of the epoch’s way of Being. Rivers, mountains, plains, plants, and animals are all brought forth into the center stage so as to be seen in the new light of modern machination. Unlike before, nature is now seen as a “resource we can readily manipulate.” It is not anymore an object of wonder but an object of human conquest. As Francis Bacon said, our knowledge of nature is also our power over it. This is how things reveal themselves in modern technology. They are now just “things ready for any human biding.”
In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger mentions two characteristics of modern technology as a revealing process. First, he says “the revealing that rules in the modern technology is a challenging (Herausfordeen)”6; and Second, he says “this challenging that brings forth energy of nature is an expediting.”7
“Challenging” as a mode of revealing nature could be sharply contrasted to “Physis”. Also a mode of revealing, physis is the arising of something from itself, a bringing-forth or poiesis.9 A flower blossoming or fading in the changes of the season is an example of this form of revealing. The revelation has its own autonomy and, at best, man can only witness. This is a natural way of revealing.
The mode of revealing in modern technology brought about new world ordering. This kind of ordering is best described as “artificial,” in contrast to “natural” ordering. It sees nature as an object of manipulation and not anymore as an autonomous reality demanding respect and admiration. The network of things is now reduced into the network of manipulation.
In mining for example, man digs coal not simply to know what coals are. Yes, man “exposes” these coals but not simply to know them. They uncover them because he wants to use them. Coals are mined from track loads of land so as to use their energy. This is the characteristic of the things revealed in modern technology. They are there “for” something.
How do we call the things that are revealed in Modern Technology?
Heidegger uses a technical word to name these things. He said : “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing, namely standing in reserve.”10
Heidegger names these things revealed in modern technology as “standing in reserve.” Things as standing in reserve are not “objects”. Objects, on the one hand, are things that “stand against us” as things with autonomy. They are revealed mainly in human thinking and do not allow further manipulations. Things as standing in reserve, on the other hand, are called to come forth in challenging and expediting. They are reduced into the objectlessness of modern technology. Nothing anymore “stands against us” as objects of autonomy and wonder. Everything is regressed into an interlocking of things that yield what man wants whenever he demands them to do so. Even nature is now revealed as standing in reserve and not anymore objects of autonomy.
Unlike the modern technologies, the old technology still respects nature as an object of autonomy. The modern and the old technologies are of different modes of revealing, the former artificial and the latter natural. Take for example the contrast between how the modern technology of the hydropower plant and the old technology of a wooden bridge reveal the presence of a river. On the one hand, the hydropower plant reveals the river that supplies it energy simply as another thing standing in reserve. It is a source of energy which completes the interlocking of things in the system of hydropower generation. The river in not anymore seen as an object with autonomy but an object on call to be used.
On the other hand, the technology of building a wooden bridge reveals the river not as a key link in completing the bridge. It rather respects it as a part of nature, a “landscape” using Heidegger’s own term, that is somewhat permanent and stands against us as another entity. We move “around” it so to say and we only see what we can do to overcome its dominating presence. In other words, we do not manipulate it, but rather, we act according to its rules.
The Process of Revealing in Modern Technology as Enframing…
The world is revealed in modern technology as the interlocking of things standing in reserve. This is the process in which everything is ordered. Heidegger calls this “process” that is set into the context of interlocking shown by standing-reserve as “Enframing” (Ge-stell). For Heidegger Enframing is the “essence” (process of coming into presence) of modern technology.
The word en-framing literally means to put into a frame a certain set of things. By Heidegger’s use of the word, enframing simply means putting into the frame of modern technology everything in nature. This “frame” of modern technology is the network or interlocking of things standing in reserve. It is the world centered on man’s caprices and demands. It is world of manipulation and demystification. In here nothing is mysterious anymore.
This is what Heidegger was afraid of, that the process of truth will revert back into the realm of erring. It must be remembered that for truth to be, it must retain its sense of mystery. Truth is for the most part untruth. To disregard this essentially limited process of revelation is also to disregard the entirety of its essence. We cannot have absolute knowledge of reality, more so, we cannot have full dominion over it. As they say, we are only “guardians” of creation. To disregard this nature of reality is also putting ourselves into the brink of danger.
Because of man’s arrogance, nature is in the verge of destruction. He thinks he knows how nature works and tends to hasten or “expedite” its processes. He demands too much from it and in turn disrupts its natural flow.
Nature is beyond our control. Its truth is beyond our grips. For all we know, it is the one that controls us. And if we ever try to dominate it, nature will surely revolt against us in a very humbling manner.
(to be continued next meeting…)
1Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, trans. by William Lovitt,Basic Writings, (New York: Harper and Row, 1977) (abbreviated as QT below).
2 For easy reference, I will capitalize “Being” in the first sense to distinguish it from “being” in the second sense.
3 QT, p. 288.
4 QT, p. 305.
5 Ibid., p. 295.
6 Ibid., p. 296.
7 Ibid., p. 297.
8 Ibid., p. 296.
10 Ibid., p. 298. Italization is mine.