Guide to Heidegger's Question Concerning Technology

As a central part of my thesis, Heidegger's essay "The Question Concerning Technology" (Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology, and other essays. Chicago) is not an easy read. It is a strange and worthwhile read, though, so in order to help fellow travellers and to venture further in myself, I have written this guide to the essay, breaking it down into eight steps to make it more manageable. I took this idea from - somewhere! A book! I can't find the reference now, so I'll update this as I stumble across it again!  I'm also using this very helpful guide to the essay and this creative and subtle reading of the essay, although condensing these to make more manageable. I haven't added any page numbers, as I found it helpful to go through the essay and mark the eight steps in the text itself - and you can do likewise! Anyway, here's the eight steps as a graphic (click to make it all big), followed by my summary description of the text.

Step 1: building the path

For Heidegger, "questioning builds a way" - so keep your eye distinctly on the way itself, avoiding smaller distractions to the questioning of technology and "preparing a free relationship to it", to the essence of technology. 

Step 2: the common understanding of technology is correct but not true

We understand technology as (1) a means to an end and (2) a human activity. Both are correct, however this view of technology as something neutral means that we are delivered over to it because this is not the essence of technology, which we become blind to: "everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it". Our relation to technology is one of "the will to mastery" which "becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control". Thus, "everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means". This instrumental view of technology is correct, but not true. Finding the true, the essence, of technology means asking about the instrumental, which brings Heidegger to causality. 

Step 3: causality

We stray from the path a little here, by way of Greek thought on causality, in order to understand technology as a means, which "discloses itself when we trace instrumentality back to fourfold causality". 'Fourfold causality' is a Greek concept (a frequent point of reference for Heidegger), which is an analytical scheme to explain change or movement, answering the question 'why?'. The four are unified in the ability to create a final product, such as a silver chalice:
  • causa materialis is the material or matter (the silver out of which the chalice is produced)
  • causa formalis is the form or shape the material or matter enters (the shape of the chalice)
  • causa finalis is the end (the function of Christian communion)
  • causa efficiens is the effect that is finished (the silversmith who produces the chalice)
The four causes are unified and belong together. However, we are now accustomed to represent cause as "that which brings something about" - which is the causa efficiens, only one of the four causes, which now "sets the standard for all causality". Therefore, we now miss the gathering of the causes as a unity, and especially the causa finalis, the true end that discloses technology when represented as a means, because it "gives bounds to the thing" (say, as a sacrificial vesssel), but now is not counted as causality. 

Heidegger talks of the unity of the four causes also as "coming into appearance", which is also the four ways of "being responsible" which "bring something into appearance" or "presencing". This "bringing-forth" reaches back to Plato's idea of 'Poïesis' - giving the example from nature of the blooming of the blossom (Wikipedia gives other useful examples : the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt). So, rather than showing mastery over the materials to make the chalice, the silversmith gathers together the other three causes and allows the chalice to come into being. The artist or craftsperson brings-forth as part of the fourfold as a kind of "revealing" whereby "bringing-forth brings out of concealment into unconcealment". And this is how Heidegger has brought us from 'correct' to 'true' because the Greek word for revealing is 'aletheia', translated by the Romans as 'veritas', is our 'truth'.

Step 4: technology is a revealing and its essence is enframing

"Technology is therefore no mere means. It is a way of revealing." By exploring the etymology of 'technology' as the Greek word technikon, that which belongs to techne, which doesn't only describe the activities and skills of a craftsperson, but also for the "arts of the mind", which means that "techne belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poetic." More importantly, techne is linked with the word episteme
"Both words are terns for knowing in the widest sense. They mean to be entirely at home in something, to understand and be expert in it. Such knowing provides an opening up. As an opening up it is a revealing ... It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techne is a brining-forth."
 But, this "does not fit modern machine-powered technology." which is also a revealing, but one that "does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis." Rather, "the revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging", which demands that something reveal itself.  Modern technology exploits and exhausts - challenges-forth - natural resources. "Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.

Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing-reserve." Our relationship to nature is one of dominance, extracting what is efficient and profitable and this then becomes a mode of thinking, a way of being, so that we are transformed into standing-reserve: "If man is challenged, ordered, to do this,then does not man himself belong even more originally than nature within the standing-reserve?" However, it is humanity that drives technology forward, so we take part in "ordering as a way of revealing", but this unconcealment is "never a human handiwork." This "challenging claim that gathers man with a view to ordering the self-revealing as standing reserve" is enframing (Ge-stell) - this is the essence of modern technology, which "reveals the actual as standing reserve." It is not technology itself that is the problem, rather, in our orientation to technology, we are trapped into a way of revealing that sees everything as there for our use, categorisation, manipulation, control - mastery.

Step 5: science and the essence of technology

Ge-stell is a mode of human existence within which human thought is enframed as standing reserve and this is the essence of technology. Because of this, Heidegger can suggest that modern technology comes before the development of modern physics and shapes its development via the human drive towards precise measurement and control.

Step 6: the enframing of technology is destiny

We are always already enframed - however, we can "bring to light our relationship to [technology's] essence" and gain a "free relationship to technology" (the overall point of the essay). Despite humanity's enframing relationship with the world, which orients us to view world as standing reserve, we nevertheless maintain a much earlier historical relationship and experience the world as the world reveals itself. Thus, enframing is not inevitable, not determined, not our 'fate', rather there is the possibility of freedom "when we once open ourselves expressly to the essence of technology", which is bound up with destining and revealing, expressed by Heidegger in highly poetic language:
"Freedom is that which conceals in a way that opens to light, in whose clearing shimmers the veil that hides the essential occurrence of all truth and lets the veil appear as what veils. Freedom is the realm of the destining that at any given times starts a revealing on its way."

Step 7: the destining of revealing is danger

"The essence of technology lies in its enframing" and this is where the twofold danger lies;
  1. Having reduced ourselves to standing reserve - and thus deluding ourselves that we are "exalted", in control of all existence, "lords of the earth" - we encounter thus only ourselves.
  2. "Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth" - we become blind to the actual, to the world, to the ways in which the world reveals itself.
"The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth."

Step 8: but where danger is, grows the saving power also 

But where danger is, grows
The saving power also.

Heidegger offers these words from the German Romantic poet, Friedrich Hölderlin to point up the paradox that within the danger of enframing in the essence of technology is also the potential of rescue: "in technology's essence roots and thrives the saving power." The saving power makes possible the "highest dignity" of humanity's essence, which is to keep watch over the unconcealment of "all essential unfolding on this earth." And the rising of the saving power, everything, depends upon this:
"...that we ponder this rising and that, recollecting, we watch over it. How can this happen? Above all through our catching sight of the essential unfolding in technology, instead of merely gaping at the technological. So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed on the will to master it."
So, the essence of technology is ambiguous: "enframing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering", thus blocking revealing and endangering truth; but, enframing also contains the possibility of humanity's essential role in "the safekeeping of the essence of truth." We must hold "always before our eyes the extreme danger." Heidegger reiterates the danger:
"The essential unfolding of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealment of standing-reserve."
Heidegger's alternative suggestion to this measuring, categorising, controlling orientation to the world is to more fully embrace the realm of the poetic, of art. He points out that the concept of techne included both instrumentality and the fine arts, that is, poiesis. Art is care, it is stewardship of existence, it is connected with Being. The artist does not wish to control the world, to contribute to standing reserve, but to see the world as it is, as it reveals itself in its true form - aletheia, the Greek word for 'truth' literally means 'revealing'. We guard against the danger of enframing by entering into a free relationship with the increasing demands of technology, which means assuming something of the poet's worldview and being always critical. It is with good reason that Heidegger finishes the essay with reference to questioning (his italics):
"The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought."