CriticaLink | Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology | Guide to pp. 328-333

"We are questioning concerning technology in order to bring to light our relationship to its essence. . ."

It is not enough, Heidegger tells us, to have identified enframing as the essence of modern technology. We need to determine how we, as human beings, stand in relation to technology.

Throughout the essay, Heidegger writes as if humanity's "enframing" orientation to the world were an inevitable outgrowth of the history of human consciousness. In this next section, he emphasizes this point, stating that the question about how we are to relate to technology always comes "too late," since we are already caught up in an enframing view of nature as much as we are caught up in the concrete realities of technological development. We can, however, gain some perspective on our own orientation to the world, and thus achieve a perspective on technology.

What comes next is crucial for Heidegger's argument. Heidegger will characterize how human history is related to the historical development of technology, and he will begin to suggest how humanity might come into the "free relationship to technology"--which is, remember, the aim of his essay.

He approaches the subject by way of a play on words: Geschichte, the German word for "history," and Geschick, the word for "destiny," derived from the verb schicken, "to send." The human drive to obtain a quantifiable and controllable knowledge of the world "sends" humanity on the way to an orientation that views the world as a set of raw materials, as "standing-reserve," culminating in modern technology. From the primal relationship in which the physical world reveals itself to humanity on its own terms, humanity moves into an enframing relationship with the world. Within this relationship, however, the earlier relationship is mainitained: humanity is still experiencing the world as the world reveals itself.

Because enframing does not utterly change humanity's connection to the world, there is room, even within enframing, for a different--we might say "renewed"--orientation to the world. It is not exactly right to speak of enframing as an inevitable development of humanity's interaction with the world--Heidegger cautions against a fatalistic view of technology's incursion into our lives. We can neither throw up our hands in the face of the problems brought on by technology, nor, as Heidegger writes, can we a "rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil" (307).

Once we realize that our own orientation to the world is the essence of technology, once we "open ourselves," in Heidegger's words, to this essence, we find an opportunity to establish a free relationship to technology. We have a choice, which Heidegger characterizes this way:

  • Humanity can continue on its path of enframing, of "pushing forward nothing but what is revealed in ordering," and structure its life according to the rules and values of this orientation. Heidegger seems here to be invoking an image of a technological dystopia, of the kind we see in films such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis or Terry Gillian's Brazil.

    which would cancel out the other possibility:

  • Humanity can come to realize that it, too, is "on its way" to an arrival, and that only by re-orienting itself to the way in which nature reveals itself can humanity establish a relationship with the world that is not ultimately self-destructive.

What Heidegger views as the danger associated with technology is not so much the direct effects of mechanization. It might be easiest to characterize Heidegger's sense of the danger as a threat to humanity's "spiritual" life, but we should be careful not to associate with Heidegger's thought too many assumptions about "spirituality" in the sense of traditional religions (in spite of the fact that Heidegger's early training was in theology, a field in which he maintained a life-long interest). Heidegger's description of this danger has four main elements:

  • In continuing on the path of enframing, humanity will eventually reach a point at which the human, too, becomes only so much "standing-reserve."

  • Humanity's overinflated sense of its power over the natural world will result in humanity's coming to believe that humanity has control over all existence.

  • This excessive pride leads ultimately to the "delusion" that humanity encounters itself and only itself everywhere it looks--a kind of narcissism at the species level.

  • Finally, such an orientation to the world will blind humanity to the ways in which the world reveals itself. In spite of (in fact, because of) the entire set of scientific apparatuses and theories which are meant to guarantee our precise knowledge of our world, we will miss the truth of what the world is.

Heidegger's own words serve as a clear summary of this section (I have changed the translator's "man" to "humanity" throughout):

The threat to humanity does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted humanity in its essence. The rule of enframing threatens humanity with the possibility that it cvould be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth. (309)

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