Gestell and the Essence of Technology

When President Clinton visited a remote village in Africa in 1998 and urged that the local school connect to the World Wide Web, he did not appear to notice that the school had no electricity. Using the Web I can find satellite photos of this village, learn the ethnicity of its inhabitants and count the number of homes with running water. But the villagers cannot see me or the World Bank employees who catalogue such information. And because knowledge is power, they are less free than before the advent of the computer. [1]

From a metaphysical point of view, Russia and America are the same; the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organization of the average man. At a time when the farthermost corner of the globe has been conquered by technology and opened to economic exploitation; when any incident whatever, regardless of where and when it occurs, can be communicated to the rest of the world at any desired speed;[...] We have said the world is darkening. The essential episode of this darkening [is]: the destruction of the earth and the standardization of man[.] [2]


The intent of this discussion is not specifically to formulate any `hard' answers or to suggest methods that are proven to work. The main intention here is to first define and briefly connect the main words of the title: `gestell' and `technology.' These definitions are merely provisional and are subject to redefinition and redescription, based on the pathways the reader might choose to follow. The emphasis here is on `pathways,' as these are the only options humans have--choices to take and make.

These two terms, I believe, will present us with possibilities that underlie the whole range of points of view we have encountered in our discussions this semester, namely: what is the link between the capitalist, neo-liberal nation-states, the massive conglomerate corporations of the world, and the mindset or framework of technology that undergirds both of these `institutions,' and how can a workable environmentalism arise in the face of these seemingly `out-of-control' entities that structure and control the mass of the global population and world production mechanisms? The viewpoints presented by both the authors of our texts and the class members were indicative of the long road ahead--no one really agrees as to what the solution should be or could be to the imminent ecological disaster on the horizon, and yet, everyone agrees that we have a `problem.'

I will primarily focus on these terms from a philosophical viewpoint based on the work of Martin Heidegger and apply it to a possible way of seeing environmentalism as having to overcome these two ideas. Heidegger never talks about environmentalism per se, but there are seeds within his later writings that hints to a possible foundation upon which a `feasible' environmentalism could be based.

Heidegger's writings, from about 1928 up until his death in 1973, focus mainly on the turn of humanity towards a technological mindset or calling-forth, what he terms gestell, that is the overarching way of life in the world. It is the all-controlling force in the life of humanity, which permeates or way of thinking and perceiving and determines our attitude with respect to surrounding environment, our fellow humans, and even ourselves. In this view, then, the gestell is the determining factor of our time; it implies a frame of mind, a way of conceptualizing phenomena, and a theory about what it means to have knowledge of reality. Furthermore, it includes a specific concept of reality, as ultimately material--as a reservoir of resources waiting for technical processing. [3] Within this worldview, all ideas of epistemology, ontology, ethics, religion, morality, politics, reflection, and science, are all based within the framework of the technological gestell. [4] It is also important to note, early on, that Heidegger is not specifically a Luddite or a non-use of technology. He frequently used the technology of his day--bicycle, train, typewriter, lightbulbs, running water. But what he did not understand or sanction was the preoccupation of the modern worldview towards increasing control over the physical, geologic, ecological, biologic spheres, through the objectification of them by scientific and administrative logic. Thus, in short, within this gestell, man ceases to be man and becomes something wholly different and problematic for the first time in human history.

This short explication of the concept gestell is only a preliminary discussion. What I would like to do is to present an example of how gestell may be applied to how humanity forms its worldview in light of technology and the application of technology in solving modern `problems.' To do this, we must understand Heidegger's critique of logic. When Heidegger speaks of logic, he is making a specific determination between thinking that dwells and is about the logos (Greek formulation), and the modern form of logic which is the foundational form of all scientific, objective, purposive, rational thinking. Thus logic is the foundational method of reasoning employed by the all-encompassing worldview of gestell.

Aristotle first formulated the specific system of logic from which all logics have followed. The logic of Aristotle was rather simple in its design and its function. As Heidegger simply explains it, an assertion (proposition, subject, form of knowledge) is true insofar as it conforms to its object. Truth becomes correctness (adequateness, correspondence). Aristotle then conceives of truth as assimilation, which has “its home in the logos.” [5] Aristotle then extends his definition of truth to representation as well. A thing (being, entity, stone, car, computer, etc.) must conform to its being (truth) in an assertion. “Correctness [truth] is the standard and measure even for incorrectness [un-truth]” so that essentially, “truth is the correspondence of knowledge (representation, thought, judgment, assertion,) with the object.” [6] Under this formula, language as the expositor of truth becomes essential in understanding how truth “works;” language becomes the representation of not only beings but of Being itself. Thus language refers to the truth determined by its appropriate correctness or incorrectness within the system of logic. Things correspond to their truth by being referred, by being placed aside and thought about, by plugging things into artificially created systems. Under this system something is true when it conforms to other things that have the same characteristics can be similarly defined--thus alikes are treated as alike, and unalikes are treated as unalikes (the rock in the corner is a rock because it acts, looks, smells, feels, tastes, and is composed like the other rock in that other corner).

But through time, and through development of humanity's ability to control the natural forces that surround us, Aristotle's logic ceased to be specific and precise enough. More calculative knowledge was needed to control the vast amount of new information and new formulations about the world and what made up human reality. Thus with Leibniz and Newton we received the beginnings of modern calculus as a way to predict more readily and precisely celestial movements, actions of large mechanical systems over time, and the ability to master compositions of material here on earth. Inherent in the logic of calculus is that it set forth the development of physics, which as a science, is the most exact of all sciences in its ability to calculate the reality of what `is.' As Heidegger states:

[M]an's ordering attitude and behavior display themselves first in the rise of modern physics and calculus as exact sciences. Modern science's way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces. Modern physics is not experimental physics because it applies apparatus to the questioning of nature. Rather the reverse is true. Because physics, indeed already as pure theory, sets nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance [italics mine], it therefore orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way. [7]

In this manner, the calculative force of physics, which is now extended to modern sciences, becomes the setting-up of the framework from within which we view and come to understand the world. This view is one in which we decrease our ability to understand the whole, which is substituted by our ability to understand the microstructures of things, whether things actually have these microstructures or not, is what physics forces things to prove to science. But Heidegger's contention is that modern technology could not develop, or at least was latent, until the foundational thinking was in place that could support the discoveries that would change the way humans' view reality. This psychological change was supported, slowly, by the introduction of calculus and physics as the dominant method by which things come to be understood. Thus when ever smaller things arose from the constituent larger things, humans were ready for the revelations because they had been accustomed, at least since the seventeenth century, that for whatever occurs in the future, things will become smaller and smaller, and more complex as we continue to understand the micro, and cease to pay attention to the macro.

This inversion of macro to micro was a process that took many hundreds of centuries. Periander, one of the original seven Greek `wise men,' once said “take into care beings as whole,” which is traditionally meant to mean that the wise concern themselves with the whole, while the unwise only with the smaller constituent parts. In other words, the wise consider everything in its totality, but the unwise pursue only their partial interests. [8] Heidegger notes that this change slowly takes place within the thought of Plato and Aristotle, as they ask more and more questions about the truth and correctness of things and their ideal constitutions. The development then of the logical systems which control modern science, were seeded in pre-Socratic fragments that, when viewed in hindsight, allowed Heidegger to see that the inversion had taken place around the logic systems that was developed by Aristotle in his attempt to categorize and compartmentalize the entire world that surrounded him. As Heidegger comments, this inversion allowed:

[M]an's calculating “attitude” toward history...Since man has become ever more ingenious and clever in the last centuries so that nothing escapes him, the relation to the essential is more and more covered over, or, what is even more portentous, is reckoned into the otherwise calculable. [9]

The ability to calculate one's own results give modern science an uncanny edge in being able to set-up and reveal everything according to a specific plan or worldview. Modern science does not reflect; it calculates, postulates, and then proves its own predictions correct and true, thus apportioning everything within a realm of truth, based on logic. But what happens when everything is based and broken into its constituent parts within logic? Man everywhere and always encounters only himself, and the `really real' presents itself this way only. Thus we get anthropomorphism, which is a rather `recent' ability for man to constitute everything within man's own reflection (psychology, sociology, anthropology).

The interesting thing about modern science today is that in its essential form, which is institutionalized science, science remains research. Research here means that it has a plan, it has a course which is already predetermined within which all contingencies are taken into account. There is no room for possibilities that might be unexplainable. If something does occur, then the research will be conducted to make sure anomalies do not happen again. Thus rigor is instituted and methodology is placed at the forefront of correct and true science. No science is science without a plan and this planning of science already calls for the answer that the scientists are searching for. The unknown answer is already known in the planning of results that the science wishes to see or find:

Explanation is always twofold. It accounts for an unknown by means of a known, and at the same time it verifies the known by means of that unknown. Explanation takes place in investigation...Experiment[s] begin with the laying down of a law as a basis. To set up an experiment means to represent or conceive the conditions under which a specific series of motions can be made susceptible of being followed in its necessary progression, i.e., of being controlled in advance by calculation [logic, correctness] . [10]

Research then is founded by the ability to specialize and from that moment move forward to ever more depths of specialization, from which the original idea becomes entrapped within layers and layers of in-depth studies which reveal to the scientist the essence of the research.

Research science then, necessarily, becomes institutionalized not because it needs to have institutions to exist, but because institutions exist because of the ongoing activity of modern scientific research. A perfect example of this is the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Imagine that an entire city is built with laws, rules, schools, churches, stores, banks, restaurants, real estate companies, for the simple fact that scientific research must occur for a specific reason (in this case, the building of the atomic bomb--the Manhattan Project). Thus we can see that modern institutions of rule and law, compromise their original objectives of freedom because modern research needs to have a structure from which it can survive on--institutions. Notice how interestingly the rise of modern science, capitalism, and liberal governance (the idea of personal freedom, untethered by strict governmental rules) rises with the development of modern science, modern industrial societies, and modern freedom movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Heidegger himself never comments about the basic eruption of these ideas together in history, but the parallels are hard to miss and, looking back I think, it would be a safe judgment to make (though economists and historians like Fernand Braudel, E. P. Thompson, and Floyd Matson have already made many of these connections).

Institutions are the organizing forces of our modern scientific and technological worlds. They are needed to control the immense power that is granted to research and technological innovations and progress. The more money that goes into these institutions, the more powerful they become as well in regulating and instituting rational, administrative (logical, scientific) structures upon the human life world, further imposing the technological mindset onto humanity. The mindset, as mentioned earlier in the paper is the gestell. But Heidegger synonymously uses other interesting adjectives that correspond with gestell, and add more credence to his argument. One of these words is “technicity” or “logistics.” Heidegger claims that these are truly modern inventions that were necessary, especially the technological developments attained during world war conflicts. The essence of these technological developments was to create weapons that were deemed horrible and yet, massively useful (chemical weapons, artillery, tanks, missiles, jet fighter planes) because they were rationalized within the gestell of the developing technical age. Modernity became the age of technical knowledge and control over the natural world (Descartes was famous for these types of pronouncements), in which, as was mentioned earlier, everything becomes a resource from which man can create things within the image of his own wants and desires. “Technicity” and “logistics” derive their main intentions and their main power from the ability to frame all necessary thought as being thought for a productive end--thought not about thinking (logos), but thought based on calculative knowledge. Heidegger makes explicit this claim in his lecture course in 1951 at the University of Freiburg:

In the West, thought about thinking has flourished as `logic.' Logic has gathered special knowledge concerning a special kind of thinking. This knowledge concerning logic has been made scientifically fruitful only quite recently, in a special science that calls itself `logistics.' It is the most specialized of all specialized sciences. In many places, above all in the Anglo-Saxon countries, logistics is today considered the only possible form of strict philosophy, because its result and procedures yield an assured profit for the construction of the technological universe. [11]

Thus we see logistics, technics, technicity, technical knowledge pervade and invade all avenues of discourse, thinking, conceptualizing, speaking, and acting. Our world is wholly technological not in its material being, though that can obviously be argued for, but in its essence, in it foundational logic by which we construct our realities. Nature is nature because it fits into the mold of a logical system which can be tested and controlled under the right circumstances. Our ability to control nature, to exploit it arises, as Heidegger says, from “the fact that man frees himself from the bonds of the Middle Ages in freeing himself to himself.” And in freeing himself to himself, modern man has produced an individualism that is not inherent in the natural order but arises when man can control, technically, nature and use it as a resources. Heidegger goes on further elaborating, and almost admitting to the predominance of liberal ideology as the foundation of the technical worldview:

Certainly the modern age has, as a consequence of the liberation of man, introduced subjectivism and individualism. But it remains just as certain that no age before this one has produced a comparable objectivism and that no age before this has the non-individual, in the form of the collective, come to acceptance as having worth...the very essence of man [has changed] in that man becomes subject to man. [12]

Heidegger borrows this interpretation loosely from Nietzsche and his notion that with the freedom of the masses, with individualism, there is even more pronounced an alienation that arises with the herd mentality of modern nation-states--everyone is no one, and no one is everyone. It is the feeling of being rootless, of having no foundational beliefs which undergirds one's worldview (as God once did). Thus Nietzsche's Zarathusrian dictum that “God is dead and we have killed him!” comes true ever more presently in the technicity and logistics of planned annihilation and mass destruction (the world wars and nuclear weapons).

Coming full circle, Heidegger presents us with a worldview, with a picture of the world in which the essential notions that arise are always in response to the technical, scientific presentation and representation of the world and nature. Heidegger does make room for a definitional difference between instrumental technology (the “current [accepted] conception of indeed so uncannily correct”) and the technological gestell. The instrumental is the jet plane waiting on the runway of a aircraft carrier that carries thousands of men and arms awaiting deployment and exercise. The instrumental is the hydroelectric power plant built into the river to harness the energy so that entire cities may glow at night, all night, all the time. The instrumental is the mechanized agriculture industry that supplies food for entire nations. The instrumental is the mechanized concentration camp that expedites the killing of thousands of people a day. But underlying all of these is the essence of technology, the gestell, which is “by no means anything technological.” [13] The gestell, using Heidegger's terminology is that which brings-forth from nature. Once things are brought-forth and unconcealed (for example, digging ore out of the ground and combining it with other materials to build an airplane, which then uses oil, refined into jet diesel A, and propels the plane at immense speeds as it traverses both time and this not framed by the technical mindset?), then they can be used for whatever purposes and or stored for later use. This storing is a revealing of the essential nature of things that are around us. We can make all trees become tables, chairs, houses, pencils, etc. But are these things in the tree? Let us hear what Heidegger has to say:

The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears as something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in H–lderlin's hymn by that same name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry. [14]

The Rhine now ceases to be an environment from which many animals, creatures (including ourselves) receive nourishment form, but it becomes power, the power to make more power that can be held back for future use (batteries). Thus the Rhine ceases to be an organism itself, ceases to be an entity having value in itself rather than for us as the exploiters of that power that man calls-forth. Heidegger necessarily and philosophically must retain some notion that what he is talking about remains concealed to the masses because the technical worldview provides mankind with the truth, with the verifiable reality that conforms to mathematics, logistics, and technics. It conforms to the way we build our highways, our bridges, our skyscrapers, our airports and airplanes, our cars, our ships, our weapons, our tools of communication, our electronic language and information machines (computers, calculators), our space travel equipment, and even the clothes that we wear on a daily basis. All of these are produced and conceived from the same technical gestell.

What occurs now, though not specifically in Heidegger's own writing (but is evident in thinkers like Marcuse to Derrida to Light and Feenberg), is either a complete disavowal of technology, both instrumental and gestellen (Luddite mentality, which Heidegger himself has been accused of being), and a shift to a more pre-modern lifestyle. But is this the key? Is this the only way out of the danger that is aware of itself within the technological gestell of the modern worldview? Many argue that technology itself will reverse the environmental degradation that it (and essentially we) has/have caused. Many argue that technology will provide us with the possible solutions to our idiocy and our ecocide. Many argue that it will not and we are all going to hell in a handbasket. I would like to say that this is not the case, but doing so would automatically put me right back into this technological mindset which has already invade and attached itself, unconsciously, into our framework of thinking. Heidegger proposes that something as elusive and as powerful as technology must save us--art:

Thus questioning, we bear witness to the crisis that in our sheer preoccupation with technology we do not yet experience the coming to presence of technology, that in our sheer aesthetic- mindedness we no longer guard and preserve the coming to presence of art. Yet the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes. The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought. [15]


[1] Cumings, Bruce. The Nation. “The American Ascendancy: Imposing a New World Order.” May 8, 2000. p. 19.

[2] Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Yale UP, 1959. p. 37-45. Heidegger's main intention in these 1935 lectures is to present the world, as it has shown itself to be, basically tending and turning towards some real demise in its construction and manipulation by human techne--man's ability to ask the question “Why is there something rather than nothing” (Leibniz)--then formulating an answer by humanity's turn toward a technological mindset or framework (Gestell), which was originally began by Plato's metaphysical worldview of the representation of things here in the world (fake) and their true being in the world of ideal forms.

[3] Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977. pp.3-35. All references to this work will be footnoted as QT, to alleviate repetitive writing of the title.

[4] ibid. p. 19n17. The word gestell is much closer in the German to a word we would define as “enframing.” But Heidegger is very specific in his intention that the gestell is not a static term, but can be applied to all things, moments, phenomena that is under the influence of the human logos--the human logos is constantly “calling-forth” the totality of the world always. Heidegger wants the gestell to be an active “challenging-claim, that `gathers' so as to reveal. This claim enframes in that it assembles and orders. It puts into a framework or configuration everything that it summons forth, through an ordering for use[.]”

[5] Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts. trans. Gary Aylesworth. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981. p.15-16.

[6] Ibid., p.16.

[7] 21. Heidegger's intention is to connect the calculative force of modern science as exhibited with physics with the gestell power of technology and its mindfull recognition of the force it exerts on humanity's mind outlook at all times.

[8] Diels. H. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. vol. 1, 12th ed. Zurich: Weidmann, 1966. p. 65.

[9] Basic Concepts. p.5.

[10] QT. “The Age of the World Picture.” p. 120-1.

[11] Heidegger, Martin. What is Called Thinking? trans. J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper, 1968. p. 21.

[12] QT. “The Age of the World Picture.” p. 128.

[13] QT. p.4-5. Heidegger was notoriously chastised for comparing the mechanized food industry with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. During World War II, for a brief time, Heidegger was the Rector of the University of Freiburg, and was a card-carrying Nazi party member. There is great controversy, that cannot be included in this discussion, between the connection of Heidegger's philosophical thoughts and his political affiliations. Any cursory search of any information source (library, internet) will provide one with ample readings on the Heidegger question concerning Nazism.

[14] QT. p.16. Heidegger's main assumption here is that we understand what he is alluding too, namely this: the gestell that is our modern worldview calls forth from our logos in the form of truth as espoused by logic. This is that rationale for all technical knowledge about our world, our reality. This logic then “calls-forth” what is not visible, or readily “at hand” in the object. This “revealing” or “unconcealing” brings out the logistic nature of the object, one that might have not originally been in the object. Thus we can extend this to man and man's “revealing” or “calling-forth” of other men; we can extend this to man's exploitation of nature in man's “challenging-forth” of the power inherent in natural processes, of which we have placed upon it, framed it, set-it-up, (gestellen) from which we can “bring-forth” and store as “standing reserve” always ready-at-hand for use.

[15] QT. p.35.