Monday, February 6, 2012

On Martin Heidegger's "The Memorial Address"

This paper was written for my Western Civilization class at Ashland University.

Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher born in 1889, was a complex writer and thinker with an extremely non-traditional view on philosophy, especially involving concepts of thought. His works generally were not meant for the common man. Even among scholarly circles, his work is almost impossible to understand and has been associated with a wide range of ideas. In 1955, however, he spoke at the 175th anniversary celebration of the birth of composer Conradin Kreutzer, supplying history with one address from from Heidegger to the average person. In The Memorial Address, Heidegger offers a grave warning for the future of human thought as influenced by modern technology and, although this warning is not optimistic, it is not particularly hopeful either.

According to Heidegger, there are two kinds of thought: calculative and meditative. Calculative thinking is the more technical kind of human thought, in which people gather information and put it together in order to put it to some specific use. Calculative thinking is always in use with mankind, as it is necessary to the more practical activities and motivations of life. It is the more active aspect of human thought, concerned more with the doing of a thing than of considering the possible consequences. Meditative thinking, however, involves something much deeper than practical calculation, and it takes much more effort. Meditative thinking tells us why we should do or should not do a thing, beyond the simple calculative process of actually doing it.

However, meditative thinking is not limited to simply coming up with reasons why to or not to do a thing, according to Heidegger. Meditation is not limited to expanding on calculation, and it does not necessarily have to have an end product, as does calculation. We need only "dwell on what lies close", simply for the sake of the dwelling and because this is what we do because we are human.

"Anyone can follow the path of meditative thinking in is own manner and within his own limits. Why? Because man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being. Meditative thinking need by no means be "high-flown". it is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history." (WebCT, 3)

It would seem on the surface that calculative thinking is more important, since without it we could not actually build a home, cure a disease, or simply drive a car to a job. We could not go through with any action without using calculation. Compared to that, meditation seems to be nothing but aimless thought. However, Heidegger considers meditative thinking to perhaps be even more crucial. He considers meditative thought to be the cornerstone of human nature and the primary aspect that makes us human and separates us from other animals. We think meditatively, therefore we are human.

He does not consider human nature to be inherent though. He believes human nature can change, and that it is in the process of changing to exclude meditative thought. It is this potential loss of the meditative aspect of human nature for which he fears and this is the main focus for The Memorial Address.

Heidegger believes the meditative quality of human nature is related to man's sense of origin and each man's connection to his or her homeland. he uses the terms autochthony and rootedness to express this. The loss of rootedness is directly connected with the loss of meditative thought, and one does not need to leave one's homeland in order for this to happen.

"Many Germans have lost their homeland, have been driven from their native soil. Countless others whose homeland was saved, have yet wandered off. And those who have stayed on in their homeland? Often they are still more homeless than those who have been driven from their homeland. Hourly and daily they are chained to radio and television...We grow more thoughtful and ask: What is happening here? Answer: the rootedness, the autochthony, of man is threatened today at its core. Even more: the loss of rootedness is caused not merely by circumstance and fortune, nor does it stem only from the negligence and the superficiality of man's way of life. The loss of autochthony springs from the spirit of the age into which all of us were born." (webCT, 4)


One cannot seem to cite a passage in the Address about the loss of rootedness without drawing in the roll of technology in accomplishing this loss. Heidegger is convinced that the rapid advancement of modern technology has seriously endangered man's sense of autochthony, so much that he barely mentions one without the other. In the consideration of the events of his time, the two are inextricably linked. The standard of thought in modern technology is that if something is not immediately and absolutely useful, it should be discarded, avoided, or ignored, and this mindset has deeply affected the general mindset of all born into this world.

"From this arises a completely new relation of man to the world and his place in it. The world now appears as an object open to the attacks of calculative thoughts--attacks that nothing is believed able any longer to resist. Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry...The power concealed in modern technology determines the relation of man to that which exists." (webCT, 5)


The technological world of today, as much as in Heidegger's time, grants far too much importance to calculative thought, and causes man to ignore meditative thought as "worthless for dealing with current business." One must "persevere meditation", because it "requires greater effort" than calculative thinking, but in the modern world it is unnecessary and unprofitable. For the same reason that some might go to a vocational school rather than a liberal arts college--to avoid taking any classes not absolutely necessary in their chosen career--modern man tends more toward calculative thinking to the exclusion of the meditative to his own ruin.

Heidegger uneasily sees the events of his time leading to a day when calculative thinking will have completely superseded meditative thinking, becoming the only possible way of thinking. Every day, he sees modern man going out of his way to avoid thinking any more than absolutely necessary, and following the glamour of technology like easily impressed children. We want everything in our world big, loud, useful, and immediate and we concern ourselves with little else. If the world continues in this vein, he believes human nature may be changed forever, and for the worse.

"This assertion is valid in the sense that the approaching tide of technology revolution could so captivate man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted as the only way of thinking...What great danger then might move upon us? Then there might go hand in hand with the greatest ingenuity in calculative planning and inventing indifference toward meditative thinking, total thoughtlessness. Then man would have denied and thrown away his own special nature--that he is a meditative being. Therefore the issue is the saving of man's essential nature. Therefore the issue is keeping meditative thinking alive." (webCT, 8)


The amazing thing is that Heidegger is not afraid of what might happen if the hydrogen bombs are dropped. He is not concerned, as we are, about reigning in the threat of nuclear war. He actually seems to consider these threats to have a positive aspect and he fears what might happen if we actually eradicated such threats. The constant thought of our impending doom is what forces modern man to stop and consider our modern values. Our fear forces us to think meditatively, however marginally, about technology and keeps alive the possibility of finding a sense of autochthony in the future. Without that fear, we might lose meditative thinking all together. As always, throughout history, fear is the great motivator.

Heidegger is not optimistic about man's ability to escape his thoughtless fate. He sees technology as virtually unstoppable at this point, and is not actually suggesting that technology be abandoned all together, as if he were some nature idealist in a trite morality play. He is not encouraging man to "destroy the evil computers before they enslave us all." In fact, he sees technology as a potentially positive thing that "challenges us to ever greater advances" and could be the greatest thing to ever happen to mankind--but only if we learn to put technology into perspective. What Heidegger is calling for is a new autochthony to preserve meditative thinking and so preserve mankind's special nature.

He believes this new autochthony can even be rooted in technology. There are two things mankind must do in order to achieve this. The first step Heidegger calls releasement toward things. This is simply putting technology into perspective and not allowing technology to control our lives or define our inner being. This first step happens when we strip modern advancements of the bloated importance we have bestowed upon them, reducing them to their appropriate uses and nothing more.

"We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature. We let technical devices enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside, as things which are nothing absolute but remain dependent upon something higher. I would call this comportment toward technology releasement toward things." (webCT, 7)


Releasement toward things is a good way to halt the negative effect of technology on human nature; however it is not enough to achieve a new autochthony for mankind. The second step is to find a way to stir up meditative thinking in modern society, since the original, pre-technical source of rootedness has been destroyed and cannot realistically be expected to relate to human life in the modern world. Heidegger believes technology can provide a new source for our new autochthony, once we have achieved that first step of releasement. We can dwell on the underlying quality of technology that is not openly visible to us, a meaning within technology "not invented or made by us, which lays claim to what man does and leaves undone." He calls this openness to the mystery.

"We do not know the significance of the uncanny increasing dominance of atomic technology. the meaning pervading technology hides itself. But if we explicitly and continuously heed the fact that such hidden meaning touches us everywhere in the world of technology, we stand at once within the realm of that which hides itself from us, and hides itself just in approaching us. That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery. I call the comportment which enables us to keep open to the meaning hidden in technology, openness to the mystery." (webCT, 7)

As simplistic as the analogy may seem, I have come to associate this argument with the special effects 'revolution' of the nineties. The movie industry was discovering more and more new 'tricks' involving CGI effects, and this resulted in Hollywood churning out more effects-driven films than one can count. All these films were based not on sound plot and character development, or even imagination, but on what new trick the fast-growing technology had recently made possible.

My father and I argued about this frequently. Although we both agreed effects-driven films were a travesty of both art and technology, my father, much like Heidegger, did not believe that the finer theatrical and literary qualities of film would ever return and that technology was to blame. Unlike Heidegger, he believed CGI technology must be abandoned. I agreed that technology was to blame but, much like Heidegger, I did not support the destruction of the technology and I did believe that CGI could raise film-making to new and greater heights if used appropriately. Like Heidegger with meditative thought, I believed that audiences were dazzled by the technology like a child with a new bauble. Unlike both my father and Heidegger, however, I did not believe the situation was hopeless if it continued in the same way. I argued that people were simply fascinated, but eventually the new technology would become too commonplace, the advancements would plateau, the audiences would become bored, and CGI would finally be used as a tool for the story instead of the purpose of the story. Some years later, as we left the theater after a showing of Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, my father conceded defeat.

The purpose of this analogy is simply to illustrate my own stance on Heidegger's ideas. I agree with everything he says, especially that man's nature is essentially meditative. However, the one thing I disagree with is that calculative thinking can ever overcome and replace meditative thinking all together. Even if the majority of mankind focuses mainly on calculation, there will always be some hidden scrap of need for meditation in their basic nature. Certainly this scrap might be obliterated entirely, but for creative intellectuals, such as artists, writers, composers, directors, and other thinkers who do not fit in as children, and grow up to produce creative challenges that stir up that "openness to the mystery".

What this means is that there will always be outcasts who will find their autochthony and therefore pursue meditative thought simply through the necessity of it, because they cannot find an anchor in mainstream calculative society. They are not permitted a place in the calculative 'herd', which is how most people seem to find their meaning, therefore they must find their meaning elsewhere and are forced to meditate lest they lose their minds. Some of the greatest and most creative thinkers in every field were outcasts, or at least not particularly popular. It would seem that casting certain individuals out of the group is as much a part of human nature as meditative thinking. The only way meditative thought could be entirely eradicated is if mankind as a species ceases entirely to cast some individuals out of the social collective. As this does not seem likely, it does not seem that meditative thinking will be phased out anytime soon.

1 comment:

  1. The search for Heidegger brought me here courtesy of 4th selection from this album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1F4Pb36QLVY Serendipity strikes again, a fine essay.

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