May 182014

Golfo Maggini, Γιά μιά ερμηνευτική του τεχνικού κόσμου. Από τον Χάιιντεγκερ στη σύγχρονη τεχνοεπιστήμη [Toward a Hermeneutics of the Technical World: From Heidegger to Contemporary Technoscience]. Athens: Patakis Publications, 2010; 438pp. ISBN: 978-9601638300.

Review by Eftichis Pirovolakis, University of Crete, Greece

The thematic axis around which Golfo Maggini’s book revolves is Heidegger’s views on the technical world, their transformation across the various phases of his philosophy, and the rich interpretative possibilities they have given rise to. It is a study that cannot fail to impress any reader by virtue of the vast range of issues covered in the continental philosophy of technology, its comprehensiveness, and insight. Whether the focus of attention is the relevance of Heidegger’s views for present-day technoscience, the early twentieth-century philosophical context of his own thinking, or even the wider and far-reaching metaphysical framework believed gradually to have begot modern science and technology, Maggini succeeds in providing a thorough survey of all relevant theories, from the classical Greek interpretation of technē to current approaches to technoscience. Besides the virtues of such a wide-ranging hermeneutic-historical overview, the reader definitely stands to benefit from the conceptual depth of the analyses and the systematic way in which the author scrutinizes all the issues and theories in question.

The first of the three parts into which Toward a Hermeneutics of the Technical World is divided sets both the tone and stage for the subsequent detailed discussions of Heidegger in parts two and three. After a helpful terminological clarification of the fine differences between “technology,” “technics,” and “technicity,” the first section is largely devoted to Don Ihde’s philosophy of technology, designated as a postphenomenology or a material hermeneutics. The main focus here is the way in which Ihde, rather than presenting a “contemporary philosophy of technology” as the section title indicates, acknowledges and affirms the instrumentality of the early Heidegger in introducing an element of praxicality and realism into the mostly theoretical realm that phenomenology used to occupy at the time.

The second section explores, both historically and systematically, the intellectual matrix from which Heidegger’s thought emerged and with which the philosopher interacted in the first half of the 20th century. Maggini provides a painstaking account of the philosophy of technology from the 1870s onwards. In terms of the impact that the numerous scientific and philosophical theories discussed here had on Heidegger, those of Spengler and the later Husserl can be singled out. The perspectives of the three thinkers are comparatively investigated. This makes this section an excellent introduction to the more detailed engagement with Heidegger in the second part of the book, for it familiarizes the reader with the philosophical issues that Heidegger sought to address and perhaps resolve. Accordingly, Heidegger would strive to overcome Spengler’s technological and eventually cultural dystopianism although he would largely concur with Spengler’s idea that technology was the ineluctable destiny of an anteriorly more spiritual civilisation, and with the objections he raised to the preposterous Faustian ambition of Western modernity. Similarly, the book lucidly demonstrates, with a little help from Jan Patočka, that Heidegger picks up the threads of Husserl’s diagnosis of the crisis of European sciences and their corollary technicization, while diverging from phenomenology at the point where the latter remains committed to the pre-eminence of theory and still regards transcendental subjectivity as the most secure foundation for the envisaged recovery of meaning.

The third section of Part One concentrates on several and often conflicting readings of Heidegger’s hermeneutic critique of technoscience. On the one hand, there are those who charge him with an essentialist and reductive understanding of technology. Heidegger, therefore, would be guilty on the following four counts, at least. First, by ontologically identifying the essence of technology, he thinks that technology’s disconcerting effects can finally be brought under control, reflectively or even poetically. Dominique Janicaud accuses Heidegger of believing in a radical reversal of the current state of affairs in the technical world, in the quasi-Hegelian possibility that the “saving power” of poetry could extricate itself from technological “danger.” Second, as Ihde alleges, Heidegger endorses a facile dichotomy between a romanticized pre-modern technology and the pernicious contemporary technoscience. Third, according to Ihde and Andrew Feenberg, because he is unable to account for the variety of technological phenomena (e.g., information technology as distinct from industrial technology), Heidegger’s critique is undifferentiated and simplifying. Four, by virtue of his essentialist and ahistorical construal, Heidegger, argues Feenberg, underestimates the complexity and multivalence of technology, thereby embracing a reactionary technological fatalism that fails to distinguish the dominant technological model aligned with mastery and sovereignty from a democratic and pluralistic model that the users could creatively and subversively utilize. Adopting specific analytical tools from critical theory and the social sciences, Feenberg combines a hermeneutics of technology with critical constructivism, and envisages that the “technology of the masters” could be transformed by resisting the current technocratic consciousness, by making radical interventions, and by promoting the openness and innovativeness of technical phenomena.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that Heidegger moves beyond the alternatives of determinism and constructivism, and defend him against the charges of essentialism, ahistoricism, and conservative technophobia. A case in point is Hubert Dreyfus, who insists that Heidegger’s hermeneutics, far from being technophobic or romantically fatalistic, admits to technology’s ineluctable ambivalence and to our “free relation” to it. According to the latter, there is hardly any certainty or necessity as to what human beings may make of technology. Either we could adopt the dominant deterministic paradigm in light of which technology is considered to retain its autonomy and be capable of imposing its own requirements on society and culture. Or else, we could acknowledge our profound receptivity to the world and the “fourfold.” That would entail that technology, rather than being measured in terms of efficiency alone, should be re-conceptualized and regarded anew through the prism of its ability to reveal the salience of marginal cultural practices excluded by the prevalent technological paradigm. This alternative response to technology is the provenance of the uncanny possibility that Heidegger terms “saving power.” Iain Thompson’s defence of Heidegger against Feenberg’s criticism (ahistoricism, substantivism, and one-dimensionality) moves along lines similar to Dreyfus’s. The mode of presentation adopted here is a quite exhaustive juxtaposition of Feenberg’s constructivist arguments and those by Dreyfus and Thompson, and Maggini has to be given credit for the even-handed and scholarly character of her discussion. The fact that this part closes with Dreyfus’s and Thompson’s views perhaps indicates that the author finds their arguments well-articulated and convincing, although one could reasonably have expected that her own assessment would be spelled out more expressly. In any case, one of the book’s distinguishing and advantageous features is that it initiates and promotes a much needed dialogue between phenomenology, hermeneutics, and critical theory.

The first section of Part Two focuses on the status of science and technology in Heidegger during the first of the three phases into which some scholars tend to divide his writings: the texts from the 1920s and early 1930s. Being and Time is the pièce de résistance of that period. After a succinct synopsis of the existential analysis of the tool and readiness-to-hand, Maggini wonders whether or not there is a hermeneutics of technology in the early Heidegger. The measured conclusion she reaches, on the basis of a cautious evaluation of conflicting views (Dreyfus, Michael Zimmerman, Janicaud), is that underlying Being and Time is a phenomenology of technology which would hermeneutically evolve in the later work as a result of the incorporation of a historical-epochal dimension.

The rest of the section is devoted to disputes regarding the pragmatism, realism, and historicism of Being and Time. With respect to pragmatism, in spite of the practical and pragmatic strand in Heidegger’s views on worldhood and readiness-to-hand, it remains the case that his over-arching ambition was to establish an aprioristic ontology grounded in primordial temporality; the latter, perhaps, would be closer to Kant’s transcendental philosophy than to Dewey’s pragmatism. This is far from saying that the approach of 1927 is to be assimilated to the theoreticism associated with Husserl, whose philosophy is often presented as the apogee of Kantian transcendentalism. Rather, Maggini appeals to Dreyfus to show that Heidegger’s practical holism or hermeneutic realism, at least in the first division of Being and Time, advances a non-gnoseological, non-mentalist thesis that seeks to elucidate the originary, non-thematized cultural and practical matrix in which every subsequent theoretical grasping of the world is irreducibly grounded. Finally, Jacques Taminiaux construes the existential analysis of readiness-to-hand not systematically but historico-philosophically. Accordingly, he emphasizes its provenance in Heidegger’s prior attempts, from the early 1920s onwards, to deconstruct the history of ontology and to work out a hermeneutics of facticity. Although a major and very interesting point of reference here is Heidegger’s appropriation of Aristotle’s ontology and practical philosophy, Taminiaux’s interpretative gesture appears to be marginally relevant to the thematics of the book.

The second section of Part Two moves on to Heidegger’s alignment of technology, in the 1930s and 1940s, with the history of metaphysics and its three epochal divisions (Greek antiquity, Rome and the Christian world, and modernity). The distinction between phusis and technē is identified as the constitutive, pivotal opposition at the very source of Western metaphysics in classical Greece. For Heidegger, an authentic understanding of modern technology presupposes a certain reflection on the essential meaning of the ancient Greek technē. The point is not to see their relation in a simply chronological or deterministic fashion. The point is to explore the gradual and more or less necessary historico-ontological transition from technē—which is neither art, nor technical knowledge, nor technicity—to contemporary technology. The next stop on that historico-ontological peregrination is the misconstrual of the Greek conceptual universe by the Romans, who are held accountable for two reasons: first, the Greek understanding of Being in terms of revealing is radically abandoned due to the misapprehension of Greek terms; second, a new conceptual framework is introduced in tandem with the Roman imperium and the corollary notion of sovereignty. As a consequence, domains of human endeavour such as politics and the law take precedence over against philosophy, and the logic of sovereignty, calculability and efficiency, which becomes then firmly established, will orient the metaphysical enterprise on its way to modernity as well as the modern conceptuality of technology.

The ultimate heir of all these critical transformations of Greek thought was Friedrich Nietzsche. Still thinking within the framework of an onto-theological metaphysics that regarded Being in terms of presence, Nietzsche inherits, by way of early modernity (Descartes and Leibniz) and German idealism (Kant and Hegel), the Roman conception of law and sovereignty, which he transforms into the conviction that beings in their entirety can best be determined on the basis of a fundamental will to power. Maggini offers a penetrating gloss on Heidegger’s readings of Nietzschean metaphysics and its underlying network of values: will to power, the eternal recurrence of the same, nihilism, the overman, and justice. For Heidegger, the will to power is primarily a metaphysical construction whose unconditional dimension anticipates the technological will for absolute mastery. It is precisely this unconditionality that accounts for the difference between ancient Greek technē and modern technological voluntarism.

The last part of the book continues helpfully to draw on recently published and as of yet untranslated volumes of the Gesamtausgabe which link the issue of technology to the history of Being and the emergence of nihilism, and which may not be well known to a wider readership. The structure of this part reflects Maggini’s affirmation of a dichotomy between the modern technological denial of human finitude and Heidegger’s restitution of finitude by means of a range of motifs such as the “releasement [Gelassenheit] to things.” The author provides a cogent account of Heidegger’s critique of both Nietzsche’s overman and Ernst Jünger’s worker. The type of subjectivity those two figures imply is characteristic of the late modern metaphysical certitude about the subject’s power to objectivize beings and actuality, a power modern technology epitomizes. For Heidegger, technology is not merely an area of human activity among others but the very possibility of Being of a subject confident that he or she would infinitely be able to produce makeable and exchangeable objects, what the philosopher terms “machination” [Machenschaft]. The emergence of machination bears witness to the fact that the first half of the twentieth century was indeed the epoch of nihilism, an era marked by the abandonment of Being and a total lack of questioning. Content with his or her alleged sovereignty over the totality of beings, the subject of the technological world has become dangerously oblivious to Being and has fallen into a state of inauthenticity whereby the openness of Being remains concealed. Maggini points out the continuity of Heidegger’s thought over the years, without underestimating his attempts, from the 30s onwards, to re-assess and re-articulate specific motifs of his earlier writings such as ontological difference and being-toward-death.

The first step on the way to an eventual overcoming of metaphysics is the transformation of the relation between subjectivity and machination by means of a post-metaphysical determination of human essence. Given the denial of finitude and death by the technological subject, Heidegger’s critique is oriented by the wish to reinstate the ontological salience of finitude. The discussions of the significance of death in Being in Time as well as in Beiträge zur Philosophie and other later writings are lucid and insightful. Throughout this last part, the relation between finitude and infinity appears to be conceived on the basis of an either/or logic which, I think, is not always congruous with the more intricate association Heidegger was aiming for. From the enigmatic portrayal of finitude and being-toward-death as the “possibility of the impossibility” in Being and Time to the much later thematic of the “fourfold,” finitude appears always to have had an uncanny status in Heidegger’s discourse, and to be involved in an aporetic relation with infinity and unconditionality, a relation irreducible to that of a simple or perhaps dialectical opposition. Besides, it is precisely that unstable relation between the finite and the infinite, the empirical and the transcendental, that introduces into the technological confidence in human capability a certain impossibility and an alterity much more radical and incalculable than the impossibility entailed by a largely factical finitude. These are issues that both Emmanuel Lévinas and Jacques Derrida have compellingly addressed in their work.

There is, however, little doubt that Maggini, while investigating the role of finitude in Heidegger’s criticism of metaphysical nihilism, makes the most of this opportunity and comments on the interdependence between his views on technology and other questions concerning art (e.g., Rilke’s poetry) and politics. After all, most of the texts discussed here were written in the inter-war period or in the early 1940s, so the reader has the benefit of getting a good sense of how Heidegger responded to events of his time such as the Second World War. He regarded the logic, which underpinned the war, of an anticipated world domination as consonant with onto-technological concepts such as the self-empowerment of power, makeability, and the transformation of human beings into a resource.

The last thirty pages of the book focus on Heidegger’s recommendations, mainly but not exclusively in the four Bremen lectures of 1949, as to how the contemporary state of affairs could be reversed. Among the antidotes to the prevalent technological nihilism encapsulated in the term “enframing” [Ge-stell] the philosopher classifies the “fourfold” at whose intersection he locates the emergence of the thing as something that gathers and simultaneously reveals. The status of enframing turns out to be ambivalent insofar as, by virtue of constituting the very essence and fulfilment of Western philosophy, it is conceived of as the destiny of Being where the overcoming of the metaphysical construal of technology is also inscribed. In this sense, enframing is as much a menace as the saving power thanks to which the danger can be kept at bay. Maggini alludes to the acknowledgment of this ambivalence in the secondary literature. The “releasement to things” consolidates the centrality of ambivalence in the later Heidegger, for it is a concept that affirms the openness of a region beyond binaries such as activity and passivity, will and non-will. However, the provenance and exigency of this ambivalence would have to be reflected upon in more detail, in this or perhaps in a forthcoming study, if one were to provide some preliminary answers to the following questions. Is this ambivalence in harmony with other Heideggerian motifs and their metaphysical and axiological connotations such as the gathering power of the thing or the appropriating character of the event? To what extent does it expropriate or disassemble the residual metaphysics that arguably haunts even Heidegger’s later philosophy?

These questions aside, Toward a Hermeneutics of the Technical World does succeed in providing the reader with a meticulous account of the philosophical and intellectual matrix of Heidegger’s views on technology as much as of the impact of his views on contemporary theoretical approaches to technology. More importantly, Maggini’s study is not only instrumental in delineating the debate between strands of contemporary philosophy often reluctant to engage with one another, but also actively fosters and extends this debate by constituting itself a positive and original contribution to the recently formed stream of a hermeneutic phenomenology of technology.