In this post, I document several reflections on Heidgger’s influential essay The Question Conerning Technology (hereafter QCT). These notes were originally for a philosophy of technology course several years ago; however, I’ve here updated them for future reference. I also make reference to Coeckelbergh’s discussion of QCT and Heidgger in this intro book, chapter 3.

The Question Concerning Technology

Per Coeckelberg, Heidegger’s main purpose in QCT is to push us beyond a merely “instrumental” view of technology as a “means to an end” or tool to accomplish a particular task. Heidegger does not exactly think the “instrumental” view is wrong, but instead that it is incomplete, or perhaps fails to fully grasp its own consequences. For Heidegger, technology is a “way of revealing” (QCT 12) – a “way of seeing the world and a way of thinking” (Coeckelbergh 35). Heidegger is particularly concerned with “modern” technology that positions nature as a “standing-reserve” to be called upon at our command. He gives the example of a hydroelectric plant on the Rhine that repositions the river as mere reserve of electric power rather than e.g. an object of natural beauty that we might live together with (a perspective which pre-modern understandings better appreciated). Heidegger especially worries about the danger of applying technological, standing-reserve logics to human beings, which then become “commanded by profit-making”.

Something that I am confused about in QCT is its metaphysical stance. If technology is a “revealing”, what is it that is being “revealed”, exactly? Is it something that was “there already” albeit latent (e.g. the Rhine as potential “standing reserve” of electric power), or something that is produced (at least in part) by the human actor engaging in the technological development?

It seems that Heidegger’s answer to this question is complex and perhaps related to his broader philosophical project in Being and Time, which (according to secondary sources and SEP) includes collapsing the Cartesian subject/object epistemic frame that I am perhaps naively re-imposing here1. Still, I raise this question because I am wondering about the extent of Heidegger’s commitment to a flavor of technological determinism (which Coeckelbergh 38 also acknowledges) on several levels – both in (1) the idea that technology (in some part) “reveals” some extant nature of the world (and so is presumably constrained in how it might be developed), and (2) in the idea that to engage in (modern) technological development necessarily brings us into a certain kind of (in Heidegger’s view undesirable) relationship with the world – i.e. positioning the natural world and even humans as standing-reserve.

These perspectives seem to stand in tension with more constructivist viewpoints on technological development (e.g. Pinch & Bijker, Jasanoff) that emphasize the interdependence between technological development and contingent social factors. None of these thinkers (neither constructivists nor Heidegger) would view technology as “neutral” – i.e. they all agree that engaging in scientific/technological development reframes (or at least embeds) our relationship to ourselves & the world around us; however, Heidegger seems to be committed to a much more deterministic view of the what this reframing looks like – i.e. that (modern) technological development necessarily embeds an alienated, instrumental relation to the world as “standing-reserve”. I note that Coeckelbergh (39) suggests that multiple interpretations are possible on the charge of determinism in Heidegger, and so I am curious about other ways of understanding QCT on these points.

Another (I think related) question I had in reading QCT was to wonder how Heidegger views technology in relationship to capitalism and economic thinking. QCT (at least as I understand it) seems to lay various ills at the feet of “technology” that are elsewhere laid at the feet of capitalism or other sorts of economic thinking – e.g. viewing the river as reserve of power rather than natural wonder, viewing labor/skills as “human resources” or “human capital”, and so on. Modern economic thinking often embeds these sorts of framings, and is criticized on such bases. So, to put it (perhaps too) bluntly: is “technology” really what is the issue here, or is it something more social & contextual like “technology under 20th century Western capitalism”? In general, how would Heidegger understand the relationship between these things? Why exactly does he view “technology” as the key site of problems?


  1. n.b. I have not read Being and Time or much else from Heidegger’s oeuvre.