Heidegger's route to reality

Escaping from distraction

Time spent with familiar things has a special significance: such occasions offer a respite from the frenzied world of technology that increasingly dominates our lives. Heidegger teaches us to embrace the meditative side of our lives and recommends that we each practice attuning ourselves to a distinctively philosophical call: to take your time in the midst of the most familiar.


In a memorial address delivered in his hometown of Meskirch in 1955, the philosopher Martin Heidegger invited his audience to ‘dwell upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here, on this patch of home ground, and now, in the present hour of history’.

Heidegger thinks that the ‘now’ of our present hour of history is marked by a distinctive loss of rootedness, the accelerating deracination of our lives from any ‘patch of home ground’, an uprooting from any definite ‘here’. He thinks of what is happening here as caught up in a changeover in our most basic ways of understanding the world and the significance of our lives. In what he calls ‘a revolution in leading concepts’, it concerns a changeover from a conceptual formation that he regards as ‘traditional’ to one that he calls ‘technological’.  What is, then, Heidegger’s conception of this changed condition, and what are his recommendations for those caught up in it?


Our ‘patch of home ground’ is no longer a place where we dwell together.


The revolution Heidegger has in view ‘developed in the seventeenth century first and only in Europe’; but today, Heidegger suggests, it has grown worldwide and now ‘rules the whole earth’. And this revolution, the most fundamental revolution inside what we perhaps too casually call ‘the industrial revolution’, is not over. As we shall see, something newly new is ‘beginning’ in our time that relates not just to technological modes of industrial production but the formation of our social existence.

Heidegger’s view of the history of the (globalising) European world is that, from its inception in classical Greek antiquity, it is characterised by the growth of a world-understanding which has encouraged and sustained the development of a distinctively technological-scientific way of revealing everything that is.

The claim here is not simply that scientific advances and new technological devices play an increasingly important part of daily life, but that our thinking more generally is increasingly characterised by a way of understanding everything that is which, in its most basic terms, takes measurability, calculability and orderability (being under orders, or at our disposal) as criteria for what counts as ‘objectively real’.


The language of roots – and a corresponding anxiety regarding up-rootedness in the technological age – dominates Heidegger’s reflections.


In these conditions, our ‘patch of home ground’ is no longer a place where we dwell together but is increasingly disclosed as little more than a world-space fragment that provides a satisfactory location for efficient eating and sleeping, and, if one is lucky, provides a convenient starting point for access to entertainment and work – life elements which may now be immediately available at any time in the very same ‘home’ location, without ‘going out’. In this newly prevailing set-up, the world-understanding that had belonged to what Heidegger calls ‘the old rootedness’ in a place is being lost.

The language of roots – and a corresponding anxiety regarding up-rootedness in the technological age – dominates Heidegger’s reflections. He quotes the poet Johann Peter Hebel approvingly: ‘We are plants.’ No doubt we should be on our guard against aspects of Heidegger’s thinking that reflect pathos-filled investments about traditional ways of living. But what Heidegger picks up on in the movement of history into our time is the way the globalising technological age wears away the conditions in which human beings had creatively flourished hitherto. And they have been lost.

Heidegger does not recommend that we just denounce or resist or reject ‘the arrangements, devices, and machinery of technology’. On the contrary, he accepts that they are ‘to a greater or lesser extent indispensable…We depend on technical devices; they even challenge us to ever greater advances.’ So there really is no nostalgic hope or suggestion simply to return to ‘the old ways’, and still less a retreat into an exclusively meditative mode in the face of the modern calculative one. And yet Heidegger is concerned that what he calls ‘calculative thinking’ has become hegemonic and our dependence on our technological devices and machinery has become a kind of slavery: ‘we fall into bondage to them.’

Flourishing, for Heidegger, really does presuppose some kind of ground or foundation which provides what Derrida calls a ‘racinating function’: a grounding endowment from which one can ascend to the heights of a flourishing life. Heidegger’s affirmations of the flowering made possible in the old rootedness can be given overly bucolic interpretations. However, what we need to take our leave from is less the idea of nativisation as such, but the disastrous temptation to represent that in the ‘blood and soil’ terms of far-right ideology.


The kinds of being-with others that belongs to communication is reduced to machine-translatable exchanges of information about experiences, opinions or wishes.


Indeed, Heidegger too knows that the challenge for us today is to cultivate new forms of nativisation, a new ground or foundation in a life with technology. We might describe this in terms of the new rootedness of what today might be called ‘digital natives’. And the problems of our time, a time in which the old rootedness is being lost, concerns, especially, them – and, very likely, you.

Hence, a central question for us today is not how to offer young people such an endowment in the absence of all rootedness, still less to celebrate a liberation from it. Rather, the problem lies in simultaneously appreciating that the old rootedness really is being lost, and as Heidegger himself anticipates, calling ourselves to think whether ‘a new ground and foundation’, a new rootedness, can be cultivated in the environment of the massively delocalising forces of the technologically framed ways of disclosing everything that is. And where the reality involved in that way of revealing is our own social reality, social technologies are producing something entirely new too. Heidegger saw something was coming:

"What we know now as the technology of film and television, of transportation and especially air transportation, of news reporting, and as medical and nutritional technology, is presumably only a crude start. No one can foresee the radical changes to come. But technological advance will move faster and faster and can never be stopped. In all areas of his existence, man will be encircled ever more tightly by the forces of technology."

In social life today, dating apps are perhaps the most extreme example of social technology and a social existence marked by the forces of calculative thinking. But it is far from being a unique case. Accumulating likes as a measure of a thought’s worth or accumulating followers as a measure of a person’s significance – it is all just as thoughtless. Moreover, social technologies disclose a social world in which we submit ourselves increasingly to being immediately on hand and available: being ready at every moment to check one’s phone for texts and messages, ready to respond to others who are doing the same, and always right away.

The kinds of being-with others that belongs to communication is reduced to machine-translatable exchanges of information about experiences, opinions or wishes. Life is understood as a matter of the ongoing accumulation and maximisation of useful or pleasurable lived experiences, always seeking to maximise their quantity and rankable quality. Wanting publicly to record the special moment of your day, without which it would have been a passing nothing, unseen by anyone. Wanting to be sure not to miss the latest trend or trending story. The ‘richness’ or a flourishing life becomes measured in the accumulation of new experiences and varied lived experiences.

Heidegger’s proposal is not to eliminate what is today found indispensable but to try to step out of the mindset in which modern technology sets our minds. With a different mindset ‘we can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we may let go of them any time…Our relation to technology will become wonderfully simple and relaxed.’ To attain this freedom with technology, Heidegger urges that we practice what he calls ‘die Gelassenheit zu den Dingen’, translated in English as ‘releasement towards things’.

To understand Heidegger’s idea, consider cases where one undertakes a practical activity of some kind at home. Such activities will involve maintaining a definite comportment towards things: planting seeds and keeping watch over their growth; making a dress from a pattern; cooking for friends without a recipe. The somewhat baffling style of comportment towards things that characterises ‘releasement towards things’ is precisely one of letting go. However, it is not a letting go that just stops and stares at object things. Rather, it is a comportment that, in the midst of making and doing, lets go by letting in and abiding with the familiarity of the “here and now” that is shaped by these activities.


What we need above all is to find ways of drawing ourselves into the world of meditative thinking.


What is let in by this letting go normally goes completely unnoticed. But ‘releasement towards things’ opens us to what is in this way hidden in everyday dealings, hidden because of their familiarity. What we seek through this releasement is not, then, a new way to make and do but the hidden openness to the familiar space-time configuration in which things presence; the hidden ground and foundation of all seeking to make or to do – whether without or with technology (the above examples utilising, say, a digital germination unit, a sewing machine, a micro-wave oven). What we are familiar with here is not a thing but nor is it a task or goal. Rather it is something right before our eyes in all such dealings: the open region where we dwell, the nearness of the most familiar.

In a world where we are increasingly encircled by an assailing digital deluge, cultivating the capacity to practice ‘releasement towards things’ is a real and urgent need in our time. But Heidegger was already aware that ‘in a world for which only the immediately useful counts, which strives only for the increase of needs and consumption’, the flight from what is nearest and most familiar is increasingly difficult to combat. What we need above all is to find ways of drawing ourselves into the world of meditative thinking. Inseparable from this, according to Heidegger, is practising hearing the call of a distinctively philosophical imperative that everyone can learn to heed: to take your time in the midst of the familiar.

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