Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Heidegger and his contemporaries: their time, their views

For a long time I was interested in linking Christian faith and with an understanding of modern technology but I didn't know how to connect the dots. My world was science and technology policy and economics of new technologies and thus how technologies get used. But where did being Christian fit?

The Christian technology world seemed the complete opposite not at all connected to the 20th Century but instead, all about philosophical understandings of technology. I was unsure about the philosophies and the people behind both in terms of their belief structures and whether they were Christian. I had heard names such as Heidegger; but where they Christian or just adopted by some Christians, why were they SO important?

Then I moved to Vancouver and starting meeting absolutely great people like Rosie Perera, Wan-Phek How at Regent, Derek White from New Zealand, Dave Stearns at SPU. Then John Dyer's fabulous book came out a couple of years ago. All of these people engage with technologies in their jobs with genuine faith and struggle for combining the two. I have begun to connect the dots.

I am still a bit of the odd one out it seems, but I have a better sense of where I fit. But there is that nagging doubt that at some point I have to start reading the 'philosophers', but who were they, what was shaping their worldview? As I was taught when reading the Bible: text without context is a pretext.

So it is important to me to know something about the people before I read what they wrote. Luckily for me, it seems if you wait long enough something brilliant shows up.
Technology and modernity: Spengler, Jünger, Heidegger, Cassirer

by David Roberts in Thesis Elevenvol. 111

This is a must read.

Spengler, Jünger, Heidegger, Cassirer were all German technology philosophers we can call them situated between the two world wars. That in itself is very significant - the fervent of; military defeat, economic turmoil and re-emerging power. It is little wonder that there a desire to understand the technological age. Roberts summarises briefly the views of each of these four in turn, and though you probably won't agree with much of the viewpoints of at least Spengler and Junger there is valid insights and gems..

Spengler is summarised by Roberts:

Spengler’s summary application in Man and Technics of Nietzsche’s Will to Power to the whole of animal and human history is of the crudest kind. Starting from the premise that technology is to be grasped as ‘the tactics of living’, Spengler’s ‘Contribution to a Philosophy of Life’ amounts to the bald assertion that life itself is identical with conflict (Spengler 1940: 10). No less than economy, war or politics, technology expresses the one active, fighting, and charged life’ (1940: 11) – ‘life, indeed, in the Nietzschean sense, a grim, pitiless, no-quarter battle of the Will-to-Power’ (1940: 16). [p21]

But he has one point that stood out to me:

The tragedy of the West is inherent in the Faustian drive to tame and harness the energies of nature. Not only has Faustian man mechanized and devastated nature (‘we cannot look at a waterfall without mentally turning it into electric power’; 1940: 94), he has been enslaved by his creations (‘The lord of the World is becoming the slave of the Machine, which is forcing him – forcing us all, whether we are aware of it or not – to follow its course’; 1940: 90). [p21]

I love that line ‘we cannot look at a waterfall without mentally turning it into electric power’ - so true.

Junger, is not too different. Junger’s model of freedom and order is the army, not the social contract. The army knows neither individuals nor the mass, dismissed by Junger as the twin faces of the identity of democracy and anarchy that characterizes the Weimar Republic. [p23].

It is difficult to detect from Roberts whether Spengler and Junger wanted the militaristic style technological age or just saw it as inevitable. So lets turn to more interesting writers; Heidegger and Cassirer.

Following some very nice prose that helps to unwrap where Heidegger is coming from he gets to this point which was a rather ah ha moment for me.

In the enframed world of completed metaphysics nothing less than ‘the leap back into the source’ can restore to art its original powers of poetic revealing. Heidegger’s silent distinction in ‘The Question concerning Technology’ between poetry/poiesis and modern ‘literature’, that is, between authentic art and the ‘business of culture’, is therefore just as crucial to his argument as the explicit distinction between techne and modern technology. Modernity can be redeemed only by the original saving power of the Greek source, even though the will to will as the will to power revealed by enframing springs from the destining progressively unfolded in Western metaphysics since Plato. In ‘The Question concerning Technology’ Heidegger is asking in what way modern technology is like but also unlike art, a question which is pushed into the background if we focus solely (as reception mostly has) on Heidegger’s reading of the essence of technology as enframing. Moreover, by reducing the essence of technology to enframing Heidegger obscures his own more fundamental and original question concerning what art and technology have in common: unconcealing as a way of revealing that brings forth and makes present. I do not wish to deny the power of Heidegger’s interpretation of modern technology. Enframing is clearly an ever present danger in our technological
civilization. What I do want to argue is that the price of Heidegger’s totalizing reductionism is too high. We need to unframe Heidegger’s question because he closes rather than discloses the question of the essence of modern technology and modern art. [p29].

Lastly, lets us turn to Cassirer, somebody I had not come across before reading this article.

We need to recognize, Cassirer says, not only language as the ‘tool of the spirit’ but equally the ‘spirit of the tool’ at work in technology. The word and the tool represent the two fundamental acts of the grasping of reality, by which humans give form to the world. The giving of form is an active process: speech involves a genuine act of world-creation, tools open up the possibility of a new aspect or dimension of the world (Cassirer 2004: 8–9). Cassirer argues that the use of tools signified a break with magical practices but also continuity: ‘All ‘‘real’’ actions, if they are to succeed, need . . . a magic preparation and anticipation. A war or plundering expedition, fishing or hunting can only succeed if each phase is anticipated magically and as it were ‘‘rehearsed’’’ (p. 11). To anticipate and rehearse is to picture to oneself, to make an image, to imagine what could or should happen. (Heidegger’s distinction between the revealing ‘fore-knowledge’ of poiesis [Heidegger 1993: 319] and the objectifying world-picture of the modern subject may be read as a critique of and correction to Cassirer.) [p29-30\]

Then this rather dazzlingly brilliant point for something written in the 1930s. 

If, with Schiller, we think of art as a ‘second creator’ of humanity, then with Cassirer we must think of technology in the same fashion, not only in respect of material culture but equally in respect of the self-reflection and self-knowledge technology gives rise to. Each new aspect of the world revealed by the use of tools opens up a new aspect of our inner world. [p30]

If Cassirer offers us a modern answer, it is not one premised on a distinction between ancient and modern technology. On the contrary, the very first use of tools set in train an ongoing process of revealing as unconcealment, that is, the uncovering of what is present but hitherto concealed in the world. The nature waiting to be shaped and given form by technology is thereby revealed as essentially incomplete. From the beginning technological ‘discovery’ signifies the experimental path of formation and transformation mediated by the essential plasticity of nature. The spirit of technology therefore resides for Cassirer in its capacity to reveal the latent in nature, waiting to be actualized. [p31].

And on this point I will leave Roberts' article for you to read, which I do encourage.

But that last point by Roberts on Cassirer, that is a point I can sink my teeth into. If over twenty + years of watching technological developments there has been one overall impression it has not been how clever we as humans have been at building digital devices (sorry, my friends), no, it has been that the still emerging science and technologies that will help us over the next hundred years. We can use biological mechanisms to build houses in the desert sands of Africa, we are still finding new ways of increasing solar panel efficiencies - long after it was deemed a dead end and so on and so on. As we develop new technologies we discover new things in nature that help us build the next generation of technology. The wealth of technology in the biological world seems limitless, if we can but point our own technologies to benefit mankind and not its destruction. That is not to say other domains of nature such as physics don't come to play but it is the biological world that fascinates me.

It is always dangerous to pin yourself to a particular philosophy, but if the depiction by Roberts of Cassirer is accurate then it seems to me that as Christians there is much to explore here. Creating a worlview based on distinction between pre and post industrial revolution technologies is I believe seriously problematic. Watch any archaeological tv program and it is totally evident how technologically driven some of ancients societies were. In a recent program by Neil Oliver http://www.neiloliver.com/tv_and_radio.html he described the coming of the Romans to Britain as something a kin to an invasion from outer space. Some of Britain was in the bronze age but not all of it. The Romans brought the latest technology including glass which they could use in buildings for windows thus keeping them much warmer. They had central heating for their more important buildings etc etc. 

Yes we are living in a period of rapid technological change but these have happened before. 

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