Heidegger and Russell on Technology and Politics

It is normal to draw a strong distinction between the way we think “technology” in analytic and continental philosophy. The traditional liberal, or analytic position is to claim the neutrality of technology, “technology is a means to an end”, whereas strange Heideggerians talk about “enframing“, “standing reserve”, and other German concepts that make no sense to liberals. Continental philosophers (including different varieties of Marxists and psycho-analytic post marxists) conceive of technology (or alienated labour) as something genuinely new, which has changed the fabric of human kind, and which is not neutral with respect to social-political problems faced by contemporary society. Liberals, and analytic philosophers, on the other hand, refuse to see technology as something tainted, and are often first to support the “build a better mousetrap” solution to any technological-ecological catastrophe.

There are a few reasons, however, why we might not want to so sharply divide the liberal from the continental tradition on technology, however. Firstly, if one actually reads Heidegger’s “Question Concerning Technology” (which is quite easy, in fact, since it is available for free online), one finds that Heidegger in no way disputes the standard, liberal, definition of technology as neutral:

The current conception of technology, according to which it is a means and a human activity, can therefore be called the instrumental and anthropological definition of technology.

Who would ever deny that it is correct? It is in obvious conformity with what we are envisaging when we talk about technology.

Heidegger’s essay certainly doesn’t conclude by positing the instrumental definition of technology, but importantly he does not dismiss it as false. His argument that situates technology as a “mode of truth” procedes from the everyday understanding of technology – one might say that for Heidegger, the instrumental understanding of technology is true, but not adequate. Not adequate because it does not sufficiently account for the affect technological thinking has on man’s being in the world. It is that non-neutrality – the transformative effect of technology on the way the world appears – which is normally seen as anti-liberal.

However, if one actually reads the eminent analytic philosopher, Bertrand Russell, on the subject of technology – one begins to wonder whether the discussion, or at least the concerns, are really so different:

This brings me to the second kind of idea that has helped or may in time help mankind;  I mean moral as opposed to technical ideas. Hitherto I have been considering the increased command over the forces of nature which men have derived from scientific knowledge, but this, although it is a pre-condition of many forms of progress, does not itself insure anything desirable. On the contrary, the present state of the world and the fear of an atomic war show that scientific progress without corresponding moral and political progress may only increase the magnitude of the disaster that misdirected skill may bring about. In superstitious moments I am tempted to believe in the myth of the Tower of Babel, and to suppose that in our own day a similar but greater impiety is about to be visited by a more tragic and terrible punishment. (google book link)

The shared concern, then, is the idea that something other than technology is required to take care of the situation in which man is placed by technology. The strong, although perhaps superficial difference, is this: for Russell the technological situation is characterized by the magnitude of power which resides in technological machines man creates. Whereas, for Heidegger, the technological situation is characterized by seeing the world technologically, by the technological form of truth, or of revealing. However, if we look closely at what is meant by the technological “mode of revealing”, we begin to see the complex relation between the technological mode of revealing, and man’s situation of excessive unbridled power which could result in disaster:

Regulating and securing even become the chief characteristics of the revealing that challenges.

According to Heidegger, in the technological form of revealing everything appears as something to be ordered and secured – or one might say, mastered. In fact, things literally appear as a challenge to be mastered. There is ample anecdotal evidence for this worldview – think of the settler mindset and its desire to tame and work the land, or the scientific value of endless progress towards understanding that which initially appears chaotic. For Heidegger, the complexity of man’s technological situation is, however, not characterized by the difficulty of the challenge (this we are constantly overcoming), but the difficulty of coming to grips with the situation of challenge itself:

enframing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the propriative event of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth.

Perhaps because Heidegger is a philosopher first, and believes strongly that philosophy has no social purpose, he frames the problem around man’s relationship with truth as such. Truth, for Heidegger, is essentially ambiguous – but this ambiguity is buried over in the frenzy of correctness as one is constantly engaged in the challenge of organizing and securing the energies of the world. (In true Heideggarian fashion there is also a reversal – this very burying over of the ambiguity of truth is a revealing of the mysterious nature of truth, hence the famous phrase from Holderlin: “Where the danger lies, the saving power also”). However, while the social effects of the technological way of seing things may not be his first priority, they are not totally absent from the discussion. In the post humously published Der Spiegel interview, Heidegger famously claimed his lack of faith in Democracy – and if we read this statement in context, we see the similarities between Heidegger’s and Russell’s concerns coming into line:

During the past thirty years [1936-66], it should meanwhile have become clearer that the planetary movement of modern technology is a power whose great role in determining history can hardly be overestimated. A decisive question for me today is how a political system can be assigned to today’s technological age at all, and which political system would that be? I have no answer to this question. I am not convinced that it is democracy.

I would indeed describe [conceptions of democracy] as halves because I don’t think they genuinely confront the technological world. I think that behind them there is an idea that technology is in its essence something human beings have under their control. In my opinion, that is not possible. Technology is in its essence something that human beings cannot master of their own accord.

The central assertion about technology is, then, that the essence of technology is not something we can “master” – one might say that mastering as such is not master-able. And considering the current precarious situation of man vis a vis both the danger of nuclear weapons and global warming,If we are to read this statement without prejudice today, we ought probably conclude that Heidegger appears to be on the right track – democracy, at least real-existent democracy, is not able to deal with the technological situation of the species. Russell, on the other hand, is resolutely pro-Democracy. But, if we return to Russell’s claim about technology, it does not appear that Russell thinks technology to be “masterable” either – he refers to “moral as opposed to technical ideas”. And for Russell, man as “moral” is decisively not something masterable:

Man, viewed morally, is a strange amalgam of angel and devil. He can feel the splendor of the night, the delicate beauty of spring flowers, the tender emotion of parental love, and the intoxication of intellectual understanding. In moments of insight visions come to him of how life should be lived and how men should order their dealings one with another. Universal love is an emotion which many have felt and which many more could feel if the world made it less difficult. This is one side of the picture. On the other side are cruelty, greed, indifference and over-weening pride.

Russell’s view of man as split between good and evil, or love and reason, is traditional – and while it is compatible with the notion of technical things as neutral, it is not compatible with the idea of politics as technics. The disagreement over democracy essentially concerns democracy’s ability to consider man as man, in other words, to be moral and not merely technical. Russell’s optimistic outlook for democracy conceives of democracy not as an idea put into force intentionally by man in order to order and secure desirable life, but rather something which organically develops over time:

Ordered social life of a kind that could seem in any degree desirable rests upon a synthesis and balance of certain slowly developed ideas and institutions: government, law, individual liberty, and democracy.

Moral ideas sometimes wait upon political developments, and sometimes outrun them.

The transformation of morals into politics is not a simple technical procedure. The question, then, is not whether or not politics is technics, but whether Democracy is adequate to the situation of man in which man everywhere seeks to master the world, and yet can not master his own mastering of it. Before man everywhere ordered and secured the world, there was no pressing need to secure the species against nuclear and ecological disaster. But today, the crisis is imminent: we have a limited amount of time to begin significant cuts to human C02 emissions, or we will face catastrophic climate change and potentially exterminate the species.  So, the question of whether democracy could be adequate to the moral need of humanity, in a time when its institutions so sorely lag behind that need, is a live question.

If we are to learn anything from Russell or Heidegger’s questioning concerning technology and politics, it is not adequate to remain at the level of discussing theoretical disagreements between them as philosophers. Of that there is plenty, sometimes conveniently presented on youtube. Rather, we should engage their thought on the level of its content. Anyone can engage with the content of this question, but only in conversation with these philosophers if one is willing to actually read them, which is something different from observing their propositions in order to argue with them and “prove them wrong”. Any genuine thinker is not simply “right” or “wrong”, but contributes to thinking on issues which concern the situation of man.


3 thoughts on “Heidegger and Russell on Technology and Politics

  1. Thankfully, this essay is entirely wrong – because everything turns on how “man” is thought. Heidegger thinks man as the opening, the possible sight of freedom, through which various perspectives direct and attend towards concerns – genuine and ungenuine.

    Russell’s tradition grasp of man as “moral” does not seek to extricate itself from the standard thinking of subjectivity. Therefore, Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche can serve as a critique of Russell’s concept of man.

    That’s not the end of the story, however. A philosopher I’ve recently become aware of, Todd May, has combined post structuralism with traditional anarchist concerns into something called post-anarchism, or post-structural anarchism. I will continue to look into this, and bring it to bear against my Heidegger/Russell and Heidegger/Chomsky thoughts.

  2. Your quote from Russell doesn’t challenge the conception of technology as neutral. By arguing that morality is required to determine the desirability of the application of our increased technical prowess, Russell is suggesting that the scientific form of progress is in fact neutral and it is our application of that knowledge that might be considered as positive or negative. He is worried about the results of our application of (specific pieces of) technology. This is considerably different than Heidegger’s concerns about the very concept of technology. The lack of neutrality is the result of the technological process requiring a particular mindset. In this manner, objects of technology do not simply act on the world (thus he is not merely concerned with application as Russell.), but whose production already necessitates a particular attitude to the world. This attitude is possessive, creeping and totalizing – and this is the sense that technology is not conceptually (strong emphasis) neutral. The problem is that Heidegger alleges that adopting this hyper-rational attitude towards the world (the attitude becomes totalizing because efficiency becomes reified as the supreme value and in becoming its own object, necessitates complete application of a technical mindset, complete domination over resources, etc) that we lose a traditional way of being related to the world and something essentially human. (the conversion of natural elements, what we might call natural “resources”, into standing reserve is an example of this phenomenon) This is mirrored in Adorno over concerns of alienation, whereby individuals are reduced (in spirit) to rational objects – producer, consumer, cogs.

    I do not know how to make it any clearer, but the quote you’ve provided from Russell does not consider technology to be conceptually problematic. Any talk about enframing relates to a particular mindset enforced by what technology is conceptually.

    P.S. Your consideration of politics and more specifically democracy or liberalism as techne was moderately interesting. I would be interested in reading an expanded account of your claims.

  3. I don’t think technology, for Russell or Heidegger, is a “concept”. It’s a real event in modern human history. As I quoted above, Russell believes:

    ” the present state of the world and the fear of an atomic war show that scientific progress without corresponding moral and political progress may only increase the magnitude of the disaster that misdirected skill may bring about.”

    So, technology is not neutral – but poses stresses on humanity, challenges. Technological without moral progress will be the end of us. This is what Chomsky means when he says that the current business structure takes the survival of the human species as an externality.

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