PART TWO: Alternative Essences of “ancient” and “modern” technology

In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger offers two conceptions of the essence of technology: technology as poiesis in the ancient world and technology as com-posing in the modern.  As has been shown, neither essence faithfully captures the experience of technology in the ancient or modern world, and as such as essential determinations they are problematic.  To find either essence as problematic is not to say that the attempt to find an essence of technology is itself futile; it may or may not be.  It is merely to say that the “essences” Heidegger finds don’t work—i.e. they don’t reveal what they need to reveal about technology in order apply adequately to the technologies that actually exist (or have existed, as the case may be).  So keeping in the spirit of the terms of ‘the question concerning technology’ as Heidegger posed it, two alternative essences for “ancient” and “modern” technology are offered in this Part, leading eventually to a tentative “essence” of technology as such.[1]  By way of introduction, however, a few remarks are necessary.

First, the periods “ancient” and “modern” are emphasized with quotes to indicate that neither period is to be taken as exclusive for the technology as such in a given time; the periods are not hard and fast historical realities, neither chronologically nor in terms of the history of Being.  In this respect, the critical stipulation Heidegger makes regarding the essence of technology is rejected—namely, that the essence of technology divides into unique, exclusive periods under which all technologies within that time period emerge as being such and such a kind.  Under the alternative “essences” presented here, both kinds of technologies can—and do—coexist.

Second, unlike for Heidegger, the two “essences of technology” offered here are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive: surely more than these two “essences” of technology exist as a description of kinds of technology in use (or previous use), and in fact the second essence, ‘the drive to universalization,’ while different in kind from the first, possibly emerged from it—or at any rate, it is so essentially related to the first that which came first, the chicken or the egg, as it were, is  simply impossible to determine.   So unlike for Heidegger, the two essences offered here do not purportedly represent an exclusive essence of all the technologies developed or used within a given time frame, and much less do they represent the only possible essences of technology as such.

Third, as neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, a second aspect of Heidegger’s characterization of the essence of technology is implicitly rejected, an implication that needs to be spelled out explicitly—namely, that the disclosive looking characteristic of the “essence” is not apriori the condition for the possibility of the existence of technology in the strict sense.  In other words, the account of essence presented in this section remains largely agnostic on whether or not a certain disclosive looking makes possible a technical implement, or whether the use of the implement itself leads to a specific manner of disclosive looking, even as it asserts that a manner of disclosive looking can follow from the use of any given technology and can—and in some sense must—precede its development.  The main difference between the account presented here and Heidegger’s account is that unlike in Heidegger’s account no apriori understanding of an offering of Being is presumed; the disclosive looking subtending technological development is not all-encompassing, as he understands it, i.e. as providing the condition for the possibility of all relationship to and commerce with beings.

Fourth, and finally, as will be discussed at the end of the section, Heidegger’s idea that the essence of technology is something offered by Being is itself rejected and a certain freedom to choose or ‘fabricate’ a disclosive looking is put in its place.  More specifically, since the “essence” of technology, such as it is, is shown to be plural, non-mutually exclusive and both founding of and founded in a disclosive looking, essence as an “enduring” “bestowed” by Being is replaced with “essence” as a manner of looking variable with respect to the development of technology itself.  As an illumination, Heidegger’s agency-based understanding of essence reveals nothing interesting about either essence or technology, and in its place is offered a general characterization—however tentative—purporting to capture something essential about “technology as such,” without any definitive, permanent implications.

With these four introductory remarks in mind, the results of this chapter can be anticipated and thus better understood in their proper light.

Chapter 4: “Ancient” technology as ‘the mechanization of agency’

Heidegger’s characterization of the essence of ancient technology as poiesis rests largely, if not exclusively, on his interpretation of causality in Aristotle; as such, any problems with that interpretation would problematize that characterization.  Now, as already shown, ancient technology as exclusively poiesis is problematic in light of the technologies actually in use in the ancient world.  Now it remains to be seen whether Heidegger’s characterization of ancient technology as poiesis is problematic as such because it follows from a problematic interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of cause, the main concept on which his conception of technology as poiesis is based.

Heidegger’s interpretation of Aristotle’s causality is certainly defensible, and in light of Rojcewicz elaboration it is in some respects even convincing.  But neither Heidegger’s indication nor Rojcewicz’s analysis is complete, based as it is exclusively on Aristotle’s discussion and examples in the Physics, where admittedly the idea of a craftsman ‘imposing’ a form apprehend in his mind ‘onto’ formless matter is not as clear as the tradition would have it.   Nevertheless, seen in light of Book Zeta, sections 7-9 of the Metaphysics, however, Aristotle’s understanding of causality with respect to form, matter and the production of artifacts in the Physics should be oriented toward the traditional “craftsman” example as “efficient” cause and away from Rojcewicz’s (and Heidegger’s) “paradigm” cases of the “sower of seeds” etc.  In other words, while defensible in light of the some of the examples offered in the Physics, with respect to technology the analysis offered in the Metaphysics makes Heidegger’s interpretation highly problematic, of not outright wrong, if only because Aristotle himself remains problematically divided on the relationship between form and matter vis-à-vis cause in the production of artifacts and the process of natural change.

By way of review, recall that Heidegger indicates—and Rojcewicz elaborates on his behalf—that there is no efficient cause in Aristotle, in the sense that this element of causation is an agency bringing about the change in matter, using some kind of external force to the change itself to impose onto it a form not indigenous to the matter.  This interpretation led Rojcewicz to the concept of ‘matter pregnant with form,’ one brought out in a process where “the role of activity and passivity are entirely intermingled.”[2] As justification for this notion Rojcewicz argues that Aristotle intended as “pure cases” or “paradigm” instances of causality activities like “counselling, sowing, doctoring and abducting,”[3] all processes that are readily—even necessarily—interpretable as “abetting” or “nurturing” causes.  As an abetting or nurturing cause, the “agent”, as it were—the counsellor, the doctor, the farmer, or the abductor—is merely the occasion for an end result to emerge largely of its own accord from within the process of change—out of the matter, as it were—for insight ‘emerges’ from within the counselled, or health ‘emerges’ from within the sick, etc.  In all these paradigm cases, the so-called efficient cause is primarily the instigator and/or nurturer of a process that is largely self-fulfilling, and instead of directing it by force acting through an external agency, the “agent”—the counsellor, the doctor, etc.—merely works from within the process itself, obeying its native principles in order to bring about the end product or desired result.  Heidegger calls this process—faithfully developed on his behalf by Rojcewicz—poiesis.  For Heidegger, Aristotle’s causality as poiesis is the essence of production and manufacture, i.e. of technology, in the ancient world.

Now as a description of counselling, doctoring, farming, and abducting, there is little fault to be found with Heidegger’s point (and Rojcewicz’s description).  In these cases, the notion of “efficient cause” as an active agent forcing change onto inert matter simply doesn’t make sense.   Quite the contrary: surely it only makes sense to say that a counsellor abets or nurtures insight in a client, or that a doctor abets health in the patient, etc.—that in none of these cases does the “agent” of change act either exclusively or impositionally to force the end result on the process bringing the change.  But just as surely as it makes sense to describe what Aristotle means by “cause” as a poiesis in these cases, it is simply a mistake to say that this is what Aristotle means by causality as such, particularly with respect to form and matter, the ‘agent of change,’ and the finished product, i.e. with respect to how formed-matter, the finished product, comes to be in general in manufacturing and production.  For although these so-called “paradigm cases” appear to play role over the craftsman’s secondary explanatory role in the Physics,[4] in the Metaphysics  Aristotle assigns the craftsman if not to a primary role then at least one essentially distinguishable from the counsellor, doctor, etc.   In other words, with respect to the notion of agency, force, form, and matter vis-à-vis the production of beings by “art,” Aristotle in the Metaphysics distinguished between a “maker” in the stricter sense and a “begetter” in the sense intended by Heidegger and Rojcewicz.   A careful elaboration of his arguments in sections 7-9 of Book Zeta of the Metaphysics makes this clear.

In the first place, there are good reasons to think that Aristotle did indeed have something like ‘matter is pregnant with form’ in mind when he described the processes by which things come to be, i.e. causal change.  For not only does this interpretation follow from examples like the counselor, the doctor, etc. in the Physics; there are also passages in Book Zeta of the Metaphysics consistent with ‘poetic’ causality.  For instance, when comparing the process of beings coming to be “in nature” and “by art,” he says that “all things which are formed by nature are in the same case as these products of art,” in that “the seed produces [plants] as the artist produces the works of art,” and the seed “has the form potentially” within it.[5]  So in some respect, if seed has the form of the plant within it, so does whatever the artisan starts with, namely, the matter.   This interpretation is further supported by what Aristotle also says about “why some things are produced spontaneously as well as by art,” for in spelling out the distinction he states “the reason is that in some cases the matter which determines the production in the making and producing of any work of art, and in which part of the product is present, is such as to be set in motion by itself and in some cases is not of this nature.”[6]  “In which part of the product is present” suggests that this ‘present part’ is the form, and this interpretation is further supported by Aristotle’s stipulation that neither form nor matter is created on pain of infinite regress,[7] and that a subsisting form as an independent thing ‘descending’ into a particular is not necessary to account for the formed-matter as the end product of the arts either because “the begetter is adequate to the making of the product and to the causing of the form in the matter.”[8]  With these passages in mind, then—“has the form potentially,” “in which some part is present,” and “begetter”—it is reasonable to think that Aristotle thought that the matter used in the arts was pregnant with form, specifically the form that defines the final product as the product that it is, i.e. its essence.

But in the second place, we have good reason to think that Aristotle did not think that ‘matter is pregnant with form’ brought out in a process like poetic “begetting”—a process close enough to “abetting” for the issue addressed here.  For elsewhere in the same sections, Aristotle says that “everything that comes to be comes to be by the agency of something”[9] “have matter;”[10] that the final products of the arts through this agency acting on matter are “things of which the form is in the soul”,[11] such that the form in the soul permits the making of “things whose privation is obscure and nameless, e.g. in bronze the privation of a particular shape or in bricks and timber the privation of arrangement as a house;”[12] therefore giving bronze, bricks and timber ‘form’ is “to produce this form in something else”[13] from its presence in the soul, i.e. to ”bring the form into this particular matter”[14] in order to produce the finished product, formed-matter, i.e. the bronze sphere or the brick and timber house.  Aristotle even suggests that material of which things are made that cannot move itself—”stones” for instance—“cannot be moved in the particular way required” to bring about causal change “except by something else,”[15] i.e. by some “external force” in the Hope translation.  So while there is good evidence to believe that Aristotle had in mind some sense of an “abetting” or “begetting” causality, there is equally good—if not better—reason to believe that he also had in mind an external agent acting on matter that cannot enact change in and of itself, thus ‘imposing’ on the matter the forms apprehended in the soul in order to produce a finished product, i.e. the formed-matter.

This apparent inconsistency in Aristotle can be reconciled by distinguishing two senses in which the agent of causality (the traditional “efficient case”) serves to bring about change directed to a specified end—“health” or “wisdom” in the case of a doctor or a counsellor, and “bronze spheres” and “houses” in the case of the craftsman.  That is, when it comes to the ‘third cause’ Aristotle did not have a single view of the agent in mind, be it “abetting” or “begetting” as poiesis, or the more traditional view of the agent as the force bringing about change by ‘imposing’ form on or ‘putting’ form into matter (or in any case, bringing form into matter as opposed to drawing form out from within it).  In other words, Aristotle distinguished—albeit it somewhat implicitly—between two kinds of agency relative to the kind of change to be worked with and brought about, i.e. between spontaneous versus non-spontaneous change.

At the beginning of section 9, Aristotle actually spells this critical distinction out in the form of a question.  “The question might be raised,” he says, “why some things are produced spontaneously and well as by art, e.g. health, while others are not, e.g. a house.”[16]  The reason, he answers, has already been partially cited: “in some cases the matter which determines the production in the making and producing of any work of art, and in which part of the production is present, is such as to be set in motion by itself and in some cases is not of this nature, and of the former kind some can move itself in the particular way required, while the other matter is incapable of this.”[17]  “The particular way required” is the key point, and by it Aristotle presumably means the path that is the causal change, a path distinguishable as either “spontaneous” (or self-emergent) or non-spontaneous (or subject only to external agency).  His working examples of the doctor bringing about “health” and an artisan producing a “bronze sphere” or “house” emphasizes the distinguishable roles of the agent as the third cause, for in the former case the ‘agent’ is an abettor who brings about change by gearing into the spontaneous process of change itself, while in the latter case the ‘agent’ is an ‘imposer’ who brings about change by acting as the external force of movement for the change.  Since it is the latter that directly concerns technology in the usual sense (technological implements as opposed to mere techniques), it is more germane to the “question concerning the essence of technology.”   As such it is discussed first.

As already cited, Aristotle is quite clear that some concept of agency as ‘external force’ is operative in his broader notion “causality,” so it remains to be seen through his examples how this notion of agency might affect the relationship between causality and the question concerning the essence of technology.  The underlying issue can be simply stated: in so far as technology is about the manufacture and production of implements—building houses, casting silver chalices, building windmills, or building hydroelectric dams—the ‘agency as causality’ specific to the production of these implements should reign as the root of the essence of ancient technology, if in fact the essence of that technology is rooted in the concept of cause (which of course it may not be).  In other words, although poiesis can best describe “technology” as a set of techniques for abetting spontaneous change that could—and often does—otherwise self-emerge, the causality governing production and manufacture should be used to describe ancient technology in the broader sense.  So how can that technology be described—or more to the point, how does Aristotle describe it?

In his account of cause in Book Zeta of the Metaphysics, Aristotle principally focuses on the example of making a bronze sphere, though he does also mention building a house.  They key passages already cited bear repeating here.  Since the form ‘potentially within the matter’ with which the maker of the “bronze sphere” or “house” begins is “obscure and nameless”[18]assuming it even exists; and since this matter cannot spontaneously move in the “particular way” required to bring about a “bronze sphere” or a “house” on its own; the artisan must have the form of the “bronze sphere” or “house” “in her soul,” and in shaping the matter into the finished product she “brings the form into this particular matter.”  As the agent who apprehends and shapes matter according to that apprehension, the craftsman does not abet the form latent in the matter—for that form is “nameless and obscure,” i.e. it is cannot apprehended as such already in the matter.  So even if a latent form does exist—and it might not; that is, even if the ‘matter is pregnant with form,’—and there is no reason to think it is; that “pregnancy” would be neither here nor there for the artisan because as non-apprehended, it cannot guide the productive process itself.  Furthermore, since the matter itself is incapable of spontaneously generating movement, self-emergence of formed matter couldn’t apply in any case either.  For unlike spontaneously generative change, it simply lacks the capacity to move itself—to self-emerge, as it were.  Thus, since production regarding non-spontaneously changing processes involves neither apprehension of latent form nor the capacity for self-emergence, the productive agency in the arts and crafts is ‘form brought into matter’ through an external shaping and making.   This is not abetting; it is ‘imposing’—albeit ‘imposing’ without any connotations of ravishment or exploitation.  Instead, it is simply ‘imposing’ in the common sense way of giving something that has no appreciable form a form in a finished product.  It is therefore essentially creative and not self-emerging, regardless of how that creative process might be described subjectively.[19]

Now contrast this description of the craftsman with Aristotle’s description of the doctor bringing about health in a patient through a process that can—and probably must—be described as poiesis, i.e. a process in the sense of ‘bringing out potential form’ through an abetting agency.  Aristotle first notes that “health” comes from a man—i.e. a man becomes healthy—by way of making good the “privation” of health in the diseased body (disease being the privation of health), and thus health is the substratum “man” coming to be a “healthy” again—which is why “the healthy subject is not said to be an invalid, but to be a man, and a healthy man.”[20]  Since this process from disease to health is not one in which the privation is “obscure and nameless,”—i.e. since the form “health” can be apprehended as latent in the matter of the body—the doctor, with “health” as “the formula and the knowledge in the soul,”[21] can apprehend the natural process by which a body again becomes healthy (“a uniform state of the body”),[22] and once this process is apprehended, he can “bring the matter to a final step which he himself can take”—to wit, by making the body warm.[23]  By providing the necessary step of warming the body, the doctor abets the spontaneous process by which the body naturally changes from disease to health.  In other words, by making good the privation apprehended in the body—i.e. the form “health” latent there—the doctor, as the agent cause, is also the abetting cause, for the health brought out of the deprived body can, and often does, self-emerge in the presence of warmth.  As something produced spontaneously in the body, health can—and probably must—be abetted in its spontaneous emergence merely by providing the occasion or opportunity for that emergence; it neither can be nor needs to be forced.  In this respect, then, Aristotle’s description of the third cause as an abetting cause makes perfect sense.  For causes involving spontaneous change, the agent cause can only abet and nurture the ‘matter pregnant with form,’ the condition itself being a privation of that latent form.  As this applies to doctoring, so it would equally apply to his other examples like counselling, farming, and abducting.  In all these cases, change can only be abetted, not ‘forced’ like with the craftsman proper (though in abducting the lack of force is admittedly less clear).

With this distinction between agency in the practical arts like counselling and medicine and the technological arts like production and manufacturing clarified, both Heidegger’s and the traditional understanding of the “efficient cause” can be reconciled.  Simply put, Aristotle implicitly relied on two senses of causal agency specific to the kind of causal change at work, spontaneous versus non-spontaneous change.  For the practical arts like medicine, counselling, and farming, the ‘agent cause’ is an abetting cause; it only provides the occasion or opportunity for the self-emergence of the form latent in the matter.  For the technical arts like manufacture and production, the agent cause is an ‘imposing’—or perhaps better, an informing—cause; it brings the form into the matter and turns it into the finished product as formed-matter.  In this respect, Heidegger (and elaborating for him, Rojcewicz) is right to find in Aristotle a non-impositional causality, which he call poiesis.  But in another respect he is wrong to take this poiesis as the notion of causality in Aristotle.  In fact, Aristotle has two working notions of causal agency, and the one more germane to the kind of technology Heidegger purports to describe in “The Question Concerning Technology” is the ‘impositional’ or informative cause of the productive and manufacturing arts.  This error on Heidegger’s part has consequences for the “essence” of ancient technology (as he describes it) that can now be appreciated.

Specifically, Heidegger is simply wrong to see poiesis as the root of the essence of ancient technology because it purportedly represents the ancient notion of causality as such.  Instead, he should have looked to the kind of casual agency more specific to the kinds of technology he describes—informative agency—or at the very least, he should have described the essence of ancient technology in general terms of agency as such, without specifying whether that agency is either abetting or informative.  Since this later alternative represents the best alternative to Heidegger’s error, it is taken up in the remainder of this section.

With this dual sense of causal agency in Aristotle in place, the sense in which “ancient” technology can be described as ‘the mechanization of agency’ can now be developed, and to that end one can ask:  what kind of “disclosive looking” describes the invention and use of technological implements like a watermill, or draft drawn plough, or a seed drill?  What kind of forms must be apprehended and agencies appreciated in order for these implements to be invented and then used?  What did the ancients see when looking at nature in such a way that their technology could be invented?  A good foray into answering these questions lies in a source outside both Heidegger and Aristotle, which deserves to be quoted in full:

“When it first occurred to a reflecting mind that moving water had a property identical with human force or brute force; namely, the property of setting other masses in motion, overcoming inertia and resistance—when the sight of the stream suggested through this point of likeness the power of the animal—a new addition was made to the class of prime movers; and when circumstance permitted, this power could become a substitute for the others.  It may seem to the modern understanding  familiar with water wheels and drifting rafts, that the similarity here was an extremely obvious one.  But if we put ourselves back into the early state of mind, when running water affected the mind by its brilliancy, its roar and irregular devastation, we may easily suppose that to identify this with animal muscular energy was by no means an obvious effort.”[24]

Several salient points can be gleaned from this remarkable passage.  First, in their native perception, the ancients presumably saw the water mainly in terms of its ordinary sensory qualities—it “roars,” it reflects the sun ‘brilliantly,’ it is wet, it is cold, etc.  Second, they also saw the water in terms of its direct effects on them—floods devastated crops and houses, torrential rains caused devastating floods, rains nourished crops, etc.  Third, only later in this perceptual life did they isolate any sense of ‘force’ (agency for change) in the water that causes bodies to move, change, or otherwise be affected.  Fourth, once this ‘force’ was apprehended in the water, as an abstraction ‘force as such’ can could also be seen in the water.  Fifth, once this ‘force as such’ was apprehended,  it could be harnessed and redirected in some way, i.e. it could be used for human purposes as a substitute for the causal agency that human or animal muscle power already provided.[25]

Although one might say that “natural essences” were perceived in their native experience of the water as roaring, cold, wet, brilliant, etc., the last two steps—genetically speaking so late in perceptual life—are the crucial ones for any “question concerning technology, for in the ‘manner of seeing’ required to apprehend them they make possible the construction of a device like a watermill, i.e. something to utilize the water’s native powers for non-native purposes.  Specifically, the last two steps represent both an appreciation of ‘causal agency as such’—i.e. a generalized idea of ‘force as such’ for bringing about any kind of change—and an appreciation of that ‘agency as such’ instanced in the causal agency of the water—i.e. water’s general ability to be the cause of change on otherwise inert matter.  And more specifically, appreciating the water as having its own ‘force as such’ in the first place (i.e. having its own ‘causal agency as such’) apriori requires the idea of ‘agency as such,’ however vague that idea is.  For only with this apriori understanding in place is it possible to see the abstraction instanced in the concrete (i.e. the water), and this instantiation alone makes possible the idea of harnessing the agency or force ‘within the water’ as a general force for bringing about some specific kind of desired change.  Or to put the matter in the Heideggerian terms already established: the disclosive looking in which the water in the stream reveals itself to the ancient mind was guided apriori by an understanding of ‘casual agency as such’ (however loosely appreciated); therefore water could be seen as harboring a force that could be harnessed and used for specific human ends, i.e. to be used to bring about change that the water itself would not bring about on its own, change otherwise requiring human agency.  So long as “causal agency as such” guided the disclosive looking in which the water was revealed, the causal agency of the water as ‘having force as such’ can be seen in connection with ‘the force required to bring about a desired change’ (say grinding grain), and with this disclosive looking arose the possibility of creating technology to ‘bridge’ the native to the non-native ends by replacing human agency with the agency apprehended in the water.   To deploy once again Heidegger’s terms, this disclosive looking prior to the invention of the watermill was therefore itself already technological.

From disclosive looking as inherently technological it is but a small step to seeing how technology itself can be created.  For once this ‘connection,’ as it were, between “agency as such” (the understanding of cause in the abstract) and “agency in the concrete” (in this case, as manifested in the flowing water) was made, creating a device that embodies this connection becomes possible.  In other words, by seeing causal agency both in the abstract and as instanced in the moving water, the causal agency of the water could be “mechanized”  in a device that ‘responds to the water’ so long as that water acts as the agent for change that it is.  In the case of the watermill, the water wheel in constant contact with the water could be constructed.  Attached to that turning wheel a gear turns; the turning gear attached to the millstone turns the millstone; once that millstone turns, the human agency otherwise required to grind grain is replaced by the transfer of ‘the force’ from the within the moving water to the grain—thus converting water power (its own causal agency) into a grain grinding power (a product of human agency).   As ‘bridging the gap’ between agencies—i.e. natural and human—understood as instances of “agency as such,” the watermill as a technological device is itself agency as such mechanized, in that it acts as the physical go-between between the force being used as an agent for change in general (the force in the water) and the force required for the desired task (grinding grain), a strictly human use for the water that it otherwise could never accomplish on its own.  ln this way, then, ancient technology like the watermill—and by extension any technology that harnesses natural forces and coverts them to human purposes—can be understood as the mechanization of agency.

Now contrast this admittedly rough sketch of the inherently technological “disclosive looking” with Heidegger’s account of ancient technology as poiesis, recurring to Rojcewicz’s example of the ancient windmill but instead applying it to the current example of the watermill as being essentially the same thing.  For both Heidegger’s and the present account, a disclosive looking is invoked.  For Heidegger it is the disclosive looking as poiesis, in which the natural force of the water is appreciated as something that emerges on its own as being ‘a force in a certain direction.’   In the instant account, the disclosive looking is essentially guided by an understanding of ‘agency as such,’ with “agency” as the apriori ‘concept’ determining the disclosive looking.  For Heidegger, this ‘poetic’ looking at the water as being ‘a force in a certain direction’ is respectful of the water’s natural essence; it does not impose on it an abstraction such as ‘a force as such.’  In the instant account, an abstraction in fact guides the disclosive looking, the abstraction “agency as such”; as such, some form of “imposition” (however loose or appropriate) takes place.  Finally, reiterating somewhat, for Heidegger the natural essence appreciated in the flowing water requires no interposing conceptualization; it can be appreciated simply by walking in the stream and feeling the force of the water on one’s legs, or placing one’s muddy hands in stream and seeing the caked on mud simply ‘wash away’—and so forth.  In the instant account, the natural agency of the water is perceived in the same way, but that perception is appreciated through the more abstract understanding of ‘agency as such,’ and this abstraction—as manifested in the concrete water—provides the basis for appreciating in the water the ability to do work not specific to its natural ends.  In other words, some conceptual mediation is required to appreciate the potential to turn the natural essence of the water to an unnatural purpose.  So in at least one respect the instant account and Heidegger’s are completely alike, but in another respect remain completely different, in that both require a disclosive looking in which the water presents itself, but one (Heidegger’s) requires no ‘interposing’ abstraction, only the appreciation of natural essence itself, whereas the other does require an “imposition”—or better, and inter-position—namely, an appreciation of ‘agency as such.’

It requires no great penetration to see which of these two accounts best describes what actually happens in—again, sticking to Heidegger’s terms—the technological disclosive looking that makes possible actual technological implements in the ancient world (watermills, windmills, draft ploughs, reapers, etc.).  For there is simply no way to go from “natural essence” (flowing water) to “technical device” (watermill) without an intervening abstraction that connects that ‘natural essence’ as embodied in a concrete water to the device that harnesses that ‘natural essence’ toward strictly human ends.  That is, there is simply no way to go from “flowing water” as ‘a force in a certain direction’ to ‘grinding grain’ as a specific re-purposing and re-direction of that force without an appreciation of ‘force as such’ or ‘agency as such’ acting as a go-between between the two ideas.  For without this intervening abstraction, there is no bridging the ‘gap’ between the natural essence and the unnatural human purpose.  Recurring to the case of the watermill, without appreciating “agency as such” (or “force as such”) in the water, there would be no way even to conceive of the connection between flowing water, a water wheel, a gear, and a millstone.  The functional relationship of these parts would remain in the dark if their role of transferring causal agency from the water to the stone was not appreciated in advance.  To put the issue again in Heideggerian terms, without the disclosive looking guided by the interposing concept of “agency as such,” the construction of a machine embodying that agency would not be possible.  So at the end of the day, the “essence” of “ancient” technology presented here, and not Heidegger’s, faithfully captures the kind of disclosive looking required to build technological things like those the ancients built.  As a characterization of the essence of ancient technology, the mechanization of agency is more faithful than poiesis.

[1] In this section, it is presumed a worthwhile task to ask about the essence of technology, and even though the sense of essence in the answers offered in this section is modified in complete contract to Heidegger, the contrast is maintained and intended precisely to show that if essence is asked for, it can be done better than poiesis and com-posing.  That spirit of the terms of Heidegger’s formulation of the “question concerning technology” should be kept in mind throughout.

[2] GT 23

[3] GT 21

[4] And this is simply granting the point that it does.  In fact, from 194a16 to 196a30 Aristotle mentions the “maker” and the “sculptor” with respect to artificial products like statues and houses almost twice as often that all the other so-called “paradigm cases” combined  The only textual basis for saying Aristotle meant the “sower”, “the doctor” and the “counsellor” as examples in the primary sense and the “craftsman” in a secondary sense is that he placed “and generally the maker” at the end of the list of his examples of where “the change or stationariness originates” (Physics, 195a21).



[7] 1033b5

[8] 1034a4






[14] 1033b9

[15] 1034a13.


[17] 1034a9-15.

[18] The passage in full reads: “But as for things who privation is obscure and nameless, e.g. in bronze the privation of a particular shape or in bricks and timber the privation of arrangement as a house, the thing is thought to be produced from these materials…” 1033a13-17. Here “privation” clearly refers to lack of form.

[19] Michelangelo’s description of his creative process can be understood as expressing nothing more than the perfect synchrony of process and product unique to the work of genius.  The rest of us have to labor to shape ‘unformed’ matter into artistically formed products through a process far less instrumental and consumatory, in such equal measures at the same time.

[20] 1033a8-14.

[21] 1032b5

[22] 1032b7

[23] 1032b20

[24] Bain, The Sense and Intellect, p. 492, from Dewey, How We Think, p. 276.

[25] Although slightly anachronistic, ‘force as such’ is referred to here in reference to Rojcewicz’s use of ‘energy as such’ for the modern windmill.  The similar connotations are intentional, for although the ancients likely saw the ‘force for change’ in terms of their understanding of cause—hence as the ‘agent cause’ as such—in modern terms that agency would be force.  So using the modern terms here implies that Heidegger was probably right to find in the ancient understanding of cause something pertinent to the essence of technology, even as the use of those terms links that idea to what Rojcewicz (and presumably Heidegger) reserve for modern technology, specifically an ‘intervening’ abstraction ‘between’ the idea of a device and the natural essence in the disclosive looking that is technological.  This hopefully harmless equivocation will become cleared in the explanation that follows.

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