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1st May, 2020

Photo: Andreas Praefcke - Self-photographed, CC BY 3.0,

And all this science I don’t understand.

Elton John, Rocket Man

Martin Heidegger is known to a certain type of philosopher as the ‘secret king of philosophy’ of the 20th century, and to those of a more political inclination as a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, Hitler’s favourite Rektor, or Dean of universities, and the giver of what, to Germans, is a speech as infamous as Enoch Powell’s so-called ‘Rivers of blood’ speech is in Britain. Heidegger’s speech also contains blood; blood and soil.

Here, I will compare two texts by Heidegger and reduce them into one question; not ‘what is science?’, but rather ‘what has science become?’ Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics [MSMM] is strictly speaking a lecture from a series given in the 1930s, while The Question Concerning Technology [QCT] of 1953 is an essay, though heavily revised from lecture notes, in its own right.

What will detain Heidegger across these two linked works is the fate of the concept of science and what we might term the provisional wing of science, technology. I intend to show in introductory form that the consequences of Heidegger’s analysis of technology shows a desire for its simplification and a return to its origins.

Technology has become a force of nature. We can’t control it. It comes blowing over the planet and there’s nowhere for us to hide.

Don DeLillo, Zero K

Modern Science, Mathematics and Metaphysics is an attempt to question the mathematical as a dominant calibration of experience. It opens the theme of the two essays; have science and its prodigy technology gone too far and, if so, how did that happen, and is that excess reversable?

Heidegger plots the rise of mathematics as a result of the ‘detachment from revelation’, a conceptual shift from knowledge as being revealed by the divine - sanctioned and, of course, often enforced by the Church – to being quantised, made measurable, composed of a network of calibrated relations and no longer in touch with the things themselves. Nach dem Selben Selbst! Heidegger’s tutor Edmund Husserl would cry. Back to the things themselves!

These are the first signs of what we might call, rather unkindly, a ‘bucolic phenomenology’. We know of Heidegger’s personal and intellectual fascination with the land and the lived world, of his hermetic retreat at Todtnauberg. By the time of QCT, Heidegger will write that the very nature of the land itself has been changed by the type of technology which is now dominant. ‘The work of the peasant,’ he writes, ‘does not challenge the soil of the field’. Where is the disconnect between technology and its resources? From MSMM;

‘What remains questionable… is a closer determination of the relation of the mathematical in the sense of mathematics to the intuitive experience of the given things and to these things themselves’.

Heidegger’s analysis of mathematics is historical, including Newton, Galileo and Descartes, and properly ontological. Mathematics is presented as a dominator, appearing over the entrance to Plato’s Academy as an imperative but, more importantly, providing a matricular grid of determinants which favours one among other disciplines. And the mathematical is also mathēsis, deriving from the Greek for ‘to transmit knowledge’. Mathematics becomes the agent of what Heidegger, in QCT, will call the ‘enframing’, the theoretical environment within which questions are to be posed, even questions about that very enframing.

The genealogy of technology as a project of mathēsis, or the mathematical in the realm of that which allows it to operate, requires the philosophical course that has evolved from technē – the Greek word for production in general, including that of art - to present-day technology, the practice of calibration and the ‘standing reserve’ of resources – including mankind – which we will re-visit in QCT.

Heidegger’s consideration of the Cartesian cogito is a master-class of concision from a man often accused of prolixity. The whole process of doubting as a central methodology is questioned, and the central role of mathematics leads Heidegger to talk of Descartes’ last published work, the Regulae ad directionem ingenii, essentially the rules of mathematics. ‘In it’, says Heidegger, ‘the modern concept of science is coined’. Can we therefore explain the essence of science? Not yet;

‘With these three characteristics of modern science, that it is a factual, experimental, measuring science, we still miss the characteristic of modern science. The fundamental feature must consist in what rules and determines the basic movement of science itself. This characteristic is the manner of working with the things and the metaphysical projection of the thingness of the things. How are we to conceive this fundamental feature?’

Now Heidegger has set up QCT as the key to the question of technology, of what is and what, perhaps, should never be.

The problem of science cannot be recognised in the context of science...

Friedrich Nietzsche, An Attempt at Self-Criticism

The Question Concerning Technology is, I think, a complementary piece to MSMM. Heidegger opens by claiming that the question of the essence of technology is not itself technological. Already we have the grounds for both a genealogy and even a cartology of the history of technology.

These would show, Heidegger implies, that we are heirs to a technology incremental in advance which, when that advance is tracked backwards, leads to an over-arching technē, the Ancient Greek term meaning more than today’s narrow application, meaning production at all levels including, as Heidegger reminds us at the end of QCT, the production of art. This will be a further area of study for Heidegger, and we merely remind ourselves of a fragment from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy;

‘Perhaps art must be seen as the necessary complement of rational discourse’.

As well as aesthetic concerns, however, this leaves Heidegger with an inescapable problem of morality, as much as anything else;

‘Everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means’.

As ‘the will to mastery’ lies behind man’s current position with regard to technology, Heidegger seems to be heading for a moral decision, an arbitration over the best way for mankind to re-think the technological.

In QCT, Heidegger invokes Aristotle’s four categories of cause, the silver – for example – being the causa materia for the making of a chalice, the causa efficiens is the efficient cause, in this case the silversmith, the causa forma  is the shape and structure into which the chalice should be moulded, and the final or teleological cause is the telos of the final object, a sacrificial rite, say.

But Heidegger uses Aristotle’s four-fold categories of causality in a new way. Rather than showing that cause can be broken down into constituent and self-serving parts, rather causality, viewed in its four aspects, is that which reverences the interdependency of the four Aristotelean causes.

This is part of a thematic in Heidegger’s two essays, that of the danger of the dominance of technology as it stands.

[T]hey lose sight of heaven while they are employed in measuring the earth.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

For the critic of Heidegger, or at least of QCT, Heidegger is approaching what might uncharitably be termed ‘the bucolic turn’. Technology is shown, via the four categories of Aristotle, to be a type of revealing, but not of a kind which unites the creator of technology with the environment – the world, or at least Dasein. Heidegger is suggesting, not that there is good and bad science within its own structural framework, but there are applications of science expressed through technology which are being misapplied to the detriment of humanity. We have arrived at an inevitable question concerning science and technology.; where did it go wrong?

We might contend that, for Heidegger, technology lost its way somewhere between the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution. At this point in history, and at this point in QCT, we expect the ground-plans for a de-technologised society. The quantising we saw in MSMM has now become equipment, standing reserve, a network of referentialities which seem little concerned with the soil and more concerned with the practice of technology as its own end. Everything, including humans, Dasein, has become the zuhanden of Being and Time, standing ready-at-hand if required.

There is something else, however, beyond the charge that Heidegger wishes for a world in which production is held at the level of Dasein, an idyllic world of hand-carved sickles and seed-tills and windmills. This in itself alerts us to the modern world’s confused obsession with the earth itself seen in the ‘Green’ movement. But there is something other than this concern over ‘the bucolic turn’.

If technology really did take a wrong turn between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, then it did so at a time when thought was changing from a partly Hermetic, partly neo-classical process to a ‘regulated and secure’ set of practices, as Heidegger calls it. 'That which lives on reason', wrote the great Hermetic thinker Paracelsus, 'lives against the spirit'. What is it about science and its offspring technology that is seductive and dangerous? Possibly we are approaching what Heidegger would think of as a clearing in our thinking.

Human sciences dissect everything to comprehend it, and kill everything to examine it.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Technology, says Heidegger in his own specialist terminology, is ‘a mode of revealing’. Technology ‘comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealedness take place, where alētheia, truth, happens. This, it would seem, is the secret king’s imprimatur'. But he continues;

‘In opposition to this definition of the essential domain of technology, one can indeed say that it indeed holds for Greek thought and that at best it might apply to the techniques of the handicraftsman, but that it simply does not fit modern machine-powered technology’.

The earth as coalmine is now the subject of an elegy as ‘the work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field’.

This is a cursory overview, and lacks space to investigate Heidegger’s plan for land reform, but the exposure of mathēsis as an over-arching (an archon) dominator of science, and by extension technology, has led Heidegger to a reappraisal of how technology should be used. And, just so, we now legitimately marvel at the technology required to make a smartphone while at the same time questioning the need for constant new models and systems.

So, is Heidegger an existential Luddite? He calls what is happening to technology ‘monstrous’, it fails to make sacred – religious terminology can never be far away from Heidegger – the soil and the earth. It would take a wholly different, political reading to examine the relation between the soil the peasant leaves unchallenged, and the soil of Heidegger’s other speech, in which it is linked with blood and a darker destiny.

Technology and comfort – having those, people speak of culture, but do not have it.

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

Technology, for Heidegger, has also turned man into a ‘standing reserve’, a few places up from a cog or lever, but it is merely a question of degree and not of essence. Technology has also, of course, enabled the population of the planet to soar as it has since the Industrial Revolution. Heidegger’s ‘bucolic turn’ may cost lives if it were effected. It would certainly require more space. Heidegger’s language is full of spatial metaphor, widening out, enframing, unconcealment. Heidegger’s one-time boss, Adolf Hitler, also had dreams of space, lebensraum

This is not the place to review Heidegger’s political career. His rejection of the Nazi Party was for reasons precisely to do with his ominous warnings about technology and the technological mindset – what we know now as technocracy. Heidegger biographer Rudiger Safranski, in Between Good and Evil, encapsulates Heidegger’s political apostasy in philosophical terms;

‘[Heidegger’s] focus shifted until he regarded National Socialism no longer as a breakout from the modern age, but as its especially consistent expression. He discovered that National Socialism was itself the problem whose solution he had once thought it was. He saw the furor of the new age rampant in National Socialism: technological frenzy, government and organisation – in other words, inauthenticity as total mobilisation’.

In the end, authenticity was always everything for Heidegger. This is not to say we judge history and its moral chiaroscuro using a sort of Heideggerean litmus test of authenticity which deems Hitler just not authentic enough for the secret king. Rather we see that, revealed (there is always revelation in Heidegger) via technology and the turn it has taken, history is judging us, and rigorously testing us. Technology is becoming history’s wrong turn.

Mark Gullick is a philosophy PhD from London, England, who went on holiday to Costa Rica four years ago and forgot to go home. He now works there as a musician. He blogs at

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