Some Notes on Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology (Questioning, World-View, Essence)

The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology. The actual threat has already affected him in his essence. The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.” – Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

One cannot simply be interested in the production of subjectivity (or selfhood) without turning to the reigning techniques and the dominant world-view(s). So how can we begin asking the question of subjectivity? Are we not trapped in a game of ‘whether the chicken or the egg came first’? No, even this game does not suffice because the three factors (1. Subjectivity or Selfhood, 2. Technique, and 3. World-View) are interrelated. With which do we begin our analysis?

Let’s say we want to consider the encounter between an individual subject and some technology. Where can we begin? By questioning. Questioning? I can hear the complaint already… ‘Questioning is so passé: we know better than to ask questions, for if we do, we expect an answer! As good left wing, postmodern, academics we ought shudder at the term ‘answer’, for it evokes the demons of metanarrative, grand-truth, and progress’. Blah Blah Blah.

Studies of subjectivity and technology (or subjectivity/selfhood and reigning techniques) often presume that the contemporary age exists in a vacuum. Questioning interrogates this idea. But how? First, notice that an examination of the dominant world-view tends to be absent from studies which emphasize the relationship between subjectivity/selfhood and technology/technique.

We have a tendency to expect studies of technologies to present an examination of cause-and-effect relationships between people and their techniques (i.e. 14 to 16 year old kids in Texas and iPods). Too often we assume that technology is merely the application of scientific rationality for some human defined end. It is equally common (in academic writing) to find vacuous studies of the myriad networks between social actors and their artifacts. Likewise, we are knee deep in popular science studies claiming something like: ‘Progress in the physical sciences has resulted in the marvels of fiber optics, computer processors, etc…, and with the use of these marvelous advancements, technicians – shaped usually by powerful corporate interests – have created personal computation devices capable of accelerating human evolution by running software that allow consumers to communicate with one another instantaneously in a virtual space.’

Too often we are engaged in studies and are not questioning our relationship with technology. Questioning – in contrast to these studies – has something to do with a consideration of the dominant world-view.

For Heidegger, studies of the cause and effect (or instrumental) relationship between human beings and technologies is ‘correct’, they they not ‘true’. In The Question Concerning Technology, he explains why this is so:

“[W]e have said, did we not, that the instrumental definition of technology is correct? To be sure. The correct always fixes upon something pertinent in whatever is under consideration. However, in order to be correct, this fixing by no means needs to uncover the thing in question in its essence. Only at that point where such an uncovering happens does the true come to pass. For that reason the correct is not yet the true. Only the true brings us into a free relationship with that which concerns us from out of its essence. Accordingly, the correct instrumental definition of technology still does not show us technology’s essence.” -Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

In the quote above, Heidegger explains that in order to be ‘correct’ one must fix upon – and uncover – the thing in its essence. It is not enough to observe and comment on how human beings interact with technologies. Now we have three terms floating around ‘essence’, ‘questioning’ and ‘world-view’. According to Heidegger, questioning technology shows us technology’s essence. But this essence is – as I want to demonstrate in this series of posts – not some trans-historical essence, but one that is entirely historical. The essence of technology shown to us by questioning is related to the history of our world view.

This, to some extent, explains Heidegger’s assertion that “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological”. Studies of instrumental (means to an end) or anthropological (a human activity) interactions do not ask the question of essence, that is, of “the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains throughout time what it is”. But Heidegger’s questioning involves contrasting modern technology with ancient techne. We can understand the essence of modern technology once we have contrasted the ancient and modern world view. Our modern, technological, activities are intelligible against the horizon of the dominant modern world view.

In my next post I’ll attempt this questioning by contrasting the ancient and modern world-views and demonstrate how they map on to the essence of ancient techne and the essence of modern technology…

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~ by dccohen on March 4, 2010.

2 Responses to “Some Notes on Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology (Questioning, World-View, Essence)”

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