domingo, 28 de octubre de 2007

What is the mode of being of the hammer when it is withdrawn?

Dreyfus finds Heidegger to be very confused about the status of entities which are not being put into use or being theorized about. The problem seems to be that Dreyfus reads Heidegger as saying that entities have a mode of being independently from their modes of apprehension. Entities which are ready-at-hand in use, are in some way, expected to be tracked outside of the particular mode of comportment in which they take place. Case in point, he takes hammers to be something one could ask about outside actual cases of hammering (mode of readiness-to-hand) or thinking/speaking about hammers (mode of presence-at-hand). He thinks we would need to posit that the hammer falls somewhere between the deficient modes of (un) availability which occur upon a breakdown of a piece of equipment.

But I think Dreyfus is completely on the wrong track here: insofar as we are asking about the hammer as a particular entity we are dealing with it as something present-at-hand. In readiness to hand, Heidegger tells us, we deal not with particular entities- but with a holistic web of references in relation to the towards-whiches of our comporting, in which there is only an equipmental-whole. This is tantamount to saying that entities ready-to-hand can never be understood in isolation or outside of the role they play in the respective referential-whole and so that they couldn't have the character of particulars- there are no hammers in the mode of readiness-to-hand. Paradigmatic cases of engaged agency are those in which one is actively dealing within a context of equipment for particular purposes, in which no objects stand-against us whatsoever. Entities ready-to-hand are imbued with the subject in the act's directedness; entities ready-to-hand are entities not with respect to the subject as objects, but as the active Dasein relates to entities with respect to their appropriateness or inapropriateness inside a holistic web of references and for foresighted purposes. In no way is absorbed coping a dealing with a mere heap of entities through relational attributes. In this sense, we may not speak of particular entities as belonging to the mode of ready-to-hand, strictu sensu, even if for didactic purposes it is necessary to refer to 'the hammer' or 'the doorknob'. Let us keep in mind this clarification for the rest of our exposition.

Dreyfus' confusion arises from a methodological mistake. He interrogates about the mode of being of the hammer qua hammer, that is as an entity present-at-hand since in questioning entities must appear in such way. But he asks about the mode of being of the hammer present-at-hand when it is not being thought of or dealt with at all. To note why this question is not reasonable for Heidegger one must remember that the two kinds of entities Heidegger distinguishes here are always and of necessity determined in relation to different ways of comporting towards entities. To ask what is the status of hammers when we are not thinking about hammers or using hammers, is still to be making a question about hammers - about some definite object with definite qualities. This means that as soon as we posit a question about an entity as an object it is already determined in advance as having the mode of being of presence-at-hand; even if this object is the sort of object which is normally incorporated within an equipmental-whole in the mode of readiness-to-hand, or if it is merely passed over in indifference. This is not to confuse, of course, all assertion as understanding as dealing with mere presence-at-hand; clearly, when we express ourselves in language we do not for the most part do so in abstraction from our involvements, but we do so to 'point out' something, deal with what appears as unavailable, and so on. The shift from engaged agency with the ready-to-hand to interpretative assertion does not yet abstract the entity from its involvement relations, but merely turns an original involvement with the entity within the whole, to making an interpretation about the entity.

The being which is held in our fore-having--for instance, the hammer-is primarily available as equipment. If this being becomes the "object" of an assertion . . . there is already a changeover in the fore-having. Something available with which we have to do or perform something, turns into something "about which" the assertion that points it out is made. Our fore-sight is aimed at something occurrent in what is available. (200)[157-158]

But the question about hammers interrogates explicitly about the hammer as an entity as it stands in isolation from its appropiation in use, that is to say, independently from any sphere of involvements from which it could be interpreted. That is to say, not only to we ask about hammers in an interpretative fashion, but we already perform the abstraction proper to the present-at-hand by de-contextualizing the hammer from taking place within involvements.

The problem thus arises from Dreyfus reading Heidegger as saying that hammers can be something that occurs in abstraction/theory in the mode of presence-at-hand; and which at the same time can be dealt with as as hammers with another mode of being, such as readiness-at-hand or deficient readiness-to-hand. But we must realize that entities present-at-hand are what in each case is given when we comport ourselves in theory or questioning; so that questions about hammers qua hammers are about entities which couldn't have another mode of being. To ask about hammers outside of the comportment proper to their respective mode of being (in this case presence-to-hand) is to ask a meaningless question; the equivalent to questions such as "how does something look when it is not being looked at". It is precisely the isolation of entities with respect to their potential inclusion within an equipmental/involvement-whole that precisely defines an entity as being present-at-hand.

This way, we must be cautious to remember that any talk about particular objects or entities in such a way is, for Heidegger, to deal with them as that something which is presently determined in questioning and theorizing. In this case, the purported thought experiment about hammers is to deliberate about either:

(1) A now-not-yet: thinking about what would happen if someone were to comport themselves indifferently with respect to the hammer;
(2) A now-no-longer: as when I am asking about would happen if someone had comported themselves indifferently with respect to the hammer.
(3) A now: as when I am asking about what is happening now that someone is comporting themselves indifferently with respect to the hammer.

The question about the mode of being of the ignored hammer thus turns out to be ambiguous between:
(a) What is the mode of being of an entity (present-at-hand), such as a hammer, when it is passed over indifferently by the Dasein?
(b) What is the mode of being of an entity (present-at-hand) when I ask about it being passed over by an indifferent Dasein?

Both questions are about particular entities, so of necessity they must be questions about an entity posited as present-at-hand. Question (a) seeks to ask a question about an entity present-at-hand in an alternative scenario where it may be somehow the same entity only with a different mode of being. This reasoning naturally results from misunderstanding the status of entities ready-at-hand. One thinks: just like the hammer can be either an object present-at-hand or a piece of equipment ready-to-hand, we can ask about how hammers show up in indifference. But this is to forget that we never had such a thing as the hammer as something ready-to-hand to begin with; the mistaken assumption begins from thinking that entities ready-to-hand can be particulars. To be accurate, we would have to say that hammers belong to the equipmental-whole geared towards hammering, but not as bundled parts or entities.

Therefore, question (a) has already determined in advanced the mode of being which belongs to what is questioned-that is, to the questioned hammer that is present-at-hand. This is necessarily implied by the inclusion of 'hammers' as particular entities into the form of questioning. To talk or theorize about isolated, self-sufficient entities such as objects with properties is always to talk about an entity present-at-hand, i.e. about this particular entity, the hammer, and how it is when it falls out of relation to the particular Dasein. But this is clearly a nonsensical question following Heidegger- to ask about a Dasein-independent entity in this way makes it downright incomprehensible. It asks paradoxically 'how am I comporting myself towards hammers when I am not comporting myself towards hammers'.

Yet this is something Heidegger is well-prepared to avoid, since he holds that all of our commerce with beings is determined by the various comportments which are proper to the Dasein as existing. We cannot reasonably ask about the 'mode of being' of an entity determined by the Dasein's comportment as if it could remain the same without entering into relation with the Dasein. Particular objects such as hammers are already constituted in relation to the Dasein as present-at-hand, and there's nothing 'behind' the entity determined by such comportment which we could meaningfully speak about. We just have no idea as to what that would be like. This is not to say objects or properties cannot be if there is no apprehensive Dasein, as idealists would, but only that the apprehension of entities with respect to their modes of being is to talk about how they take place for Dasein's understanding in some way or other. To sever the link between the hammer and the mode of comportment in which it is constituted as such is to relapse into the view that objects are what is given first, ontologically. Dreyfus actually acknowledges this in his commentary, even if he misses the point in lecture:

"But of course we must ask these questions from within that understanding of being that
alone gives sense to the questions. We cannot meaningfully ask, What would have been
occurrent if Dasein had never existed? if by that we mean, What would have been the case
if the above question made no sense? That would be to treat being--intelligibility--as if it
were in itself."

The question about the hammer therefore devolves to being a question about the mode of being of the hammer when it stands in relation to the Dasein through questioning, i.e. the only sensible question to make is (b). In this sense, the answer is both easy to obtain and uninteresting: the hammer has the mode of being of presence-at-hand, whether it is currently being dealt with or apprehended, or if one is merely stipulating about the possibility of not dealing with them at all. The entity in question is an entity present-at-hand as determined by the act of questioning itself. Put bluntly: it makes no sense to ask about hammers as something which is ontologically non-present at hand. One can't think hammers qua hammers [something present-at-hand] could still have another mode of being, as if both could be paired by sharing some transcendental quality or property connecting them to a particular entity.

Now, one may hypothesize the following problem: that if in indifferent activity one deals with hammers neither as objects nor as part of equipment (which is to say, does not deal with them at all), and this entails they have no mode of being, then we seem to be making even entities present-at-hand something which couldn't be without being apprehended by a human being at some point. For what mode of being could any entity have if it is not being used or thought of in theory, and it rather stands indifferently to Dasein?

This line of thought devolves in confusing the modes of being of entities with the properties of objects. Heidegger is not asserting that the properties assigned to entities present-at-hand are only good for as long as one holds them in assertion; these properties are precisely striking since when assigned they appear as having been there all along. To ask, for example, about whether the hammer is still on the cupboard when one is not paying attention to it at all is to ask whether it could be identified as something present-at-hand at some other hypothetical time (present). The subsistence of entities is never understood in isolation to their determination by a comporting Dasein, and in no way entails that entities present-at-hand need a comporting Dasein to subsist or have properties. At the most, we may conclude only that such objective determinations about entities can only be made with reference and from the active interpretation of the comporting Dasein for which these entities are presented in this way. By the same token, this means that in any case to ask about hammers is to invariably make a question about an object that is present-at-hand, and so an entity which has that mode of being. The relation to the comporting Dasein cannot be broken to ask about an entity which is only apprehended in a determinate way by the comportment of Dasein.

Dreyfus' answer is thus muddled by his incomprehension: he misreads Heidegger as saying hammers have the mode of deficient readiness-to-hand when dealt with indifferently. But this is an impossible scenario to work out; for it would mean that each and every entity which is dealt with indifferently at a given time by Dasein would have the mode of being of deficient readiness-to-hand. This is not merely implausible, but inconsistent with Heidegger's account. For it claims we should draw an ontological division between particular entities which have the mode of being of readiness-to-hand, and particular entities which have the mode of being of presence-at-hand. The former entities, it would turn out, are either directly used or else deficient ready-to-hand entities without being apprehended in relation to any use whatsoever. But how could such indifference still take the label of readiness-to-hand when it is precisely in circumspection and in express unavailability that we determine these entities in such a way? We would need to imply equipmentality played the role of some sort of property, decided in terms of its suitability or unsuitability for particular properties, and which belonged to self-sufficient entities without the need of a comporting Dasein.

This would obviously render the entire story about how ready-to-hand entities are not objects with properties as downright inconsistent. Heidegger insists for these reasons, and well-aware of these complications, that there is strictly speaking never an equipment and that only understanding an entity as something present-at-hand we can say that an entity ready-to-hand really is. Dreyfus comes dangerously close to this in his commentary when he claims:

"As we have seen, to be a hammer is to be used to pound in nails for building houses, etc. For a culture that always tied things together, there could be no hammers because there would be nothing that it was to be a hammer. But there could, nonetheless, be pieces of wood with iron blobs on the end, since wood and iron are natural kinds and their being and causal powers make no essential reference to any inorder-tos or for-the-sake-of-whichs."

Here Dreyfus misses the point. The point is that entities must of necessity appear for an understanding Dasein, even if what such understanding discloses is thereupon shown to be independent of Dasein. Although it makes sense to say pieces of wood could be irrespective of Dasein, Heidegger's point is that the world is not 'made-up' from entities present-at-hand which are then discovered; this would render Heidegger as a strict realist and an externalist. The idea that interpretation is always Dasein dependent entails that whichever way we end up characterizing nature as, even from the purview of an ontic classification of the present-at-hand, will as such be Dasein dependent. Without interpretation and readiness-to-hand preceding the present-at-hand in circumspection there would be no discoverdness of entities as particulars, no interpretative determination of any entity within an ontology of nature or whatnot. This does not mean, of course, that entities are description dependent, but that to assert 'pieces of wood' are in themselves even in the absense of Dasein is just to say that whatever gets disocovered after interpretation as occurent will prevail even after Dasein is gone. There isn't any one interpretation-description we could assign as natural in the sense that it would have been there without Dasein, since the disclosedness of entities can only take place for a comporting Dasein.

In any case, the point seems ambivalent: present-at-hand entities can subsist 'in themselves' (non-relationally to Dasein) only after a certain interpretation has taken place and can be assigned as the being of the entity retrospectively, from the interrupted sight of circumspection. Enough for now...