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Science as instrumental reason: Heidegger, Habermas, Heisenberg


In modern continental thought, natural science is widely portrayed as an exclusively instrumental mode of reason. The breadth of this consensus has partly preempted the question of how it came to persuade. The process of persuasion, as it played out in Germany, can be explored by reconstructing the intellectual exchanges among three twentieth-century theorists of science, Heidegger, Habermas, and Werner Heisenberg. Taking an iconic Heisenberg as a kind of limiting case of “the scientist,” Heidegger and Habermas each found themselves driven to place new constraints on their previously more capacious assessments of science, especially its capacity to reflect on its method. Tracing how that happened, through archival and historical contextualization and close readings of their texts, lets us make visible Heidegger and Habermas’s intellectual affinities and argumentative parallels, which derived not only from their shared grounding in earlier reactions against positivism, but also from confrontation with contemporary events. The latter included, for Heidegger, the rise of a technically powerful science exemplified by nuclear physics, and for Habermas, post-World War II controversies over science, technology, and their socially critical possibilities.

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  1. 1.

    Helmholtz (1903, p. 180).

  2. 2.

    For Heisenberg on his own terms see Carson (2010a forthcoming).

  3. 3.

    Ott (1988, pp. 69–70, 73–74, 86; Sheehan 1988).

  4. 4.

    The essays on Heidegger in Kockelmans and Kisiel (1970) have not been bettered. See also Kockelmans (1985), Glazebrook (2000).

  5. 5.

    Heidegger (1978a). One picks up resonances here of Dilthey and, more proximately, Rickert and neo-Kantian concerns. Cf. Heidegger (1988); Kisiel (1973).

  6. 6.

    Standard introductions are Schnädelbach (1984), Kolakowski (1968).

  7. 7.

    Planck’s and Einstein’s positions were in fact in tension. Heidegger cites both Planck’s (1910) Columbia lectures, whose introduction reworks his famous challenge to Mach, and Einstein’s (1905) relativity paper, which, by contrast, draws on Machian inspirations. While the treatment of Einstein is unexceptionable, Heidegger partly bypasses Planck’s point that mechanics (space–time description of masses in motion) must be put alongside electrodynamics in a broader dynamical scheme unified by thermodynamics. On Planck and Einstein see Heilbron (1986), Holton (1988).

  8. 8.

    The motif of a grand trajectory from Galileo to the present served everyone from Cassirer to Husserl to Koyré to Borkenau. See Carson (2010b forthcoming).

  9. 9.

    Heidegger (1978a, pp. 416–417).

  10. 10.

    Chevalley (1992).

  11. 11.

    For example, Heidegger (1973, 1978a, b), though with attention to the late-1930s notes that overlay the latter text; for the Freiburg inaugural lecture, Heidegger (1930).

  12. 12.

    Cassidy (1992; Heelan 1965).

  13. 13.

    (For example Heisenberg 1931). Heisenberg is most famous for uncertainty, but in his thinking that notion was actually comparatively marginal.

  14. 14.

    Ibid., pp. 174–175.

  15. 15.

    (Carson 2003).

  16. 16.

    Heisenberg (1931, p. 182). Heisenberg’s youthful positivism has often confused commentators, as have his later Platonic and Aristotelian turns. If there is a common thread to this eclectic philosophy, it is attention to the self-limitation of objective science.

  17. 17.

    Chevalley (1992, p. 348), citing Pascual Jordan and Max Born.

  18. 18.

    Von Weizsäcker (1949, 1977).

  19. 19.

    For a diligent but unfocused attempt to work out the connection, assuming that Heisenberg was a Platonist and Heidegger simply right about science, see Hempel (1990). A more insightful, though entirely textually based, discussion is Pöggeler (1993).

  20. 20.

    Heidegger (1933; see Bambach 2003).

  21. 21.

    Heidegger (1962, p. 51).

  22. 22.

    Ibid., pp. 15, 139. The discussion of transcendental reflection follows on Kant, naturally, though Heidegger’s Besinnung is a more general mindfulness.

  23. 23.

    Heidegger (1998, §26), (1953, p. 148), (1962, §B.I.5, esp. pp. 71–72).

  24. 24.

    Heidegger (1989, p. 148).

  25. 25.

    “Völkisch” science—examples might be Nazi racial hygiene or “Aryan” physics—belonged to the same historic constellation, oriented to the “end effect” (Ergebnis). Heidegger (1954a, pp. 92, 95; 1989, pp. 142, 148).

  26. 26.

    Heidegger (1954a, p. 96).

  27. 27.

    Heidegger (1991).

  28. 28.

    Heidegger (1989, pp. 148, 155).

  29. 29.

    Heidegger (1950, p. 71).

  30. 30.

    Heidegger (1995, p. 8). On physics as paradigm see Heidegger (1991, p. 14, n. 2).

  31. 31.

    (For example Heisenberg 1934). On the “Aryan” physics attack on Heisenberg see Beyerchen (1977).

  32. 32.

    Heisenberg (1989b).

  33. 33.

    Heisenberg (1941), included in his lecture collection Wandlungen in den Grundlagen der Naturwissenschaft from the 1942 edition onward.

  34. 34.

    Heisenberg to Held, S. Hirzel Verlag, 23 March 1948, Werner-Heisenberg-Archiv, München (henceforth WHM), Korrespondenz 1948.

  35. 35.

    Enacted in Heidegger (1991, pp. 11–12), and going back, for instance, to Heidegger (1962, p. 5; cf. 1989, p. 142).

  36. 36.

    Heisenberg (1947).

  37. 37.

    Heisenberg (1948, p. 7).

  38. 38.

    Heidegger (1954b, p. 164).

  39. 39.

    Heidegger (1994a, p. 27).

  40. 40.

    Tracing the process in its cultural setting, see Allen (2006).

  41. 41.

    Heidegger (1994a, p. 42); see also Heidegger (1994b).

  42. 42.

    Heidegger (1954c). The lecture anchored this first major postwar collection, published in 1954. The standard English translation in Heidegger (1977) dates the lecture to 1955, but this is wrong.

  43. 43.

    There was talk of a jointly edited journal, for instance; Heidegger commented to a potential coeditor that they needed to clarify “the relationship to what [Heisenberg’s] name represents.” Heidegger to Nebel, Pentecost 1949, quoted in Jünger and Nebel (2003, p. 783). On this network see Morat (2004).

  44. 44.

    Hattingberg to Heisenberg, 4 March 1950, WHM Korrespondenz 1950; Stroomann to Heisenberg, 9 May 1951, WHM Korrespondenz 1951 under Bühlerhöhe; Heisenberg to Eickemeyer, 28 August 1951, WHM DFR Heisenberg; Heidegger to Heisenberg, 2 September 1951, WHM Korrespondenz 1951; Stroomann to Heisenberg, 4 January 1952; Pahl to Heisenberg, 2 February 1952, WHM Korrespondenz 1952.

  45. 45.

    Beyler (2003); as background Rohkrämer (1999), Hård and Jamison (1998), Herf (1994).

  46. 46.

    Podewils to Heisenberg, 4 May 1953 (quotation); also Heidegger to Heisenberg, 18 March 1953 and 9 June 1953, WHM Korrespondenz 1953.

  47. 47.

    Heisenberg to Podewils, 2 May 1953, WHM Korrespondenz 1953. Afterwards Heisenberg would privately describe the venture as “particularly problematic”: Heisenberg to Scholz, 24 April 1954, WHM.

  48. 48.

    Heidegger (1954d).

  49. 49.

    Heisenberg to Podewils, 17 September 1953, WHM Korrespondenz 1953; Fritz Heidegger to Heisenberg, 25 September 1953, WHM New. In Heidegger (1954d) the emergent shift is visible on p. 61, including some comments manifestly added after the fact. Otherwise the piece largely recapitulates Heidegger’s earlier thinking in somewhat different terms.

  50. 50.

    Draft minutes of discussion, 4 August 1953, Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, Archiv, Ordner I,A; Heidegger to Podewils, 18 July 1953, emphasis in the original, in Kunze (1989), T. 3. I am indebted to Frau Sylvia Langemann for helping me with this material. Heidegger delivered the piece in at least two other venues, but this version is the one he finally published.

  51. 51.

    Heidegger to Boss, 28 October 1953, excerpted in Heidegger (1987, p. 310); Heidegger to Heisenberg, 6 November 1953, WHM Korrespondenz 1953.

  52. 52.

    Heisenberg (1953, p. 47).

  53. 53.


  54. 54.

    Heidegger (1954c, pp. 26, 22–23). The latter paragraph borrowed from Heidegger (1994a, p. 27), but silently dropped the comparison to gas chambers and death camps, which now fit less well into the framework of Bestand as energy alone.

  55. 55.

    Heidegger (1954d, p. 61), paragraph added after Heidegger (1954c), foreshadowed in Heidegger (1994a, p. 42), but in as yet unclear form. In his copy of Heidegger (1994a) Heidegger noted at that point, “Atomphysik.”

  56. 56.

    Heidegger (1954c, p. 35, emphasis in the original).

  57. 57.


  58. 58.

    The point is still elusive in Heidegger (1954c); later essays make it clearer. See Dreyfus (2002).

  59. 59.

    Heidegger (1954c, p. 41). On performance see Mehring (1992).

  60. 60.

    Minutes on “Kunst und Technik,” 27 March 1953, WHM Korrespondenz 1953 under Podewils.

  61. 61.

    Heidegger (1954d, p. 70).

  62. 62.

    Ibid., p. 61. The annotation is reproduced in the Gesamtausgabe edition (v. 7).

  63. 63.

    In addition, the tour of Aristotelian causality in Heidegger (1954c, pp. 15–20) may be a counter to Heisenberg’s simple-minded comments (Heisenberg 1952). Heidegger was provoked by the piece, as well as by his ongoing exchange with Heisenberg, out of which (he reported to a colleague) came the lecture’s first draft with its long excursus on causality: Heidegger (1954d, p. 51); Heidegger to Boss, 28 October 1953, in Heidegger (1987, p. 310). On the larger relevance of Heidegger’s early thinking on Aristotle see Feenberg (2005, ch. 2).

  64. 64.

    (For example Heidegger 1962, p. 73; Heidegger 1994a, pp. 43, 42). The promotion of “energy” to its uniquely central role, which it does not hold in 1949 in Heidegger (1994a), may owe something to Heisenberg (1949), referenced in Heidegger (1954d, p. 61).

  65. 65.

    Heidegger (1954d, p. 60). See also the supposed citation to Planck, “Wirklich ist, was sich messen läßt,” on p. 58, which would have made Planck turn over in his grave. What Planck had offered was a mildly ironic comment on the quantum, whose strangeness had given scientists pause: the quantum had to be accepted because it had been experimentally measured; and “was man messen kann, das existiert auch.” Planck (1949, p. 77).

  66. 66.

    Heidegger (1954d, pp. 60–61), finally placed front and center in Heidegger (1997, esp. p. 46). Note the language of Beherrschung in Heisenberg (1949, p. 97).

  67. 67.

    The closest Heidegger came to addressing it overtly is Heidegger (1997, p. 9). For a different assessment see Luhmann (2002).

  68. 68.

    Heidegger (1954e, p. 133). He would repeat the point over the next decade and a half, sometimes with specific dismissive reference to Heisenberg: e.g., Heidegger (1987, pp. 74, 161–162, 269). Heisenberg’s attempts to respond include Heisenberg (1959) and Heisenberg (1967, esp. pp. 34–35, 38–39).

  69. 69.

    The meaning of the Atomzeitalter is exposited in Heidegger (1997, pp. 45–47, 83). On the contemporary discourse of “mastering” technology see Seubold (1986, pp. 284–288).

  70. 70.

    Habermas (1953a). When reprinting his essays, Habermas often edited out allusions to concerns of the moment. I use the originals wherever there is a difference; in this case the reprinted version is identical.

  71. 71.

    Heidegger (1953, pp. 29, 152 [quotation]). See Janicaud (1992) and Kisiel (2001).

  72. 72.

    (For example Holub 1991, pp. 16–18; Matuštík 2003, pp. 12–17).

  73. 73.

    Habermas (1953a, emphasis added).

  74. 74.


  75. 75.

    Habermas (1992a, p. 147); Habermas (1981c, p. 515). For a thorough exposition see Moses (2007, ch. 5).

  76. 76.

    Habermas (1952).

  77. 77.

    On the influence of Habermas’s teacher Erich Rothacker (which Heidegger perceived in the 1953 review: Heidegger to Podewils, 19 August 1953, in Kunze (1989) see Dahms (1994, pp. 363–373).

  78. 78.

    Habermas (1952). See also the pathos-filled essay Habermas (1953b).

  79. 79.

    Habermas (1981c, 1992b).

  80. 80.

    see Vogel (1996).

  81. 81.

    Habermas (1957, p. 273).

  82. 82.

    Ibid., p. 283. The citation is to Landgrebe (1952, pp. 91ff).

  83. 83.

    Habermass [sic] (1958); Habermas (1958); Habermas (1963a, p. 420), a reference omitted from the version in Habermas (1981b).

  84. 84.

    Habermas (1962a). When Habermas and Ralf Dahrendorf drafted a public appeal in the wake of the famous Spiegel Affair of fall 1962, a watershed in West German public political life, they included von Weizsäcker and Habermas in the elite circle of targeted signers. See Habermas to Heisenberg, 11 November 1962, and Heisenberg to Habermas, 15 November 1962, WHM; Carson (2010a forthcoming, ch. 11).

  85. 85.

    Habermas (1957, pp. 282, 284); Habermas (1963b, p. 162 [quotation]; the passage is omitted from the fourth expanded edition of 1971).

  86. 86.

    He would make a similar point in Habermas (1973a).

  87. 87.

    (For example Heisenberg 1967, p. 34). Values were what mattered in guiding science, yet “‘[d]iese Wertvorstellungen… können nicht aus der Wissenschaft selbst kommen; jedenfalls kommen sie einstweilen nicht daher.”

  88. 88.

    Habermas (1963a).

  89. 89.

    Habermas (1963b, pp. 162 vs. 176).

  90. 90.

    Schelsky (1961). In the background is Ellul (1954).

  91. 91.

    Habermas (1964a). Most essays from this decade are translated in Habermas (1970), (1971), (1973b), or Adey and Frisby (1976).

  92. 92.

    Habermas (1964a, p. 143). There is also the problem that most of Habermas’s examples of advising in practice look more like RAND than like democratic discussion.

  93. 93.

    Habermas (1962b) and the contributions in Benseler (1969), including Albert (1964). For background see Dahms (1994) and Albrecht et al. (1999, ch. 7). Holub (1991, ch. 2), gives a reading sympathetic to Habermas.

  94. 94.

    Habermas (1963d, p. 182); with some overlaps, Habermas (1963c). Relevant for developing the claim is Habermas (1964b).

  95. 95.

    Habermas (1968a). Good analyses are Vogel (1996, ch. 5), and McCarthy (1978, ch. 1–2).

  96. 96.

    Habermas (1963b, p. 176). See also the analysis of origins in Dahms (1994).

  97. 97.

    Habermas (1965). The key passage on natural science (pp. 156–157) is adapted from Habermas (1964b, p. 244).

  98. 98.

    Habermas incorporated each thinker as he encountered him, even as the argument shifted as he went. Along with Habermas (1968a), the following examples are taken from Habermas (1963c, d, 1965, 1968b), along with Habermas (1973a), where, following Marcuse (1964, ch. 6), Heidegger is finally given his due on p. 396.

  99. 99.

    For his account of natural science in Habermas (1968a), Habermas in fact placed the turn-of-the-century pragmatist Charles S. Peirce at the center. Peirce supplied Habermas with three things at once. The first was a logic of scientific inquiry conceived as a life process within the framework of self-correcting technical action. The second, by contrast, was an anti-positivist attentiveness to the constitutive role of the community of investigators, tying reality into intersubjectivity and discourse. All the same, Peirce delivered, finally, a remnant objectivism (so Habermas saw it) that trapped the pragmatist, despite himself, in a monologic positivist quagmire. Thus the intimations of discursive intersubjectivity in science could be bypassed by Habermas in Peirce’s oeuvre, as they had been bypassed by Heidegger in Heisenberg’s.

  100. 100.

    Habermas (1968b, p. 55).

  101. 101.

    Habermas (1965, p. 165). Without a belief in objectivity, he pointed out, science had no defense against “Aryan” physics or Lysenkoist genetics.

  102. 102.

    Albert (1964, esp. pp. 201–203, 233); Lobkowicz (1974); Krüger (1974). For Habermas’s concession, Habermas (1973a, p. 394); for arguments about physics, pp. 392–393 (on the constitution of objects in quantum mechanics), pp. 374–376 (addressing certain transcendental-sounding propositions advanced by von Weizsäcker).

  103. 103.

    Habermas (1981d). That massive Weberian-Husserlian undertaking was written up in the Max Planck Institute for Research on the Conditions of Life in the Scientific-Technical World, which Habermas co-directed in the 1970s with Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. See Drieschner (1996) and von Weizsäcker (1981); for Heisenberg’s role, (Carson 2010a, ch. 10). Habermas’s group in the institute carried out a program of study on the planning of research and the “finalization of science”; cf. van den Daele et al. (1979). The project developed Habermas’s mid-1960s thinking on science policy but did not revisit his philosophical point.

  104. 104.

    Habermas’s call to bring research under critical, reflective control would have struck Heidegger as subjectivist and instrumental all over again.


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I thank David Moshfegh, Michael Allen, Daniel Morat, Robert P. Crease, Paul Forman, Arne Hessenbruch, Ulrich Wengenroth, Peter Eli Gordon, Dirk Moses, Ralph Dumain, and Matthias Dörries for discussions, and reviewers of an earlier version of this essay for helpful suggestions.

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Carson, C. Science as instrumental reason: Heidegger, Habermas, Heisenberg. Cont Philos Rev 42, 483–509 (2010).

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  • Martin Heidegger
  • Jürgen Habermas
  • Werner Heisenberg
  • Instrumental rationality
  • Science
  • Positivism