Some Notes on Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology (Ancient and Modern Ontologies of Matter)

Neither time nor space, physicists now broadly propose, had existence (let alone meaning) before matter; the objective qualities of physical time-space cannot be understood, therefore independently of the qualities of material processes. It is, however, by no means necessary to subordinate all objective conceptions of time and space to this particular physical conception, since it, also, is a construct that rests upon a particular version of the constitution of matter and the origin of the universe. -David Harvey

The conception of a planetary Earth was the first successful break with a constitutive element of the ancient world view. Though intended solely as an astronomical reform, it had destructive consequences which could be resolved only within a new fabric of thought. Copernicus himself did not supply that fabric; his own conception of the universe was closer to Aristotle’s than to Newton’s. But the new problems and suggestions that derived from his innovation are the most prominent landmarks in the development of the new universe which that innovation had itself called forth. -Thomas Kuhn

Prior to understanding the difference between Greek technê and modern technology I want to clarify what type of self and what type of world-view is required for technê and what type of self and what type of world-view is required for modern technology.

We might – ultimately – ask the questions: What type of world-view fosters technê and what type of self acts with technê? And on the other hand, what type of world-view fosters modern technology and what type of self acts with modern technology?

In his book on Heidegger, Mark Wrathall explains: “There has been a succession of different worlds, each with its own essence. These worlds will organize entities into different orders of intelligibility, and thus give their inhabitants very different understandings of how to conduct their lives”. Likewise, the contrast between technê and technology, as will become clear, is not unrelated to the contrast between the self living in an Aristotelian universe and a self living in a Copernican universe.

What difference is there between the way we use our tools and the way the ancients used theirs? First, as Carl Mitcham suggests, the hiatus between the Ancient and Modern is premised on a divergent “conception of matter”, a differing “ontology or metaphysics of matter”, which determines how we work and “…the structure of the working itself”. Second, are observations made by Heidegger (and later phenomenologists) that we moderns rarely ever approach things in their own nature, but only by projecting and cognizing of the things in the world.  As a result, modern technology is often abstract, bearing more on representational theory than on crafting something in the world.

Carl Mitcham explains that the pre-modern or classical “ontology or metaphysics of matter” was a living reality “ordered toward taking on form, in accord with the form it already possesses and the potentialities contained therein”. It seems a tremendous leap to attempt to apply the pre-modern or classical notion of technê to a post-modern world.  The ontological understanding of matter differs drastically between the two world-views.

Mitcham notes that Aristotle understood matter as being connected to cosmic processes and having a “desire”, not a lifeless, neutral substance for us to impose our will upon. (The latter characterization, of nature as a neutral substance for us to impose our will upon, should sound familiar for most moderns.)

In fact, we think of ourselves as subjects, as subiectum, as Heidegger will point out in his Age of the World Picture, in direct relation to our conceptualizations of matter. There could be no modern ‘subject’ without a certain type of ‘world’ or ‘object’.

The ontological shift that makes way for contemporary understandings of subject and object is usually thought to have occurred in the 17th century with the rise of Cartesian and Newtonian understandings of space, understandings that are incommensurate with the prior Aristotelian universe.

But one could argue that this is incorrect, and that the shift begins far earlier than the 17th century, but that it has become increasingly noticeable throughout time. We might even locate the shift, which prepares the way for a properly Modern conception of space, occurring as far back as Plato:

We look to the role of khôra (or the receptacle) in Plato’s late dialougue Timaeus (Plato 49a, 52b,ff).  The khôra is described as a third kind of thing between the Forms and Corporeality. The world of Becoming finds itself in the ‘space’ of the khôra, an enduring neutral substratum devoid of having any characteristics in its own right. (In the Timaeus, khôra represents “bastard reasoning / insensibility”, as opposed to the forms which represent intellect, or sensible things which represent opinion. In its absoluteness, the “bastard reasoning” of the khôra, demands the negation of the One and the Good and stands opposed to God.) All becoming, all space, subsists in the khôra. There is, in other words, something Modern in Plato’s discussion of the khôra. In a way, it is this late Platonic dialogue that truly puts the technological in its place. Notice the similarities between the khôra and the description of the Modern theory of matter in the citation below:

Instead of a potentially unknowable in itself yet ordered toward something higher, matter began to be conceived of as separated from any cosmic process.  This trend is easily exemplified by the Cartesian theory of matter as lifeless extension, in itself ordered toward nothing, something to do with as one pleases.  More succinctly, matter ceased to be thought of as in any sense living — as having, as it were, any spiritual aspirations of its own. – Carl Mitcham

When we utilize modern technologies we understand ourselves as knowing about or interacting with matter that is opposed to form, matter that is seen as absolute extension. Since the receptacle/khora exists in substrate to the forms and sensible things, modern technology is informed by something akin to this idea, operating with a Newtonian/Euclidian grid lying in substrate to anything else. (ex. Newton held absolute space time to be independent of the matter that affected it.) This shift designates matter as lifeless extension whose natural masters are those whose gaze is informed by the objective, Euclidian and geometric lens of the physical sciences.

So modern technology is demonstrative of our interaction with matter informed by the “modern ontology or metaphysics of matter”. It makes possible a type of self, a ‘subject’, who can imagine him or herself as distinct from the materials around him or herself. Lifeless matter exists in absolute space, identifiable by its position in space, in the same manner as one might track the location of objects on a grid – a mathematical abstraction of a physical terrain.


~ by dccohen on March 7, 2010.

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