The Question Concerning Technology

“The Question Concerning Technology” by Martin Heidegger is not an easy read. This short essay is full of unusual terms and phrases. I think part of the reason for this is Heidegger’s style of writing, and part is the capacity of the German language to build compound words easily. Thus in the English translation you have several hyphenated words like “standing-reserve” and “bringing-forth”. Of course, difficult terminology seems to be typical for Heidegger, but there are also many words taken from classical philosophy that have special meanings, which Heidegger was well versed in.

In this essay we first learn that our question is really a questioning and will be a process that “builds a way” to understanding, so initially we are more interested in the journey than the destination. The way that is desired is towards a “free relationship” between an “open” human existence and the “essence of technology” (essence being what a thing is, as if we can know exactly, so finding out is part of our journey). Second, we are told that the essence of technology is not technological, so to try to find what this essence is by using more technology is to be in an “unfree” relationship with it.

Third, our question concerning technology is really asking what technology is. A common and “correct” definition is that it is both a means to an end, and a human activity. The former is the instrumental aspect of technology, and the later is the anthropological aspect. But Heidegger does not think that these two aspects are the complete or “true” ones, and so our questioning leads us to inquire as to the essence of instrumentality. For that, we turn next to consider the general causes of things and their effects, and so on to examine the classical Four Causes of Aristotle.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the Four Causes, as I have mentioned them frequently. I consider them an important paradigmatic four-fold, and have tried to develop a more modern version of them with my four-fold Structure-Function. However, Heidegger was no friend to modernity, and his treatment of the Four Causes and the remainder of his essay shows that plainly. But let us continue on with our journey before we spoil our quest. As a reminder, here is a quick list of the Four Causes:

  • Efficient Cause – causa efficiens – Logos
  • Material Cause – causa materialis – Hylos
  • Formal Cause – causa formalis – Eidos
  • Final Cause – causa finalis – Telos

By thinking about causes in this way, can we discover the essence of causality? Heidegger explains that what causality is involves the things responsible for the bringing about of other things or what kinds of things a thing is indebted to in order for it to occur. (Others have argued that instead of causes another good name is the four “becauses”, i.e. the reasons for or the explanations of things). Note that Heidegger uses the terms responsibility and indebtedness to give the Four Causes (what I consider to be) a normative aspect.

Heidegger presents to us a silver chalice as an example of how to think about the the Four Causes in relation to Greek thought. Hylos (or hyle) is the material we start with, Eidos is its form or aspect, Telos is responsible for bringing together both (but not as aim or purpose but as bounds or context), and all three are indebted to… Logos? Heidegger now departs from how Aristotle was understood to view the causes named after him, and says so himself, in order to argue that these four ways of responsibility and indebtedness are really what these causes are all about.

To be continued… maybe…

Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Question_Concerning_Technology

http://www.psyp.org/question_concerning_technology.pdf

http://www.english.hawaii.edu/criticalink/heidegger/guide1.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heideggerian_terminology

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_causes

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/

Notes for Further Writing:

Interesting articles on Shintoism and Heidegger:

https://iainews.iai.tv/articles/spirited-away-meets-heidegger-we-killed-the-gods-with-technology-but-the-sacredness-of-life-is-continuous-auid-1104

https://prezi.com/hvul4-ped2z4/shintoism-and-spirited-away/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinto

Interesting article on language and technology (tool-making) arguing that they are related: The structure of language mirrors the methodological structure of tool making:

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/06/toolmaking-language-brain/562385/

A nice symmetric view of the Four Causes as things undergoing changes is shown in:

Boris Henning / The Four Causes, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol.106, No.3 (March 2009), pp. 137-160

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