CriticaLink | Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology | Guide to pp. 333-338

"But where danger is, grows
The saving power also."

Heidegger once again quotes the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, finding in these lines from the poem "Patmos" a formulation of the paradox he wants to describe: within the "supreme danger" of humanity's enframing orientation to the world lies the potential of a rescue from that very danger.

To help us to understand this paradox, Heidegger turns our attention to the meaning of "essence." He takes us through the traditional philosophical sense of "essence": it means "what" [in Latin, quid] something is. It names a genus, a class of things that are all the same kind of thing. All trees, for example, have "treeness" in common; "treeness" is their essence. From their inquiries into essence, the ancient Greek philosophers developed the concept of eidos, which we have already encountered in the example of the chalice.

This traditional understanding of essence, however, does not apply to modern technology. For Plato and Aristotle, the essence is what "remains permanently," what outlasts any particular manifestation of a thing (312). Heidegger turns to the German language to connect the verb wesen "to develop" (not often used in modern German) to the verb währen "to endure." Here again, Heidegger trying to "get behind" the assumptions and established formulations that shape traditional philosophical thinking. The model of essence as a "genus" does not adequately represent the relationship between the essence of a thing and the thing as it appears before us.

If enframing, as the essence of technology, cannot be thought of as a category to which all technological things belong, how are we supposed to think of it? At this point Heidegger turns to move head-on into the paradox. He draws upon the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe--another thinker who loved to play with words--who in one of his novels joins the words fortwähren "to endure permanently" and gewähren "to grant." Heidegger wants to connect the concept of "enduring"--a quality of essence in the traditional model of essence--and "granting," which is Heidegger's new contribution to the model.

Earlier in this Guide, I mentioned that the idea of "giving" is crucial in Heidegger's work, and that the phrase "to be" is, in German, es gibt--literally, "it gives." If we return for a moment to the example of chalice, we can begin understand Heidegger's reasons for selecting this particular object for his illustration. In the Christian tradition in which Heidegger is situated, the communion chalice is used to make an offering: the priest or minister offers the communion wine to the congregation in the chalice, and the wine itself symbolizes Christ's offering of his life for humanity. Heidegger takes this image and applies it to all existence. The world "gives" itself to us insofar as it reveals and opens itself to us. Our response to this "gift," which Heidegger has described as "enframing," is at once a grave danger (our instrumental, exploitative, blind orientation to the world sets us on a self-destructive course) and an opportunity to see ourselves as a part of the coming-into-being, the revealing, and the "granting" of the world.

Furthermore, since humanity is, as we have said, "in the driver's seat" of technology, we must realize that our capacity to manipulate nature entails a solemn responsibility to "watch over" nature. Again, we can easily see Heidegger's argument in terms of today's environmental movement, but we need to remember that Heidegger is not simply speaking of nature in the sense usually assumed by environmentalists. Everything that exists must be cared for--humanity's responsibility is to care for Being itself. It would also be a simplification of Heidegger's argument to associate it too directly with the anti-nuclear movement, but the specter of the total devastation of the planet does bring home the gravity of Heidegger's concerns. In the question concerning technology, everything is at stake.

Heidegger pauses here to sum up the major points of his argument before moving on to his conclusion:

  • We tend to think of technology as an instrument, a means of getting things done. This definition, however, misses the actual essence of technology, and tends to make us think that by making the technology better--better able to "get things done"--we will master technology and solve the problems that accompany it.
  • This instrumental way of thinking stems from our assumptions about causality. If we come to understand modes of causality as ways of being responsible for the arrival of things into existence, we can begin to understand that the essence of technology has to do with the way we are oriented to the coming-into-existence, or the "revealing" of the world.
  • Humanity's orientation to the world takes the form of an enframing which views the world only as "standing-reserve," a source of raw materials. In this enframing, however, lies the potential for another orientation.
  • Enframing is the essence of technology. Enframing is ambiguous, in that contains two possibilities:
    • It is a danger that sets man on a destructive and self-destructive course. "On the one hand, enframing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the coming-to-pass of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth" (314)
    • At the same time, it is a "saving power" and and opportunity: humanity's enframing orientation to the world makes clear the responsibility of human beings to the world. If we reflect upon the enframing as the essence of technology, we will find not only that we are a part of the world, but that the world "needs" us to care for it, that humanity "is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth" (314).

Heidegger now moves to the conclusion of his essay, in which he will try to clarify the relationship between these two opposing orientations contained within enframing.

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