The Question Concerning Technology

four causes

For German philosopher Martin Heidegger broadly, the question of being formed the essence of his philosophical inquiry.

In ‘The Question Concerning Technology‘ (‘Die Frage nach der Technik’), Heidegger sustains this inquiry, but turns to the particular phenomenon of technology, seeking to derive the essence of technology and humanity’s role of being with it. Heidegger originally published the text in 1954, in ‘Vorträge und Aufsätze’ (‘Letters and Essays’).

‘The Question Concerning Technology’ was originally named ‘The Framework’ and first presented in late 1949 as the second of four lectures, collectively called ‘Insight into what is.’ The other lectures were titled ‘The Thing,’ ‘The Danger,’ and ‘The Turning.’ An opening to understanding his discussion is the somewhat mythical concept of ‘that which precedes all: the earliest.’ For Heidegger, everything has an essence, but that essence is concealed to humans. To access this essence, we must engage in ‘a painstaking effort to think through still more primally what was primally thought’; this is ‘not the absurd wish to revive what is past, but rather the sober readiness to be astounded before the coming of the dawn.’

The ideal, then, is the ‘bringing-forth,’ in Greek ‘poiesis’: bringing-forth is to challenge the unconcealment of the essence, rather than to accept the concealed, what we see without or before poiesis. Heidegger writes: ‘”Bringing-forth brings out of concealment into unconcealment. Bringing-forth propriates only insofar as something concealed comes into unconcealment. This coming rests and moves freely within what we call revealing [das Entbergen]. The Greeks have the word aletheia for revealing. The Romans translate this with veritas. We say ‘truth’ and usually understand it as correctness of representation.’

The ideal here is the attainment of ‘truth,’ or ‘correctness of representation,’ because the forms we see are figures of concealed histories; the true forms are concealed, and only through ‘unconcealment,’ or the removal of that which is concealed, can we access the truth. Heidegger turns to technology, the nominative subject of the essay, etymologically: the word stems from the Greek ‘techne,’ which is ‘the name not only for the activities and skills of the craftsman but also for the arts of the mind and the fine arts.’ For the Greeks, techne was intimately linked to poiesis, the poetic, and thus linked to the ‘bringing forth’ so essential in the pursuit of aletheia/veritas/truth.

Technology, in its modern form, is thought more as manufacturing; in revealing the Greek origins of the modern term, Heidegger initiates his discussion of technology: ‘It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techne is a bringing-forth […]. Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.’ In this initiation, he performs his argument, by bringing-forth the concealed roots of the word ‘technology.’ In doing so, he asserts that modern technology, as with techne, is a bringing-forth, a revealing. Focusing his terminology further, he writes, ‘the revealing that rules modern technology is a challenging.’ Heidegger aligns a slew of terms all of which are modes toward aletheia/veritas/truth: ‘bringing-forth [Her-vor-bringen],’ ‘unconcealment,’ ‘revealing [das Entbergen],’ and ‘challenging [Herausfordern].’

Unconcealing his questioning concerning technology further, Heidegger aims centrally at defining modern technology’s essence, which he names ‘Gestell [enframing].’ Here, ‘Enframing means the gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e. challenges him forth, to reveal the actual, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.’ Put just as unlucidly, enframing refers to the calling out, impelling, or challenging-forth, of humans to reveal, or unconceal the ‘actual’ (the aletheia/veritas/truth) as ever-present and ‘on call’ (the ‘standing-reserve’). Put differently, ‘Enframing, as a challenging-forth into ordering, sends into a way of revealing. Enframing is an ordaining of destining, as is every way of revealing. Bringing-forth, poiesis, is also a destining in this sense.’ Enframing is ‘destining,’ from which ‘the essence of all history is determined.’ Enframing is the essence of modern technology, for Heidegger, because he roots modern technology in techne: it is a means for sourcing true forms and ideas that exist before the figures we perceive.

Heidegger employs the hydroelectric power plant and the windmill as examples of how this historic mode of unconcealment as enframing has fundamentally altered man’s relationship with technology and by extension too the natural world. In effect, the distinction between these two man-made entities is elemental to the overall understanding of different epochs of Being. In one sense, the Windmill comes from an older or primordial period of Being whereby man merely sought to use the distinctive forces of nature in a more harmonious fashion when compared to the monstrosity that is the hydroelectric power plant.

The construction and development of the hydroelectric power plant along the Rhine River bring about a series of revelations relating to the meaning of Being. Man has set about to challenge nature, and therefore modern technology is the means and activity through which this challenge comes into existence. In Heidegger’s words, ‘The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command.

This passage essentially asserts that, although the meaning of Being appears to be more obscured as technology becomes increasingly complex, it is still there. One has to look a bit closer at the specific processes involved with modern machinery in order to capture a small piece of the essence of Being. So whenever a man switches on a light, he ought to recognize that the energy required to power the light is one distinct process with respect to the bringing-forth of Being. We, as human beings, have elementally, if not permanently, altered our relationship to Being through the advent of modern technological undertakings. Further, there is nothing technological about the essence of technology, as Heidegger has shown that technology’s ultimate essence resides in a rather poetic dwelling near the truth of Being.

Therein lies the crucial question of Heidegger’s argument: what is the role of humans in enframing, in unconcealing and revealing the truth? Heidegger engages with this question for the remainder of the essay, for humanity’s passive or active engagement with modern technology defines its ‘danger’ or ‘saving power.’ ‘As the one who is challenged forth in this way, man stands with the essential realm of enframing.’ Enframing is the putting-in-position of man to reveal the actual as original; if enframing is the essence of modern technology, then the essence of modern technology is this putting-in-position of man to reveal the actual as original and still present, if concealed.

Yet the role of humans is nevertheless limited. The truth exists outside of human work, and so he only ‘takes part in ordering as a way of revealing […] the unconcealment itself, within which ordering unfolds, is never a human handiwork.’ Put differently, ‘Does such revealing happen somewhere beyond all human doing? No. But neither does it happen exclusively in man, or definitively through man.’ Enframing is ‘never human handiwork,’ does not happen ‘beyond all human doing,’ and yet does not happen ‘in man’ or ‘through man.’ Perhaps because of this ambiguity of human agency in enframing, Heidegger sees great potential for both danger and saving power in human engagement with modern technology. Indeed, it is so imperative because ‘man becomes truly free only insofar as he belongs to the realm of destining and so becomes one who listens, though not one who simply obeys.’ Humans are incarcerated because we do not know the origins; to find them, we must ‘listen but not simply obey.’ But freedom is only the means to the true aim, for ‘to occurrence of revealing, i.e. truth, freedom stands in the closest and most intimate kinship.’

Whether modern technology realizes its (or humans realize technology’s) ‘supreme danger’ or ‘saving power’ seems to lie with humans’ ability to listen, reflect, and witness. The grave danger emerges from humans standing ‘so decisively in subservience to on [sic] the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he exists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.’ For Heidegger, ‘enframing is a claim,’ as a declamation or a claim on land, and humans’ inability or unwillingness to ‘listen, but not obey’ to the challenging-forth of modern technology represents the greatest danger, for then the technology becomes determinant of its truth, rather than humans becoming cognizant of concealed truth.

Conversely, the key to realizing the ‘saving power’ of modern technology lies in pondering, and witnessing, its ‘essential unfolding,’ the unfolding of its essence. Rather than becoming ‘transfixed in the will to master it [technology as instrument],’ ‘when … we ask how the instrumental unfolds essentially as a kind of causality, then we experience this essential unfolding as the destining of a revealing.’ As Heidegger turns to the potential ‘saving power’ of modern technology, his diction becomes admittedly ‘in a lofty sense ambiguous.’ At the end of the essay, truth becomes a ‘constellation, the stellar course of the mystery.’

Etymologically, in German ‘konstellation’ finds kinship with the German for enframing, ‘Gestell,’ suggesting their alignment. Imagistically, Heidegger conjures the night sky, innumerable points of light immeasurably distant from human perception; each point, if possible to challenge-forth, would lead towards ‘the growing light’ and the ‘shining forth’ of an individual star, immeasurably bright, with its own origin, Heidegger’s ‘the earliest.’ Yet we also know that many of the stars in today’s night sky have long since died, lost their source of light, suggesting that while pondering the essential unfolding of modern technology may escape danger, and may hold saving power, it may not lead us to ultimate truth.

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2 Comments to “The Question Concerning Technology”

  1. A previous version of this post used artwork by Barry Bruner.

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