Notes on Heidegger’s “Question Concerning Technology”

Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers in these notes refer to the Heidegger anthology Basic Writings ed, David Farrel Krell

Another translation is available free online here.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

A good source for defining Heideggerian terms is here. It is focused on how the words are used in his early work, but still very useful for us here.

What is technology?

What is modern technology?

What makes modern technology so troubling and difficult to comprehend?

These questions are what Heidegger wants to answer in this essay. His answers are very weird, as is his mode of presentation. You could be forgiven for assuming that it is all mystical gibberish. However, I have no patience for such nonsense and I can tell you that there is a real argument there that can be translated into clearly meaningful terms. However, this would be a task for a future work. Here I only try to give you a decent beginning for your own thinking.

Section I

He starts off by listing and differentiating his thesis from other common opinions concerning technology:

  • “Neutrality” – Technology is value-free, neither bad not good in itself.
  • Instrumentalism – Technology is primarily and essentially a means to an end.
  • Anthropocentrism – Technology is primarily a deliberate human activity.

The idea that technology is not “merely a means” is a common theme in the criticism of modern technology. Technology seems to have evolved beyond instrumentalism into functioning as an end in its own right.  Some classical authors are very concerned about means displacing ends with tragic results, most notably Plato (“Ring of Gyges”). In modern times, this has continued with “Walden”, Wagner’s operas in the “Ring” cycle, “Invisible Man”, “1984”, and “The Lord of the Rings”. This latter work was an extreme criticism of the neutrality thesis, where the One Ring cannot be used for good and enslaves the power-mad to its true master. Critics of technology very often set themselves the task of revealing the underlying agenda of modern technology.

Dialectical Teleonomy

We have many intuitions about whether certain things, activities or states of affairs are good or bad, as well as whether they are inherently good or instrumentally good. The study of these intuitions is known as value theory or “axiology”.

From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, it would make sense for our axiological intuitions to change. For example, it seems obvious on the one hand that hunting is not inherently good, since we only  do it to obtain food. In Aristotle’s terms, it is a “productive science”, as opposed to a “theoretical science”. “liberal art”, or a “virtuous action”. While Aristotle considers the latter three to be inherently good, “production” is only intrumentally good.

But on the other hand, people have been hunting for so long, so well, and so profitably, since long before we were what we now call “people”. As a result , people seem to think and feel that hunting is an inherently good activity. While we would not go hunting unless we could thereby obtain food, but we also find deep joy and satisfaction from the activity in the following ways:

  • We could buy food for less than the cost of hunting trip and hunting gear.
  • Our most treasured social networks are often our hunting buddies.
  • Many people “live to hunt” rather than the converse.
  • People want their children to take up hunting, regardless of the material benefits.
  • Hunters consider other hunters to be better people, ceteris paribus.

So it seems that hunting is very close to being a true “liberal art” rather than merely a productive one. What was once (I assume) merely instrumental has now evolved into an inherent good. How is this different from the thesis that modern technology has usurped its lowly productive rank and set itself up as a value in itself? Is it merely a case of more time for evolution to work its axiological alchemy?

Aristotle’s “Four Causes”

H explains that Aristotle’s Four Causes are:

das Enbergen

  • aletheia – “truth”, “revealing”
  • a-lethe very often translated as “truth”, but more literally “means”
    • “un-concealing”
    • “un-forgetting”
      • Note that for Plato, all learning is really an “unforgetting” of the Forms, which we saw before birth and then forgot upon reincarnation.
    • “un-mindfullness”
      • Note that the River Lethe is literally the opposite of aletheia, so that when a living person, crosses over into Hades (the underworld), it could also be said that they are passing into “letheia”. If so, the return journey over the Lethe would be called passing into “Aletheia”.) In this respect it is interesting that a possible etymology of the word “Hades” is “a-idein” (alpha-privative + “to see”) which literally means “invisible”, but since Plato’s ideas are cognate with the same root, it really shows an interesting web of concepts.
    • “oblivion”
      •  This relates to the value of “eternal glory” (Greek kleos or doxa)for the divinized dead. Not everyone passes into oblivion at death; some few become gods or heroes; they dwell in Olympus or become remembered as constellations.
      • Perseus is what we normally think of as a demigod (child of Zeus and a mortal woman), but also remembered in the stars are Andromeda the princess he rescued, Cepheus her father, Cetus “the Kraken” and other characters from that story who went to heaven rather than suffer eternal “oblivion”.
      • Those whose earthly exploits promote the reign of Truth (Saints, Sages, Poets, Prophets, Heroes, “Founding Fathers”, etc.) are saved from oblivion by going “to heaven” to live in “eternal glory”.
      • Humans are unique on Earth in that each human has a “reputation” (kleos or doxa) that can be know around the world and which is still part of us. A famous person is transformed by their glory, while no animal can be. For example, the famous “Grumpy Cat” is only famous for people, he has no idea whatsoever that he is famous, nor could any non-human animal have the slightest hint of what fame is. But all people, no matter how humble, are clearly aware of and concerned with fame and renown even from childhood. This is part of being the “zoon echon logon” or “political animal”.

Section II

Tekne has two different historical forms: Traditional and Modern.

 Traditional  Modern
 Handmade  Machine made
 Personal Interaction with nature  Modern mathematical physics
 poeisis  Herausgefordern
 Bestellung (“setting in order”)  Stellung (“setting upon”)
 ?  Bestand (“standing reserve”)
 art work  power works
 [das Bestell (“the ordering” a.k.a. “cosmos“?)]  das Gestell (“the Enframing”)

“All art is concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being, and whose origin is in the maker and not the thing made; for art is concerned neither with things that are or which come into being by necessity, not with things which do so in accordance with nature.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VI.4)

Phronesis (“Prudence”, “Practical wisdom”)

  • “To deliberate well about what is good for life in general, not good in some narrow respect.” (Aristotle)
  • Cannot be knowledge (episteme) or art (tekne).
    • Episteme is about the necessary, not the contingent.
    • Art is about making (poiesis) not doing (praxis).
    • Doing has inherent value. Virtuous action is inherently good.
    • Making has instrumental value. It must produce something good to be good.
  • Physis resembles both making and doing.
    • It is not merely contingent, for the natural happens always or for the most part.
    • It is not strictly necessary

“Enframing means the gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e. challenges him forth, to reveal the actual, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve.” (Heidegger, Basic Writings, p. 325)

Das Gestell is the essence of modern technology.

  • A “Form” (loosely speaking).
  • That sustains modern technology
  • Its origin/arkhe

“Such activity [machines and techniques] always merely responds to the challenge of enframing, but it never comprises enframing of brings it about.”

 “Chronologically correct “  “Historically True”
 1 Tekne(?)  das Gestell (The essence of Modern Technology)
 2  Philosophy/Mathematics(?)  Tekne
 3  Modern science  Modern science
 4  Modern Technology  Actual Modern Technology

Heidegger asserts that there is ONE THING that modern physics will never ever renounce:

“That nature report itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and that it remain orderable as a system of information.”

This is the neo-Kantian basis for the fundamental concepts or categories of modern science: i.e. its mathematical and axiomatic metaphysics.

The “retreat from the kind of representation that turns only to objects”. I think that this refers to the fact that early physics focused on the easily observable behavior of medium-scale objects that make up the recognizably human world. Measurement was merely used to make precise observations about things that we were already familiar with from normal life. But H claims that modern physics is depending more and more on purely mathematical theory to deal with entities that are beyond normal human perception.  As a result, modern physical causality is not formal nor efficient as Aristotle defined them, but rather is

“shrinking into a reporting…of standing reserves that must be guaranteed either simultaneously or in sequence.” (Basic Works p.328)

Also relevant from a related work (Basic Works p. 288):

“Therefore, [in modern science] the concept of nature in general changes. nature is no longer the inner principle out of which the motion of the body follows, rather it is the mode of the variety of the changing relative positions of bodies, the manner in which they are present in space and time, which themselves are domains of possible positional orders and determinations of order and have no special traits anywhere.”

Section III

Being and Revealing

Basic Writings p.328

Q: How does the “actual reveal itself as standing reserve”?

A: Two possible answers”

  1. Objectively – “Somewhere out beyond all human doing?”
  2. Subjectively – Exclusively in or through man?

Neither of them. In a way, revealing is both and neither: it is ontological.

Q: What is ‘being’?

A: Being is whatever it is that makes it possible to say that “x is y.”.

  • “x is form and matter.”
  • “x is standing reserve.”
  • x is a creation of God.”
  • “x is a participant in the Form of ‘X’.”
  • “x is nothing but atoms and the void.”
  • x is as revealed in the clearing of being.

Nobody deliberately “thought up” being. Humanity is essentially always already in and of being.

“Enframing is the gather ing together which belongs to that setting-upon which challenges man and puts him into a position to reveal the actual, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve.”

We already find ourselves thrown into the revealing of Enframing and only later come to see it and say it clearly. But seeing ourselves as so “challenged forth” is “never too late” in coming.

P. 329

What “throws” us into the Enframing is “destining” (“das Geschick“), normally translated as “fate”, but H says he wants to avoid any “fatalistic” connotations, so the translator used the coinage “destining”. (See also “On the Essence of Truth” in Basic Writings.)

“Poiesis is also a destining in this sense.” [The same sense of das Gestell.]

The Essence of Freedom

  • “Destining is never a fate that compels. For man becomes truly free only insofar as he belongs to the realm of destining and so becomes the one who listens, though not the one who simply obeys.”
  • heidegger’s conception: “man is not the Lord of beings, but rather the Shepherd of Being”. (“Letter on Humanism”). This is rather like the following other ideas:
    • “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” – Francis Bacon
    • The motif of “bargaining with God” as seen in the story of Lot before the destruction of Sodom. (This is the thesis of the book “Joseph’s Bones”.)
    • The case of moral reform in evolutionary ethics; not status quo-ism, but rather “moral engineering”.
  • Man does not passively channel the destining of Beings, but cultivates a dialectical or recursive relationship.

The “Danger”

Man is “endangered” by Geschick by being “placed between these possibilities”:

  1. “Pursuing and promulgating nothing but what is revealed in ordering and of deriving all his standards on this basis.”
  2. Man could “be admitted sooner and ever more primally to the essence of what is unconcealed and experience our essential our essential “belonging to revealing”.


Geschick is essentially “dangerous”.

“In whatever way the destining of revealing holds sway, the unconcealment in which every thing that shows itself at any given time harbors the danger that man may misconstrue the unconcealment and misinterpret it.”

This includes degrading God who should be “exalted”, “holy”, “mysteriously” “distant” to the level of “God of the philosophers”, who is merely an “efficient cause”.

“Namely, those who define the unconcealed and the concealed in terms of the causality of making, without ever considering the essential provenance of this causality.”

Two forms of “supreme danger”

p. 332

There are two manifestations of the supreme danger:

  1. The paradox of the Lord of Beings as standing reserve.
    1. Self-interpretation as ordered standing reserve.\
    2. Subjectivity of “values”.
    3. Man’s essence hidden.
      1. “[D]oes not grasp enframing as a claim.
      2. “[F]ails to see himself as spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists [sic; H’s own coinage], in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.”
  2. Elimination of “every other possibility of revealing”.
    1. “[A]bove all, Enframing conceals that revealing which, in the sense of poiesis, lets what presences come forth into appearance.”

Summary: “Thus the challenging Enframing not only conceals a former way of revealing (bringing forth) but also”

  • conceals revealing itself and with it
  • [conceals] that wherein unconcealment, i.e. truth, propriates.”

The “Saving Power”

“But where danger is, grows

The saving power also.”

What is “saving”?

Commonly said, it means only to secure something/one “in its former continuance”.

Here, it means “to fetch something home to its essence, in order to bring the essence for the first time into its proper appearing.”


If the poem is true, then “the essence of technology must harbor in itself the growth of the saving power.” No immediate solution here, but rather the seminal insights that may “grow” into the solution.

The new concept of “essence”.

Heidegger recommends that the saving power be sought in rethinking the concept of “essence” according to the example of his treatment of “Enframing” as the essence of technology. T

he most common sense of “essence” is that of a universal by which beings are classified as a “what it is” (“to ti hen einai”). Heidegger proposes an alternate conception along the examples given earlier:

  • der Geberg – a mountain chain
  • das Gemut – character, dispostion, Skt. “samskaras” (the locus of karma).
  • das Gestell – the underlying ontological basis of modern technology and science.

Each of these is a “way they essentially unfold [wesen]”, for which Heidegger uses the archaicism “dis Weserei“, the space where something “essentially unfolds”.

Plato promoted the concept of essence as “permanent endurance” (aei on), that whihc persists as the same throughout change. Heidegger’s new concept of essence is more like an underlying cause of the entire course of change thusly:

  • Just as a mountain chain has its origin in the same border between two tectonic plates;
  • And as a series of deliberate actions of the same person has its common origin in that person’s character.
  • So also must all forms of modern science, technology and “technique” (Jaques Ellul’s coinage) have their origin in the same underlying way of interpreting what is.

Heidegger claims that this is close in meaning to a poem where Goethe replaces the common verb “fortwahren” (“continuous endurance”) with the coinage “fortgewahren” (“to grant continuously”).

“Only what is granted endures.”

p. 336

The following sections on “granting”, “propriative event” are not clearly new in meaning and seem to rehash previously introduced concepts.

“The inevitable mention of the supreme awesomeness of the Greeks”

Once final tip for maximizing your “saving power”: tekne was once formerly not just technology, but also art and poetry.

“At the onset of the destining of the West, in Greece, the arts soared to the supreme height of the revealing granted them.” (p. 339)

“Reflection on the essence of technology takes place in art, but not through “sheer aesthetic mindedness” but rather that we should ‘guard and preserve the essential unfolding of art’.” (p.340)

What does this mean? It seems that the best place to look next is the earlier essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art”, where Heidegger famously attributes to art the power of depicting the “world”, which I assume must be related to the concept of the phenomenological “lifeworld”. But that is better left to continue at another time.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.


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