CriticaLink | Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology | Guide to pp. 311-313

"In what follows we shall be questioning concerning technology. . ."

The first pages of "The Question Concerning Technology," set the terms of Heidegger's discussion. The first paragraph establishes the essay's objective: to investigate technology in order to prepare us for a "free relationship" to it. One of the fundamental questions of the essay has to do with how "we" (and who this "we" is will be part of our own discussion) currently relate to technology, how we think about it, what we imagine it to be.

The problem for Heidegger is not so much the existence of technology or the forms it takes, but rather our orientation to technology. If we accept this formulation of the problem, then it becomes clear that our response to the various problems brought about by technology cannot be solved simply by making the technology better. It is also impossible to ignore these difficulties simply by "opting out" of technology:

Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. (287)

Heidegger's assertion that "the essence of technology is by no means anything technological" serves a number of purposes:
  • It allows Heidegger to move his discussion of technology out of the domain of technological "experts." This attempt to "open up" the conversation is at once a democratic gesture (remember that this essay was first presented as a lecture to audiences who where neither philosophers nor technicians) and a strategy to shift the discussion to philosophy--a field in which Heidegger himself is the expert.
  • Arguing that the the essence of technology is not technological also allows Heidegger to expand the historical scope of his discussion; later on he will argue that the essence of technology actually precedes the historical emergence of the "concrete" forms of technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

  • This historical expansion, in turn, makes it possible for Heidegger to go back to Greek philosophy (one of his areas of specialization) for some of the guiding concepts for his analysis.

Heidegger's method of "questioning" strives to expose the unexamined assumptions that shape our understanding of the world we live in. He tries to find the "blind spots" in our thinking that keep us from a more profound--and, we might say now, more "empowering"--way of conceiving the world and our place in it. In "The Question Concerning Technology," he asks, "how do we generally think about technology?" He comes up with two answers:

  • technology is a means to an end
  • technology is a human activity

These answers make up what Heidegger calls the current "instrumental [aimed at getting things done] and anthropological [a human activity] definition of technology" (288). He concedes that this definition is correct--that it describes technology accurately--but it does not go far enough for Heidegger's purposes.

Our everyday understanding of technology, that is, has blind spots that prevent us from understanding more fully our relationship with technology. Even our attempts to maintain control over technology, to master it so that it doesn't destroy us, are informed by our "instrumental conception" of what technology is. As Heidegger observes, "The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control" (289).

For a fuller understanding of how humanity stands in relation to technology , we need to consider what we mean by the "instrumental": what assumptions lie behind our understanding of "getting things done" or "achieving our goals?" The basic idea in any attempt to "get something done" is that one thing (for example, a student in the Graphic Design Program) has an effect on something else (the paper, toner, paint, etc. that make up the student's next design project). Heidegger's pursuit of the fundamental meaning of "instrumentality" leads him to an old problem in philosophy: the question of causality.

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