Blitz, Mark, "Understanding Heidegger on Technology," The New Atlantis, Winter: 2014.
Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was perhaps the most divisive philosopher of the twentieth century. Many hold him to be the most original and important thinker of his era. Others spurn him as an obscurantist and a charlatan, while still others see his reprehensible affiliation with the Nazis as a reason to ignore or reject his thinking altogether. But Heidegger’s undoubted influence on contemporary philosophy and his unique insight into the place of technology in modern life make him a thinker worthy of careful study.
In his landmark book Being and Time (1927), Heidegger made the bold claim that Western thought from Plato onward had forgotten or ignored the fundamental question of what it means for something to be— to be present for us prior to any philosophical or scientific analysis. He sought to clarify throughout his work how, since the rise of Greek philosophy, Western civilization had been on a trajectory toward nihilism, and he believed that the contemporary cultural and intellectual crisis — our decline toward nihilism — was intimately linked to this forgetting of being. Only a rediscovery of being and the realm in which it is revealed might save modern man.
In his later writings on technology, which mainly concern us in this essay, Heidegger draws attention to technology’s place in bringing about our decline by constricting our experience of things as they are. He argues that we now view nature, and increasingly human beings too, only technologically — that is, we see nature and people only as raw material for technical operations. Heidegger seeks to illuminate this phenomenon and to find a way of thinking by which we might be saved from its controlling power, to which, he believes, modern civilization both in the communist East and the democratic West has been shackled. We might escape this bondage, Heidegger argues, not by rejecting technology, but by perceiving its danger.
Heidegger’s Life and InfluenceThe son of a sexton, Martin Heidegger was born in southern Germany in 1889 and was schooled for the priesthood from an early age. He began his training as a seminary student, but then concentrated increasingly on philosophy, natural science, and mathematics, receiving a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Freiburg. Shortly after the end of the Great War (in which he served briefly near its conclusion), he started his teaching career at Freiburg in 1919 as the assistant to Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. Heidegger’s courses soon became popular among Germany’s students. In 1923 he began to teach at the University of Marburg, and then took Husserl’s post at Freiburg after Husserl retired from active teaching in 1928. The publication of Being and Time in 1927 had sealed his reputation in Europe as a significant thinker.
Heidegger’s influence is indicated in part by the reputation of those who studied under him and who respected his intellectual force. Hannah Arendt, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hans Jonas, Jacob Klein, Karl Löwith, and Leo Strauss all took classes with Heidegger. Among these students, even those who broke from Heidegger’s teachings understood him to be the deepest thinker of his time. Although he became recognized as the leading figure of existentialism, he distanced himself from the existentialism of philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre. In Heidegger’s view, they turned his unique thought about man’s being in the world into yet another nihilistic assertion of the dominance of human beings over all things. He insisted that terms such as anxiety, care, resoluteness, and authenticity, which had become famous through Being and Time, were for him elements of the “openness of being” in which we find ourselves, not psychological characteristics or descriptions of human willfulness, as some existentialists understood them.
Heidegger’s intellectual reputation in the United States preceded much direct acquaintance with his work because of the prominence of existentialism and the influence of his students, several of whom had fled Germany for the United States long before translators began producing English editions of his important works. (Being and Time was first translated in 1962.) Arendt in particular, who had immigrated to America in the early 1940s, encouraged the introduction of her teacher’s work into the United States. Heidegger’s most popular if indirect significance was during existentialism’s heyday from the end of the Second World War until its nearly simultaneous apotheosis and collapse on the hazy streets of San Francisco. Late Sixties Be-Ins — mass gatherings in celebration of American counterculture — appropriated existentialist themes; Heidegger’s intellectual rigor had been turned into mush, but it was still more or less recognizably Heideggerian mush. Herbert Marcuse, a hero to the more intellectual among the Sixties gaggle, was an early student of Heidegger’s, and his books such as Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man owe something to him, if more to Freud and, especially, Marx.
After the 1960s, Heidegger’s intellectual radicalism became increasingly domesticated by the American academy, where wild spirits so often go to die a lingering bourgeois death. His works were translated, taught, and transformed into theses fit for tenure-committee review. Still, Heidegger’s influence among American philosophy professors has remained limited (although not entirely negligible), since most of them are, as Nietzsche might say, essentially gastroenterologists with a theoretical bent. Heidegger became more influential, though usually indirectly, for the ways artists and architects talk about their work — no one can conjure a “built space” quite as well as Heidegger does, for instance in his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking.” And much of Heidegger can also be heard in the deconstructionist lingo of literary “theory” that over the past forty years has nearly killed literature. The result is that “Heidegger” is now a minor academic industry in many American humanities departments, even as he remains relatively unappreciated by most professional philosophers.
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