Heidegger on Technology: Metaphysical Not Political

Heidegger is interested in the essence of technology, which he insists is quite different from technological instruments themselves. The essence of technology is the technological understanding of Being, which is exhibited in the overall character of our shared practices for treating things, events, and others in the world as a whole.

Heidegger calls this enframing: the disposition to regard things as disposable resources that play assigned roles in an all-inclusive, impersonal, automatically functioning system.

The very essence of this disposition consists in understanding the world causally, as a system of objects obeying uniform causal laws. Human action too is understood along this line, as a means to cause desired states of affairs in the world. All this, Heidegger says, is rooted in the will to dominate beings and to render the world transparent, predictable, and manipulable. The will to dominate obscures a more important role of human beings, namely to be receivers of understandings of Being.

Heidegger’s concept of the essence of technology is relevant to his larger account of the history of the meaning of Being, according to which, almost from the very beginning, the West concentrated on entities and the causal laws that explained their behavior. This led us to “forget” the more significant question of what it means that entities exist in the first place. The final result – the “end” of the history of Being – is an understanding of Being from which the question of meaning is entirely excluded, in favor of the control of functional processes. The criterion for truth is now technological: knowledge is an element of the ability to function optimally as part of the system as a whole. Continue reading

The Blond Beast, Parsed.

In some passages, it seems pretty clear that Nietzsche’s “blond beast” is a lion. In others, Nietzsche is referring to the Aryan “conquering races.” Here are the passages with the first kind of blond beast:

At the center of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast avidly prowling around for spoil and victory; this hidden center needs release from time to time, the beast must out again, must return to the wild – Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings – in this requirement they are all alike.

One may be quite justified in continuing to fear the blond beast at the core of all noble races and in being on one’s guard against it.

The above quotations are from the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay §11.

Another instance is in the Second Essay §17:

I used the word “state”: it is obvious who is meant by this – some pack of blond beasts of prey, a conqueror and master race which, organized for war and with the ability to organize, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless and nomad. That is after all how the “state” began on earth: I think that sentimentalism which would have it begin with a “contract” has been disposed of.

The point is that the civilization of the “noble races” of antiquity was a rather thin veneer under which the predatory nature of these peoples was concealed. It couldn’t be permanently concealed, and it occasionally expressed itself openly as an unrestrained will to conquer. This is the real origin of the state: it was an instrument of domination, not a mutual aid society as social contract theorists liked to imagine. Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 2.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.


Spontaneity’s Limits: Tragic Counter-Finality.

Spontaneity is a form of agency that’s dependent on the presence of others. In its basic form, this doesn’t necessarily imply acting with others, or collective action; it takes the form of acting on new reasons whether individually or collectively. I take it that what counts as a reason for action is to be broadly construed. It isn’t only a matter of inferences from principles, for example; a reason to act could take the form of an imaginative redescription of the possibilities latent in a situation. Whatever its form, a reason specifies a purpose: action is intelligible only teleologically, for only a purpose can draw together a sequence of acts such that they are understood as one action. This is the “finality” of action. Spontaneity, then, characterizes acts by which agents commit themselves to purposes other than those to which they were previously committed, at either the individual or the collective level.

The problem with individual spontaneity is that it can be rendered “inert” – meaning, I take it, that it can fail to manifest itself, either by being “frozen into routinized or institutionalized forms” or by “outright oppression or by means of a dominating ideology” (30). Under these circumstances, collective action – “a spontaneity that is possible only in the spontaneity of others, in which each serves as the mediating third party to any other two” (30) – is required to alter the institutional conditions responsible for the inertia. The new purpose is now attributed to what Pinkard, following Wittgenstein at this point rather than Sartre, calls a “form of life,” i.e. “a way of being together” or, in Sartre’s own terms, a “praxis.”

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Wittgenstein on Absolute Value

Wittgenstein discusses “the state of mind in which one is inclined to say, ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens’” in his “Lecture on Ethics.”  He goes on to characterize this as “the experience of absolute safety,” and to associate it with being “safe in the hands of God.”

Wittgenstein then makes the point that the concept of absolute safety is nonsensical. One is safe relative to certain events or certain classes of events, depending on the circumstances. If you’re in your room, for example, you’re safe from being hit by a bus. But there is no possible world in which you are safe from everything.

The concept of absolute safety indicates the concept of absolute value, or actions that have value regardless of anyone’s desires or goals, and this is the mystery. We believe there are actions that are good or bad in themselves, not just relative to some condition. They seem oriented towards another world, one that constitutes a standard against which we should measure this one.

We’d like to put what is meant by absolute value into words, but words only represent what is, not what ought to be. When we try to express what ought to be, therefore, we end up reducing it to a mere state of affairs to which, if we like, we may then attach the label “good” or “bad.” That I regard acts of kindness as intrinsically good is a fact about me and my beliefs, not about what ought to be.

Puzzles like this indicate “the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion,” which is “to run against the boundaries of language.” To talk about absolute value is to talk about something that can’t be represented as if it were representable. But, Wittgenstein adds, the fact that ethical and religious talk is nonsense shouldn’t lead us to ridicule those who engage in it. On the contrary, one should try to talk ethics and religion even though the result will be nonsense.

Thomas Cole, Childhood, from The Voyage of Life, 1842.

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Technology, Tocqueville, and Freedom

On the technological understanding of being, according to Heidegger, we feel called upon to constantly enhance, optimize, and render ever-more-manipulable everything that exists, which we treat as flexible resources or means to ends. We don’t ask whether enhancing something will enable us to accomplish anything concrete; we’re just constantly on the alert for enhancement opportunities. The same is increasingly true for how we think about the norms that shape human behavior: human beings are the ultimate in flexible resources. There’s a compulsive dimension to our attitude to technology: we upgrade to the next upgrade whether we need to, or not. Technological objects have no enduring value; any given commodity is merely the latest stage of the endless process of perpetual improvement.

Precisely because everything is always being improved, we are haunted by the idea that nothing is as good as it will be. Already in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that Americans were “restless” in the midst of prosperity. This was because the idea of equality, which denies the supreme authority of any one standard of achievement, and suggests that new standards will always continue to appear, further suggests that humankind is indefinitely perfectible – but, since new standards are continually coming into being, what one is progressing towards necessarily remains vague. All one knows is that everything will soon be obsolete. Tocqueville illustrates the point as follows: Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022).

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.


Preface and Chapter 1: Spontaneity and Inertia.

Harry Frankfurt: “It is far from easy to explicate the difference between being active and being passive, and in fact philosophers have for some time generally neglected the task.” (“Identification and Externality,” in The Importance of What We Care About.) But Pinkard is taking it on with the help not only of Sartre but also that of Marx, Hegel, and Heidegger, whose thought Pinkard argues is essential to the concept of practical action presented in the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Sartre’s motive in writing the Critique has typically been regarded as political, but Pinkard is interested in the more purely philosophical problems that Sartre felt the need to confront. Unsurprisingly, Hegel and Marx loomed large, but so did the later Heidegger, and they all led Sartre to “rethink … the positions he had staked out early in his career … on meaning and practice” (xi.) More specifically, he was led to move from the standpoint of individual self-conscious subjectivity to that of “a kind of mutual self-relation of agents,” corresponding to Hegel’s transition in the Phenomenology from self-consciousness to spirit, i.e. “the I that is a We, and the We that is an I” (xiv-xv.) This required Sartre to overcome the “dualism between the active and the passive” so as to conceive action otherwise than in terms of “which part produced the other part, or where the ‘meaning’ came from” (xv).

Sartre’s aim in Critique of Dialectical Reason was not only to articulate and overcome the difference between being active (“spontaneity”) and being passive (“inertia”) but also, and relatedly, to establish the concept of a reflexive agent with the ability to take the initiative and innovate – a being in possession of what Hannah Arendt called the faculty of “natality.” Such an agent is understood to be “self-moving” (as opposed to the “inert,” or nature),  “attuned” to a background context, and “embodied,” hence subject to needs for natural or external goods. Continue reading

Stop Making Sense: The Tedium of Morality

In Beyond Good and Evil §228 Nietzsche says: “I hope to be forgiven for discovering that all moral philosophy hitherto has been tedious.” What’s so boring about moral philosophy?

For Nietzsche, the fundamental assumption underlying the moral tradition (and the Western philosophical tradition as a whole) is the idea that things ought to make sense. Nietzsche denies this premise. For Nietzsche, the deep truth about the human condition is that, at bottom, it’s senseless and without meaning. This is something, he thinks, we learn not from philosophy but rather from art – above all from ancient Greek tragedy, precisely what Plato, the father of philosophy, abhorred.

Any philosophical doctrine that fails to face up to the deep senselessness of the human condition, Nietzsche thinks, is doomed to superficiality. The moral philosopher is convinced that there are universal principles that ought to guide human conduct, that we can rely on our ability to reason impartially to work out what these are, that we can choose to act in accordance with them, that if everyone does so things should go well for us, and that, as reasonable beings, we should all want things to go well.

This, Nietzsche believes, is a banal view of the human condition, and it’s the moral philosopher’s banality that makes him or her boring. Stories about impartial do-gooders who see one another as equals and treat everyone fairly are sleep-inducing. Far more interesting are stories about people as they are – conflicted, partial, egoistic, ambivalent, given to misunderstandings, and, so far as morality is concerned, as Kenneth Burke put it, “rotten with perfection.”

Why do you think Jordan Peterson is wrong about postmodernism and what’s your alternative perspective?

The link below is to an article that represents the sum total of my knowledge of Jordan Peterson’s view of postmodernism. Everything I have to say about his criticisms of postmodernism is a response to these comments.

Postmodernism: definition and critique (with a few comments on its relationship with Marxism)

Jordan Peterson isn’t exactly wrong about postmodernism, but his account of it is oversimplified and exaggerated.

The version of postmodernism that Peterson has in his sights is what’s sometimes called “social constructivism.” As he presents it, the postmodern thesis is that there is an infinite number of ways the world can be perceived and interpreted, and all of them are equally valid (or invalid).

The idea, although Peterson doesn’t put it this way, is that when it comes to knowledge of what the world is like there is no fact of the matter. Instead, what counts as a fact is determined as such by an interpretation of the world. An implication is that something can be a fact for persons who share one interpretation of the world, and the opposite can be a fact for persons who share a different interpretation of the world.

For example, in the middle ages it was true that witches floated when thrown into the water. Nowadays, it’s true there is no such thing as witchcraft. For postmodernism, there’s no question of fact; these are merely two different interpretations.

According to Peterson’s version of postmodernism, when people argue that one interpretation is better than another, they are engaged in a struggle for power. Different interpretations benefit different groups because what count as facts relative to them will give an advantage to one group over another.

Peterson’s main criticism seems to be that, contrary to postmodernism, interpretations are not all equally valid. However, he doesn’t argue that some interpretations account for the facts better than others – at least not explicitly. Invoking Peirce and James, he says that a valid interpretation is one that achieves a “desired outcome.”

This is where he begins to go wrong. Continue reading

Søren Kierkegaard and Hubert Dreyfus on Social Media

Back in 1997, UC Berkeley philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus offered a diagnosis of the World Wide Web that, in retrospect, predicted with virtually 100 percent accuracy our socially networked democracy’s current predicament. Remarkably, he did this by applying to the Web as it was then an analysis of “the Press” and “the Public” worked out by Søren Kierkegaard in 1846. (See Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.)

Like so many of his colleagues and friends, I was interested in what Bert had to say about anything, and heard him present these views at the time. They eventually appeared in 2001 his On the Internet, which was revised and expanded in 2007 – still too early to understand the impact of social media. Although the book was well-reviewed, it didn’t (so far as I knew) elicit a sustained response, and as the years went by Bert’s reworking of Kierkegaard’s analysis slipped my mind. Recently, though, almost by accident, I ran into the transcript of a lecture he gave on the topic.

Kierkegaard, Bert began, was skeptical of what political philosophers and theorists of democracy call the public sphere. The public “took an interest in everything but were not committed to anything. [Kierkegaard] attributed this growing cultivation of curiosity and the consequent failure to distinguish the important from the trivial to the Press. Its new massive distribution of desituated information, he held, was making every sort of information immediately available to anyone, thereby producing an anonymous, detached spectator.” Continue reading

Truthfulness and Realism: Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

I’ve been teaching a course on philosophy and film. As it nears the end, I’m thinking about films that didn’t make it into the course but that could have and perhaps should have. This version of the course (I’ve taught it a few times) focused on the problem of identity and moral personhood: numerical identity in Inception and Solaris, for example, and differences between persons and what Harry Frankfurt calls “wantons” in A Clockwork OrangeThe Servant, and Vertigo, among others. We tended to focus more on content than form, but we were never very far from issues of truth, reality, and the art of film.  

Which made me want to identify films that bring these epistemological and ontological themes in both life and art together with personhood. In the films of Stanley Kubrick, there’s something of a dialectic between truthfulness and realism. Realism can reveal truth but also obscure it, and be obscured by it. And “realistic” isn’t the right word for the film I have in mind; “truthful” is closer to the mark. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) portrays intimate personal relationships truthfully. What does that mean?

The film is about a couple, Alice and Bill, who, although they’ve been married at least seven years, still seem to be adjusting to the transition from passionate love to a companionate marriage. When we first see them, as they are preparing to leave for a Christmas party, they are very much in the companionate mode: intimate and trusting, but something less than passionate. Continue reading