Modern Technology and Bio-Power: Foucault and Heidegger

By Bradley Van Cooten

Two prominent and vastly influential critics of the modern era, Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, shared similar concerns about how people and objects are understood by us in the modern age. They also shared similar techniques of inquiry. Heidegger traced a history of metaphysics, which he saw to culminate in a ‘technological understanding of Being,’ one which caused humanity to consider things exclusively as tools and resources for use. While Foucault outlined a critical history of ‘power,’ showing how it had expanded from the exercising of a sovereign will, which punished the masses, to a ubiquitous disciplinary force—bio-power—which works to produce human subjects as objects of knowledge. The use of a historical analysis, in both cases, aims to show the historical contingency of these outcomes, and so suggest that alternatives to them are possible, as both see in these outcomes the threat of humanity’s domination. The first through the loss of alternate, non-technological ways of comprehending the world and the second through totalisation by disciplinary techniques which drive humanity toward an ever greater degree of normalisation. Against these outcomes both suggest their own paths of resistance: while Heidegger advocates for the cultivation of non-technological, marginal practices, and a general ‘releasement towards things,’ which open us up to alternative ways in which we might interact with our world; Foucault sees freedom in the perpetual contestation of disciplinary norms. Evaluating the similarities and differences between these two thinkers’ projects, I argue that Foucault begins from the same foundation as Heidegger, but radically extends his notion of technology through a recognition of power relations, which accounts in part for his differing position on resistance.

Heidegger and Being

Heidegger considered his single greatest contribution to Western thinking to be what he called the discovery of the ‘ontological difference,’ whereby he recognised the “difference between the understanding of Being and the beings that can show up given an understanding of Being.”[1] Such an ‘understanding of Being’ to Heidegger is an understanding of the background practices, modes of speaking, doing and recognising that place us within the world of meaningful engagement in which we exist, “allow[ing] people and things to show up as something.”[2] Heidegger recognised throughout history a series of such understandings of Being, each one serving as the metaphysical ground of its respective age.

For Heidegger, humanity serves as “the ‘site’ where Being presences,” that is, “the space, place, or ‘there’ for things to come into presence in experience.”[3] This does not mean however that it is an intentional happening, for “man [sic] does not have control over un-concealment itself,” whereby “at any given time the real shows itself or withdraws.”[4] Rather, the background practices in which humans take part within their daily lives cause the world around them to show up in certain ways. Objects are invested with meaning, and understood according to the concept of Being, which informs people’s everyday actions, regardless of whether or not they can consciously conceive of this understanding.

Heidegger locates the origin of the modern understanding of Being in Plato’s separation of appearance and idea, when he claimed that “the realm of appearance was one of shadows, error and falsity.”[5] As Dreyfus writes, “Socrates and Plato took being to be the ground of the phenomena, and truth to be the correspondence of theoretical propositions to an independent reality.”[6] That is, reality was taken to be an unchanging, unseen ground that gave rise to all manners of varied appearances, but which could be made sense of in terms of philosophical or religious propositions. The shift to a modern understanding of Being came to pass when the propositions considered the most reliable at revealing the world truthfully were those that were human-made and rational. In the modern age, in order for things to “become present in a reliable fashion, they must first be set in place by man [sic].”[7] Objects in the world now began to be understood according to how closely they adhered to and fit within rational propositions. Not only was this shift the founding innovation of the modern age, it made scientific study and technology possible, for “…scientific theorizing is fundamentally inseparable from practices of ordering and controlling.” [8]

Technology, then, rather than merely revealing things to us as useful tools, is a mode of revealing the world, which takes place in human background practices, resulting in the objects of our world showing up to us as “standing-reserve,” that is, resources standing in waiting to be utilised.[9] Heidegger calls this mode of revealing ‘Enframing.’ Enframing also turns towards people, codifying and making them known according to the degree to which they are available for use. Measurement, bureaucratic rationality and organisational sophistication “become the webs in which modern man [sic] inevitably is caught.”[10] People and things come to be revealed to us only as the information which codes their possible use; information which is endlessly transformed as it interacts and relates to other entities (people and things) and their respective uses.[11]

While this mode of revealing is clearly of material benefit to humanity, Heidegger sees its danger in the possibility that it will dominate all alternative ways of revealing reality, which it has already to an extent.[12] Entities increasingly come to be revealed to us, through the practices we perform every day, only as standing-reserve. Heidegger’s wish is to live instead in free relation to technology, not dominated by it, and he sees this possibility beginning with the recognition of Enframing as not comprising our essential mode of revealing.[13] In part his placing of it in a historical context achieves this end, but he also advocates for practices that de-centre it within our everyday lives.

Heidegger’s Path Beyond Enframing

To see Enframing as a ‘problem’ which requires a ‘solution,’ is itself a formulation which keeps us within technological thinking.[14] Instead, to lead us out of domination by technological revealing, Heidegger suggests that we cultivate marginal practices, which reveal to us a world in which we belong as other than standing-reserve; this ‘world’ being the relations of meaning we exist within that arise from our understanding of people and things.[15]

He takes for an example the family dinner, where objects and people are revealed not as resources for potential future use, but as ends in themselves in the present moment. As we cultivate such non-efficient practices, we grow “sensitive to the various identities we have when we are engaged in disclosing the different worlds focused by different kinds of things.” [16] In this scenario, technological revealing becomes merely one way of disclosing the world around things, allowing us to utilise it while not being totalised by it. This engagement with marginal practices is similar to his call for the cultivation of “meditative thinking” which leads to a “releasement toward things” and a recognition of the limits of our attempts to master the world.[17] Recognising these limits, and being wary of any temptation towards a technological pursuit of a ‘better’ mode of revealing, we are left to cultivate these practices while awaiting an alternative understanding of Being. Foucault, on the other hand, is interested in no such kind of waiting.

Foucault: History, Power and Knowledge

Similar to Heidegger, Foucault wishes to put into question modern concepts by showing their historical contingency.[18] While Heidegger investigates how objects are understood by us so as to be revealed as standing-reserve, Foucault focuses on selves, and how they are conditioned into knowable subjects.[19] As a result, “…his histories are not histories of the Truth of Being but histories of the apparatuses of ‘power/knowledge’.”[20] “Power produces knowledge,” Foucault claims, and the two require one another.[21] Only within an established field of power relations is definition, and therefore knowledge, possible.

Foucault studied the “human sciences and penal law in relation to a matrix of non-scientific practices and discourses.”[22] These practices take place at the ‘micro-level’ of society, and make knowledge possible through restricting, defining and limiting. We can compare them in this sense to Heidegger’s background practices, which produce entities—in Foucault’s case, people—by setting the conditions under which they must appear in order to be recognised by us. Foucault calls these practices a “political technology of the body,”[23] and studies them with the aim of discovering how “a specific mode of subjection was able to give birth to man [sic] as an object of knowledge,” [24] thus making the study of ‘human sciences’ possible.

The first step to this possibility came in the classical age, when the body came to be considered a material that could be moulded and manipulated, trained and developed. When previously it was considered a collection of natural features and dispositions to be recognised, these became materials and the body, a site of construction.[25] As a result, power developed beyond its basic form as the exertion of a sovereign’s will over the masses, towards a “micro-physics of power,” which makes this new body, a ‘docile’ body, one able to be measured, manipulated and evaluated at the level of the individual.[26]

As a result, punishment and discipline come to no longer have a merely negative, repressive aim and effect, but also work to ‘produce’ individuals, both as knowable subjects, productive labourers, and conforming citizens.[27] While disciplinary power works on the body, training it to move, speak, and operate according to certain approved schemas of behaviour, simultaneously these schemas serve as norms by which each individual can be evaluated. A knowledge of the human subject is created by understanding them in terms of how closely they approximate the norm; a rational, modern schema of the kind Heidegger described. Disciplinary power works perpetually as a “pervasive pressure towards ever greater inclusion,” where ‘progress’ is measured by the degree to which people can be trained to more closely approach the established norm, in the pursuit of “the ever greater welfare for all.” [28]

Like Heidegger, Foucault sees this transformation of human individuals into regulated subjects, docile bodies, and collections of information, as something which should be resisted. Abstaining from recognising any fundamental human nature—itself a modern normative concept—Foucault rejects traditional notions of liberation as freedom from restriction,[29] and instead advocates “active and wilful images of resistance and struggle” in order to rethink norms.[30] There is no goal towards which these creative acts of subversion aim—indeed, ‘absolute good’ is the very kind of modern ideal both Heidegger and Foucault see as leading to these totalising situations. While Foucault’s call to active, perpetual struggle goes against Heidegger’s aim for will-less ‘releasement towards things,’ and would for this reason (in Heidegger’s judgement) remain in the realm of technological thinking, this continual questioning of daily experience, and the background power relations and practices which produce it, is not unlike the continual questioning of Being which Heidegger considers essential to our role as human beings.[31] The difference then is not the aim—to question—but whether this questioning should be active or receptive.

Heidegger, Foucault, and Resistance

A comparison between Foucault’s understanding of modern power and Heidegger’s treatment of technology should be grounded in a comparison of their respective projects. Both see in history the development of a new kind of defining, scientific power; one which reveals things and people to us according to how closely they adhere to a pre-planned schema of definition.

Both scholars recognise the limits this places on our experience, but also the productive effects of such limitation,[32] as it produces understandings of things as resources and people as knowable, measurable individuals. Finally, both thinkers consider power relations/understandings of Being to be outside of human intention, “incarnated in historical social practices.”[33] Fundamentally, Foucault—in his critique of modern disciplinary power—recapitulates Heidegger’s treatment of technology to the extent that he recognises modernity as the age of a new kind of evaluation, one which sets upon things and makes them intelligible to us to the degree to which they adhere to a pre-made plan. Subjectivity becomes constricted, through power relations, to particular expressions, just as Enframing sets upon entities and reveals them to us only according to their potential use value. Things and people are understood in relation to a set standard: things in relation to use, people in relation to ideals of normality. Foucault’s docile bodies show up to us as statistics and measurements, just as Heidegger’s Enframed people and things become revealed to us only as abstract relational information.

The two thinkers agree that the way out of this problem is contained within the problem itself, and is opened up to us by first recognising its historical contingency. However, Heidegger understands “human nature as essentially receptive,” and as such advocates that we open up to alternate ways of revealing the world, while Foucault has no such normative justification for resistance.[34] While this seems to be the major difference between the two thinkers, and the cause of their disagreement on the topic of resistance, I argue that the largest differentiating factor between the two is that Foucault extends the domain of domination well beyond that recognised by Heidegger.

One might say that Foucault describes in his work on disciplinary power the way humans come to be Enframed, but even this would miss its full scope. Enframing is only one mode of subjection we experience, one which reveals us as a useable resource, while there are countless others under which we must be subjected in order to show up to others in the world as intelligible, knowable subjects. This ‘others’ accounts for Foucault’s second extension: in addition to the ways we reveal the objects of our world, beyond just Enframing, he acknowledges how we are recognised by others, and others by us, to the degree to which ourselves and others meet regulatory norms. Foucault’s ‘power relations, (which undergird discipline) encapsulate and explain the phenomena described by Heidegger, and extend it beyond technology and into the fundamental everyday realm of human interrelations.

The ‘local worlds’ in which Heidegger seeks refuge from Enframing remain deeply embedded in—indeed, made possible by—background practices of power relations. At his family dinner occasion, the ‘Father,’ ‘Mother,’ ‘Child’ and ‘Home’, all achieve cultural intelligibility to us only when they are understood in reference to cultural norms of behaviour and structure. While we may participate in such an event understood as more than mere resources, we still appear as information, as we relate to norms. This is why Foucault must advocate for constant resistance, because limitation is not only present in revealing the world as standing-reserve, but in revealing it at all.

Brad is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts with an extended major in Philosophy, interested at the moment in Western philosophy in particular – Heidegger, historicity, subjectivity and difference, and how engaging in philosophy might disclose new understandings of our current situation.


[1] Hubert Dreyfus, Charles Spinosa, “Further Reflections on Heidegger, Technology and the Everyday,” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 23 (October 2003): 1.

[2] Hubert Dreyfus, “Being and Power: Heidegger and Foucault,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies4 (1996): 2.

[3] Gregory Smith, “Heidegger, Technology and Postmodernity,” The Social Science Journal 28 (1991): 380.

[4] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 18.

[5] Smith, “Heidegger, Technology and Postmodernity,” 378.

[6] Dreyfus, “Being and Power,” 5.

[7] Smith, “Heidegger, Technology and Postmodernity,” 373.

[8] Jana Sawicki, “Heidegger and Foucault: escaping technological nihilism,” Philosophy & Social Criticism13 (1987): 158.

[9] Heidegger, “Question Concerning Technology,” 12, 20.

[10] Smith, “Heidegger, Technology and Postmodernity,” 374.

[11] Heidegger, “Question Concerning Technology,” 16.

[12] Ibid. 33.

[13] Dreyfus, “Further Reflections,” 1.

[14] Ibid. 341.

[15] Ibid. 343.

[16] Ibid. 348.

[17] Sawicki, “Heidegger and Foucault,” 165.

[18] Ibid. 168.

[19] Dreyfus, “Being and Power,” 2.

[20] Sawicki, “Heidegger and Foucault,” 156.

[21] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 175.

[22] Sawicki, “Heidegger and Foucault,” 161.

[23] Foucault, “Discipline and Punish,” 173.

[24] Ibid. 171.

[25] Ibid. 180.

[26] Sawicki, “Heidegger and Foucault,” 162.

[27] Foucault, “Discipline and Punish,” 172.

[28] Dreyfus, “Being and Power,” 9; Steven Hicks, “Suffering, Nihilism and Beyond; Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault,” Skepsis; A Journal for Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Research 15 (2004): 283.

[29] Sawicki, “Heidegger and Foucault,” 169.

[30] Hicks, Suffering, Nihilism and Beyond,” 286.

[31] Sawicki, “Heidegger and Foucault,” 167.

[32] Dreyfus, “Being and Power,” 3.

[33] Sawicki, “Heidegger and Foucault,” 164.

[34] Dreyfus, “Being and Power,” 13.

Works Cited

Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Charles Spinosa. “Further Reflections on Heidegger, Technology, and the Everyday.” Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 23, no. 5 (2003): 339-349. doi:10.1177/0270467603259868.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. “Being and Power: Heidegger and Foucault.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 4, no. 1 (1996): 1-16.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Hicks, Steven. “Suffering, Nihilism and Beyond; Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault.” Skepsis; A Journal for Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Research 15 no.1 (2004):268-290.

Sawicki, Jana. “Heidegger and Foucault: escaping technological nihilism.” Philosophy & Social Criticism13 no. 2 (1987): 155-173. doi: 10.1177/019145378701300204.

Smith, Gregory. “Heidegger, Technology and Postmodernity.” The Social Science Journal 28, no. 3 (1991): 369-389.

Featured image by Markus Spiske via flickr


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