CriticaLink | Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology | Guide to pp. 325-328

"We dare to use this word in a sense that has been thoroughly unfamiliar up to now. . ."

The German word Gestell has a number of meanings, some of which Heidegger mentions: rack, skeleton--the basic sense is of an armature or framework. Heidegger develops a new application of this term to describe how human beings have come to relate to the natural world.

Heidegger makes a brief detour here to justify his coining of a new term from an everyday word. He returns to the Greek word eidos, familiar to us from the example of the chalice, and explains how Plato redefined this word. Eidos originally designated the outward, visible appearance of an object; Plato, however, uses the word to mean the abstract, universal essence of that object: the "chaliceness" of the chalice is the eidos. From Plato's redefinition comes our word "idea." Heidegger's use of Gestell, or "enframing," follows a similar path: he takes a word meaning something concrete (a bookshelf, for example), and uses it to designate something abstract.

We often hear people criticized for wanting to "put everything into boxes." This expression usually means that a person thinks uncreatively, narrowly, with too high a regard for established categories. The "frame" metaphor in Heidegger's concept of "enframing" corresponds to these "boxes," but for Heidegger, all of us have a tendency to think in this way.

We noted before that nature reveals itself to us in its own terms, and all that humanity can directly control is its orientation to the natural world. We should think of "nature" here in the broadest sense, as the entire realm of the non-human--but also including such things as our physical bodies, over which we have only limited control. What characterizes the essence of modern technology, for Heidegger, is the human impulse to put the world "into boxes," to enclose all of our experiences of the world within categories of understanding--mathematical equations, physical laws, sets of classifications--that we can control.

When Heidegger states that "the essence of technology is by no means anything technological," he means that technology's driving force is not located in machines themselves, nor even in the various human activities that are associated with modern modes of production. In his example of the automobile, the parts the make up the machine as well as the labor of the factory workers all belong to technology, but are not its essence. The "frame of mind" that views the world--its reserves of metal ore, its chemical structures, its human population--as raw materials for the production of automobiles approaches more closely what Heidegger means by the essence of technology. Heidegger's argument, however, is more far-reaching. He claims that enframing stems from the human drive for a "precise" and "scientific" knowledge of the world.

Heidegger now sets out to place technology within the history of the modern sciences. He makes the remarkable suggestion that in at least one sense modern technology comes before the development of modern physics and actually shapes that development. This claim will make sense to us if we remember that for Heidegger the essence of technology is that orientation to the world he calls "enframing." Insofar as the human drive for a precise, controllable knowledge of the natural world paves the way for modern physics, we can say that "enframing," and thus the essence of modern technology, precedes and determines the development of modern science.

Where does this enframing tendency of human thought begin? Heidegger does not answer this question here, but rather describes the philosophical context in which that question can be asked. For Heidegger, philosophy is "the painstaking effort to think through still more primally what was primally thought" (303). His fascination for ancient philosophy and his interest in tracing back the meanings of words is, of course, closely related to his larger project of uncovering the "primal" significance of important concepts. For him, what is most primal is also the most enduring; the most fundamental concepts are those that will continue to shape the concepts that come after.

One of Heidegger's clearest statements of what he means by "enframing" appears in his discussion of the dilemma of modern physicists, who are discovering that that the physical world does not lend itself to measurement and observation as readily as they once thought. Physics, Heidegger argues, is bound to a particular way of looking at the world:

that nature reports itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and that it remains orderable as a system of information. This system is then determined by a causality that has changed once again. (304)
The model of causality that shapes modern physics, Heidegger goes on to say, is neither the "original" Greek one of "ways of being responsible" nor the traditional one of the four causa, but a model of "numbers crunching" in which things exist and come into existence only insofar as they can be measured.

We often think of technology as the "application" of the discoveries of science. Much of the discipline of "Applied Physics" is devoted to the construction and testing of useful devices. Heidegger concludes this section by reminding us that the essence of technology precedes the historical emergence of both modern science and modern machine production. In that sense, we might view modern science as the "application" of enframing. But Heidegger has yet another question: what, exactly, is enframing?

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