On the Use and Misuse of Equipment in Heidegger

How does Heidegger view the “misuse” of equipment? If I take a hammer and use it as a weapon or a book and use it as a doorstop, has this somehow violated Heidegger’s account? Many pragmatic interpreters imply that the “proper use” of something is set in stone by cultural norms. Yet careful attention to the text shows this to be a misreading.

In Section 18 of Being and Time, Heidegger makes a dialectical move away from “purpose” to “reference” and “relevance.” To jump into the text a bit:

The what-for of serviceability and the wherefore of usability prefigure the possible concretion of reference. The “indicating” of signs, the “hammering” of the hammer, however, are not qualities of beings. (SZ, 83).

Not “qualities,” as an “ontological structure,” Heidegger says, but rather

“serviceability (reference) is also not the suitability of beings, but the condition for the possibility of being for their being able to be determined by suitability.”

This “reference” means “having the character of being referred.”

Beings are discovered with regard to the fact that they are referred, as those beings which they are, to something. They are relevant together with something else. The character of being of things at hand is relevance. To be relevant means to let something be together with something else. (84)

Notice that Heidegger is really careful to point out that this isn’t dependent upon the purposivity, but rather is a condition for the possibility of purposivity. This explains how equipment can be “repurposed,” e.g. a hammer can be used as a weapon.

Continuing from here, Heidegger goes on to talk about hammers, how they relate to nails, how nails relate to houses, etc. He then says:

The total relevance which, for example, constitutes the things at hand in a workshop in their handiness is “earlier” than any single useful thing, as the farmstead with all its utensils and neighboring lands. The total relevance itself, however, ultimately leads back to a what-for which no longer has relevance … the for-the-sake-of-which always concerns the being of Dasein which is essentially concerned about this being itself in its being. (ibid.)

So basically, if I take a hammer as a weapon during the zombie apocalypse, the hammer has been “made relevant” as a weapon alongside other things within a general situation.

Now, remember that things like hammers have a relevance for which “they are always initially freed,” but this isn’t the end of relevance. Rather:

Ontically, to let something be relevant means to let things at hand be in such and such a way in factical taking care of things, to let them be as they are in order that they be such (ibid.)

This “letting be” lets things be what they already are so that they can be seen as such. When we describe (not when we use) hammers as hammers, we bring to light what they already are.

Previously letting “be” does not mean first to bring something to its being and produce it, but rather to discover something that is already a “being” in its handiness and thus let it be encountered as the being of this being. (85)

By “previously letting ‘be’”, Heidegger means that something “already is what it is” and that this being, when “discovered” (i.e. in unconcealment), shows itself as something “already handy.”

In a footnote Heidegger says “thus to let it presence in its truth.” If related to other Heidegger, the handy thing is “put on display” as the kind of being that it is, like Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant shoes. This means that we encounter the Being of the vorhandene when we “show it as something at hand,” when we make its handiness explicit. When using a hammer, however, this being isn’t explicit at all. Phenomenological description brings its being as a hammer to light.

Things are always already freed for relevance. There’s no gap between subject and object; the world we are describing is the one already there.

To have always already let something be freed for relevance is an a priori perfect characterizing the kind of being of Dasein itself. (85)

In a footnote, Heidegger associates this phrase “a priori perfect” with Aristotle’s phrase to ti en enai (what it was to be).

… when a being is discovered in its being, it is always already a thing at hand in the surrounding world and precisely not “initially” merely objectively present “world-stuff.” (85)

I think the sentence above characterizes the purpose of analyzing praxis well: the problem of knowledge doesn’t concern a subject and material objects, but Dasein already involved in a familiar world. Anything discovered must be “wrestled” from the familiar, practical way of encountering it.

This resists the pragmatic reading. According to the pragmatic reading, “beings are” because of socio-cultural factors. Thus considered, a hammer is a hammer because has a “proper use.”  Dreyfus writes:

… a piece of equipment like a chair is defined by what it is normally used for by a normal user in a culture where such objects have an established function. (Being-in-the-world, 64).

By this reading, can Heidegger’s phenomenology account for the “misuse” of a hammer, for instance, the hammer as a weapon?

For Heidegger, however, hammers are already there as pragmata, as “useful things.” They are already encountered as relevant, but to get to the being of hammers, we have to “let them show themselves” in their handiness. Tools, one might recall, “disappear” into the work. Precisely for this reason, they require phenomenological description.

While the pragmatic reading would perhaps dismiss “using a hammer as a weapon” as a “misuse” of the hammer as such, phenomenological description can account for both. In “bringing the hammer to light,” we might bring to light the possibility that such a thing could be made a weapon, just like a sword made into a plowshare.
A work of art seems the appropriate medium for this. Art, for Heidegger, brings something into unconcealment, “puts it on display” in its being. For instance, if a painting depicted a warrior charging with a hammer and the hammer still had a hardware store sticker on it, this would bring this “misuse” explicitly to light as such. Turning the home improvement item into a war axe, this imagery puts the hammer on display as something “not a weapon” turned into a weapon.

Originally posted on /r/ askphilosophy. Modified from its original version.

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