The priority of the ready-to-hand

In establishing the relationship between readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand, we must first get clear on the meanings of these two terms. I will deal with a basic description of each in turn, but first I will make some preliminary remarks about these modes of being, generally. In a certain sense, they are ways in which Dasein relates to entities within the world. It is clear that Heidegger believed that without Dasein, there would be no ready-to-hand nor present-at-hand. From this we can tell that the modes of being have something to do with our practices. However, Heidegger is not an idealist. Nor does he say that the things we deal with are simply given subjective coloring of one kind or the other. The modes of being are dependent upon no particular Dasein, but on the society of Dasein as a whole. He writes that an understanding of readiness-to-hand may offer nothing by way of understanding primitive Dasein. This suggests that these modes of being are products of our social conditions. Thus, these modes of being can be loosely described as ways a society deals with entities, though most likely individual members of that society probably will not be aware of these practices.

Presence-at-hand is the term Heidegger uses for the traditional conception of how we know things within the world. This tradition had been dominant since philosophy began. To treat something as present-at-hand is to consciously observe something as though it merely occurs. Entities in the world clearly occur whether we observe them or not. The tradition believes any relation we have to things involves observing them, and therefore the most basic way of relating to things to observe them. This practice amounts to a sort of disassociated starting in which one tries to intuit the being of an entity by looking at it and listing its properties.

Readiness-to-hand is the term for relating to entities by using them. An entity that has readiness-to-hand is therefore usable in some way. Heidegger writes that for the ready-to-hand to be purely or authentically ready-to-hand it must be used in such a way that we no longer notice it. Among those things ready-to-hand, there is a special group of things called equipment. Although “strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an equipment,” (97) we often speak as though there is. We call them tools. A rock is suitable for driving nails while a hammer would be more appropriate. A tool must be appropriate for a certain task. Not everything that is usable is a tool, so not everything ready-to-hand is equipment.

We will look at the reasons why presence-at-hand had been previously taken as prior. We will then look at Heidegger’s reasons for regarding readiness-to-hand as prior. As mentioned before, this notion of priority has something to do with which is a more basic relationship. Another way of framing the question is to determine which is understood on the basis of which. Saying that presence-at-hand is prior is to say that the world exists independent of us and significance is added onto it. On this account usage is understood on the basis of cognition. Heidegger argues for the opposite view. Distantly staring at things presupposes an understanding of using entities within the world to get around in the world and to take a stand on one’s being. The following discussion will deal with tools as they are those entities most easily associated with noticing and using. Heidegger also begins his inquiry of the world with a look at tools as they are those entities which are closest to us.

The following is an account of why someone might take presence-at-hand to be prior. It is meant to represent the dominant view to which Heidegger responds. It will proceed in an almost narrative form, telling the story of a specific type of tool. It is meant to apply to any tool, thereby showing that readiness-to-hand, in general, can in several ways be described in terms of the present-at-hand.

The story of any tool begins with its invention. Every tool must have been invented at some point. Our concernful dealings usually have nothing to do with the circumstances surrounding the invention of the tools we use, but if the tool first came into being through an act of disengaged staring then its being will be founded upon presence-at-hand. And if we reflect on the process of invention, this must be the case. Invention of tools requires consideration of the properties of the materials. At the very least, the inventor must observe the materials. It would be absurd to think that a tool could ever be invented pre-reflectively. This is not the claim that presence-at-hand occurs simply chronologically prior to readiness-to-hand. The inventor must cognize the materials as present-at-hand before the tool can come into being.

The next stage in the story of a tool is its introduction to other Dasien. Every tool must have been introduced to society at some point. When a things enters our environment which we have never seen before, we have to stare at it. Once again, Dasein cannot pick up the new tool and immediately start using it without first noticing its properties. Before Dasein will even start to use the new tool, it must grasp the new tool in a subject-object way. He or she will invariably ask “What is it?” Once it is understood that the thing in question is a tool. The question becomes “What is it for?” Although in some cases the answers to these questions are obvious, they must be answered before Dasein can use the tool. The initial experience of the new tool will begin with noticing properties such as its shape and size. Then it will be recognized as a tool, or as having the property of being a tool. Finally, Dasein must understand what the tool is for. That is to say Dasein must add a functional property to the new tool which it perceives.

Once Dasein has this tool and understands how to use it, Dasein must gain the skill in using it before it can “withdraw.” Before the skill is gained, depending on the activity involved, Dasein will awkwardly fumble around with the tool for some amount of time. Absorbed coping occurs after practice, and as such can be called a form of habit. The tool and its properties must remain in the awareness of the user as long as it is used. To say that Dasein is totally unaware of the tool is to say that Dasein becomes like a zombie, or that Dasein could close its eyes and use the tool just as well as with eyes open. Thus, using a tool always requires a cognitive awareness which is a derivative form of presence-at-hand.

The account given thus far summarizes the state of the tradition at or just before Being & Time was published. Heidegger himself believed that the traditional priority of presence-at-hand has its foundation in the metaphysics of Descartes. Descartes’ notion of being is that which makes and entity be what it is, or that makes it the same entity through time and through changes. Descartes believed an entity is made what it is by that property which it must always have. He disregards as unnecessary any property which does no work in determining what an entity is. Thus, Descartes’ notion of being is that which does not need anything else. This way of discovering the being of things requires the notion of properties. Heidegger views this approach as flawed from the start since it is not really an inquiry into being. Descartes also wrote that being itself is not a property, that is to say, it does not affect us. The being of things are inaccessible. Descartes’ cogito also sets up a picture of an intelligence trapped inside a body trying to escape and contact the outside world. These beliefs leads him and others to view ‘objects’ as ‘out there’ which can only be grasped indirectly by their properties, including functional predicates.

Having described the traditional beliefs to which Heidegger intends to respond with Being & Time, I will now present a more in-depth description Heidegger’s views. He believes the tradition has completely missed a very important part of being, that of the world. Roughly, the world as he describes it is the context of social practices by which we understand anything at all. Our most basic experience is that of being-in-the-world. We are naturally absorbed within our world. To view things as present-at-hand is in some way to step outside the world or to ignore it. We metaphorically extract tools from the world in order to study them and treat them as present-at-hand.

The world is that in terms of which the ready-to-hand is ready-to-hand. The structure of the ready-to-hand is the world. If we investigate anything ready-to-hand, we find that we can only understand it in terms of other things ready-to-hand and human practices. This can be seen in the way we defined tools earlier. A tool is appropriate to be used with other tools or materials for a certain task. That a tool is appropriate for its task is a form of involvement. The relationship between the tool and the other tools or materials is another kind of involvement. These things refer to each other. We can only understand the ready-to-hand in terms of its references or involvements. Sewing needles are understood as they refer to thread, fabric, and the practice of sewing. The practices are further involved with possibilities of Dasein’s being, thus making all these things and involvements significant to us. In the end, we cannot even understand what a needle is without understanding that someone might sew clothing for someone for the sake of taking care of them. The entirety of all these references, or the referential whole, is the world. In our most basic state, we understand the referential whole and we are familiar with the world.

That not all entities ready-to-hand are equipment can now be explained in terms of the referential whole. A rock may be used to pound things, but the thing which is involved with pounding is a hammer. Many ready-to-hand things are not strictly involved in the referential whole. The work to be produced, the natural materials we find in nature, and ‘nature’ itself are all ready-to-hand.

The network of involvements which makes up the world is commonly seen when the network does not work as it should. Heidegger calls this situation unreadiness-to-hand. Unreadiness-to-hand is a peculiar situation in which we are forced to notice (and in some cases to observe) that which should be usable. As we encounter the unready-to-hand, it makes itself into an object. In this way it almost becomes present-at-hand. However, it does not completely loose its readiness-to-hand. It draws our attention by not functioning properly. In such breakdown cases, that it was ready-to-hand becomes apparent along with the things with and for which it should be involved. Up until that moment, our familiarity with the world had gone unnoticed. We were aware of the referential whole although we were not explicitly thinking about it. This non-explicit awareness is called circumspection. As we work, our tools withdraw into a circumspective awareness. They become transparent such that the work, or that which is to be produced becomes most visible to us.

Heidegger claims that the experience of circumspectively dealing with equipment is more basic that trying to study and observe things. Now we have explained Heidegger’s view enough that we can guess how me might have responded to the arguments in the previous account. Just as the previous argument was summarized by recounting Descartes’ view, Heidegger’s objection can be summarized by his response to Decartes. A description of the present-at-hand will never get to significance just by adding modifications to extended things. All of the objections within the account of the story of a tool and within Descartes account amount to the claim that tools are present-at-hand in the first place and then the addition of a functional predicate captures their readiness-to-hand. This attempt will inevitably obstruct a view of the phenomenon of world. Heidegger thought Descartes tried to reach something like the phenomenon of world but necessarily missed it. “If we are to reconstruct this Things of use, which supposedly comes to us in the first instance ‘with its skin off’, does not this always require that we previously take a positive look at the phenomenon whose totality such a reconstruction is to restore?” (132) Describing tools as things with functional predicates presupposes a network of values and attempts to reconstruct it.

Heidegger’s view that traditional fields of knowledge try to explain phenomena out of which they take entities in order to study them is repeated in several ways throughout Being & Time. He says that science is founded upon ontology, cognition is founded on familiarity, and facts are founded on Facts. Incorrect ontological starting points preclude understanding of what makes up our most basic experience. “The ‘that-it-is’ of facticity never becomes something that we can come across by beholding it[Dasein].” (174) Staring at the present-at-hand never gives us a clue about readiness-to-hand. Functional predicates never give us the phenomenon of world, in fact they presuppose it.

By straightening out these concepts, we can now straighten out the misunderstandings in the above argument for the priority of the present-at-hand. First, the invention of a tool is a concernful dealing just like any other. That an inventor must be thinking about the tool he is to make fits in perfectly to Heidegger’s account that in our dealings we do not notice the tools we use, but the work to be done. In the case of invention, the tools used may fully withdraw while the new tool (the work) is itself held within the circumspective sight. The above argument makes a number of empirical claims, such as the claim that the inventor must observe his materials in order to design his new tool. Heidegger can concede all of these empirical claims. Even if one does observe the properties of materials, such observation would have been motivated by a consideration of how the properties qualify the material for the job that the inventor had in mind. The inventor might look at the hardness of a material, but only in consideration of whether it is hard enough for a certain job. Thus, familiarity with the referential whole must be in place before invention is possible.

Next, introduction of the tool to other Dasein. Again, Heidegger may concede all the empirical claims made above yet maintain that to ever comprehend a function predicate, one must be aware of the practice named in the predicate. If when showing someone a new invention it is not obvious from the shape what it is for, one may say “It’s for cooking” for example. But in that case the activity of cooking must be understood before that sentence can be understood. When we stare at new objects, we are trying to fit them into our referential whole. We take them as present at hand only because we can tell they have references to which we are unaware. Such an example may be taken as an extreme case of unreadiness to hand, it immediately calls to the attention the referential whole.

Lastly, regarding the gaining of a new skill, skillful coping is not zombie-like. Heidegger claims that a tool will withdraw when it is used well. This is not to say that it completely disappears. It is held within circumspection although we are not explicitly aware of it. The skills we use in coping with equipment are a form of understanding. “The circumspection of concern is understanding as common sense” (187). For any skill we can never list in the form of propositions or assertions all that one must know in order to have that skill, that is to say, to ‘understand that activity.’ We might try to help someone learn a skill, such as riding a bike, by giving them tips to remember, such as “Just keep pedaling, it will help you keep your balance,” but the skill cannot be conferred by descriptions alone. The understanding of bike riding is more basic than our ability to form propositions about it. Acquiring a new skill is made possible by our general understanding, or by the understanding of more basic skills. Keeping one’s balance while riding a bike is based on the more basic skill of keeping one’s balance while standing or walking. Thus, understanding of or familiarity with the world is more basic than the cognitive act of thinking about how to cope with the world. In this Heidegger believes he has finally established the priority of the ready-to-hand. “By showing how all sight is grounded primarily in understanding, . . . we have deprived pure intuition of its priority, which corresponds noetically to the priority of the present-at-hand in traditional ontology” (187).

As one last note, I would like to argue that an accurate account of the relationship between readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand as described in Being & Time is that they sit on opposite ends of a spectrum which organizes the multitude of ways we relate to entities within-the-world. At times, Heidegger writes as if they were mutually exclusive types of modes. But, this way of speaking must by abandoned when we remember that “Pure presence-at-hand announces itself in [the un-ready-to-hand].” However, “This presence-at-hand of something that cannot be used is still not devoid of all readiness-to-hand whatsoever” (103). Heidegger also implies that readiness-at-hand is not a binary predicate when he writes that equipment “must, as it were, withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically.” Equipment can be ready to hand but not quite authentically ready-to-hand.

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One Response to The priority of the ready-to-hand

  1. michael- says:

    Great musings Matt! Really do continue your efforts, as your thought formulations are already at a graduate student level. I look forward to reading more as you develop you perspectives!


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