Some Notes on Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology (Ancient Technê and Modern Technology)
In the present day, technology is commonly understood as the knowledge of devising tools allowing for greater degrees of control, manipulation and understanding of the natural world. Yet the word technology derives from the ancient Greek concept of technê. What separates technê from technology?
What are the characteristics of ancient technê and how might they be characterized as poiesis? Heidegger claims that there is a major difference between the way the ancient Greeks dealt with the world and made things out of it, and the way we Moderns deal with the world and make things out of it.
1. Technê, for the Greeks, was a knowing how to reveal things hitherto in concealment into unconcealment. This, Heidegger calls ‘bringing-forth’. The ancient Greek method of crafting “…is described as a ‘bringing-forth’, a working in partnership or co-operation with the nature of materials to construct an artifact, such as a chair or a house.”
Techne, Carl Mitcham claims in his article “Philosophical Questions about Technê”, might be thought of as an artistic form of knowledge, one that bears directly on the material world, a form of knowledge that does not exist in abstraction as “pure theory”. This might seem awkward to us in the present day as ‘electrons’, ‘particles’, ‘waves’, etc…, the building blocks of our conception of nature, are often discernable only mediated or conceptualized through some other meditational apparatus or abstract schema.
Technê, for the ancients, refers to some form of making that arises from being conscious of the inner nature of materials. This consciousness is arrived at by habitually working with the materials. For Aristotle, “…the ‘why’ of a thing is grasped by its ‘material’ cause.”
But how is the individual user of technê understood in this regard? Mitcham quotes James Feibleman, who writes: “The human individual is [understood as] also a material object and if in harmony with his tools is capable of the depths of understanding of them as material objects when he has used them long enough.” One notes the relationship between this conception of technê and Aristotle’s claim that “Humans become builders by building”, a relationship that stresses how intertwined and connected the human is with the materials he or she utilizes and the degree to which technê results from a habitual familiarity with them.
But, just so that we do not rope ourselves into the world of the ancient Greeks, pre-modern artisans such as Michelangelo worked in the service of matter, understanding themselves not as imposing form onto a lifeless block of marble, but “releasing form imprisoned in a block of marble”. When asked how he made his statue of David, Michelangelo replied, “I just cut away everything that wasn’t David”.
Feibleman suggests that technê implies an “irreducible and non logical component”, a “mystical knowledge” of matter that arises from prolonged familiarity or habitual use of it. Heidegger calls this artistic and poetic mode of revealing “poiesis”.
2. What are the characteristics of modern technology and how might it be characterized as ‘standing-reserve’? In contrast to the poesis that characterizes techne, “the revealing that holds sway throughout modern technology does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis.” The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which, according to Heidegger, puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.
It is this mode of revealing, a challenging of the natural world, that he comes to call ‘standing-reserve’. Modern technology operates by ordering and arranging the world as standing-reserve.
This way of ordering and arranging the world as standing-reserve is symbolic of the particular Enframing that is, for Heidegger, the essence of modern technology. In contrast to the practitioner of technê, the contemporary technologist is described as “challenging-forth” or changing the nature of materials to make them stronger, more flexible, longer lasting, etc. For example, [using technê] a doctor may “bring forth” the already available health of an individual through medicine whereas cloning or genetic engineering “challenge” the natural bounds of the body creating a wholly new “artifact” with different characteristics.
As Heidegger details, earlier human inventions did not permanently impose a new form onto nature. Under normal conditions, because the material of an artifact was still bound by natural characteristics, nature would always “shine through” the imposition of the artist, craftsman or technician. A carpenter imposes the form of a chair onto wood but once the chair is finished that wood still maintains its natural tendency to rot and decompose in the same way a fallen tree rots and decomposes on the forest floor.
In other words, the craftsman’s chair is a site of openness for the revealing of nature. And, because this revealing comes through an artifact, it is all the more stark and tangible. The rotting of our chair or our wood cabin is more significant to us than the decomposition of a dead tree.
The notion of a ‘bringing-forth’ is indeed barely intelligible today. Heidegger likely, if he were alive, would react to Toronto’s downtown core – replete with its advertising towers, concrete and total lack of a holistic sensibility, with a sense of disgust. Following his claim that we no longer let nature ‘shine through’ the objects we create, he might look around at the synthetic materials that comprise Yonge and Dundas square, for example, and feel himself in a ‘wholly new’ world, one whose only tie to the ‘natural’ is the fact that this ‘new world’ was built out of the ‘old world’, an ‘old world’ thrown into a blender without any care for its intrinsic value. Once nature becomes wholly anthropocentric, for Heidegger, it can no longer shine through except for the shine that humans have created, demanded and commanded of it.