Martin Heidegger on metaphysics, technology, and education

Martin Heidegger

on metaphysics, technology, and education


Hans Sluga


It is not easy to comment on such a splendid, richly documented, and ambitious work as Iain Thomson’s Heidegger on Ontotheology.[1] Thomson’s remarkable knowledge of the Heideggerian texts, his broad familiarity with other, related writings, and the ease with which maneuvers the most complex philosophical issues call for nothing less than an equally thorough, book-length rejoinder. Thomson’s narrative moves, moreover, in a wide arc from Heidegger’s reflections on metaphysics and ontology, through his critique of technology and his unhappy political entanglements in the 1930’s, to his mature reflections on education and it concludes with Thomson’s own thoughts on how to revitalize the contemporary university in a Heideggerian spirit. Where does one begin to assess such a formidable project and particularly so when one feels much less qualified than the author to address it?

I will try to do so by advancing four distinctly contrary theses and I will put them forward as sharply as I can, knowing full well that they will need to be elaborated, modified, and more fully explained. My assertions concern the place that Heidegger assigns to Nietzsche in his history of ontotheology, his interpretation of Nietzsche’s relation to technology, his account of technology itself, and the recipe he proposes for overcoming the technological aporias.  I claim, in short, that Heidegger was mistaken in reading Nietzsche as a metaphysician, that Nietzsche was neither the metaphysician nor even the philosopher of technology, that technology has no metaphysics but attaches itself quite easily to a various metaphysical programs, and, fourth and finally, that we are not going to save our culture, our education, and our university by Heidegger’s (and Thomson’s) envisaged “re-essentializing” of our notion of excellence and by their proposal for a “re-ontologizing” of our system of higher education.


  1. Martin Heidegger never managed to come fully to terms with Nietzsche and this was, I think, a pivotal failure. The shortcoming is evident already in Being and Time where Heidegger examined issues that naturally call for an explicit confrontation with Nietzsche’s words. His reflections on the distinction between the ontic and the ontological and on the everyday and the authentic would definitely have gained from a critical engagement with Nietzsche and so would his thoughts on human Dasein, on death, on unhomeliness (Unheimlichkeit) and anxiety, on disclosedness and resoluteness, and above all on time and history. Nietzsche remains, however, a mere spectral presence in Being and Time. He is mentioned only three times by name and on each occasion in passing and while there are a few other, fleeting allusions to him, the book contains no sustained encounter with Nietzsche and his thinking. Nietzsche receives, in fact less attention than Husserl and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, Kierkegaard and Max Scheler, and even Wilhelm Dilthey and Count York von Wartenberg. Heidegger’s most substantive reference is to Nietzsche’s essay On the Use and Abuse of History but here he simply projects his own account of the temporal structure of Sorge onto Nietzsche’s distinction between three attitudes towards history and he ignores altogether the sharply critical tone of Nietzsche’s words, his attack, that is, on the high bourgeois and academic culture of late nineteenth century Germany of which Heidegger was and remained always a grateful heir.

It is true, of course, that Heidegger spent several years during the mid and late nineteen-thirties on the interpretation of Nietzsche’s words and that his lectures on this topic contain many acute insights. But taken all in all we cannot say that they do justice to Nietzsche’s thinking and the reason for this is not difficult to determine. By the time Heidegger’s attention shifted to Nietzsche, his own philosophical course was already set and he read Nietzsche accordingly only as someone crossing his own very distinctive trajectory. What he gave us in his lectures was, in other words, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, not a Nietzsche that might genuinely challenge Heideggerian assumptions.

In order to see this we must take a look at Heidegger’s development to the moment of his sustained encounter with Nietzsche. Where Being and Time had understood itself as engaged in the construction of an ontological and thus metaphysical theory, Heidegger had since come to look at such theorizing in a more distantiated and historical manner. Ontological theories were for him now constituent elements of a history of being, that is, of the changing ways in which being discloses itself to us. Every such ontology gives a particular metaphysical understanding of the being of entities “from both the inside out and the outside in,” both “microscopically and telescopically, floor to ceiling;” every metaphysics addresses both “what makes an entity an entity” and “the way that an entity is an entity,” every metaphysics is thus, according to the Heidegger of the nineteen-thirties, both ontological and theological in character; every metaphysics is a piece of ontotheology. I can be sketchy on this point since Iain Thomson has made it so clearly and so compellingly in his book here under discussion. (p. 19 and pp. 12-13) I note shortly, though, that the term “ontotheology” strikes me as potentially misleading. It may be true that every metaphysics tells us a story about the nature of entities and another one about how they originate, but the latter story is not always of a theological kind. Heidegger might have done better to appropriate the word “ontogenetic” and to have spoken of all metaphysics as ontogenetic in character. Heidegger’s new ontotheological conception of metaphysic marked, in any case, a substantial break with the ideas embodied in Being and Time. Even so he retained from this earlier period three fundamental convictions, namely: (1) the Aristotelian idea that metaphysics is first philosophy, i.e., that all philosophy is based on a metaphysical ground, (2) the hermeneutic doctrine that human life is at every point conducted in terms of an interpretation of being and, hence, in terms of some metaphysics, and (3) the historical thesis that Western humanity, in particular, “in all its comportment towards entities, and even towards itself, is in every respect sustained and guided by metaphysics,” as Thomson quotes from Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures. (p. 55)

It was with these Aristotelian, hermeneutic, and historical assumptions that Heidegger approached Nietzsche in the mid-nineteen-thirties. Nietzsche, he was convinced, had to be read as a metaphysical thinker, to the extent that he truly deserved philosophical attention. Everything Nietzsche had said on the will-to power and about the eternal recurrence of the same Heidegger took to be metaphysical in character. Nietzsche became for him, thus, quite naturally the metaphysician of the will-to-power and the eternal recurrence of the same and since these two notions seem to point in two different directions, the central problem of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche became the question how they could be coherent components of one single metaphysical system. But this confronts us with two questions to which the answer is less obvious that Heidegger thought. The first is whether Nietzsche’s remarks on the will to power and the eternal return of the same are to be read as contributions to a metaphysical theory and, secondly, whether Nietzsche aimed at all at being a systematic philosopher. I believe that the answer to both questions should be no and that by taking the opposing answers for granted Heidegger was led right from the start on the wrong track in his effort to come to terms with Nietzsche.

The reader who approaches Nietzsche’s text on the other hand without Heidegger’s blinders knows that Nietzsche’s remarks on the will to power and on the eternal recurrence will have to be read in conjunction with his often repeated denunciations of metaphysics. As early as 1874 Nietzsche writes: “There are people who are opposed to all philosophy and one does well to listen to them, particularly when they advise the diseased minds of Germans to stay away from metaphysics.”[2] It is sometimes said that this critique was meant to extend only to forms of other-worlds metaphysics (like the Platonic realm of ideas or the Christian life hereafter). But already in his earliest notes on Schopenhauer (composed in 1867-68) Nietzsche takes a much more radical stance. Even though Nietzsche records that his reading of The World as Will and Representation has been an overpowering experience, he complains right away that Schopenhauer has failed to question the Kantian concept of the thing-in-itself and the very distinction between the thing-in itself and the appearance.[3] And this criticism is particularly telling since Schopenhauer is, of course, not an “other-worlds” metaphysician. The tenor of Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics is, indeed, from now on not that it often postulates the existence of another and higher reality, but that it relies on an untenable distinction between appearance and reality, that it ascribes to the philosopher and metaphysician the power to look beyond the ways we commonly interpret the world. In the famous passage on “How the ‘true world’ finally became a fiction’ from Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche concludes that along with the true world once thought to be “attainable for the wise, the devout, the virtuous” we have done away with “we have also done away with the apparent.”[4] To the positivist who wants to believe in the facts constituting such an apparent world Nietzsche can therefore respond “No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations.”[5] But if is no distinction to be made between appearance and reality, then there is no metaphysical story to be told about that reality. We would not go wrong in concluding that Nietzsche would likewise reject Heidegger’s subsequent distinction between the ontic and the ontological. In contrast to Heidegger, Nietzsche reserves no particular domain of questions for the philosopher. That is the reason why is so far from the philosophical purism of a Kant, a Heidegger, or a Wittgenstein. He is happy to absorb all the data of experience in his writings, all historical knowledge, all the discoveries of science and bring them into his interpretation of the world.

This amounts, in effect, to refuse any delving into metaphysical depths and positively the determination to stay on the surface. “Oh those Greeks,” he writes accordingly,” they were superficial out of profundity” and he is thinking here, of course, not of the Greek philosophers who are form him thoroughly anti-Hellenic but the builders of the Greek temples, the creators of the Greek sculptures, the epic and tragic poets. What manifested itself to their “superficial” glance was not metaphysical truth but a changeable and contradictory world. It is this discovery which prevents, above all, the construction of a single, coherent tale about this world which one might label (even against the intentions of its author his “unthought” metaphysics). In a decisive and all-illuminating remark Nietzsche speaks of his “profound aversion to reposing once and for all in any one total view of the world. Fascination of the opposing point of view: refusal to be deprived of the stimulus of the enigmatic.”[6] We should, for that reason, not automatically assume that Nietzsche’s remarks on the will to power and the ones on the eternal recurrence of the same are part of a single (metaphysical) story, as Heidegger assumes. The picture of a will to power that is constantly expanding is, indeed, not easily reconciled with the idea of a cyclical universe. Nietzsche may well have thought that we need both metaphors but also that we have no idea on how they are to brought together under a single heading.[7]

A reader like Heidegger who wants to understand Nietzsche as a metaphysician will, naturally, have to bypass or interpret away his strictures against metaphysics. He will pay special attention to those texts where Nietzsche is most easily assimilated to metaphysical thinking and ignore other parts of Nietzsche’s writings. It is characteristic of Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures that he focused them so sharply on The Will to Power which he considers initially to be Nietzsche’s “chief philosophical work” and who’s problematic status dawned upon him only belatedly.[8] The aphorisms had been extracted by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche from her brother’s notebooks and arranged according to an apparently metaphysical scheme. If anyone is the inventor of the idea that Nietzsche was first and foremost a metaphysical thinker that dubious credit must, in fact, go to Nietzsche’s sister. In his notebooks Nietzsche himself had been experimenting with a number of ways of organizing the material of his thought. He had toyed with various titles for his envisaged book as well as with alternative divisions of the notes under chapter headings. These various plans show him to be largely preoccupied with the issues of ethics and the critique of culture rather than metaphysical concepts. Heidegger’s focus on the metaphysical questions obscures his view on these different aspects of the philosopher. He has, in particular, no ear for the psychological Nietzsche for whom “psychology is now once again the road to the fundamental problems.”[9] He has therefore also no appreciation of Nietzsche psychological critique of philosophical and metaphysical thinking. Every great philosophy, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil,” is, in fact, “a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.”[10] We must recognize, moreover, that “the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy have every time constituted the real germ of life out of which the entire plant has grown.”[11] What we need then is, as he also writes, a “psychology of metaphysics” and more specifically a moral psychology of this form of philosophical thinking. We must, that is, unmask the metaphysician’s wish that the world be as he describes it. Metaphysics emanates, in other words, from a hatred for the world as it is; it is nothing but a ressentiment against what is actual.[12]

How then are we to understand those passages in which Nietzsche himself appears to be speaking a metaphysical language? How are we to understand, for instance, his statement that the world is will to power and what sense are we to make of his speculations about the eternal recurrence of the same? Perhaps, we need to look at these first of all as psychological and moral ideas. Consider, in this way, Nietzsche’s remark: “In place of ‘metaphysics’ and religion, the theory of eternal recurrence (this as a means of breeding and selection).”[13] Metaphysics and religion are here to be set aside in the name of the theory of eternal recurrence. That theory is, evidently, not meant as a constituent of a new metaphysics but is supposed to be, instead, a means for enhancing the human condition. Its value is practical and moral rather than genuinely “theoretical” and metaphysical. This is, presumably, also why Nietzsche invites us so often to contemplate the thought of the eternal recurrence when he wants us to draw certain moral conclusions, when he wants to impress on us the infinite significance of even the smallest choice. We can speak similarly of the will to power. If it is appropriate for us now to see the world as will to power that is because we now live under enervating conditions, conditions that make us increasingly passive, that make us, in consequence, less and less creative and that diminish in this way our humanity. The thought of the world as will to power is meant to be “only interpretation” and by this Nietzsche does not intend to say that the thought is only a hypothesis but that he wants to communicate that it expresses a specific perspective on the world. Of interpretations he says in general: “It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against.”[14] The doctrine of the will to power is, thus, first of all, the product of a need and as such a moral doctrine calling upon us to become who we are capable of being.


  1. If Nietzsche is not to be understood as a metaphysician, it follows a fortiori that he cannot be treated as the metaphysician of modern technology which Heidegger makes him out to be. He is not even a philosopher of technology in the broader sense. While he lived in a period of radical technological change, he bypasses this phenomenon in his reflections on contemporary culture. His mind is, in fact, not set on the materialities of the contemporary world but on the ideas and ideals that motivate it. Liberalism and democracy, socialism and feminism, Christianity and Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Wagner’s music and the German spirit, all these preoccupy him whereas the steam engine, the railroad, the iron ship, telegraphy, and photography (all phenomena of his time) do not. Heidegger writes of the technological constellation of intelligibility that “only what is calculable in advance counts as being,” that the technological understanding of being “quantifies all qualitative relations, reducing entities to bivalent, programmable ‘information’” (as Thomson summarizes him), that, in consequence, as Heidegger adds in another place technological understanding reduces to “calculative thinking.” (p. 56) But, surely, none of this applies to Nietzsche. His style of thinking is, as we know only too well, not cold and calculative, but literary and passionate, not systematic and reductive but aphoristic and intuitive. He conceives the world not in terms of sharply defined bivalences but in patterns of ever shifting polarities; he thinks not in terms of programmable information but in the visionary terms of apocalypse and redemption.

The metaphors in which he writes are, indeed, never borrowed from technology. In The Gay Science he notes that we still must vanquish the lingering shadows of god and among those he lists both the assumption “that the world is a living being” and also the thought “that the universe is a machine.” He proposes instead that “the total character of the world… is in all eternity chaos – in the sense not of a lack of necessity, but of a lack of order…”[15] This does not mean that we should substitute for the metaphors of organism and machine a new totalizing metaphor for what the world as chaos. That term is, rather, intended to alert us to the impossibility of offering any completely comprehensively ordered view of the world. Nietzsche’s choice of words should suffice to alert us here to his distance to all modern, technological forms of thinking. His preferred term of “chaos” takes us, in fact, consciously back to Hesiod’s Theogony and thus to Greek mythological thought. When he conceives of the universe in flux, as “a sea of forces,” he is reminding us of the Heraclitean conception of a world forever becoming. And when he speaks of the eternal recurrence, it is Empedocles who stands most clearly before his mind. His Dionysian world, with its intoxication, sexuality, and voluptuousness, is the world of an ancient, pre-philosophical Greece; it is to this ideal that he wants to return us because it is the only one that can save us from two thousand years of nihilism. If there is redemption to be found, it lies for Nietzsche not in technological progress but in the return to the world of ancient heroism and tragedy. “When the Greek body and the Greek soul ‘bloomed’,” Nietzsche writes, “there arose that mysterious symbol of the highest world-affirmation and transfiguration of existence.” And to this he adds: “What do any latter-day men, the children of a fragmentary, multifarious, sick, strange age, know of the range of Greek happiness; what could they know of it! When would the slave of ‘modern ideas’ derive a right to Dionysian festivals!”[16] But, if I understand him right, it is this Nietzsche who according to Heidegger is precisely the slave of modern ideas, the philosopher of technological thinking, and the author of a “nihilistic ontotheology.”


  1. Why, we want to know now, would Heidegger advance such strange claims? The answer must lie in his threefold conviction that all philosophy is grounded in metaphysics, that Western humanity is in every respect sustained and guided by metaphysics, and that indeed human Dasein as self-interpreting conducts itself always in the light of an interpretation of being. But what makes us think that all philosophy has to be grounded in metaphysics when Nietzsche or Wittgenstein or Rorty seem to be teaching us quite different lessons? Heidegger offers us few reasons to support his fundamental convictions but they are certainly decisive for how he conceives of our technological age. Our question is, however, precisely whether it is true that Western humanity is in every respect sustained and guided by metaphysics. We should grant Heidegger his fundamental insight that human Dasein is self-interpreting, but does this mean that everything human beings do is for them captured in a single self-interpretation and a comprehensive interpretation of being? Are we not also animals with animal bodies and animal drives that escape such interpretation? Is it not possible that there are aspects of our existence that cannot be captured in these terms and that modern technology is precisely one of those?

Heidegger with his threefold conviction that philosophy, Western humanity, and indeed human Dasein relies always on an understanding of being leads him to think that the technological age, too, must have a metaphysical grounding. But what could that grounding be? Technological thinking seems, at first sight, devoid of metaphysical speculation. Here Nietzsche steps in and provides, on Heidegger’s reading, the “unthought” metaphysics of the technological age. We might even say that in calling Nietzsche the metaphysician of modern technology Heidegger is paying tribute to Nietzsche as the last great philosopher of the West. On Heidegger’s view, his is the last possible form of ontotheology and as such provides the metaphysics of the current, technological age. But what if technology really has no metaphysics? What if Heidegger’s threefold conviction that there must be a metaphysical grounding to every epoch is mistaken? Then it follows that his reading of Nietzsche may also be misconceived.

There is, in fact, no reason to think that technology has a metaphysical grounding. What stands in the way of this thesis are three considerations: first of all, technological thinking is characteristically practical and pragmatic, that it is always concerned with specific problems and specific solutions for them. Technological thinking shuns, in other words, philosophical speculation which it considers “idle,” “impractical,” “good for nothing.” Technological thinking has a “fix-it” mentality. Present it with a problem and it will start to search for a trick, a procedure, a tool, a gadget to solve it. When the gadget fails it will try to repair, improve, or replace it. Everything has a fix, if only we think practically about it. Contrast that with Nietzsche’s description of what he is doing: “What I relate is the history of the next two centuries…For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.” And in the face of this situation Nietzsche speak as “a philosophy and solitary by instinct, who has found his advantage in standing aside and outside, in patience, in procrastination, in staying behind.”[17] Is this the expression of a technological mind? Does this thinker believe in the fix?

There is a second a deeper reason to think that there is nothing fundamentally metaphysical to modern technology. The basis of technology does not seem to lie in abstract thought but in manual skill. We share with animals the ability to modify things around us. We share with them also the capacity to extend the scope of our practical interactions with the world by means of instruments, found or made. If seeing everything as a resource and exploiting resources is, according to Heidegger, the essence of technology, then animals are the most technological beings. But do they have an ontotheology?

There is a third reason for rejecting Heidegger’s claim that technology is essentially linked to a particular metaphysics. It is that technology aligns itself easily with all kinds of philosophical thinking. We need to consider here only the peculiarly American link between technological fascination and evangelical Christianity. To the evangelical Christian the world is given as a resource which he may exploit at will. Since to the Calvinist imagination worldly success is an indicator of divine salvation, technological prowess can, in turn, confirm the belief of being chosen. Technological thinking is, of course, often associated in our culture with a flat positivism and of this Heidegger might say that it contains its own unthought metaphysics. But the conjunction of technology and positivism may, for all, we know be a merely historical and contingent one. It is certainly true that technological thinking has no difficulty in allying itself with both evangelical and muslim fundamentalism, with both liberalism and socialism, with both democracy and tyranny. It appears to be a tool that can be used by many and for many purposes and that can reconcile itself to almost any ideology. Heidegger may, of course, respond that the ideologies that I have listed here as opposed to each other are, in fact, metaphysically the same.

That idea is, in turn, based on an overly broad understanding of technological thinking. Thomson summarizes Heidegger’s account of Nietzsche’s metaphysics in the following words: “In a changing environment characterized by material scarcity and hence competition, life can survive only by continually overcoming itself, surpassing whatever stage it has reached previously. From the perspective of this inner ‘will’ to life (what Nietzsche calls ‘will-to-power’), any state of being previously attained serves merely as a rung on the ladder of ‘sovereign becoming.’ As Heidegger thus puts it, Nietzsche understands ‘the totality of entities as such’ ontotheologically as ‘eternally recurring will-to-power’ (or simply ‘will-to-will’), that is, as an unending disaggregation and reaggregation of forces without any purpose or goal beyond the self-perpetuating augmentation of these forces through their continual self-overcoming. Now, our Western culture’s unthinking reliance on this Nietzschean ontotheology, is leading us to transform all entities, ourselves included, into Bestand, mere resources standing by to be optimized, ordered, and enhanced with maximal efficiency.” (pp. 55-56) We may surely object that Nietzsche doesn’t speak of material scarcity and a resulting competition for resources, that he understands more clearly than Heidegger that eternal recurrence and continual self-augmentation are incompatible with each other, but above all Nietzsche does not conclude anywhere that entities are mere resources “to be optimized, ordered, and enhanced with maximal efficiency.” In order to see this we need to hold only against Thomson’s account of Heidegger Nietzsche’s own description of the world “as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again turning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness.”[18] Nietzsche’s tone is here, as I have said before, almost entirely Empedoclean in tone and content. He speaks, moreover, not of a world of scarcity but of one of abundance; he speaks not of endless augmentation but of cycles of the ebb and flood of forms; He speaks of a cosmic flow not of a mean human optimizing, ordering and enhancing for maximal efficiency. He speaks, above all, not in a meaning-denying, nihilistic voice, but in that of an ecstatic visionary. He speaks, above all, artistically and not technologically.

And if there is anything that separates Nietzsche from technological thinking it is, indeed, his conviction that “the world can be justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.” The role of the philosopher is, on this view, an artistic one. His ideal is “the artist-philosopher” who can conceive the world “as a work of art that gives birth to itself.”[19] Plato, who is for Nietzsche always the ultimately worthwhile opponent, was such an artist-philosopher but he lacked the courage to see himself as such and described himself therefore as a scientist. It is the artist who, on Nietzsche’s view, impresses meaning on the world. He takes the raw material of the phenomena and molds them into something we value. Heidegger would say at this point that this reveals Nietzsche to be a technological thinker, that his conception of art is itself technological. But we must respond that while Heidegger does have a philosophy of art, he has, like most philosophers of art, no adequate philosophy of the artist. Nietzsche understood, on the other hand, that making art is always a process of imparting a meaning to something that has not as to begin with that meaning. But whatever we think of this attempt to conceive of the making of art, we should certainly not conclude that it is technological in character. On the contrary, we should take Nietzsche to show us that Heidegger’s notion of technology is overly broad, that it includes too much, and is therefore misleading.



  1. What we need, no doubt, is a deeper understanding of technology itself. Heidegger is important in having alerted us to that need. He did, of course, not invent this subject but belonged to a generation of German authors and philosophers for whom technology became a crucial concern. Heidegger’s contributions to this sort of inquiry certainly deserve our attention, but a fully realized philosophy of technology cannot restrict itself in this way. We need to go beyond Heidegger, for instance, in asking more specifically how technology works. If we are to understand why technology has attained such a central place in our lives it is clearly insufficient to say with Heidegger that we are beholden to a “nihilistic ontotheology.” We cannot overlook that technology provides us with goods and services we want and that we believe to improve our lives. We value medical technology, for instance, because it makes us live longer and allows us to be healthier. We value cars and planes because they permit us to experience more of the world and its riches. We value information technology because it allows us to expand our knowledge and because it entertains us. No nihilistic ontotheology is needed to make us realize these benefits and hence to make us appreciate technology. It may, of course, be true that we should not attach so much value to living longer and healthier lives, to seeing more of the world and hence being less benighted than our ancestors, and that we should not attach so much value to knowing more and being more entertained. Such doubts must surely be raised by a proper philosophy of technology. That kind of philosophy will also have to consider the problematic side of all these attainments. When people live longer and healthier lives, our established population cycles are disrupted: overpopulation and under-employment are the consequence. A philosophy of technology will have to consider the directly detrimental effects of our drive to technology: environmental degradation, the dissolution of inherited social bonds by which negotiate our coexistence, the degradation and destruction of cultural goods by which we have learned to live. The traveler who goes to remote areas of the world or who walks the Roman forum will, no doubt, return enriched and he may be able to communicate what he learned to others. But a flood of travelers walking on the same paths will grind to dust whatever is on their way. From such considerations a varied picture of technology will emerge. When we sum it up we may end with an overall optimistic assessment of place of technology in our lives or alternatively a pessimistic one, or something in between.

But this kind of assessment of the powers of technology is something different undertaking from the one that Heidegger (and Thomson) want us to embark on in reflecting on our technological age. Since that age is, according to Heidegger, one depending on a particular metaphysics, the most important task is for him (and for Thomson) “a shared commitment to uncovering and overturning the nihilistic ontotheology of the age.” (p. 173) This must include, presumably, a concerted effort to overturn Nietzsche’s philosophy since our age is characterized (in Thomson’s summary of Heidegger) by an “unthinking reliance on this Nietzschean ontotheology.” But does Nietzsche’s thought need overturning? I ask this question not only because I doubt that Nietzsche provides us with the metaphysics of technology, but also because Heidegger’s and Thomson’s story appears to me to overestimate altogether the role of the philosopher. That role is, as Nietzsche understood well, above all that of an outsider, of a marginal and marginalized figure. The philosopher is, as Wittgenstein once said dramatically, not a member of any community.

I am not sure whether Heidegger’s and Thomson’s views on the needs of the present moment coincide. Thomson asks how we can rebuild of our educational system. He agrees with Heidegger that we need to redeem two central ideas: “(1) that teaching and research should be harmoniously integrated, and (2) that the university community should be meaningfully reunified around its shared commitment to a common task.” (p. 171) These are, no doubt, admirable ideals but the questions is whether and how they are to be realized under contemporary conditions. Thomson seems to believe that we can do so, if we unite the university community in the project of “the uncovering, contesting, and transcending [of] the nihilistic ontotheology of the age.” (p. 180) But how is this to be brought about? Thomson faith in its feasibility is based on “the work being done by such post-Heideggerian thinkers as Derrida, Kadowaki, Dreyfus and Wrathall who have helped to create and inspire diverse communities of post-Heideggerian teachers.” (p. 179) But the question is here whether such dedicated communities are not further signs of the disintegration of the unity of our educational system. Are they different in kind from other dedicated communities that seek to concern themselves with the present, the Marxists and post-Marxists, for instance? It is, of course, conceivable that our universities might unite around Heideggerian themes and it is even possible that this would be desirable and good, but is it likely? Thomson’s analysis doesn’t help here, since he gives us no detailed account of the forces that drive the apparent disintegration of our educational system. His appeal to a nihilistic ontotheology as the explanatory principle strikes me as too schematic, too general, too abstract to do the job. Do we not also have to bring in the fact of rising population numbers and of a proliferation of knowledge, to explain an ever finely graded division of labor? We are facing, I think, today, a serious crisis in philosophy as part of the general crisis in education. We see the development of ever narrower areas of specialization; fields of competence are becoming more and more strictly defined. Modern travel and communication allows the Plato specialists to congregate in one corner and the Aristotle scholars in another. A subject like philosophy that is based on integration, cross-connections, on synthetic and global perspectives must give way to a myriad of specialized disciplines. And the same thing holds for the humanities as a whole. How can Thomson’s project hold up that process?

I am not sure that Heidegger and Thomson would give us the same answer. Thomson seems to believe in the power of a project dedicated to recognizing, contesting, and transcending the nihilistic ontotheology of the age? But can thinking change the material conditions under which we are constrained to operate? Are the aporias of modern technology to be overcome by rethinking our metaphysical presuppositions? What is more, Thomson’s envisaged project is largely a negative undertaking: to diagnose and critique our technological forms of understanding. But more is surely required. We must, as Thomson puts it, also learn to transcend that paradigm. But is that something we can bring about through effort, through re-arranging our educational system, even through re-essentializing and re-ontologizing our thought? Is it not possible that a radical transformation of our material and spiritual circumstances must come upon us – from where we do not know? Thomson’s answer strikes me as more activist, more practical, more cheerful than Heidegger’s for I recall Heidegger’s momentous word that “only a god can save us.” But where in the world, I ask myself, is Thomson’s god?


Before I close I must turn back to the first thing I said. I certainly don’t want to leave you with the impression that I did not mean my initial praise of Thomson’s book. I have expressed myself forcefully in my criticism of it but that was not intended to subtract from its value. Thomson’s merit is, first of all, that he gives us a clear, concise, and coherent account of Heidegger’s thinking on Nietzsche and metaphysics, on technology, politics, and education. Thomson gives us a clear and authoritative account  of Heidegger’s concept of ontotheology. His contraposition of Heidegger’s and Feenberg’s views on technology illuminates both and directly advances the urgent project of a philosophy of technology. Thomson’s explanation of Heidegger’s unfortunate political engagement is spot on; it was indeed concern with matters of education that motivated not only Heidegger but also other German philosophers to step into the political currents in 1933. Thomson is also right in emphasizing Heidegger’s continuing interest in the problems of education in the years after 1945. In concentrating on the particular point that I have raised I have found reasons to distance myself from some of Heidegger’s claims and from Thomson’s tacit agreement with them. But I still value Thomson’s book also for raising those issues on which we disagree. If I have questioned Heidegger’s words and Thomson’s endorsement of them so forthrightly I can only defend myself by repeating what I have once heard: that questioning is the piety of thinking.



[1] Iain D. Thomson,  Heidegger on Ontotheology. Technology and the Politics of Education, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005. Page references in the following are to this book.

[2] Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, translated by Marianne Cowan, Regenery, Washington D. C. 1962, p. 27.

[3] Nietzsche, Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe, vol. 3, pp. 322-25.

[4] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, pp. 23 and 24.

[5] The Will to Power, 481

[6] The Will to Power, 470.

[7] See Wolfgang Müller-Lauter, Nietzsche. His Philosophy of Contradictions and the Contradictions of his Philosophy,

[8] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. 1, p. 3.

[9] Beyond Good and Evil, 23.

[10] Ibid., 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Will to Power, 579.

[13] The Will to Power, 462.

[14] The Will to Power, 481.

[15] The Gay Science, 109.

[16] The Will to Power, 1051.

[17] The Will to Power, preface 2 and 3.

[18] The Will to Power, 1067.

[19] The Will to Power, 795 and 797.

Comments are closed