Technique and the Dao
A number of moments in Heidegger’s works that have been associated with Lao-Zhuang Daoism in the rich and diverse secondary literature on Heidegger and East Asian philosophy—such as the letting releasement of things in poetic dwelling in contrast with the technological domination of things as mere objects of use and the uselessness that places conventional conceptions of instrumental usefulness and purposiveness into question—have their counterparts in Buber’s early humanistic and personalistic interpretation of Zhuangzi as a poet of the liberation of humans and things in response to what is needful in existence and its healing power. In an analogous way, Heidegger’s identification of technology with the essence of modern Western civilization, which he interpreted as the culmination of the unique metaphysical history of being in the West, has an analogue in Buber’s own critique of modern technological society and the ongoing depersonalization of human life. The modernistic dehumanizing objectification occurs for Buber through the illegitimate overextension of the impersonal I-it relationship. It has reduced even the sense of community and social hope to technical planning:
Under the influence of pantechnical trends Utopia too has become wholly technical; conscious human will, its foundation hitherto, is now understood as technics, and society like Nature is to be mastered by technological calculation and construction.56
A significant difference remains between Buber and Heidegger. While Heidegger drew on the more abstract quasi-metaphysical imagery of empty vessels and empty spokes from the Daodejing and the uselessness of the useful from the Zhuangzi, the early Buber embraced the Zhuangzi’s bestiary of animals and the concrete images of natural phenomena. While Heidegger posited an “abyss” separating the human and the animal, there is a continuity, mutuality, and reversibility of the human and the animal in the stories and parables of Zhuangzi and Buber. Here the human can be perceived, suddenly and unexpectedly, from a non-human perspective in order to illumine what is genuine in life.
In narratives of talking trees and animals, metaphor and parable are more primary in teaching the truthful life than the cognitive or theoretically formulated principles demanded by the modern scientific and technological worldview. As one of Buber’s Berlin teachers Wilhelm Dilthey stressed, poetic language is more expressive, evocative, and transformative of the fundamental moods and dispositions of life than metaphysical systems or theoretical discourses.
Buber’s language of the needful, of the poetic, and the priority of the noncognitive teaching of the way that realizes transformational transcendence in the midst of the immanence of everyday life indicates a way of contextualizing and complicating readings of the role of Daoist wuwei and ziran § ^ in Heidegger’s writings.
Heidegger noted in the Letter on Humanism that: “We are still far from
pondering the essence of action decisively enough.”57 Against the activism and the striving and struggling of the conatus, subject, and will to power of the Western metaphysical tradition, Heidegger calls for the “essence of action” to be thought from the dimension of letting releasement (Gelassenheit)
and powerlessness (Unmacht) that resonates with and is in part informed by Heidegger’s acquaintance and fascination with the texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Such letting-be (lassen) and releasing into the openness of being serves as the basis of Heidegger’s response to technological modernity that he identified with the enframing (Ge-stell) of things into “ob-jects” Enframing is the narrowing of the world to one impoverished world-picture or perspective. It systematically establishes and reproduces the calculability, producibility, and ordering (Machen-schaft) of things as it coercively and reductively transforms things into mere objects of standing reserve (Be-stand) or bare “resources” Even the human becomes another standing resource, “human resources,” to be exploited among others.
What then is the significance of the Zhuangzi and of Buber and Heidegger’s interpretation of Lao-Zhuang Daoism for addressing our current condition and plight; that is, the condition of modernity and the preeminence of science and technology that for Buber and Heidegger—in varying degrees—has resulted in the increasing calculative organization and impersonal neutralization of reality and human life?
There are five conclusions that should be made at this point. First, there is the problematization of conventional notions of utility, usefulness, and “purposiveness” in the Zhuangzi. The reversal of perspective that throws the dominant conception of the useful and purposeful into question became a crucial point in the German philosophical reception of Zhuangzi. The historical processes of global exchange of goods, texts, and ideas interculturally and intertextually linked an obscure ancient Chinese text with modern life-philosophical and existential tendencies in German philosophy that continue to resonate in contemporary accounts that construe Zhuangzi as an irrationalist, a primordial naturalist, or a countercultural dissident against the disciplinary mechanisms of conventional social life.
Second, it is the skeptical questioning seen in the Zhuangzi as well as its emancipatory poetic and spiritual character that offered European thinkers such as Buber and Heidegger hints at an appropriate response to the crisis of modernity. European philosophy and literature since the nineteenth-century has been concerned with the loss ofmeaning and purpose that is assumed to be characteristic of modernity. The German sociologist Max Weber defined modernity as the “disenchantment of the world” and universalization of formal and instrumental means-oriented rationality and abandonment of ends- and content-oriented rationality in which the calculation of means “no longer need to be justified by any ends.”58
The narrowed conception and experience of rationality in modernity has been linked with the dominance of technological rationality that reduces all ends to means and reduces the myriad things into objects of use and exploitation. Buber and Heidegger perceived a “poetic spirituality” resistant to reductive purposiveness in the Zhuangzi in contrast to the calculative exploitation of things in increasingly globalized modernity. Buber in particular focuses on its useless trees and disfigured bodies that reverse the conventional understanding of the useful and the useless. The Zhuangzi accordingly became part of Buber’s and Heidegger’s critical encounter and confrontation with modernity and its determination by technology, science, and its instrumental calculative rationality, and thus the history of twentieth-century German and Western philosophy.
Third, the Zhuangzi provided these two German philosophers with a model of aesthetic and spiritual freedom that did not signify a return to a dogmatic religiosity or monistic mysticism, which they each rejected in their own ways. This issue of mysticism will be examined further in Chapters 7 and 8 in relation to Zen Buddhism. The Zhuangzi instead is conceived as a poetic way of opening up the world in order to dwell immanently and playfully in the world. This free and easy wandering with the myriad things promises to liberate and release one’s own self and things, allowing each to be itself as it is, in contrast with a modern European culture that produced the egotistical domination of things in the name of a freedom and happiness of an isolated atomistic individual self.
Two additional points should be made about the Zhuangzi in the context of the philosophies of Buber and Heidegger. Fourth, in the case of Buber, the Zhuangzi text indicates a dialogical and communicatively mediated spirituality to be distinguished from the monistic, elemental, and anti-linguistic incarnation of the teaching that the early Buber associated with the figure of Laozi. By philosophizing through images, similes, and parables, Zhuangzi related the teaching of the dao back to ordinary life in a way that parallels the Hasidic story tellers of Eastern Europe. Interestingly, Buber would interpret Heidegger’s way of thinking as being closer to the monistic spirit of Laozi than the dialogical ethos of Zhuangzi in this sense. Buber critiqued Heidegger in a text from 1938 as a monist deifying a stern inhuman silence and an isolated solitude that results in a formalized “solicitude” (Fursorge) lacking a genuine Thou (Du) and concrete singular other.59 There can be no genuine encounter or dialogue with the other in Heidegger. Buber’s depiction of the questionability of concealment, darkness, and silence in Laozi in 1910 and Heidegger in 1938 is, as if in response, placed in question in Heidegger’s remark from 1957:
Laozi says, “Whoever knows its brightness, cloaks himself in its darkness.” We
add to this the truth that everyone knows, but few realize: Mortal thinking must
let itself down into the dark depths of the well if it is to see the stars by day.60
Fifth, in Buber’s portrayals of examples and models drawn from Daoist and Hasidic sources, the poetic affective word has priority over the cognitive proposition in authentic teaching. This elucidation of the priority of the affective in human life is evident in Heidegger’s articulation of the dominance of the affective dimension of human existence in the mood and attunement of being- here (that is, the Stimmung of Dasein).
Buber is without doubt more temperate in his assessment of modernity than can be said of Heidegger. The priority of the affective in Buber leads to contextualizing and situating rationality while warning against the dangers of abandoning reason. Buber’s approach does not entail the radical critique and rejection of science, technology, and the neutralizing objectifying perspective that these presuppose. Heidegger’s radicalism is an extreme danger that Buber perceived in his way of thinking. Buber maintains that the priority of the personal means to revive the human in its current plight while not fleeing from the machine by situating reason, science, and technology (and the impersonal perspective of the “it”) in the wider dialogical and interpersonal contexts of: (1) the basic world-disclosing and orienting encounter between the I and the thou (ich und Du , the German language capitalizes the “you” rather than the “I”) and (2) human life through the free use of the imagination in stories, parables, and wonders. This task is one that Buber attempted in his edition and interpretation of the Zhuangzi.