Spool Five

History of Being


An (in)famous concept from the hermeneutic philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

Difficult to explain/simplify, but I will try my best here.

I think a good starting point for thinking about this idea is David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech for the graduates of Kenyon College.

In this speech, Wallace tells the story of an older fish passing two young fish and remarking that “the water is lovely today”. The younger fish keep swimming and one turns to the other and says “What the hell is water?”.

This story resonates with Heidegger hermeneutics and the notion that the closest and most intimate features of our existence are often the most invisible to us.

Think of Heidgger’s most famous example of the hammer. He uses it to discuss the difference between an thing being ‘present-at-hand’ and ‘ready-to-hand’. When a thing is present-at-hand, it appears to us as an object of reflections. Two carpenters discussing their tools after work is an example of having the object (tools) present-at-hand. They are full available for description and analysis. An extreme example of this might be using Amazon to select a tool. Here, all we have are visual and linguistic representations of the tool - pictures, product descriptions, customer reviews, etc.

This is one mode of being of the thing. The other is its ‘ready-to-handedness’. The hammer is not only an object when we can reflect upon and describe, it is also a tool. The might sound very simple and obvious at first, but the point Heidegger is getting at is that this simplest of truths is often hidden from us in our everyday approach to the world. As a tool, the hammer becomes invisible to our analytic/directed consciousness of it. When we are using it, we focus elsewhere, for example on the nail we are hammering, on the table we are constructing, on the home we are furnishing, and so on. Or, it might be lying quietly on a workbench, waiting for us to, almost unconsciously, pick it up.

In which case is the hammer really a ‘hammer’? Is it a hammer as we see it on the Amazon product page? Or, as we unbox it and feel its weight in our hand? To a certain extent, yes, but Heidgger’s point is that the real hammer-ness of the hammer only exists when it is being used as a hammer, which is the same point at which it ceases to be an ‘object’ and becomes, rather, an integrated, living actor within a larger network of relations. Once it moves from the ‘objectness’ to this ‘practical’, teleological meaning, it also starts to become very difficult to describe the hammer. As soon as we cease the hammering activity and try to say what exactly it was the hammer was doing, we have shifted its being from being ‘ready-to-hand’ to being ‘present-at-hand’.

This is not a controversial perspective. It is easy to say that, for many things in life, there is a sharp distinction between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge. When you first start a job, you can spend a few days watching training videos, but it is not until you get ‘hands-on’, i.e., become integrated in the practical environment of the job, that you actually start to understand what you should and should not be doing.

Heidgger’s challenge was that philosophy should focus on this practical side of understanding, whereas in the past it focused on theoretical questions.

But, as we said, as soon as you start to describe or philosophize about something, you are abstracting from its practical context. So, how do we escape this dilemma?

Not particularly easily. And, this is where the ‘History of Being’ finally comes in.

For Heidegger, the types of questions we tend to ask about things, which amount to attempts to isolate the describe individual things, arise historically. These questions began with a certain kind of philosophy (Socrates) and continued throughout the ages in different forms. Eventually, this mode of questioning leads to modern technology, which is the ultimate form of viewing things as atomic, separable and therefore infinitely controllable.

The classic example here is two approaches to the same phenomena - a river. Whereas a poet (like Holderlin) sees the river and sees echos of myth and metaphors of human finitude and divinity, an engineer may look at the same river and see a useful source of enegry. The poet will write a poem and the engineer will build a damn.

In other words, the types of questions we ask of things are not ’neutral’, they in turn shape the world we live in - a world filled with damns and google and, well, most things which are characteristic of modern life.

Because our world and our worldviews have been profoundly shaped by a history of questioning existence in a way that prioritised ‘beings’ (isolated objects) over ‘Being’, we are trapped in a kind of reality where much of our existence is hidden from us. We are like the two young fish who don’t know what water is.

Random Note