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

Wallace Stevens and the Cognitive Value of Form

There’s a tendency to find the cognitive value of art in its content rather than its form. This can focus the discussion on theme, which is one reason for skepticism about the cognitive value of art. When we paraphrase the theme of a poem, for example, it often looks rather thin. It may be cognitive, but it’s of little value.

Wallace Stevens’s poetry has cognitive content, but the cognitive value of his poetry is not only a matter of content. Stevens is interested, you might say, in the form of thinking.

Stevens is often accused of being emotionally cold, as if his attention to thinking came at the expense of feeling. But there’s a way of understanding what can seem like coldness as a device for encouraging us to reflect on an important mode of cognition, namely the experience of imaginative identification.

Much poetry solicits imaginative identification by means of empathy and sympathy. In empathy the reader is invited to share the point of view of the speaker, and in sympathy the reader is invited to share the goals of the speaker. Consider a classic of Romantic poetry: Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”

The poem provides many details about the speaker, which individuate him and invite us to imagine his point of view. We know that it’s been five years since he was at the river Wye, we know the impression the region made on him (“steep and lofty cliffs”), what it meant to him (“thoughts of deep seclusion”), and that it sustained him (“in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities”) over years of suffering. Having aroused our concern about what caused the speaker to suffer, we are led through the rest of the poem and finally see his point of view, that of a widower addressing his lost beloved.

Contrast this with Stevens’s poetry. In it, we typically learn virtually nothing of the speaker’s personal history, there is little effort to arouse our curiosity about him, and the feelings aroused or named are harder to get at compared with the drama of love, grief, and healing. The effect is to de-emphasize sympathy, empathy, and identification. Continue reading

What is Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”?

“The Origin of the Work of Art” (Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes) is an essay by Martin Heidegger, written and published in various versions from 1935 to 1960. It was drawn from lectures he gave during the same period.
It’s a rich, layered, and complex essay, and it has something to say about virtually everything pertaining to the philosophy of art and aesthetics – and much more.

One important theme is that art is not limited to aesthetic interests. Artworks are about something. They have what philosophers call intentional content. For Heidegger, that means that they are a source of truth, a way in which the world reveals itself. In fact, they exhibit the nature of truth itself, namely that it is “disclosure.” You might say that works of art disclose disclosure. In other words, they are reflexive: not only are they about something, they are about themselves.

Although Heidegger does discuss works of art such as paintings and poems, his main focus in the essay is on buildings that play an important role in the life of a community: the ancient Greek temples to Apollo, Athena, and Hera at Paestum; the Bamberg Cathedral. These works disclose, in an especially vivid, concrete, and immediate way, the understanding of Being shared by the members of their communities. The Greek temples crystalized the meanings of divinity, mortality, victory, and defeat; the Bamberg Cathedral illuminated the meanings of grace and sin.

Heidegger points out that the Greek temples no longer “work” – function – as they did in the past, because we don’t share the understanding of Being in terms of which they made sense. Ancient Greek artworks such as the Aegina sculptures in Munich have been “withdrawn” from their world, and we experience them aesthetically, not as disclosers of disclosure.

Continue reading