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6 Nazism and Technology
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Toward Criticism of Heidegger's View of Technology

Heidegger's theory of technology is primarily interesting as an extension of his theory of Being. But if it is only secondarily a theory of technology, we need to ask whether his understanding of technology needs to be taken seriously. To put the question somewhat differently: is Heidegger's view of technology important only, or mainly, in order to understand the later evolution of his theory of Being? or is it also important, even central, to any grasp of modern technology? This question has added significance in view of the claim that much in Heidegger's writings has begun to pale, perhaps even to seem mythological, but his view of technology deserves to be taken most seriously, to be seen as the most powerful part of his corpus, where everything comes together.[104]

In my view, the interest in Heidegger's theory of technology can only lie in an effort to elaborate an antianthropological conception of modern technology, but not in any insight into specific technological phenomena. The early Heidegger insists on the importance of the analysis of concrete phenomena, but one will look in vain in his writings for a detailed discussion of specific technological issues, such as the inventions of the weight-driven clock, paper, or gunpowder. Despite his early quasi-Husserlian emphasis on the concrete, Heidegger simply fails to engage the discussion of technology in a specific manner.

Heidegger's attention to the link between modern technology and its earlier anticipation in ancient Greece and his awareness that technology limits, or tends to exclude, certain possibilities are important points worth developing. With respect to ancient Greece, unfortunately Heidegger seems more interested in how ancient Greek thought understood the etymological root of "technology" than in the link between historically different technological stages. In his essay, he has nothing at all to say about ancient machines and other earlier forms of technology. In comparison, his essay falls below the level of Being and Time , where, for instance, he repeatedly mentions the relation between clocks and time.[105] Here he further omits any discussion of other technological stages, for instance the technologies of ancient Egypt or ancient China. The result is a severely foreshortened view that fails to reflect the proper role of ancient Greek technology among other important predecessors of medieval and modern technological developments. As concerns the relation


between modern and ancient Greek technology, Heidegger is perhaps misled by an imperfect analogy between philosophy and technology. It is plausible to hold that modern philosophy emerges from its origins in the Greek philosophical tradition since the Western form of philosophy arises in the Platonic tradition. But it is not plausible to maintain that technology as we know it arises within, or can be understood in terms of, ancient Greek technology, which was only one of the important sources of modern technology.

Heidegger is correct in saying that a commitment to technology tends to divert attention from what is not technologically useful. Yet he seems unaware that even the decision to listen to nature in a supposedly nonviolent manner consists in imposing an interpretative framework upon it. It is not the case that the alternative consists in a choice between a technological explanatory matrix or none at all since to decide for the latter is to effect a choice. Although it might be desirable to comprehend nature without violence, this is clearly not possible if to do so requires one to abandon any structure of interpretation. Heidegger's own interpretative structure is clearly evident in his constant recourse to the categories of Being.

Heidegger's suggestion of a form of the Greek concept of art as an alternative to modern technology is unsatisfactory. The obvious objection is that technology is not art. Although art on occasion relies on forms of technology, for instance in the casting necessary to create a bronze statue, types of art entirely dispense with technology of any kind, such as drawing in the sand on a beach. Further, Heidegger gives no indication that he has ever considered the obvious social cost necessary to realize his idea of technology. To return to something like the Greek view that Heidegger favors would require the abandonment of more familiar forms of technology, which are deeply embedded in modern industrial society. Since the capacities to feed and clothe the population depend on modern technology, were one to take seriously Heidegger's technological vision, were one to attempt to put it into practice, modern life as we know it would have to be abandoned. There is something very utopian about such an idea.

The main defect of Heidegger's theory of technology lies in his arbitrary, unjustified assumption of a particular theory of agency as its basis. The problem of agency, or subjectivity, is an important philosophical theme. The part of the modern philosophical tradition stemming from Descartes can be understood as an ongoing effort to comprehend the subject, initially as a kind of epistemological placeholder, an ultimately bare posit, such as the Cartesian cogito or the Kantian transcendental unity of apperception, and later as a social being in the views of Fichte, Hegel, and Marx. Heidegger's nonanthropological analysis of technol-


ogy differs in a fundamental way from the average interpretation of technology, whether as instrumental or applied science, which presupposes that technology yields to an anthropological approach. In his early thought, Heidegger utilizes the concept of Being as a pole of attraction, much as the Aristotelian God, which acts in that it is desired. In his later thought, Heidegger rethinks Being as an event (Ereignis ) acting upon us, for instance as sending or granting various capacities to art, technology, and so on.

Heidegger's extension of his theory of Being to the phenomenon of technology is problematic. A line of argument acceptable within the context of his thought of Being is not necessarily acceptable when considered on its own merits. Even if, for purposes of argument, we grant the correctness of Heidegger's later view of Being against the background of his position, and the correctness of his extension of his view of Being as a theory of technology, it does not follow that we need accept his view of technology. Heidegger "derives" his understanding of technology from his understanding of Being, but he provides no reason to accept his view of technology as such. The view of Being as agent which follows from the evolution of his position is not supported by his analysis of technology. To put the same point differently: Heidegger holds that phenomenology is concerned with disclosing what is concealed; unfortunately, Heidegger does not disclose his transhuman concept of Being as agent within, but rather imposes it upon, technology.

Heidegger's arbitrary conception of agency leads to a number of difficulties in his understanding of technology. First, there is an evident inability to differentiate forms of technology. A theory of technology must be able to distinguish among different forms of technology. There are obvious differences between the horse-drawn plow and the tractor, the spear and the atom bomb, the abacus and the computer, the movable-type printing press and the linotype machine, and so on. Each pair illustrates the difference between an earlier and a later way to perform the same or similar tasks. In each case, later technology builds on and improves the performance of earlier types of technology. The chronologically later kinds of technology in these examples are also technologically more sophisticated and, in that sense, technologically more advanced. Since Heidegger apparently condemns modern technology as such, he does not, and in fact is unable to, introduce such routine distinctions. But such distinctions are not merely a useless finesse; they are rather necessary in order to make a choice of the means as a function of the end in view.

Second, his nonanthropological interpretation of technology is problematic. Heidegger's claim does not follow from a critique of the rival view or views, which he simply rejects in virtue of his prior commitment


to Being as the ultimate explanatory factor. A prior commitment helps to explain why Heidegger analyzes technology as he does, but it does not justify his analysis. In order to make out his nonanthropological technological view, Heidegger needs to supplement his analysis, for instance through a demonstration that the anthropological and nonanthropological approaches exhaust the possible ways to understand technology, an indication of the basic flaws leading to a rejection of the so-called anthropological approach, or an argument in favor of his own rival view. It is not sufficient to point out that Heidegger's theory successfully accounts for the transhuman agency exhibited by technology unless it can be shown that technology has a transhuman dimension, something Heidegger merely asserts but does not demonstrate.

Third, Heidegger exaggerates the differences between theories of technology which differ not in kind, but in degree only. A reference to Heidegger's and non-Heideggerian readings of technology as respectively authentic and inauthentic reflects his conviction that the exclusive authenticity of his own approach is guaranteed by its link to Being. Yet Heideggerian and non-Heideggerian views of technology are not mutually exclusive, but overlap. An example is the status of Marx's theory, which Heidegger praises for its concern with history while criticizing its purported failure to subordinate the essence of materialism to the history of being.[106] Now Marx's position is a form of philosophical anthropology that can be understood as an analysis of technological society in terms of a theory of capital formation.[107] Marx's theory of modern society in part relies on the anthropological perspective of human activity, and in part relies on a transpersonal concept of capital as the agent of capitalism.[108] Since Marx's position combines both human and transhuman concepts of agency, Heidegger is incorrect to regard his own appeal to a transhuman form of agency as an exclusive alternative to other views of technology.

Fourth, there is the weakness of Heidegger's effort to show the plausibility of his interpretation of technology as a form of disclosure. Heidegger simply does not demonstrate that technology is more than instrumental; he rather "deduces" that this must be the case from his prior commitment to Being. According to Heidegger's line, if technology depends on Being, then it must be that it discloses that which, according to Heidegger, sends it. Heidegger's only argument that technology is a form of disclosure rests on the fragile link provided by the etymology of the term, in order to draw connections between art (techne ), technology (Technik ), destiny (Geschick ), history (Geschichte ), and sending (Schickung ).

Heidegger's use of etymology is arbitrary and unjustified. It is not obvious why he could not have used the same play of etymologies to


draw connections between technology (Technik ), the science of technology (Technologie ), and reason (logos ) as well as chic (schick ), chicness (Schickheit ) and the quality of being chic (Schicklichkeit ). If etymology is the clue to truth, then there are no obvious limits at all to it since Heidegger is at perfect liberty to make the words say what he wants to find in them. The example, already discussed, of his "deconstructive" reading of battle, or Kampf , as polemos , and then as eris , exemplifies the manner in which the skillful use of a willful form of etymology can lead from a to b no matter how a and b are chosen. Like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass , Heidegger employs his willful form of etymology as if the relevant question were less the truth of the words than who is to be master. Heidegger is aware of this problem, of the frequent accusation of reading things into texts and, by extension, reading the words in order to confirm his predetermined view.[109] But his position has no way to respond to this objection.

Heidegger's argument rests on an unwarranted assumption that etymological relations between words further disclose relations of reference. Obviously, words refer beyond themselves to what they designate. Etymological analysis is sufficient to establish a connection between words, but it is insufficient to establish a connection between their designations. It does not follow because the etymology of "technology" yields "techne ," the Greek word for art, that technology was once a form of disclosure of the truth or that modern technology ought to become a form of art in the Greek sense. Even if we grant, for purposes of argument, that the ancient Greek concept of art designated by "techne " referred to disclosure, it does not follow that the earlier view is true and the later view is false unless one also assumes that what is older is also correct. An etymological connection based on meaning says nothing at all about a possible relation based on reference.

Fifth, Heidegger's understanding of technology is overly abstract. Technology presupposes a multiply determined environment, with social, political, historical, and other components. Heidegger offers us a theory of technology as such. But there is no technology in general; there are only instantiations of forms of technology, such as those required to produce steam engines, lasers, supersonic airplanes, and so on. Technological achievements need to be grasped in the wider context in which they arise. One does not need to be a technological nominalist to hold that if anything like a general theory of technology is possible, it can only be based on the concrete analysis of specific technological forms. Heidegger is concerned with the history of ontology, but he is apparently unconcerned with the historical manifestation of technological being.

Sixth, Heidegger provides an inadequate analysis of the relation of


technology and applied science. In response to the tendency to interpret technology as applied science, Heidegger asserts that applied science already depends on technology. Certainly, modern science makes use of modern technology. Biological research requires a centrifuge just as the study of microparticles requires some form of particle accelerator or astronomy various types of telescopes. Yet it follows that modern science presupposes the concealed essence of technology only if enframing is the essence of technology and if it is concealed. These are points that Heidegger asserts but does not demonstrate. Further, modern technology is largely dependent on applied science, which utilizes ideas borrowed from so-called pure science in practical ways, such as the theory of relativity, whose formulation is partially responsible for thermonuclear devices as well as the harnessing of the atom in order to generate electricity.

Seventh, Heidegger's understanding of technology is incompatible with a commitment to democracy, democratic values, and what is called the democratic way of life. Heidegger reminds us of this consequence in both word and deed: in his statement, quoted above, that he is not convinced that democracy is the best political system; and in his turning in the early 1930s to National Socialism, a main example of political totalitarianism. Democracy is problematic, but at this late date it is still the best political means to attain and to defend the goal of human freedom. Other thinkers have rejected democracy, most notably in Plato's embrace of the concept of aristocratic government.[110] But there is a significant difference. Plato rejects the democratic type of government on the basis of a commitment to the state as a whole, hence to human being. Yet Heidegger rejects democracy because of his commitment to Being, but not to human being, also manifest in his nonanthropological theory of technology. Heidegger's antimetaphysical theory of technology is by definition antidemocratic; it presupposes as a leading characteristic the rejection of the anthropological viewpoint that is the foundation of democracy.

The ethical implications of Heidegger's view of technology are perhaps less visible but even more important than the political ones. There is a continuous line of argument leading from the Enlightenment commitment to reason to the insistence on responsibility as the condition of morality, which peaks in Kant's ethical theory.[111] When Heidegger attributes ultimate causal authority to Being, he clearly reverses the Enlightenment view that through the exercise of reason human being can attain dominion over the world and itself. In the final analysis, if Heidegger is correct, human actions depend on the gift of Being, hence on a suprahuman form of agency. Heidegger's insistence on Being as the final causal agent signals an abandonment of the idea of ethical responsibility. If responsibility presupposes autonomy, and autonomy presupposes free-


dom, then to embrace Being as the ultimate explanatory principle is tantamount to casting off the idea of ethical responsibility, the possibility of any moral accountability whatsoever.

Heidegger's rejection of the idea of responsibility other than through the commitment to Being is incompatible with the assumption of personal moral accountability. This consequence, which follows rigorously from his position, calls for two comments. First, it in part explains his failure ever to take a public position on the well-known atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi movement to which he turned. If one's ontological analysis does not support the concept of personal responsibility, then one does not need to react on the personal level to what, from Heidegger's perspective, can be attributed to Being. Second, Heidegger's rejection of personal responsiblity in his later thought denies a fundamental tenet of his own earlier position. In Being and Time , Heidegger maintained that authenticity required a resolute choice of oneself. But if choice depends on Being, then in the final analysis, as Heidegger clearly saw, the only choice is the choice for or against Being.

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