Some Notes on Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology (World Picture, Subject, Technique)

Heidegger tries to show that amidst modern technology people (or ‘subjects’) become “functionaries of enframing”. To do so, in his essay “The Age of the World Picture” he explicitly links the ‘subject’ with its ‘world-view’. Enframing, in Heideggerese, is “what assembles that placing, which places (or commandeers) man to unconceal the actual in the manner of the placing an order for it as standing-reserve”.

Importantly, how the human being (called ‘man’ by Heidegger in the quote above) considers him or herself is deeply a part of how enframing plays out. One of Heidegger’s greatest fears throughout his works on technology concern the possibility of not only nature, but the human becoming “bestand” or ‘manpower’. He offers a dark vision of the human understood as a stockpile of resources, symbolized forcefully for Heidegger by the widely used term ‘human resource(s)’.

Now, I’m no expert, but there’s a passage in Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man where the Cartesian cogito seems to be linked to a certain view of “nature” and the reigning form of “technics”:

The Cartesian division of the world has also been questioned on its own grounds. Husserl pointed out that the Cartesian Ego was, in the last analysis, not really an in- dependent substance hut rather the “residue” or limit of quantification; it seems that Galileo’s idea of the world as a “universal and absolutely pure” res extensa dominated a priori the Cartesian conception. In which case the Cartesian dualism would be deceptive, and Descartes’ thinking ego-substance would be akin to the res extensa, anticipating the scientific subject of quantifiable observation and measurement. Descartes’ dualism would already imply its negation; it would clear rather than block the load toward the establishment of a one-dimensional scientific universe in which nature is “objectively of the mind,” that is, of the subject. And this subject is related to its world in a very special way:

“. . . la nature est mise sous le signe de l’homme actif, de l’homme inscrivant la technique dans la nature. (translation : “Nature is placed under the sign Of active man, of the man who inscribes  technique in nature,” Gaston Bachelard, L’Activité rationaliste de la psysique contemporaine.)

The science of nature develops under the technological a priori which projects nature as potential instrumentality, stuff of control and organization, And the apprehension of nature as (hypothetical) instrumentality precedes the development of all particular technical organization:

“Modern man takes the entirety of Being as raw material for production and subjects the entirety of the object-world to the sweep and order of production (Herstellen).” “. . . the use of machinery and the production of machines is not technics itself but merely an adequate instrument for the realization (Einrichtung) of the essence of technics in its objective raw material.” (Quote from Martin Heidegger’s Holzwege)

In this long quote we see how a ‘world-view’ (“Galileo’s idea of the world as a ‘universal and absolutely pure’ res extensa”), renders intelligible a ‘self/subject’ for whom “nature is ‘objectively of the mind’”, which in turn “subjects the entirety of the object-world to the sweep and order of production (Herstellen)”.

The cogito [self/subject] does not exist independently, but as a residue of some a priori [world-view] and the way that it “pursues its course, the way in which [it] [“inscribes ‘technique’ in nature”] [allowing it to] remain throughout time what it is” Our sense of ourselves changes in relation to the way we act on objects. The way we act on objects is dependent on a world that accommodates those actions.

Throughout “The Age of the World Picture” Heidegger argues that the subject, the subiectum, is not anything wholly new. He explains: “We must understand this word subiectum, however, as the translation of the Greek hypokeimenon. This word names that-which-lies-before, which, as ground, gathers everything onto itself”. Indeed Descartes’ subject, the cogito, derives from the Greek hypokeimenon. The Greek hypokeimenon was transformed into the Cartesian hypokeimenon. (see Lovitt’s introduction to Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology p. xxvi) For Heidegger, this transformation occurs when “man becomes the primary and only real subiectum…Man is the relational centre of that which is as such…”.

The Cartesian hypokeimenon, subiectum, or subject(ive), is conditioned by a certain understanding of the objective. This has something to do with what Heidegger calls “the modern world picture” – a conception of the world, the way the world is understood and thought. And Heidegger’s entire point – across both The Question Concerning Technology and “Age of the World Picture” might be read that that the ‘essence’ of the modern subject cannot be understood without an examination of (a) how the world is gathered unto the subiectum, (b) how this gathering is fostered by a particular world-picture, and (c) how this gathering of the world as world-picture before the subiectum gathers insofar as there are technologies (i.e. of Standing-Reserve) that allow for it.

Consider this key statement from William Lovitt’s introduction to Heidegger’s work on technology:

“Reality, as ‘nature’, is represented as a manifold of cause and effect coherences. So represented, nature becomes amenable to experiment. But this does not happen simply because nature intrinsically is of this character; rather it happens, Heidegger avers, specifically because man himself represents nature as of this character and then grasps and investigates it according to methods that, not surprisingly, fit perfectly the reality so conceived. (Lovitt, introduction to Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology, p. xxvii)”

For example, our techniques (ways of knowing, researching, etc…) have “disposal over anything that is when [they] can either calculate it in its future course in advance… Nature, as being calculated in advance…become[s], as it were, ‘set in place’ [gestell]”. Now, the human must locate itself, its sense of ‘I’ness in the same calculated and certain manner. This setting in place, can be seen, for Heidegger, in the “fact that man frees himself from the bonds of the Middle Ages in freeing himself to himself”. But the important point that follows from this is that “what is decisive is not that man frees himself to himself from previous obligations, but that the very essence of man itself changes, in that man becomes subject”.

The ‘subject’, as it comes to be articulated by Descartes, is separated from the things being investigated. The scientist – for example – becomes distanced (epistemologically) from the world, unable to conceive himself as fully immersed in a network of relations as the ancient Greeks, for Heidegger, were.

The modern ‘subject’ derives from a world-picture that permits, and fosters, a certain conception of space: a space that does not permit (a) the intertwining of body and world, (b) the possibility of a thing possessing a non quantifiable being, and (c) knowing to have a non-logical component.

One can tell much about the contemporary ‘subject’ by its orientation to the ‘object’, that is, the ‘world’ and its associated ‘techniques’. Conceiving of matter as lifeless or inert extension, the contemporary ‘subject’ exclaims: ‘What is so special about a plant? I don’t need to touch it to know what it is and how it works.  That is what I have the Discovery Channel for.  A plant is merely a plant, the same as any other plant. I know from the theories posited in my biology text book that it is composed of plant cells and grows through the explicative mechanism of photosynthesis! I know, furthermore, that these photosynthetic cells are simply composed of atoms and these atoms ultimately composed of code, of DNA! That is what the plant is. If I don’t like the plant, I can move it elsewhere and it will continue to be a plant won’t it? I’ll just give you the GPS co-ordinates. What is the big deal?’

Are we surprised that technê appears incommensurate with our modern understanding of technology? Indeed, the two seem very far opposed. Something else is at work in modern technology.

Likewise, while the pre-Socratic individual indeed walked upright on two legs, it bears little semblance to the Modern conception of the ‘subject’. Both, however, can be understood as having, during the time they lived, an ‘essence’. The essence of the contemporary subject is indeed the enframing that “gathers man hither to order the self-revealing as standing-reserve”. The essence of the Greek subject is – I think – the [stellen] that gathers man hither to order the self-revealing as poesis… (a little help from the Heidegger experts out there???)

While we can, and ought to, challenge Heidegger’s rather dubious argument that ‘poiesis’ can be understood as a truer and more authentic frame of enframing than ‘standing-reserve’ is, we learn from his thought that the two do not fall out of the realm of abstract Ideas, but are deeply related to their historical contexts. They are, in a sense, deeply related to their ‘world-view’. The essence of technology then, for Heidegger, calls us to consider the entire historical-social-material constellation of ‘world view’-‘subject/self’-‘technique’.


~ by dccohen on March 17, 2010.

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