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  • Max Schmermbeck

Thought Magicians Reading Group #1 – Some thoughts on our first session

Last Wednesday, Lex, Donovan and I took part in the first session of the Thought Magicians Reading Group, a new project which we are very excited about. Through our personal circles, the platform, and the philosophical mailing list FILOS-NL, we managed to bring together a diverse group of philosophy enthusiasts and researchers who wanted to join us in reading Martin Heidegger’s famous text The Question Concerning Technology. In this short post, I will share some of the thoughts and ideas that came up during our discussion of this incredibly rich and beautiful text. This not only helps me to better understand the problems and difficulties that we ran into when reading Heidegger’s dense and complex prose, it might also give you some general insight into his fascinating ideas about the relations between technology, humanity, and nature.

It seems a rather uncontroversial statement that we are living in a highly technological age. In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger asks what implications this has for our understanding of ourselves and the world around us in a highly original way. Whereas we usually investigate something by asking what it is (thereby revealing its what-ness as an essence), Heidegger shows that such a line of thinking will mislead us when we apply it to technology. He argues that if we approach technology in this way, will only get to specific technologies (how does this work? How do we use it?). Moreover, we will only be able to see technology neutrally, as a collection of objects which people use to achieve certain ends.

According to Heidegger, such an approach to technology only scratches the surface of what is really at stake. The crucial point, he states, is that the essence of technology is not a kind of what-ness. It is not something that you can point at. Rather, the essence of technology is a way of framing the world, a way in which things appear to us. Technology is, in this sense, paradoxical: it is not thing-like, but it is still omnipresent, because it underlies the way in which things are made present to us in the world.

So how does this framing work? Heidegger’s insight is that technology discloses the world in such a way that things appear to us as ready for use. One might also think here of the critique found in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), in which they argue that the emphasis on reason in modernity has turned into an all-encompassing form of rationalization: everything that we do or think needs a purpose, a direction, a goal. Through this framing, (what Hubert Dreyfus calls the ‘technological understanding of being’), things are no longer allowed to linger, to float about, to just ‘be’. Objects, people, nature: everything needs to have a certain function. Everything is, in Heidegger’s words, a ‘standing reserve’.

During our discussion, some questions were raised in relation to this account of technology. Is it not too simplistic to say that things only appear to us as ready-for-use through technology? Is Heidegger not overlooking the many different ways in which we can engage with the world around us? Moreover, is he also not underestimating the many new ways of engaging with the world that technology makes possible? (a concern also articulated by philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek).

In his reply to these questions, Tim Miechels (a Heidegger-expert who was nice enough to join our reading group) gave the example of a forest: sure, the forest does not have a singular purpose. It might serve the lumberjack to collect wood for cutting, or a family for a walk, or a group of friends for a camping trip. The point, however, is that it always appears as useful for something. The forest cannot just ‘be’ a forest, it always needs to serve a purpose. This is the way in which it appears to us. Regardless of the infinite ways in which this purpose can be fulfilled, modern technology problematizes (or makes impossible, which is another point of contestation) the possibility for us see the forest withoutthereby also seeing its usefulness.

But, another contestant argued, if this technological understanding of being is alienating or unsettling for Heidegger, what else does he have in mind? How might we imagine things differently? What would the alternative be? This question strongly resonated with me, since I always have this lingering feeling that Heidegger has some Urstaat in mind, a primordial, authentic, heroic way of being-in-the-world that is better, or more original, than the one we currently have (and surely the unforgivable mistakes that Heidegger made politically cannot be forgotten when discussing his philosophy). This is a crucial question for us to think about, not just in relation to Heidegger but also in a more general sense: if a technocratic society based on utility, efficiency and optimization is problematic, how might we think about things differently? How, for example, could we form a new relation to ourselves and others beyond instrumentality? Hubert Dreyfus writes:

We must learn to appreciate marginal practices – what Heidegger calls the saving power of insignificant things – practices such as friendship, back-packing into the wilderness, and drinking local wine with friends. All these practices are marginal precisely because they are not efficient. They can, of course, be engaged in for the sake of health and greater efficiency. This expanding of technological efficiency is the greatest danger. But these saving practices could come together in a new cultural paradigm that held up to us a new way of doing things, thereby focusing a world in which formerly marginal practices were central and efficiency marginal.

A beautiful striving, but is this really the correct way to understand the problems facing us today? Will it be enough to embrace slow, inefficient practices of living to counter society’s pathological thirst for innovation, efficiency and optimization? Is the very possibility of imagining such a life not also a sign of enormous privilege, given that large groups of people are forced to see the world in terms of efficiency and optimization just to survive? Could they live non-instrumentally, even if they wanted to? And is this account not also nostalgic for a past that never existed, in which man lived in peaceful harmony with others amongst the serene beauty of nature?

These are just some of the questions that were raised during our discussion, but they stand out to me as the most urgent, complex and interesting. Perhaps they can serve as some food for thought when you move through your technologically mediated life and help you to perceive it in a critical way. They surely will be for those Lex, Donovan and I, who will again take up Heidegger’s concerns when the reading group gathers again for a second session.


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