Heidegger and science

One thing that is perhaps surprising about Being and Time, for someone familiar with the later Heidegger and with the continental tradition that grew out of his work, is how positive it seems to be about science. He never denies that science is extremely powerful or that it produces true and useful results, and in chapter 2 of division 1, he seems to grant its role as a “primary mode of Being-in-the-World” a certain legitimacy. The purpose of the analytic of Being is not to call science into question but to provide the kind of robust conceptual underpinning that they all need — and the contemporaneous “crises” in the various sciences (as listed in the introduction) demonstrate that the sciences themselves are calling out for just this kind of operation. The problem with scientific knowledge is that it has covered over its own deepest sources and obscured our view of the phenomenon of Being-in-the-World, but presumably once this has been secured, science will be able to achieve ever greater things that comport more fully with what is most important about human existence.

It strikes me that, without the benefit of hindsight, one could view fascism — including its local German variant of Nazism — as a marriage of technology with the authentic lifeworld of the people, and that one could view Communism as an attempt to uproot that lifeworld once and for all. And after fascism’s horrifying crimes and ultimate failure, one could then say: “I see where I went wrong — it was granting legitimacy to technology!” Hence his infamous gloss of “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” as “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity” — and so the way to get past the mistake of Nazism is to turn against technology itself as inherently hostile to the authentic lifeworld of the people.

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, the original judgment of fascism seems obviously stupid, and the explanation of how he was able to make that mistake also seems pretty dumb. Hence, perhaps, the almost universally shared position among “left Heideggerians” that there is something trite about Heidegger’s famous critiques of technology.

This is of course over-simplified and likely unoriginal. Still, what do you think, dear readers?

11 thoughts on “Heidegger and science

  1. I’m not sure if this is the kind of response you want, but I would say Heidegger grants a heck of a lot of legitimacy to technology since he sees it as embodying the chief character of an epoch of being…I mean, I say this may not be what you want to hear because likely you already know all that but think that this is a shallow cover for Heidegger’s deeper and truer luddism, or something like that, which may be true but I don’t think so. I actually think there are structural reasons in the 1930s for why Heidegger’s thinking was already moving him past his commitment to fascism (I hope I can say this without cutting him any moral breaks whatsoever, however–the guy was a scumbag).

  2. “Structural reasons” meaning reasons embedded in H’s thought…technology, in the 1930s, is the word for human’s wresting an epoch of being from the primal conflict or polemos of the ontological difference. However, having that thought already moves the thinker’s thought beyond the polemos and into the event-like character of the sending of the epochs, thus already move Heidegger from “siding” with any epochal principle. Of course, it would be legitimate to suggest that I have the order of things ass-backward here as opposed to the sociological explanation of the development of his thinking you suggest above…

  3. I say in the post that he views technology as the chief character of modern being — in the later writings, though, one gets a much clearer sense that this is somehow a really bad and dangerous thing. This post may be totally dumb, I don’t know.

  4. I’m realizing that “legitimacy” was sloppy wording. It should be more like, “viewing technology as something we could work with, rather than something we need to figure out how to overcome.” And I haven’t done the later texts in a long time, so this is all rather crude.

  5. I wouldn’t say it’s dumb; sorry, I don’t mean to be pedantic and correct-y about it. It’s hard not to do, unfortunately; for instance, it’s probably insufferable to point out at this juncture that no (overly?) fastidious Heideggerian could accept “work with” vs. “figure out how to overcome.” If it’s nevertheless a well-nigh irresistible temptation to point this out to you, it’s because of the possible ambiguity as to whether you are 1) misunderstanding Heidegger or 2) rejecting Heidegger’s own coordinates for thinking about these matters. I want to make clear that I do not think 2) is illegitimate, and don’t want to derail your insight in a flurry of nitpicking, nor do I wish to allow you to hastily conclude you are doing 1), but rather to help us both avoid letting your post slide into 1), which I think is sort of the opposite of pedantically correcting it or trying to insist it’s illegitimate because somehow incorrect.

    I think the important insight in your post is that it is possible to interpret Heidegger as misreading the historical situation, imbuing it with a false onto-historical significance, which drives him to grandiose and, perhaps incidentally for your point, self-serving conclusions. I think any Heideggerian who simply dismisses this possibility is (half-metaphorically) placing their soul in danger, so I don’t think your post is dumb at all.

  6. Your last paragraph is the main point I was trying to make. I understand that my characterization of Heidegger’s position has been so simplified as to be laughable, and I take no offense at your corrections — I will be pursuing this matter further after I’ve finished my course on B&T.

  7. I tend to feel that Heidegger got bad after Being and Time and What is Metaphysics?. When in Introduction to Metaphysics he switches gears from analyzing the facticity of individual dasein to the fate of European humanity as a whole, the immediate results were of course disastrous politically, but this same book exhibits his fondness for etymology as a replacement (so it seems to me) for more concrete analysis that dominates much of his late work. I see this as his turn to issues that could be broadly termed political. The results were at worst support for fascism and at best cogent but somewhat vague indictments of technological reason backed the butchering of ancient Greek. Whatever its connotations, Being and Time ignored politics, and its insights, especially as regarding temporality as the horizon of both finitude and transcendence (Žižek talks about this in the Parallax View), have a broader philosophical significance. That’s my opinion, anyway.

  8. I don’t want to be caught defending Martin Heidegger against what are obviously prevocational remarks (e.g. scumbag). There’s no question but what MH collaborated with Nazism for at least the brief period of the Rectorate (circa 1933-34) (although I’d argue that that collaboration was the subject of a subsequent self-critique, which critics often ignore) & never arrived at a satisfactory statement on the Holocaust or Shoah. But I’d like to clarify what (I think) is his position on science and technology. Which is really his position on “Western metaphysics” as “completed metaphysics” or “completed nihilism,” and not just “science” & “technology” per se…

    In “Overcoming Metaphysics” (ca. 1936-46) Martin Heidegger sees both German National Socialism (Fascism) and Soviet Russian Bolshevism (communism) as essentially driven by the self-destructive will-to-will embodied in contemporary military-industrial technology. And in “Einblick in das, was ist” (ca. late 1940s) he extends that critique to the US/ASSR cold war thermonuclear arms race, which also seems bent on the self-destruction of the human species & the earthly planet. This position is based upon his critique of the Nietzschean metaphysics of will that he sees embodied in the Nazi “triumph of the will” (the fuhrer principle) & in the total mobilization of military industrial technology by the communist & fascist regimes. But it is also based upon his belief that “Western metaphysics” from Aristotle through Descartes Kant & Hegel results in the reduction of breathing living beings (human & otherwise) to mere “things” to be consumed & expended in the production of war materiel (which is what’s meant by “completed nihilism”). In this sense, “communism” & “fascism” are nearly indistinguishable, except that they take opposite sides in the “Weltanschauungskrieg” (“war of world views) of WWII. And the Post War/Cold War thermonuclear arms race shows that the Western democracies aren’t much better. This position supports Martin Heidegger’s much-ballyhooed remark that “the production of corpses in the gas chambers is the same as motorized agribusiness,” which, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe says, is both “scandalously inadequate” & “technically correct” as an analysis of the Nazi system of Vernichtungswissenschaft: “the science of annihilation,” which, like the Soviet Gulag, made mass extermination simply a mechanized extension of the political reign of terror. In brief, “Western metaphysics” as “completed metaphysics” or “completed nihilism” is embodied in the self-destructive will-to-will which brought about “the desolation of the earth by metaphysics” in World War II & seems intent upon finishing the job in the Post War/Cold War thermonuclear arms race.

    But Martin Heidegger’s Post-War (Post-Nazi?) view of “Western metaphysics” as “completed metaphysics” or “completed nihilism” does not see technology as inescapably or irremediably committed to wholesale planetary suicide (despite the preponderance of evidence that maybe it is…). Although Martin Heidegger sees Western technology as “das Ge-Stell” (“the frame,” “machination,” “the in-stall-ation,” “the im-plant,” whatever) as an increasingly planetary or globalized computer surveillance-&-information system (“the world-wide web,” “the internet” etc.) that positions human beings & other sentient beings as mere “raw materials” or “human resources” for consumption in the production of military-industrial technology, Martin Heidegger still sees “das Ge-Stell” as the current medium by which “Being” discloses itself to humanity; & by which contemporary humanity can come to recognize that it is intricately caught up, in its “being,” in its own technology. Western technology as “das Ge-Stell” is currently penetrating & invading the central nervous system & biological processes of the human species & “subectifying” human beings as mere extensions of their technology. But that very fact shows that Western technology is itself a contemporaneous human invention (like “subjectivity” itself) which is simply the externalized & objectified projection of the contemporary human being (…the extrasomatic human nervous system, if you want…); and that human beings are finally responsible for & to the technology they invent (& are subjected to & by…). Contemporary human beings, Martin Heidegger argues, need to bring technology “spiritually back into hand”; but to do so, they also need to recognize how they have been subjectified by & become dependent upon that technology, which has so completely replaced the whole planetary biosphere & the human life-world as to become “Being” for contemporary humanity.

    But contemporary human beings cannot simply “master” technology by a metaphysical will-to-power; nor can they simply reverse the clock & destroy the technology which they’ve created (& been created by…) & become dependent upon, which, at this point, is virtually indistinguishable from (the) “human being.” What is required is a whole planetary paradigm shift or change in metaphysical world-views that would convert the self-destructive will-to-will & nihilist contagion of contemporary technology into a restored means of “building dwelling thinking” upon the planet earth (a planetary spiritual intelligence, if you will); or, as I’d also suggest, convert the current world-wide surveillance & information system into a whole earth biospheric biofeedback & regulation system, which would help solve the planetary ecological crisis by replacing ecological systems destroyed or damaged by that technology. What would it take to bring about such a world-wide paradigm shift or global change in world-views? That’s what Martin Heidegger calls “The Turning” or “Die Kehre,” which, unfortunately, can’t be brought about by the self-centered subjective human will or by some metaphysical human agency, but must come about through the impetus of “Being itself.” “Technology will not be overcome (uberwinden) by man,” Heidegger writes in the essay, “Die Kehre.” “Because that would mean that man was the master of Being….Instead, technology will be recuperated (verwinden) in a way that restores it to its (primordial) essence” as (what you might call) an extension of the human life-world (a primordial techne) or what Heidegger calls a “poeticizing thinking” & “poeticizing” dwelling upon the whole ecologically restored earth. The word used for “recuperation” (Verwindung) here means “to get over, to recover from…” etc. in the way that a drug addict kicks drugs or a sick person gets over a disease. In other words, contemporary human beings need to get over their addictive dependency to contemporary technology (…I-phones, the internet, e-mail, blogs, MTV, Miley Cyrus, & on & on…) before they can experience the breakthrough into globalized collective consciousness & whole earth biosphere consciousness that that technology makes possible…

    There are, of course, problems with MH’s position, which are made evident by the “Only a god can save us…” remark. Martin Heidegger somehow can’t see this global paradigm shift or world-wide breakthrough to a new consciousness occurring through subjective human agency or even collective action, probably because he sees all such subjective & collective action, like communism & fascism, as inescapably caught up in the self-destructive will-to-will & nihilist contagion that he experienced in his own lifetime (the Stalinist & Nazi terror, the Nazi concentration camps & the Stalinist slave labor camps, Stalingrad, the Battle of Berlin, the fire-bombing of the German Cities etc. etc.). But at least his views are more complicated & nuanced than these blogs might suggest. Martin Heidegger’s thinking of “Western metaphysics” & “Western technology” as “das Ge-Stell” & of “the turning” between the self-destructive nihilist abuses of that technology & its possible redemptive or utopian uses is not the answer to everything. It’s maybe not “the answer” to anything!… But at least it’s a way to start thinking about the contemporary political-economic predicament & planetary ecological crisis without either ignoring its overwhelmingly globalized & planetary implications, or taking refuge in subjectivist, “local” solutions to what is obviously a global crisis. In other words, Martin Heidegger is saying: We’re all in this thing together, along with our technology. Either we, all together, find some way to change the direction it’s headed. or we’ll all also perish together, sooner or later, when the postponed crisis augured by World War II & the Post war/Cold War thermonuclear arms race (Auschwitz & the Gulag, Hiroshima & Nagasaki…) finally arrives…

    I discuss all these issues in my book, Questioning Martin Heidegger (Univ Press 2013), if you’re interested…

  9. I’d say it’s more like MH’s position is a problem, but there is an insight or two to be found here in there in his work. Albeit it is a joy to watch Heideggerians ramble on as if his views on all this are anything but trite. Regarding science I would wager his softness on science, relative to his later work, is a hangover from his still operative fidelity to the Kantian strains in Husserl’s project – perhaps solified given how dominant neo-Kantianism was at the time (especially when we consider his relationship to Rickert, etc.) Once he was a little more established it seems his proper position emerges more clearly and his theological, ultra-conservative tastes come to the fore. In a weird way SZ is the least Heideggerian text Heidegger ever wrote and it is not surprising that it is, as is well known, the one he had to write with a job application in mind. His only other published book is on…Kant.

  10. “I’d say it’s more like MH’s position is a problem, but there is an insight or two to be found here in there in his work.”

    Or maybe non-Heideggerians are moron-heads. Let’s fight.

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