Book Club

The Chair read for you The Question of Technology and other essays by Martin Heidegger

Published on 26 May 2021

The question of the technology is a dominant question in the work of Martin Heidegger. Precisely, The question concerning technology of 1954 [1] directly come from the series of lectures that the philosopher gave in Bremen in 1949.

Heidegger opens his thought by hilighting what is the essence of the technology. Did you think that the technology was the use of tools, machines or utensils to achieve some ends ? This exact definition from a materialist and anthropological point of view is not true in that it never constitutes the essence of technology. The German thinker returns to the Greek origin “tekhné” not meaning a material means of production, but a skill of the craftsman to make the thing appear. It is only when something is produced that it is revealed to us as it is. Then, this thing does not finish with the end but begins with it. It is in this Revealing of the final production that the thing goes from a state of hidden to non-hidden and that the technology finds its essence.

But understand, Heidegger tells us, going a little further in his reasonning, that if this mode of Revealing remains accurate for a « hand-crafted » technology, it cannot be compatible with modern technology. The latter finds its essence in challenging nature and its forces. The modern technology call forth nature anywhere, at any time : air is summoned for its production of nitrogen, soil for that of ores, these ores for that of uranium and uranium for that of nuclear energy. Moreover, in order to constitute the essence of modern technology, this provocation of nature must tranform the forces, then what is transformed must be stored up, and finnaly what is stored up must be distributed. Can the windmill be considered as an illustration of this modern technology ? wonders the author. Certainly not, because even if the wings of the mill require the blast of the wind to activate the grinding mechanisms, the bringing-forth of nature remains punctual and does not give rise to any accumulation. Let us take the liberty of extending the example of Heidegger to wind turbines and ask ourselves whether these can be an illustration of modern technology. Yes, because the existence of wind turbines as a reliable source of energy in our production system is essentially based on the existence of batteries to store the electricity produced. And this is where all the genius of Heidegger lies when he reveals to us from the middle of the twentieth century the understanding of the essence of modern technology.

The author intensifies his reasoning and states that the challenge-forth of the concealed natural forces which constitutes this Revealing is such that it transforms all the real into “stock” available everywhere and any times, so that any object no longer exists in any way as an object but as a useful stock (in the economic meaning of the term). One then wonders what role man plays in this provoking Revealing from what constitutes the “stock” ? In the same way that man challenges nature everywhere and any times, has he not himself been engaged in this unconcealment ? This phenomenon by which the provoking man would himself be provoked, Heidegger calls it “Gestell“, in English the Enframing (the translation remains vague as the neologisms of Heidegger are to be understood in the dynamics of his work). This Enframing is what constitutes the essence of modern technology in that it summons man forth to become therefore “stock” in turn, a “stock” ordered to itself ordering all the real as “stock”.

If the Enframing calls man forth to challenge nature, the relevant question is not to know what is the role of man in this provoking Revealing, but to know to what extent we become aware of ourselves acting within it. Heidegger doesn’t act like an opponent of modern technology because according to him there is nothing dangerous in technology itself. He warns of the extreme Danger, that by which man would abandon his Being at the simple Revealing of the real as an available, useful and ephemeral stock only seeing himself as an integral part of the “stock”. The Danger, we find it every day in economics, and we very encourage it when each time in the models we represent man as a simple production factor alongside machines, thus moving him away from a more initial truth. Let us ask ourselves what Heidegger would have thought of the environmental crisis in the context of his reasonning on technology. He would surely not have interpreted it as THE Danger but as a manifestation of the Danger by which man took himself out of his existence as man and became nothing more than the ordering of the real in “stock” in the frenzy of the reign of modern technology.

Finally, as the last stage of his thought, Heidegger quotes Hölderlin: ” But where danger is, grows The saving power also “. Thus, a note of optimism arises and lets appear the possibility of a salvation for man from the moment he ceases to be fascinated by technological things because as long as man sees in technology a single instrumentality, only the will to control it will reign. Nevertheless, as soon as a thinking begins on what is the essence of the technology and on how the man responds to the call of the Enframing in the Revealing of the real as “stock”, the man regains consciousness of his Being coming out of the reign of efficiency and exactitude to embrace a destining of deep truth. The environmental crisis seems to constitute an opportunity for thinking and awareness of ourselves in the call of the Enframing. Will we be able to grasp it by questioning our existence in this general process of provoking Revealing ? Or will we continue to abandon ourselves as a Being in the useful « stock » ?

In this opressive context of the COVID-19 health crisis in which our daily lives are continuously punctuated by figures, curves, coefficients, models and forecasts, rereading Heidegger and The question concerning technology could give us a breath of fresh air. His metaphysical reasoning and his severe criticism of the Machenschaft or the reign of efficiency completely echo current affairs.

Valentin Laprie, Ph.D. candidate Demand pull” VS “technology push” innovation in building energy efficiency.

[1] Martin Heidegger, « The Question of Technology and other essays », Garland Publishing, Inc. New York & London (1977).