Ready-to-hand and present-at-hand – Heidegger

Two of Heidegger’s most basic neologisms, present-at-hand and ready-to-hand, are used to describe various attitudes toward things in the world. We are constantly surrounded by “equipment” as stuff we can work with in a “context of significance”.

For Heidegger, most of the time we are involved in the world in an ordinary way or “ready-to-hand.” We are usually doing things with a view to achieving something. The being of the ready-to-hand announces itself as a field of equipment to be put to use.

Heidegger gives the example of a hammer. When we look at a hammer, our initial reaction is not to deconstruct it and break it down into what it is made of. We simply look at it as equipment to carry out tasks.

Ready-to-hand equipment

Let’s say an expert carpenter is hammering nails, after some time he’ll eventually start to forget about the existence of the hammer and can talk to his fellow carpenters or have his thoughts wander elsewhere, without necessarily being a subject contemplating the hammer (an object). The activity becomes a blur and reveals his surroundings. And by revealing one thing, one necessarily conceals and devalues another.

This is Heidegger’s crucial discovery, when look at our ready-to-hand relation to things, we just don’t find subjects contemplating objects.

However, what if the head flies off the hammer? It would immediately lose its usefulness and appear as merely “there”. Heidegger calls this being of an object “present-at-hand”. It happens when we regard an object in isolation and study it with an attitude like that of a scientist, of merely looking at the object’s bare facts as they are present.

This is not usually the way we see things in the world as. When a hammer breaks, it loses its usefulness and becomes present-at-hand. However, it also soon loses this mode of being present-at-hand and becomes something that must be replaced or repaired. In this case its Being may be seen as unreadiness-to-hand.

The ready-to-hand and present-at-hand levels represent the fundamental structure of Dasein’s being-in-the-world, with the more fundamental of the two, readiness-to-hand, being organised and arranged through Dasein’s care.

Heidegger wants us to discover the blurry areas of existence without the layers of perception that hinders experiencing the world fully.

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Greatest Philosophers in History | Martin Heidegger

This video explores Heidegger’s key terms as an introduction to his philosophy. Most importantly: Being-in-the-world, ready to hand and present-at hand, facticity, thrownness, existentiality, fallenness, Das Man, temporality, being-toward-death and the fourfold.

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