An Understanding of Heidegger's Tool Analysis

Jeremiah R. Grosse
Reproduced with Permission

In order to properly the philosophical approach of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) to school of Phenomenology it is necessary to raise the main question for Heidegger, which was, “what is the meaning of being?” A major temporal ecstasy for Heidegger was the present. The present is referred to as the state of “fallenness” for Heidegger. This involves Being alongside other entities including other dasein. Dasein is Heidegger’s term for a human being in the world. Being presents itself in its totality.

Heidegger’s approach to the meaning of being is a radical critique of the traditional metaphysical view of presence. Being is the play of “absence within a presence”. Pre-predicative experience is always projecting itself to the future. What is absent is more real than what is present.

All of this is another kind of “knowledge”. This can be described as an original collection of “Many into One”. The principle of collection many into one is originally stated in Plato’s theory of Forms which explains how different entities (trees, houses, women, etc.) can participate in the Form of Beauty. According to Plato’s theory, everything we see in the world (the real world) around us is actually an image of a Form which exists in the real-real world. For example, when we see a chair it is actually an image of the Form chairness which exists in the real-real world, according to Plato.

The many entities (particulars) are gathered into one Form (universal). For Heidegger, this collection takes place pre-scientifically and pre-philosophically.

Our experience of nature is mediated through artifacts. We understand the world as a collective whole. For St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) the whole comes first as well.

We always know particulars through knowing universals. For example, the human face is seen as a whole rather than as individual parts. All physical reality is seen as a whole.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), known as the father of Phenomenology, referred to the world in which we live as the Leben Welt (life-world). This life-world is historical as well as social and cultural. Modern science is not geared to study the life-world. For modern science this “life-world” must be empirically provable in order to be real.

Phenomenology helps us to account for things such as ethics and values which can be empirically proven. If modern science is simply based upon reason, then the western world is in crisis given the enormous impact which modern science has had and is having on our world.

For Heidegger one must begin his or her discussion of being by looking at the world around us. Things are perceived from a sense of concern for the world. “Understanding” is a new interpretation of imagination. Imagination opens up the realm of the possible to us. The thing most primordially experienced in the world is equipment. We never have direct access to mere things or direct knowledge of them. Being is not pure presence for Heidegger, but involves an existential engagement with the world.

We must use things in order to be able to understand them. A pen is understood through writing rather than through scientific examination. Dasein is the place where being happens. The traditional vocabulary of philosophy must be put out of play to allow a pen to appear as it is. Heidegger uses terms such as “in-order-to”, “ready-to-hand”, and “present-at-hand” to describe this reality and these terms will be defined later.

What is the essence of equipment? There is no one piece of equipment for Heidegger since all equipment is relational to the totality of equipment. Keep in mind that

Heidegger believes that things go from whole to parts. Dasein understands being in a pre-predicative way. He refers to this pre-predicative way of understanding as “wonder”.

Every piece of equipment has an “in-order-to” quality. We use a pen in order to write.

This equipment is relational to things around it. In the same way that man is a relational being who does not exist in a vacuum, tools have a relational quality. However, it is important to note that Heidegger does not consider dasein to be tools in any way. The meaning of a pen is found between the pen and other pieces of equipment in totality.

The world is technological with regard to the mediation through equipment in the world. There has always been a prejudice toward theory and against practice. Aristotle, in The Metaphysics (Book I), deals with the issue of theoretical knowledge (theoria) vs. practical knowledge (praxis). Theoretical knowledge is knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Praxis has a much more “practical” dimension. This does not mean that praxis is purely utilitarian, by nature. Aristotle states that “By nature, man desires knowledge.” This is evident with regard to the fact that one of the most often asked questions by a child is “Why?”

According to Aristotle, hearing and seeing are two ways to come to know something.

Man has memory (even some animals have sense memory); however, what makes man unique from all other animals is art and reason. Man can ask “Why?” Another topic discussed was the value of experience over theory. People who simply have experience may not know the cause of something, but they can explain it to others. People who have theoretical knowledge understand causes and very often can teach; however, they lack practical experience. The best is a blend of both.

For Heidegger, praxis is more important since it involves existential engagement with world. Theoria (theory) is another kind of praxis. It is another kind of “seeing”. As Heidegger’s Tool Analysis is discussed further the importance of “seeing” will become more evident.

Heidegger’s insight that the world is technological was a response to Karl Marx. Labor, for Heidegger, is approached from the standpoint of metaphysics. Heidegger’s theory is both holistic and ecological. The “in order to” quality of tools provides an understanding of the relationship between things and the fact that the world is seen as a whole instead of a collection of parts clearly demonstrates this holistic approach to philosophical thought. For Heidegger, the meaning of tools is found in the space between one tool and another within the totality. Spaces are what is genuinely experienced.

Dasein operates out of a sense of “concern” for the world around him. The world matters to us so our understanding of the use of tools is subordinate to our concern for the world. Knowledge is in regard to concerns or interests. A hammer can only manifest itself to us as a hammer when we use it. Tradition says, according to such philosophers as René Descartes (1596-1650), that the only way to “know” a hammer is to step back and view it objectively (disinterestedly).

Being is substance for Aristotle. Heidegger states that being can only be “ready-to-hand”. Reflecting upon a pen is “present-at-hand”. Ready-to-hand is a much fuller knowledge than present-at-hand since it involves existential engagement rather than mere reflection.

The notion of forms for Plato comes from tool use according to Heidegger. However, Plato never considered what Heidegger refers to as “ready-to-hand”. A tool conceals itself when it is ready-to-hand. The tool must withdraw from our explicit attention. Tools have to be absent otherwise they are present-at-hand. Beings are both present and absent for us according to Heidegger.

Once considered, this is all based upon human experience and is quite logical.

Heidegger is shifting sight from the eyes to other parts of the body. Sight is in the hands through tool use. This is a pre-predicative looking around (knowing). Understanding of being is pre-scientific at the level of tool use. Hands could not use equipment if they did not have this “sight”.

The sight in the hands is in the work to be done. This involves circumspective concern. It lies at the basis of seeing. We look around at the environment. We want to know the world because we have a concern for God. Being is only present if it is absent.

A pen’s being exists as ready-to-hand as long as the pen conceals itself. Work gathers many pieces of equipment into one whole. At the level of theory, one can have a re/collection of his overall experience.

Being participates in beings through readiness-to-hand. There is no subjective coloring. Man does not see something as present-at-hand and then give it meaning.

Meaning is found through tool use. Cognition puts readiness-to-hand out of play.

While tool use involves readiness-to-hand, are there circumstances under which tools become present-at-hand at the praxis level on a daily basis? The answer is yes! There are three main events which could take place to cause this. First, a tool breaking makes the ready-to-hand relationship noticeable since the tool then lacks the “in order to” quality. Secondly, missing tools can do the same thing and for the same reason. Thirdly, when one tool becomes an obstacle for another tool, the first tool becomes present-at-hand to the craftsman immediately. The breaking of a tool is a manifestation of a lack of determinacy. A lack of determinacy leads one to ask the question, “Why?” There is no motivation to look and see in terms of the approach of modern technology since there is rarely a lack of determinacy. Predictability causes one to operate on automatic pilot.

The reason that the lack of determinacy is so important is that it is through experiencing angst (anxiety) that one comes to understand the world. Angst can be equated with the breaking of a tool for the craftsman. It causes the world to go from ready-to-hand to present-at-hand and it is in this process that one can begin to question things regarding the world around him and come to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the world. We experience nature as a piece of equipment in work. Angst takes us into the “world” and moves us from the visible to the invisible.

Don Idhe (1934-?), in his book “Technics and Praxis” argues that to be able to understand modern science one must understand machine oriented experience. Human life is technologically oriented to one degree or another. As a result of this, we have lost touch with nature. Technology is not neutral. It shapes the way that one perceives and values the world. Technology is ontological and helps us to understand the world. One must take technology into account when considering knowledge. It is also not neutral with regard to one’s self-understanding. We understand our brain’s functions through knowledge of computers according to modern science.

A machine is an extension of the self. Idhe states, “The expert driver when parallel parking needs very little by way of visual cues to back himself into a small space- he ‘feels’ the very extension of himself through the car as the car becomes a symbiotic extension of his own embodiedness. I may describe these relations as embodied relations, relations in which the machine displays some kind of partial transparency in that it does not become objectified or thematic, but is taken into my experiencing of what is other in the world.”

While it is true that one can experience a blackboard through a piece of chalk, this experience is transformed when compared with experiencing the blackboard with one’s finger. One can get a sense of the texture (roughness or smoothness) of the board in both cases; however, the naked finger allows one to experience the warmth or coolness of the board as well. The experience of touch is much richer though the finger than the chalk. Idhe says, “I may now speak of experiences of the blackboard through the chalk as a reduced experience when compared with my ‘naked’ finger touch of the board.”

According to Idhe, “In each of these variations in the experienced use of machines I continue to note that the embodiment relation is one in which I do experience otherness through machines, but that the experience through the machine transforms or stands in contrast to my ordinary experience in the ‘flesh’. This transformation takes a particularly dramatic form in a sub-class of embodiment relations with which we are all familiar. I shall call these sensory-extension-reduction relations.” A telephone call is an example of such relations.

We experience others through a telephone call; however, there is a certain distance involved. While one can hear the voice of the caller clearly, depending upon the quality of the reception, the one receiving the call is incapable of seeing the facial expressions and gestures of the other party which would become quite apparent in a face-to-face conversation. The telephone is an extension of one’s hearing, as the chalk is an extension of one’s sense of touch with regard to the blackboard. The phone is also an extension of one’s experience since it helps to overcome geographical distance.

According to ontology, the tool (i.e., phone) amplifies one aspect of the world which reducing others. The phone is an extension of hearing, while the voice heard is a reduction. Loss of facial expression is also a reduction. The telescope and the microscope serve as extensions of the world since they open up the universe and micro world to us, respectively; however, as a result of this there is a reduction taking place with regard to our moving away from the life-world. One of the consequences of moving away from the life-world is that the world around us can be reduced to one simple meaning, which can, and often will, be determined by science. Heidegger, as well as other phenomenologists, teaches us that the meaning of our world is multivalent. One must be open to a polymorphic mindedness with regard to meaning in the world.

One’s relationship to machines (tools) goes from experiencing through machines, to the experience of machines according to Idhe. He refers to this as hermeneutic relations. This is a relation of machine as object that must be interpreted. For example, looking at an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine in a hospital one must be able to interpret the machine in order to experience it. This can lead one to turning a machine into an autonomous entity. The idea of a computer having “artificial intelligence” conveys the notion that the machine is autonomous of any human programmer. A machine does not mean much unless interpreted by a person according to Idhe. This involves a quasi-object from the machine. The machine mediates our relationship with reality that must be interpreted. The machine, therefore, has quasi-otherness to it.

In our more complex technological society more and more human-machine relations take on ‘atmospheric’ characteristics in terms of the machine background. Idhe discusses this issue under the heading of background relations. Our world is referred to as a techno sphere. The ideal of the home is to be completed surrounded by machines according to the modern technological view. The danger of this can be seen in the “Cave Allegory” in Plato’s Republic in which those in charge determine reality for the people chained in the cave by virtue of the choice of images they project on the cave wall. Modern technology mediates our relationship to the world. The “presumption towards totality” causes one to take the shadows as reality. This issue is also a problem with regard to the lack of indeterminacy with regard to modern technology. It has major theological and political consequences since it involves a surrendering of one’s capacity to think for him or herself to those “in charge”. As a result of this, mankind goes from Plato’s definition as a “rational animal” to a programmed mini-computer. The “presumption towards totality” effects the way we understand ourselves. We can easily be tempted to believe that we fully understand the natural world.

The result of this lack of indeterminacy can be seen quite clearly in the negative impact that television is having on children. Instead of experiencing the world around them for themselves, children are “viewing” the world through the media and passively accepting what they see as reality. Political discourse in this century has gone from an open exchange of ideas and philosophies to thirty-second “sound bites” which also serve to shape reality. Another negative impact is that the human attention span is consistently declining to the level of stimuli we receive from the internet and other sources.

In The Metaphysics, Aristotle states that there is a difference between the Forms and the particulars. The idea of difference can also be seen in the Divine Line Theory with regard to the fact that there is a difference between opinion and knowledge. Difference permeates everything. Our modern technological world comes down to a world without difference. We lose sight of the way things are and the way things ought to be. Apathy, which is prevalent on almost every college campus, finds many of its roots in this passive acceptance of modern technology’s view of reality.

Another area touched upon by modern science is space. The world is disclosed through “habit” according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), a French phenomenologist. The body and movements are elicited by the surrounding situation which is practical. The body is focused on work. A piece of work gathers bodily movements into the situation in such a way that rough unity is brought about.

There is a contrast between phenomenology’s view of lived space and the Newtonian view of space presented by science. Geometric space, as proposed by Newton, speaks of one point in space being no different from any other point. Lived space speaks of the fact that a body occupies a certain space in history. For Newton, space is a homogeneous grid and container in which individuals do not exist. Space is nothing more than a large box wherein everything is ultimately the same (a world without difference). Heidegger attempts to retrieve a sense of lived space and move according to nature which directs them to their natural places. Modern science prevents Heidegger from going back to Aristotle directly. Our world is too heavily mediated by technology.

Space and time are very abstract; however, they are realities. Heidegger’s Tool Analysis prepares us to talk about space by referring to spaces between things. The world is understood as a context of meanings and assignments according to science. Instead of speaking of the world as things in the world, Heidegger speaks of things in the world as being intrinsically relational. In order to understand a sense of space, one must understand possibilities. A church is a sacred space and an airport is a functional/technological space. The Newtonian view of space would make no such distinctions since space is understood to be a homogeneous container where no one space is different from any other. All space is not reducible to one sense of space for Heidegger. This speaks to the notion of polymorphic mindedness.

The scientific view of space can be seen quite clearly in modern architecture. Since the 1920s, modern architecture has attempted to incorporate one, true, objective sense of space. It is playing out Descartes’ theory through modernism. Modern buildings are basically boxes and slabs. Known as the international style of architecture, this approach to space has major negative consequences, especially in the area of theology, since it eliminates the realm of “sacred space”.

Heidegger’s Tool Analysis and the philosophical approach of existential phenomenology helps one to see quite clearly that ideas do have consequences. While not a uniquely Christian philosopher, Heidegger’s teaching that all beings are intrinsically relational in a Christian concept. Christian anthropology teaches that we are beings made in the image and likeness of God and are relational by nature. This relational dynamic is based upon the fact that we live our lives in imitation of the Holy Trinity, a relationship of Persons.

Even those who do not accept Christianity can see the truth of Heidegger’s teaching with regard to the major negative impact that modern technology is having on society. While phenomenologists do not deny the value of science or technology, they do question the discipline’s actions with regard to presenting itself as the be all and end all.

Work Cited

Idhe, Don Technics and Praxis (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1979)

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