Notes of Iain Thomson “Understanding Technology Ontotheologically, or: the Danger and the Promise of Heidegger, an American Perspective”

Key concepts: ontological holism, ontotheology.

Related theorists: Berry, Bogost, Derrida, Dreyfus, Feenberg, Harman, Hayles, Heidegger, Heim, Nietzsche.

(146) Indeed, much of my own work has sought to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Heidegger's ontotheological understanding of technology by defending his insightful views from the most formidable objections raised against them (by Andrew Feenberg and others) and by developing the important implications of his groundbreaking understanding of technology for the future of both higher education and environmentalism. . . . In fact, the insight and relevance of Heidegger's understanding of technology, which continues to impress so many, follow from some of the deepest, most mysterious and most difficult of his later ideas, ideas which still remain very little understood.

7.1 Introduction: the danger and the promise of Heidegger

Need to be taught to hear ambiguity of subjective and objective genitives that Heidegger elucidated because concealed in dual meanings.

(146) Thanks to Heidegger, we have learned to hear the ambiguity of subjective and objective genitives in many phrases of the form, 'The X of Y'. We needed to be taught to hear this ambiguity, because it is concealed by the impossible simultaneously of its dual meanings.
(147) I begin by rehearsing such seemingly obvious and rudimentary phenomenological lessons because I want to suggest that Heidegger, in a strictly analogous way, teaches us to see 'the danger' of technology as standing
in the place of 'the promise' of technology. Heidegger's hope for the future, I shall show, turns crucially on helping us learn to make a gestalt switch whereby we come to see the promise instead of the danger – there, in the same place.
(148) This, then, is how I intend the 'and' in my title: Heidegger's thinking remains dangerous
and promising, in one and the same place.
(149) This is to suggest, in other words, the we cannot critically reconstruct and develop Heidegger's views on the future of education – one of the most promising dimensions of his thinking – without first understanding the philosophical depths of his commitment to Nazism, however dangerous that subject remains.

Elucidation of how Heidegger himself understood the danger and the promise of technology through his critique of America.

(149) 'The Danger and the Promise of Heidegger' can be heard not as entitling an examination of what remains dangerous and promising about Heidegger's thinking, but rather as calling for an elucidation of Heidegger's own understanding of 'the danger and the promise'. . . . Such coincidences seem too promising merely to be adventitious, and I shall focus here upon Heidegger's reasons for thinking these matters together, examining, in particular, the way they intersect with, and give rise to, Heidegger's provocative critique of 'America'.

7.2 Heidegger on technology's greatest danger

Critique of enframing follows from understanding metaphysics as ontotheology.

(149-150) Heidegger's conception of 'the danger' can only be fully understood against the background of his famous critique of 'enframing' (Gestell), our 'technological' understanding of the being of entities. In turn, this critique of 'enframing' follows from, and so can only be fully understood in terms of, the understanding of metaphysics as 'ontotheology' central to his later thought. Our endeavor to fully understand Heidegger's own sense of 'the danger' of technology must thus begin with a quick sketch of his profound but idiosyncratic conception of metaphysics as ontotheology.
(150) He builds upon the Kantian idea that we implicitly participate in the making-intelligible of our worlds, but maintains that our sense of reality is mediated by lenses we inherit from metaphysics. . . . These ontotheologies provide the dual anchors that suspend humanity's changing sense of 'reality', holding back the flood waters of historicity long enough to allow the formation of an 'epoch', a historical constellation of intelligibility which is unified around its ontotheological understanding of the being of entities.

Harman and Bogost contest the human focus of ontological holism.

(150) I thus interpret Heidegger's understanding of the ontotheological structure of Western metaphysics ('the history that we are') as advancing a doctrine of ontological holism.

Relate transformation of beings into intrinsically meaningless resources to digitization, object-oriented design; simplistic view leads to shallow cyborg stereotype based on cosmetic, psychophamarcological, cybernetic enhancement.

(151) Now our Western culture's unthinking reliance on this implicitly Nietzschean ontotheology is leading us to transform all entities into Bestand, mere resources standing by to be optimized, ordered and enhanced with maximal efficiency. As this historical transformation of beings into intrinsically meaningless resources becomes more pervasive, it increasingly eludes our critical gaze. Indeed, we late-modern Nietzscheans come to treat even ourselves in the nihilistic terms that underlie our technological refashioning of the world: no longer as modern subjects seeking to master an objective world, but merely as one more intrinsically meaningless resource to be optimized, ordered and enhanced with maximal efficiency, whether cosmetically, psychopharmacologically, genetically or even cybernetically.
(152) The danger, in other words, is that our Nietzschean ontotheology could become permanently
(152) The greatest danger, put simply, is that we could become so
satiated by the endless possibilities for flexible self-optimization opened up by treating our worlds and ourselves as resources to be optimized that we could lose the very sense that anything is lost with such a self-understanding. . . . It is, moreover, this concealed manifestation of the greatest danger – in which dystopia masquerades as utopia – that the later Heidegger comes to associate with 'America'.

The danger is continuous improvement as totalizing philosophy, the problem of the happy enframer epitomized with America.

(152) (endnote 13) Thus we get Heidegger's provocative evocation of the great danger we could call, with a nod to Marx, the problem of the happy enframer. . . . he develops here a line of thought long familiar to German philosophy (and not only critical theory), going all the way back to the Hippocratic tradition of diagnosing diseases of which the patient remains blissfully unaware.

7.3 America as the danger of technology

To Heidegger America synonymous with the danger: from outsider perspective of Edwards closed world.

(154) By 1969, however, at the height of the Vietnam War, there no longer seems to be any question in Heidegger's mind: 'America' has become virtually synonymous with 'the danger'.

Dreyfus argues inability to control drive to control expresses definitive ontotheology of our age, like the drive to build AI.

(154) As Hubert Dreyfus succinctly explains, 'the drive to control everything is precisely what we do not control', because this drive towards increasing control over the human being simply expresses the ontotheology definitive of our historical age.

America the avant-garde of ontohistorical technologization, working hardest to obscure insight that we are not entities making ourselves: does this contribute to our becoming more stupid?

(155) For Heidegger, America is the avant-garde of the greatest danger of ontohistorical technologization, the country working hardest to obscure the 'most important . . . insight that man is not an entity who makes himself' (FS 56/GA15 359).
(155-156) So, is our self-proclaimed 'super-power' really working out the will of the will-to-power and thereby increasing the danger that any other future becomes merely 'a thing of the past'? . . . One thing it shows, from a Heideggerian perspective, is that recognizing historicity is not sufficient for actually transforming history.
(157) Thus, even if America turns against this small spectrum of the technological enframing of humanity, this underlying enframing itself is not likely to stop anytime soon.

Not a Luddite position: the greatest danger is that we get a symptom-free disease.

(157) For such an effort, insofar as it succeeds, simply gives us a symptom-free diseaseand what is that but another way of describing Heidegger's greatest danger? . . . Instead, Heidegger insisted, a real solution demands not that we abandon our technological manipulation and control of human beings (which he recognized will not happen in the foreseeable future), but rather that we find ways to integrate these technological projects for increasing self-optimization into our basic sense of self without allowing this sense of self to be completely dominated by enframing's optimization imperative.

7.4 From the danger to the promise of technology

Taking the seriously with respect to technology, we are still faced with question of whether to engage as produces or consumers for deep experience, especially if the goal is to experience nothing as the way being reveals itself as the gestalt switch turning in place from the danger to the promise.

(157-158) In 'Nihilism as Determined by the History of Being' (1944-1946), the important but difficult essay which forms the capstone of his Nietzsche work, Heidegger addresses the relationship between technology's greatest danger and 'the promise' (das Versprechen). . . . Midnight, seen otherwise, is dawn. . . . Heidegger believes that we discover what saves us precisely by deeply experiencing what most endangers us, and he first tries publicly to communicate his way of making sense of this idea in terms of 'the promise'.

Gestalt switch of recognize nothing as the way being shows itself.

(158) Recognizing our ineliminable ontological receptivity, Heidegger thinks, makes possible this crucial insight: rather than experience being as nothing, we can instead experience the nothing as the way being shows itself to us. . . . In this simple gestalt switch, in which we pass from experiencing being as nothing to experiencing the nothing as the way being happens for us, we have passed, by just turning in place, from the most extreme point of the greatest danger to the promise.
(159) In this experience entities show up not as intrinsically meaningless resources, but otherwise, namely as being richer in meaning than we are capable of doing justice to conceptually, and thus as already exceeding, in the direction of the future, the ontologically reductive confines of enframing. . . . In my view, Heidegger's recognition that the 'nihilating' of the nothing is the action of being as such, an activity which exceeds and so cannot be explained in terms of the ontological difference between being and entities, is the defining experience at the heart of his so-called 'turn' and the
sine qua non of his 'later' thought.

Like postmodernism before computer examples, Heidegger struggled to clearly articulate the gestalt switch; Derrida sense it.

(160) Despite many such attempts, however, Gianni Vattimo recounts that Heidegger himself remained deeply distressed by his sense that he had failed to develop this necessary gestalt switch with the requisite clarity.
Derrida already recognized, in 1981, Heidegger's crucial insight that the highest point of fulfilled nihilism belong to two different planes – joining, in a single point, the danger of metaphysics and the promise of what exceeds it – and that this is the crucial point, so to speak, of Derrida's lucid but unexplained observation that Heidegger's Nietzsche lectures are “looking at both sides, down both slopes.”

7.5 Conclusion: technology and the future

Ontotheologies undermining meaningfulness of our sense of reality, with symptoms like environmental devastation, obsession with biogenetic optimization, empty optimization imperatives: a view of the situation Kittler seeks?

(160-161) To sum up the view I have presented here, then, ontotheology is the dual attempt to conceptually grasp all of reality from both the inside out (ontologically) and the outside in (theologically) at the same time. The problem with ontotheology is not that it is impossible but that, on the contrary, the way our successive historical ontotheologies do in fact function to structure our historical sense of reality has increasingly come to undermine the meaningfulness of our very sense of reality. . . . Environmental devastation, our growing obsession with biogenetic optimization, the increasing reduction of higher education to empty optimization imperatives, and the nihilistic erosion of all intrinsic meaning are just some of the most obvious symptoms of the underlying technological ontotheology 'enframing' our sense of reality.

Dwelling as phenomenological comportment: compare to technological comportment implicit in Berry, Harman (allure), Bogost, Hayles, Heim whose future articulation, I suggest, in learning how computers work is standing in the draft of technological being with tolma (boldness) to create, critique, and use reflexively, self-reprogramming subjectivity, our writing machines working on us.

(161) We need to learn to practice that phenomenological comportment he calls 'dwelling'. When we learn to dwell, we become attuned to the phenomenological 'presencing' (Anwesen) whereby 'being as such' manifests itself; we thereby come to understand and experience entities as being richer in meaning than we are capable of doing justice to conceptually, rather than taking them as intrinsically meaningless resources awaiting optimization. In this way we can learn to approach all things with care, patience, gratitude, awe and even, I would suggest, love.

Wittgenstein duck-rabbit gestalt figure applied to experiencing promise instead of danger crucial for Heidegger as first step to other beginning of history.

(161) On an analogy with the famous gestalt figure of the 'duck-rabbit' Wittgenstein popularized, I have suggested that the danger and the promise can be recognized as the two competing aspects of the same figure, aspects which conceal one another by standing in the same place. Learning to see and experience the promise instead of the danger is thus literally crucial for Heidegger: The danger is the peak of historical nihilism, the very 'fulfillment' of Western metaphysics, yet, seeing the promise, the obverse of precisely the same phenomenon, constitutes the first step into what he calls 'the other beginning' of history.


Thomson, Iain. “Understanding Technology Ontotheologically, or: the Danger and the Promise of Heidegger, an American Perspective.” New Waves in Philosophy of Technology. Eds. Jan-Kyrre B. Olsen, Evan Selinger, and Søren Riis. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 146-161. Print.