Heidegger's Basic Phenomenology of Things

Equipment, Readiness-to-hand, Being-in-the-World, Concern, and Dasein

Many may think that we, in our everyday lives, understand things in the world by observation of their material properties. For example, we may think we generally understand a pencil as a slim, long, pointed object which weighs only a few grams. Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time (1927), adequately shows that in our everyday lives, these physical properties actually mean little to our understanding of entities, and instead, our understanding of entities in the world is a pragmatic one in which we focus on, what he called, the readiness-to-hand of an object.

This paper will lay out Heidegger’s concept of readiness-to-hand but in order to do so, a series of other concepts must first be explained. Being and Time’s terms are often referential and interconnected to other terms and the philosophical system produced in this book is somewhat cyclical. Even if not immediately, the Heideggerian terms mentioned in this paper will be explained at some point.

Being and Time is primarily an attempt to reconfigure ontology (the study of Being/existence), which he believed to have been corrupted long ago. At the beginning of the book, he claims he is starting anew and that the start of this new ontology should be derived from phenomenology, the study of how we experience ourselves, other beings, and the world as a whole. With phenomenology in mind, Heidegger did not make the mistake of attempting to separate humans from the equation of Being. Heidegger thought that phenomenology’s descriptiveness could give insight into Being. Heidegger explained it as such:

“Phenomenology is our way of access to what is to be the theme of ontology, and it is our way of giving it demonstrative precision. Only as phenomenology, is ontology possible.”

I only demonstrate this point because the terms used in the rest of the paper were created to be understood with a phenomenological lens.

Being-in-the-world, as Heidegger puts it, is a reminder that human existence (Dasein) does not exist independently of other things but exists with other things within-the-world as a whole unitary thing. This compound phrase is not meant to suggest that human existence exists spatially in the world in the same way an object does so within a box, but that Dasein is part of a larger structure called the world. We are not foreign observers who exist alongside or beyond-the-world but objects that belong within-the-world along with everything else we observe. The term suggests that human existence is not able to be separated from the rest of the world.

“Dasein’’ is frequently used by Heidegger and, for the most part, can be understood as meaning human existence. Dasein, in German, translates to “there-being” and this shows that Heidegger’s use of the term is somewhat referential to the concept of Being-in-the-world. The German “da” (there) in this term suggests that Dasein could not exist without a “there” or a world. “Sein” (Being) then, simply suggests that being is a fundamental component of Dasein.

This description coming from the literal translation though is missing a significant part of the meaning of the word as used in Being and Time. “There-being” sounds as if it could be used as a reference to any entity within-the-world, not just humans-within-the-world. The other component to the meaning of Dasein is a unique power that humankind wields, something Heidegger calls concern or care.

When Heidegger references concern, he is referencing the ability and tendency for humans to care about something and then to work towards changing the world in order to achieve their goal. This care is present in every single human’s everyday life in various forms. Dasein, out of all entities within-the-world, has the unique tendency to concern themselves with continuing the status of their own being. Concern is a kind of unacknowledged motivation to continue living. As Heidegger put it:

“Dasein is an entity which, in its very Being, comports itself understandably towards that Being.”

For Dasein, Being-in-the-world is reliant on concern. This relationship between Dasein and the world and the potentiality for different things to happen because of Dasein’s concern is what Heidegger refers to as worldhood.

All of our dealings in the world derive from concern. Our dealings are every single action we choose but it is difficult to understand our existence as well as our dealings without considering how we interact with other entities within-the-world. Heidegger points out that the entities within our world that we interact with can be viewed as equipment. Equipment is every single entity that we confront because of our concern.

Equipment is not just, for example, a pencil, a computer, or a hammer, but everything these objects rely upon as well. In this way, a totality of equipment exists so that no one entity is isolated from this network of physical reliance. A pencil works alongside paper, a desk, a chair, the floor, and so on. If this network continued to be described indefinitely, a list of every entity within-the-world would be present. Therefore one piece of equipment is a referential totality to all equipment.

The essence of equipment lays in its usefulness to us. Heidegger called this fundamental concept of equipment “readiness-to-hand”. Equipment is ready-to-hand because of our recognition of its manipulability and usefulness. One knows that a pencil, a computer, or a hammer is an object which has the potential to be manipulated into helping us accomplish a goal. We use and view objects as ready-to-hand to complete a goal because of Dasein’s future-oriented concern.

Heidegger does not deny that there are other ways of looking at entities in the world. He used an example of a piece of equipment breaking. How then could a broken tool which can no longer serve its purpose be understood as ready-to-hand? Heidegger believes it cannot be. He describes the phenomenology of looking at a newly broken tool by reminding us of the conspicuousness of a newly broken object. As Heidegger put it:

“This conspicuousness presents the ready-to-hand equipment as in a certain un-readiness-to-hand.”

This kind of observation of something un-ready-to-hand is not how we typically interact with things in the world: it is a halt to our normal perception of entities in the world. The broken object is not ready-to-hand but present-at-hand according to Heidegger. This view of something as present-at-hand is very much similar to the way many may assume we regularly interact with things in the world. Seeing something as present-at-hand is seeing the object only as it physically is, perhaps in a similar manner as scientists, attempting to be objective, observe the world.

Ultimately, our everyday understanding of things in the world comes from our concern-oriented pragmatism. We mostly understand entities as ready-to-hand but when we do not, when we look at entities as only present-at-hand, an interruption in our experience of things occurs.

Heidegger created an all-encompassing system. Even non-useful entities, for example, a broken tool, dust, and disease are still ready-to-hand if we are not actively observing their physical properties. Because if they are in our presence, we would like to manipulate them in some form even if we would wish to manipulate them to disappear or move away.

Heidegger did a wonderful job at bringing to light phenomenological processes and bringing them into foresight by description alone. Our primary interaction with things is not one of cognition or of judgment based upon the observed physical properties of the subject but of unconscious automotive manipulation of things.

Readiness-to-hand is the way Dasein views things in their environment within-the-world because of Dasein’s endless concern. We may know that we are creatures with a mighty power of control and manipulation but what we often do not realize is that we control, or wish to control every entity within our scope of existence. Heidegger overthrew our assumption of thinking of things as the material qualities they have and showed that our interaction with entities is far more practical and precognitive.

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