The Question Concerning Technology

“For questioning is the piety of thought.”

-Martin Heidegger

This is the closing statement of the essay bearing the same name as this post. In an effort to continue writing I’ve decided to share some thoughts on my initial reading of this essay. I’ll start, as is always useful, with a digression.

The central divide in undergraduate education really becomes apparent when one switches from courses primarily in the faculty of sciences to those in the faculty of arts. The reading load in the sciences was heavy, though not always required. It’s unfortunate how much one could get by reading mainly the slides and just staring at the images in a science textbook. While much of what one learns in basic science education (read:memorizes) is labeled as theory, it is not accompanied with the deep questioning that should it should be.

An old word, taking its direct root in Latin and Greek, theory is defined by the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary primarily as the analysis and interrelation of facts, secondly as abstract thought (speculation) and thirdly as “: the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art”. I like this third definition the best, but – at least in my experience – the criticism I’ve put forth applies to all three.

What one is taught as say, ‘cell theory’, is often taught at the introductory level with such speed and rigor that questioning of its original content or the sociological (i.e. political, ideological, economic, etc.) factors that gave rise to it is neither feasible, expected or even encouraged. One might say that his is more due to the nature of introductory survey courses and applies just as much to early courses in the arts. If this be true then my criticism is probably better leveled at the lack of philosophical education at the secondary level.

It trying my hand at upper level arts courses without much of the common background knowledge (such as reading or at least knowing the arguments of classical and seminal works in the field) I have found myself lacking in vocabulary and history of theoretical thought, but able to keep up with content, reading and analysis. I unfortunately do not think this is necessarily common amongst all upper level undergrads even within their selected majors.

I don’t put this forward to try and undermine the efforts of my peers, or to try and make myself more grand by comparison. I say it out of worry. I worry we are building a culture of unquestioning technicians. What I see as my difference with some of my peers is largely a product of deliberate choice but more so happenstance.

I’m older than the average third or fourth year undergrad in this country. I also had a brief introduction to philosophy, ethics and psychology at the secondary level because of travel which also contributed to the delay in my undergrad.

Enough self-justifying, how does this all relate to Heidegger?

I’m going to focus on the Greek word techne, which in our time is often translated as craft or art, which I think is a misnomer or at least selling it short. All quotes are from Heidegger’s essay, which I’ve managed to find on-line here. It’s an interesting read and as this is but an initial analysis I would welcome any criticisms.

A popular image of Herr Heidegger.

“There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name techne. Once that revealing that brings forth truth into the splendor of radiant appearing also was called techne.

Once there was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was also called techne. And the poiesis of the fine arts was also called techne.

If you noted the similarity of poiesis to the modern word ‘poetry’ you weren’t off the mark. What I’ve gathered from my initial reading is that Heidegger is calling for a broadening of the understanding of technology. This is similar to the broad task he set himself in Being and Time of addressing the ‘meaning of being’ which, having been the central aim of the ancients, in Heidegger’s mind had been neglected since. Heidegger takes the following quote from Plato’s Symposiom:

“Every occasion for whatever passes over and goes forward into presencing from that which is not presencing is poiesis , is bringing-forth.”

Now I can’t help but ask myself what the hell this means and won’t pretend to really understand. Yet, lucky for me I can use that second definition of theory, and do that which is arguably the most entertaining (and questionable) form of thought: speculation.

Plato’s ‘forms’, as well known from his popular allegory are something accessed but not brought into being by, essentially, the act of poetry. I’m not in any way suggesting that modern verse is the highest or only way of knowing. Think of how we now view medieval theology and extrapolate that understanding into the future twelve hundred years and see how much it’s altered.

Heidegger’s analysis largely builds on the instrumental definition of technology; that of a means to an ends. The ends, essentially, are human constructs, as he points out with his example of hydroelectric production: To what end is a dam? To the production of electricity which we have integrated and encouraged in our society. Were there not infrastructure, no houses filled with appliances and no streets lined with lamp-posts, there would be no reason to bring forth the end of generating electricity.

I’m going to summarize and conclude my analysis here, hopefully to be brought up again in this forum in the near future.

From what I understand Heidegger is questioning our definition of modern technology as incomplete, or without adequate metaphysical grounding. He debases the argument of modern technology as ‘having a life of its own’ by noting that at one time of the Rhine was a bridge and later a hydroelectric dam. Both are technologies which serve human ends, but also revel fundamental truths. What these truths are, I think, is a question well outside the scope of his essay and his brief argument has only been to postulate their existence. In calling attention to ancient Greek definitions of ‘acts of technology’ he is trying to unify our concepts of human actions into what we can call “bringing-forth”, “enframing”, “revealing” and by other names. True to the Platonic tradition, Heidegger himself frames these definitions as not complete in themselves but as accessing but some piece of the whole.

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