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.

Is this the right way to understand technology? It’s an arresting picture of the ideal technological world, but I see no reason to believe that technological comportment is what we share with others at the most fundamental level. Take the last presidential election. For Heidegger, it would be nothing more than a momentary state of a system in which candidates, voters, money, advertising, news, and ballots are ordered and re-ordered in ways that make them maximally useful to the ongoing functional requirements of the political system. Certainly that’s one way to look at it. But most of us, I believe, understood the election as a civic right and duty by means of which the Republic withdrew consent from one government and bestowed it upon another. To paraphrase Heidegger, the essence of politics is nothing technological.

On the other hand, Heidegger’s vision of technological comportment surely captures something about the modern world. I would supplement it with Albert Borgmann’s “device paradigm,” in which specifically modern technology embodies the belief that we should get whatever we want, whenever we want it, effortlessly, by operating instruments we know how to manipulate but aren’t required to understand. Borgmann thinks that too much reliance on such devices makes us passive and superficial, and surely that’s right up to a point. On the other hand, how one uses a device also depends on one’s character. A smart phone can be used to gossip endlessly with people you don’t really know, or it can be used to make a moving and meaningful film. What’s pacifying for one kind of person can be activating for another.

The value of Heidegger’s concept of the essence of technology for understanding the technological world is ambiguous. Its enduring value has to do with the role it plays in Heidegger’s history of Being. It brings his story about the forgetting of Being to a sharply focused climax, and throws into bold relief the question he insists on: whether or not we will understand ourselves as receivers of meanings of Being. The question of the value of Heidegger’s concept of technology is downstream from the question of the value of his larger understanding of the ontological history of the West.

Below, what preparing a meal looks like in the mode of presencing known as technology.

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