This is the most famous painting by Magritte, entitled “La Trahison des Images” (“The Treachery of Images”), painted 1928-9. Except of course it isn’t. What it is really is an arrangement of ink dots printed in London that has the remarkable property of signifying a painting in oil currently hanging in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What is even more remarkable is that this strange and magical property of reference is completely invisible to us. The text means “this is not a pipe”, which is true. It is a picture of a pipe. You are currently reading this essay on paper; as I write I am looking at a picture on my LED-back-lit glossy wide-screen, which represents what the paper will eventually look like, which represents the painting in LA, which represents an idea of a pipe that Magritte had a year after the publication of Being and Time. But the first thing we see is something that someone could use for smoking, despite this lengthy and unwieldy chain of intermediates.
This illustrates the distinction between Heidegger’s concepts of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. The multiplicity of levels in the above account shows how we as Dasein cut through an indefinite number of intervening levels of representation in order to see only what we need. The ready-to-hand is where we get to; the present-at-hand is what we ignore on the way.
Perfect translation is impossible, because of the way resonance and multiple meanings cannot easily be conveyed; there is no one-to-one mapping between single words in different languages. Poetry and Heidegger represent the sharpest form of these difficulties because both rely heavily on the multiple meanings to convey their messages. To understand Heidegger’s conception of ready-to-hand, we need to understand the idea of ‘equipment’ from which it derives.
Equipment is the poor translation of das Zeug (p. 96, H. 68), which is something like the maddeningly versatile yet helpfully compendious ‘stuff’ in English. There is the compound das Werkzeug (tool) but there is also das Flugzeug (aeroplane). Heidegger deliberately chooses a term with a loose and wide application because he sees everything that we see as being seen in a way of being useful or usable by us. If I want to know the time, then only the clock becomes ‘lit-up’ for me of the objects in my immediate environment. It is important to note also his reference to the Greek term for things (pragmata), which is a further illustration of how all objects appear to us firstly and possibly solely in terms of how we can use them in order to achieve our objectives.
Further, this also gives us our first idea of what might be understood by priority: it could mean ‘what we see first’ about objects. A second sense could be ontological priority, which would mean that one category was less fundamental than, was dependent on or supervenes on a second category. This essay will examine both possibilities, and will argue that while Heidegger makes a good case in the first sense, the argument in the second sense only works if one has already accepted the phenomenological Weltanschauung.
The idea of significance (or reference, or ‘sign-ification’) is central: Heidegger’s two examples both rely on this. In a way, everything refers because everything is seen as ready-to-hand or referring to the use we can make of it.
The two examples are a hammer and an automobile turn indicator. The hammer exists in a workshop; we all carry around our own workshops in a kind of movable metaphor – (p. 98, H. 69):
“In dealings such as this, where something is put to use, our concern subordinates itself to the ‘in-order-to’ which is constitutive for the equipment we are employing at the time; the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is – as equipment.”
This can lead us back to an understanding of present-at-hand by way of contrast to ready-to-hand – (p. 100, H. 71):
“ ‘Nature’ is not to be understood as that which is just present-at-hand […]. The wood is a forest of timber, the mountain a quarry of rock; the river is water-power, the wind is wind ‘in the sails’. […] If its kind of Being as ready-to-hand is disregarded, this ‘Nature’ itself can be discovered and defined simply in its pure presence-at-hand.”
This suggests that performing a kind of phenomenological reduction would allow us to derive the present-at-hand by stripping away the serviceability of objects from the ready-to-hand. ‘Serviceability’ should be understood as a spectrum of usefulness; an item is still ready-to-hand even if its primary purpose is defeated. A hammer, which is broken, could still be a paperweight. The power of Heidegger’s argument here lies in the fact that this is indeed how the world appears to us – and within phenomenology that is the only allowable line – but the central Kantian question as to the extent to which we make our world remains – (p. 101, H. 71):
“The kind of being which belongs to these entities is readiness-to-hand. But this characteristic is not to be understood as merely a way of taking them, as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the ‘entities’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective coloring’ in this way. Such an Interpretation would overlook the fact that in this case these entities would have to be understood and discovered beforehand as something purely present-at-hand, and must have priority and take the lead in the sequence of those dealings with the ‘world’ in which something is discovered and made one’s own. But this already runs counter to the ontological meaning of cognition, which we have exhibited as a founded mode of Being-in-the-world.”
The example of the automobile indicator relies on the common experience we all have as Dasein of continual motion towards, understood either as a geographical or a conceptual objective: “Dasein is somehow always directed and on its way” (p. 110, H. 79). We experience the indicator proximally as something that tells us something about how we should adjust our behavior. We do not first see it in its mechanical format (or electrical these days, though it is striking and suggestive how modern an example Heidegger chooses, though writing before even the Ford Model T ceased production). We see it ‘immediately’ in its ready-to-hand incarnation as telling us we should not now cross the road because the car will shortly be in a position rendering that course of action unwise. This is how we behave. We do think we know something about electricity and other properties and how (modern) automobile indicators work. But none of this is available to us in a phenomenological approach. But does it not equally validly seem to us to be the case that we do have these other understandings? So while we can accept that within phenomenology, the ready-to-hand is prior for perception (and use), we are not necessarily then committed to applying that line as constitutive for reality or definitive for ontology.
As I write, I have next to me a photocopy of the Brandom paper. A sentence in underlined, and a previous student has written ‘very important’ next to it. The sentence seems to me to be of no importance at all, which means that the other student was incompetent or had a different essay in mind. The readiness-to-hand of the sentence is immediately apparent to me in its lack of serviceability for my current purposes, but this lack does not direct me to its presence-at-hand: in normal circumstances I will simply never consider the different marks beyond noting that some appear to be photocopied type and others appear to be photocopied handwriting, manifesting another Dasein and its concentration on the readiness-to-hand it saw in the sentence. But I can consider things in this way: only the phenomenological approach prevents me – (p. 111, H. 80):
“What gets taken for a sign becomes accessible only through its readiness-to-hand. If, for instance, the south wind ‘is accepted’ by the farmer as a sign of rain, then this ‘acceptance’ […] is not a sort of bonus over and above which what is already present-at-hand in itself – viz. the flow of air in a definite geographical direction. […] But, one will protest, that which gets taken as a sign must first have become accessible in itself and been apprehended before the sign gets established.”
Here, Heidegger anticipates the key objection to his line. Within phenomenology, he can claim that this is indeed how it appears to us, and we can agree with this. Yet outside, where we can take account of neurological pictures, it seems difficult to support. It simply must be the case that the first event that triggers any kind of process or processing within us is the arrival of photons from external objects at our retinas. There may well be then an immense amount of internal interpretation before the object and what it means is presented to ‘us’, assuming that ‘we’ means the conscious part of our minds and the remainder are the processing elements.
Heidegger can claim that the world is such that the ready-to-hand is ontologically, and that it is not true either that we just have an instantaneous process that selects the ready-to-hand, or even that we have a process that does this in a measurable time but we only respond to the results of this process. It does not look to us as though we do any processing – but to paraphrase Wittgenstein in a different context – how would it look if this were not the case? It would look exactly the same. Heidegger makes his case only within phenomenology and only in the sense of perception – not reality.