lunes, 3 de diciembre de 2007

More Dreyfus - On the ready-to-hand and equipment

Dreyfus draws a crucial distinction between:

(a) Entities ready-to-hand (designation about the mode of being of the entity, ontological characterization, existentiale)
(b) Equipment (designation about social entities, in relation to other equipment, ontic determination)

Following his interpretation, he deduces that equipment is limited to the sort of entities which are man made, products of culture such as hammers or flags. Such socially constituted entities are, in Dreyfus’ view, unlike merely ready-to-hand entities, in that the former must of necessity be related to other pieces of equipment within a framework of remissive references (what he calls a ‘holistic web’) and never on their own. The hammer as understood in being used can only perform as a hammer within a framework of other equipment, like nails and doors; it can never function in isolation from other man-made equipment. The fallen tree used as a bridge, on the other hand, may be used by us in our crossing, but it needn’t be understood in relation to anything else; it lays there not by human decision but by natural chance.

The crucial misunderstanding here is to be spotted in the last sentence. For it is not clear at all how exactly we are to distinguish between the holistic web operative in cases of mere readiness-to-hand and those in cases of equipment. Presumably, the latter have the obscure quality of only being understood in relation to other equipment, within a referential whole in a manner not proper to mere entities ready-to-hand. To the answer that related pieces of man-made equipment are what distinguishes equipment from merely ready-to-hand entities we must ask: how are merely ready-to-hand entities to be understood, if not in a holistic web of man-made references? Clearly, they cannot be understood as particular, self-sufficient or isolated substances, i.e. the fallen tree used as a bridge is anything but a mere object in speculative reflection. The other alternative is to say that all entities ready-to-hand are understood within a web of references, whether they are equipment or not.

Here the problem becomes transparent: we may trivially respond that the merely ready-to-hand takes part within a holistic web of non man-made references, but this seems to leave the distinction unexplained existentially. How this distinction is to be explained as an existential phenomenon seems quite hard; indeed it seems that we must start talking about how different particular pieces of equipment are related to other pieces of equipment as if we were taling about relations between particular substances. These divisions may be, at best, categorial and thus ontic, since the crucial lesson to be understood is that in readiness-to-hand one never experiences something like relations between particulars, but an integrated whole. The distinction between social and non-social entities seems to relapse into the view that in readiness-to-hand the understanding differentiates entities in terms of their relations qua particulars.

But this is decidedly inconsistent with the idea that no such relations are involved in readiness-to-hand: the integrated whole Heidegger speaks about is ontologically prior to any ontic determination in which such relations or differentiations could be made. It doesn't help to say distinctions are implicit rather than reflective, since that would seem a relapse into Husserlian intentional analysis, i.e. giving an account of how noematic content is determined in peculiar intentional comportments. Upon closer look, it seems the peculiarity attributed to equipment, namely their relational character to other equipment, does very little to help Dreyfus' case once compared to paradigm examples of what would be merely ready-to-hand entities. To show this, let us consider a simple example. It is clear that all entities ready-to-hand must take place within the framework of a referential whole. The fallen tree log can only be used as a bridge if I am engaged purposively in order to cross it; it acquires its readiness-to-hand in the circumspective dealing in purposive acting. In order for the fallen tree to be understood as useful-for-crossing it must obviously be understood in relation to the two extremes conjoined by the tree, to the water and space between the log and the river, and so on.

This understanding clearly does not see the 'bundle' of the tree and the two sides connecting the river as a relation between different entities; the ready-to-hand is always given as a whole and never as a heap of particulars or relations among them, unlike substance talk in theory. Rather, circumspection integrates both the subject and his environment in the act of crossing in such a way that they are a unity, integrated within the horizon of a towards-which, an end which guides the acting Dasein in absorbed coping. Likewise, the tree that provides a shade on a sunny day can only be understood as shelter if it is circumspectively connected to the sun as burning, for the sake of sheltering. This connection, it must be said, can only be provisionally named, since strictly both the sun and the tree are integrated and understood in relation to a proximate task: sheltering.Case in point, the sun is just the 'unpleasant burning' and the tree is understood as the 'sheltering body'.

In sum, entities ready-to-hand are understood always within a peculiar horizon of understanding, in terms of a distinctive possibility to which Dasein has been more of less delivered and which acquires its peculiar character from the previous familiarity of the world common to Dasein. In this case, the burning sensation and the refuge of shadowy areas articulate the situation in which the Dasein moves and goes about his world. In this engaged, absorbed, pre-ontological understanding of the world, we always project ourselves futurally with respect to available possibilities. And this applies to entities ready-to-hand whether they are man-made or not.Having said this; it becomes much harder to see what peculiar quality the ready-to-hand gains as equipment. That it belongs to a region of entities produced by man seems a plainly ontic determination just like the one between objects with intrinsic properties and those relational properties.

But as said above, it remains absolutely unclear how this distinction can be made at the existential level: both trees and hammers seem to operate within articulate wholes for specific purposes; the referential holism is in no interesting way peculiar in man-made objects or conventions. That the hammer is necessitated by the nail is no different from saying the log used to crossed over may only be understood in relation with the two extremes of the river. Clearly, in both examples there is no explicit reflection on hammers or nails, just as little as there is about logs and rivers. The situation merely presents itself in terms of possibilities open for a particular purpose, in an integrated manner. It would therefore appear as if the distinction between entities ready-to-hand and equipment was either trivial (ontic determination) or inconsistent (by claiming ontologically subject does after all experience entities as related particulars, albeit implicitly).

I think Heidegger would therefore simply not make the distinction as Dreyfus does: readiness-to-hand designates the mode of being of the kind of entities which are put to use in circumspection and thus function as an equipmental whole, an integrated unity into which the subject belongs and which is guided without reflection for the sake of something. In this sense all entities ready-to-hand are entities which are used within such an integrated nexus for specific purposes. Tools such as hammers are just as imbedded with nails as fallen logs are with rivers in circumspection. The end of the task, the 'for the sake of which' articulating the horizon of a proximate task, determines the know-how that takes opens a region of entities and a sphere of referential relations. In other words, for Heidegger equipment designates just how the equipmental-wholes which are constitute our commerce with entities ready-to-hand are used for the sake of some purpose; never as a parts attached as prostheses to a subject in acting, but as an equipmental-whole.

This misreading is peculiar in Dreyfus' self-labeled 'Wittgensteinean' interpretation of Being and Time all throughout his lectures and text. This is already recurrent on his book, as in for example the following passage, announcing the interpretation to follow about Heidegger's conception of 'the One' (or 'the they' in Macquarrie-Robinson):

"Heidegger's basic point is that the background familiarity that underlies all coping and all intentional states is not a plurality of subjective belief systems including mutual beliefs about each others' beliefs, but rather an agreement in ways of acting and judging into which human beings, by the time they have Dasein in them, are"always already" socialized. Such agreement is not conscious thematic agreement but is prior to and presupposed by the intentionalistic sort of agreement arrived at between subjects." [Pg. 88]

The line of thought pursued by Dreyfus here is clear: the unveiling of entities ready-to-hand and of the nexus of significance is always socially constituted, and never articulated in isolation from public, shared practices. This seems, however, to provoke certain questions relevant to the question of the ready-to-hand and equipment. Namely, if the background familiarity which articulates all coping and intentional states is social, then are we to assume that it is equipment that which is first and foremost disclosed for Dasein's coping? For it is far from clear that using the tree log as a bridge is 'social' in the sense which Drefyus here seems to want to imply. Perhaps one might grant to Dreyfus that most of our conventional ways of coping with the world (indeed, through language, social norms, and so on) are socially determined. This seems a harmless hypothesis, and almost trivially true. But it is far from clear that our dealing with entities acquire their familiarity primarily in this way.

In fact, Dreyfus goes all the way in his reading, claiming that"Society is the ontological source of the familiarity and readiness that makes the ontical discovering of entities, of others, and even of myself possible." [Ibid]Again, this begs questions about the relationship of equipment with the ready-to-hand, and thus between the entities proper to our everyday involvements and the mode of being in which they are disclosed. For if we want to say tree logs used as bridges as non-societal and yet still ready-to-hand, then it plainly follows that either the disclosure of entities cannot always be social, or that all ready-to-hand entities must be disclosed by social influence. But this latter hypothesis renders Dreyfus' story inconsistent, since the presumed distinction between the ready-to-hand and equipment consisted in the latter's being social as opposed to the former. If we make all entities necessarily social, then we seem to relapse into the view that all ready-to-hand entities are equipment, or else devolve into making a plainly ontic distinction between man-made objects and natural objects. If socially determined entities are thus the 'ontological source' of all further commerce with entities, it seems we would have to posit equipment as preceding ontologically the purely ready-to-hand; a thesis which remains altogether outside of Heidegger's own.

On the other hand, if we resist the distinction drawn by Dreyfus, we might still sort out a relevant story of how the uncoverdness of entities is never world-independent. The tree used as a bridge is not man-made or intended as such, and yet it still remains true that for it to be used as a bridge it must take place within purposive action; indeed the sort of action which can only take place within a familiar world where roles and acts are already constituted and hoped in some way or other. This amounts to saying that the 'for-the-sake-of-whiches' relating Dasein to any entity's appropriation as available must in some way already respond to a familiar world- and it is perhaps in this sense that we should understand Heidegger.

The "for-the-sake-of-which" signifies an "in-order-to"; this in turn, a "towards-this." . . . These relationships are bound up with one another as a primordial whole; they are what they are as this signifying in which Dasein gives itself beforehand its being-in-the-world as something to be understood. (120) [87]

If a man expects to cross the river, as part of the act guided by the hope of reaching the vegetable plains, then we see the extent of Heidegger's radical denouncement of subjectivist tendencies. Even if the log is not man made, the equipmental-whole conformed in such circumspection must operate in relation to an end which is determined by my relationship to others- i.e. to some sphere of familiar roles and potential uses, expectations, hopes, all of which presuppose the world as its background. However, in this sense Heidegger does not intend an average notion of the social as being equivalent to his notion of world: 'the others' in question are those which I identify myself as being equal to, and which conjointly articulate the entire nexus of entities and purposes which guide activity (i.e. the vegetables, the buyers, the family to be fed, the morning sun which announces the time for harvest, etc):

By "others" we do not mean everyone else but me--those over against whom the "I" stands out. They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself--those among whom one is too. This being-there-too with them does not have the ontological character of a being-occurrent-along-"with" them . . . This "with" is something of the character of Dasein; the "too" means a sameness of being as circumspectively concernful being-in-the-world. "With" and "too" are to be understood existentially, not categorially. By reason of this with-like being-in-the-world, the world is always the one that I share with others. The world of Dasein is a with-world. Being-in is being-with others. (154 155) [118]"

[Dasein] finds itself primarily and usually in things because, tending them, distressed by them, it always in some way or other rests in things. Each one of us is what he pursues and cares for. In everyday terms, we understand ourselves and our existence by way of the activities we pursue and the things we take care of." (BP, 159.)
Since the way in which entities are disclosed within the world and thus understood is never in isolation to some specific purpose and thus some familiar background, one never acquires the neutrality needed to engage in the sort of intentional analysis proper to Husserlian phenomenology. Of course, the relevant question to follow is how exactly this background gets in place. But we should resist the conclusion that all of our commerce with entities depends on the presence of other human beings of necessity; since one might easily imagine hypothetical scenarios in which entities are still dealt with in isolation of humans. (Tarzan, alien abductions, virtual reality simulators and so on). In any case, the crucial point is that Dasein cannot dispose of its familiarity within a world articulated by different projects and expectations. That these expectations include the realm of the social, of language and culture in general is just the necessary consequence of being already in an environing world, which is interpreted in various ways and varying degrees. Heidegger's notion of being-with should thus be approached with caution here:

In clarifying being-in-the-world we have shown that a bare subject without a world never"is" firstly, nor is it ever given. And so in the end an isolated "I" without others is just asfar from being firstly given. (152) [116]

This passage suggests that the public world of Dasein needs the other in the form of society, of explicitly occurent individuals which coexist with Dasein to articulate a shared world. But this seems to all too easily lend itself to silly objections about virtual-reality-sort of examples whereby a single human being might nonetheless develop all of its functions in isolation of others. Likewise, we may think of other embarrassing examples of socially alienated human beings raised by animals, abducted by aliens, or whatnot. I take it Heidegger's point here is not to say Dasein needs of other existing human beings as essential to being-in-the-world; but that even in the lack of the other, an understanding of the world is only possible if there has been a public world accessible in some way.

Thus, the virtual reality simulator might indeed produce a perfectly capable human being, since it is not sufficient to say others do not exist to render being-the-world impossible, but that for any interpretation of the world we must presuppose some background or other and as such an interpretation. In this case, whatever is programmed into the simulator would need to already have arisen from Dasein qua public being. In order to use language, to engage in purposive activity, one must already lend itself to interpretation of the world and to other entities within some framework; and this constitutes Dasein's activity whether it dwells amidst other humans or not:

"The phenomenological assertion that "Dasein is essentially being-with" has an existential ontological meaning. It does not seek to establish ontically that factically I am not occurrent alone, and that others of my kind occur. . . . Being-with is an existential characteristic of Dasein even when factically no other is occurrent or perceived. (156) [120]"

Although Dreyfus acknowledges this feature of of being-with, it's implications on his own reading are left unquestioned. For if Dasein's purposive action presupposes the structure of being-in, and this structure remains even in the absence of others, then it seems hard to see how equipment as social ready-to-hand entities are in any way different ontologically from non-equipmental ready-to-hand entities. Once again, it seems clear that the interpretation of all entities operates on the background of a publicly shared world, a world that may broadly be called social. But it is far from clear that from this determination the man-made equipment is social in any more than the rest of entities.

"Whether there is any particular other there or not, when I perceive or use tools or speak, I'm always already involved in a shared world. According to Heidegger, "being-with" is a basic structure of Dasein's being, more basic than relating to particular others. Even when I am not encountering others nor using equipment, others are there for me. I have a readiness for dealing with them along with my readiness for dealing with equipment. Being-with would still be a structure of my Daseining even if all other Daseins had been wiped out." [Df, Pg. 100]

But this 'readiness to cope with equipment' cannot be the readiness to cope with others, since clearly being-with is an essential structure of Dasein, whether it deals with hammers, or logs, or whether it rests underneath the shade of the tree in speculative reflection. How, then, are we to sort out Dreyfus' notion of the ontological priority of the social with Heidegger's idea that that being-with is an existential feature of Dasein? Provisionally, it appears that if we want to call Dasein social it is in the broad sense of being-with; in the sense in which the background practices into which Dasein is embedded always functions in correlation to an other which is undistinguished from oneself (whether this be in language, or in the implicit act of harvesting for the merchant). That significance is always conformed in direct correlation to others, even in their absence, explains why even in cases of isolated coping we do not act as self-enclosed minds or substances. But in this sense, being-with just refers to Dasein's projection of determinate possibilities into which it has been put; it does not mean that Dasein must first learn 'social conventions' or learn language before it can start coping in its proper human way. Dreyfus seems to conflate these two levels of Dasein's understanding in the following passage:

"Of course the human organism must at some time begin to take a stand on itself by pressing into human possibilities. It cannot do this just by reflex action or even by animal directedness. Before it can humanly cope, the baby must be socialized into shared, ongoing activities by imitating people and accumulating the necessary experiences until it begins to do what one does for-the-sake-of whatever it is one is." [Pg. 133]

But here Dreyfus once again mistakes Dasein's projection onto determinate possibilities as something Dasein can only do from aculturation, from being embedded into social roles through interaction with other human beings, language and so on. What happens, then, with the allegedly disavowed reflex acts the baby experiences early in life? What mode of being do entities acquire when Dasein does deal with its environment before it has learned to deal with it appropiately? Clearly, this cannot be pure presence-at-hand, since according to Heidegger this only occur derivatively from readiness-to-hand. But if entities dealt with in this manner have the mode of readiness-to-hand, then the role aculturation plays becomes harder to grasp ontologically. It seems trivially true to say Dasein learns to cope with the world by becoming familiarized within a social world. But this clearly can't be the whole story, for we still need to account for those sort of dealing with entities which occur before we are imbedded into social roles. In fact, if projecting is unreflective and yet opening distinctive possibilities, then why are reflex actions, and natural instincts exluded from such projection? Heidegger is completely unambiguous in this respect:

"Grasping [that upon which it projects] would take away from what is projected its very character as a possibility, and would reduce it to the given contents which we have in mind; whereas projection, in throwing, throws before itself the possibility as possibility, and lets it be as such." (185) [145]

The way out of this shortcoming is to realize that readiness-to-hand is already proper to Dasein's dealings in the world, even before social aculturation takes place. That is, reflex activity, as well as instinctual drives (hunger, thirst, and so on) can be situated as part of affectedness- dispositional states into which we are thrown and which always already open up a sphere of possibilities for dealing with entities in such-and-such way. As to the specific mode of being of entities in these dealings (say, in a baby's dealing with the mother's breast) Heidegger's reply would be that it would be as readiness-to-hand; the horizon opened by the affectedness of hunger, in conjunction with the mother's nursing, operates as the horizon of understanding for the act of feeding. This leads us into two immediatly evident problems: (1) If so, then are we to say animals too deal with entities in the mode of readiness-to-hand? And (2) Why isn't the mother's nursing already an act of aculturation (as indeed Lacanians would be fond of pointing out as the moment of 'symbolic castration').

For the purposes of this post, we cannot extensively deal with the first question. Although Heidegger's account of animal behavior suggests that they lack a world and therefore the character of Dasein. This he deals with explicitly in his 1929/30 Lecture course 'The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics'. However, even there Heidegger does not draw an explicit distinction between the allegedly purely instinctual behaviour of animals and the sort of dealing which babies have before aculturation takes place, or as a matter of reflex. A provisional response might be that although animals do deal with entities in the mode of readiness-to-hand, they lack the possibility of discourse, language and thus of being capable of dealing with entities present-at-hand. This, in turn, might compromise the priority of circumspection as Dasein's most characteristic quality. Alternatively, that social conventions may indeed become imbedded into Dasein's circumspective activity might grant the peculiarity of this mode of being to Dasein. Even so, it remains quite unclear how this should function in any way differently from the behaviour which animals exhibit in becoming familiar into certain practices and into a certain environment. In his account, Heidegger limits himself to discussing less blurry examples, such as insects. Still, this is a broad topic which we cannot deal with effectively here.

The second question, however, pertains to the core of our argument with Dreyfus. For how are we to distinguish between animalistic, non-reflective coping with entities and socio/cultural non-reflective coping with entities? Is readiness-to-hand proper to both? And if, according to Dreyfus, equipment is only proper to the second, then what kinds of dealings comprise non-equipmental ready-to-hand entities, if not on the basis social or instinctual/reflexive dispositions? It seems we arrive here at a crux: for if Dreyfus wants to say equipment is only proper to social entities but that readiness-to-hand is nonetheless a broader category which applies to other things, it is once again unclear as to how these other non-equipmental ready-to-hand entities are any different than socially determined ones. More crucially, it appears now that socially imbedded projection is the condition of possibility for the distinctiveness of human being, this would imply equipmental ready-to-hand entities must precede all other commerce with entities, including merely ready-to-hand entities. But this is clearly absurd, since babies already engage with entities in various ways as a result of instinct and of reflex, before they are imbedded in social conventions. What then, are we to say about the baby in such a state? If my previous suggestion is right, then readiness-to-hand applies analogously to both socially determined practices and uses, as well as entities used as a result of reflexive/instinctual activity. That is, although both cases may clearly differ in their respective kind of affectedness, and thus obviously in the kind of entities and understanding involved in disclosure, there is from the moment of birth Dasein insofar as there is a projection of possibilities which disclose entities as ready-to-hand, viz. as entities incorporated in circumspection for the fulfillment of a given purpose. This applies to the baby's drinking milk from the mother's breast, as well as to his later manipulation of toys and use of language. Heidegger's account is indeed simple and yet broad enough to cover for both of these cases:

"With equal primordiality, the understanding projects Dasein's being both upon its "for-thesake-of-which" and upon significance, as the worldliness of its current world. . . . Projection is the existential being make-up by which [Dasein's] factical ability to be gets its room for maneuver." (185, my italics) [145]

More to come later...