A Quick Note on Heideggerian Cosmological Eschatology

16 April 2009

Today I happened to be reading Vincent Descombes’ The Barometer of Modern Reason. At the beginning of Chapter 5, Epochal Metaphysics, Descombes cites Heidegger’s lectures on the Principle of Sufficient Reason from 1955-1956 to the effect that historical periodization is a function of energy resources.


Descombes quotes from Heidegger’s The Principle of Reason as follows: “Humanity defines an epoch of its historical and spiritual existence by the natural energy at its disposal and the pressure such energy brings to bear.”


Descombes then offers the following gloss on this passage: “According to Heidegger, it is not contemporary culture that makes our age distinctive, but the discovery of a new energy source.” (op. cit., p. 93)

What could possibly be more a pro pos for our age than a definition of the age in terms of its energy sources, and this at a time when sufficient energy sources for projected future demands are problematic to a degree that they have never been in the past? Thus to our existential angst dating from the twentieth century we may add the peculiarly technological angst of energy uncertainty in the twenty-first century.

That Heidegger in the above quote speaks in terms of the “spiritual existence” of humanity is a clue that he does not intend his use of “energy” to be take literally (maybe he means something like Bergson’s L’Energie spirituelle), but since Heidegger virtually created a philosophical career out of creative “interpretations” of the Presocratics, Nietzsche, and others, it seems eminently appropriate for me to construe his words howsoever I see fit.

Taking Heidegger’s pronouncement literally in terms of the meaning of energy for our time, I was immediately struck by the fact that Heidegger was invoking essentially the same conception of history that is perhaps more familiar in terms of the Kardashev scale. Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed the Kardashev scale which rates civilizations as Type I, Type II, or Type III based on their ability to harness the power of, respectively, an entire planet, an entire star, and an entire galaxy. Since the technological revolutions that would make such large-scale engineering possible would occur successively, these types of civilization at the same time represent epochs of civilization.

To speak in terms of “harnessing” the energy of a planet or a star is somewhat ambiguous, but it implies the actual use of the actual energy available from these resources. It seems to me that the Heideggerian formulation in terms of energy “at the disposal” of a given civilization or epoch is to be preferred, as an advanced civilization make make available for its use energy equivalent to the output of a given star, but without actually taking it from the star in question. It would be problematic, and therefore probably inefficient, to harvest the light of a single star entire, whereas more conventional forms of energy production, distribution, and consumption (even if representing a significantly higher technology than that of the present time) could put at our disposal an equivalent quantity of energy without the need to install transmission lines from a stellar generator (such as a Dyson swarm) to the point of use.

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