Explain Heidegger’s distinction between the ‘ready-to-hand’ and the ‘present-at-hand’. How does this distinction cast doubt on traditional Cartesian approaches to knowledge?
Martin Heidegger was a 20th century German philosopher who questioned the nature of being in his book ‘Being and Time’. To fully understand Heidegger’s way of viewing our existence in time and space one must first understand the meaning of Dasein. The word Dasein comes from the German to mean ‘Being there’ or simply ‘being’ in its ontological sense. Loosely, Dasein describes a being that is able to understand and view its own being, i.e a conscious being like humans. Dasein is also able to view and understand the existence other beings in the ontic and ontological sense. This in simple terms means that Dasein can view objects or beings in their real and factual or material sense as well as their purpose or nature of being. Heidegger’s main insight into our being comes from the way in which Dasein interacts with the world around it which he describes as ‘Being-in-the-world’. Here we must understand that ‘world’ does not mean the material world but rather the ontological sense of the world of our existence. And ‘being-in-the-world’ does not describe a spatial relationship with the world but rather a how we (Dasein) exist in this world.
For Heidegger we do not exist as a detached being observing the objects in the world around us but as a being immersed in a world of equipment with which we are inextricably linked and can interact with. It is from this distinction of being connected with the world and everything in it that Heidegger attempts to break down the Cartesian view of subject and object and bind the two together under the single meaning of Dasein. From this Heidegger draws his idea of our two forms of engagement with objects in our world and the world itself; ‘ready-to-hand’ and ‘present-at-hand’. Heidegger states that we exist normally in the world in a ready-to-hand state, i.e we are so fully immersed in the world around us that we do not ‘see’ it we are simply ‘in’ it. For example we do not notice the ground that we walk upon until it trips us up and then it becomes noticeable. We are so familiar and comfortable with the world in which we exist that cease to view it in an ontic manner and it becomes a part of us.
The same applies for objects within the world of Dasein, in that when using objects for a specific purpose we forget the materialistic properties of the object and become bound with the object in performing the task, thus dissolving the distinction between subject and object, as put by Heidegger “The self must forget itself if, lost in the world of equipment, it is to be able ‘actually’ to go to work and manipulate something” (Heidegger, 1927). This is summarised by well by Dreyfus when he says “Heidegger’s important insight is not that, when we solve problems, we sometimes make use of representational equipment outside our bodies, but that being-in-the-world is more basic than thinking and solving problems; that it is not representational at all. That is, when we are coping at our best, we are drawn in by solicitations and respond directly to them, so that the distinction between us and our equipment–between inner and outer— vanishes” (Dreyfus, 2007).
When we are not engaging with objects in a ready-to-hand state we are able to view them as materialistic objects with properties and an objective view as to what the object really ‘is’ or what it consists of i.e what colour it is or what it is made of. This is Heidegger’s present-at-hand state and what is more familiarly known in Cartesian approach. When we are using an object that breaks it suddenly switches from the ready-to-hand state into a present-at-hand state as it loses its use for a particular job and becomes something else that needs to be mended or replaced. The Cartesian understanding of being in the world stems from the phrase “Cogito ergo sum”. It is a phrase first coined by Socrates and built upon later in Descarte’s ‘Discourse on Method’. It is a way of describing ones awareness of their own existence through their ability to think, judge, perceive etc. It sees the mind as a separate entity from the rest of the world about which it cannot be sure of. The thinking mind does not necessarily need the body to exist.