On the Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit "Reversal"

I often hear people say that Heidegger’s big accomplishment in Being and Time was the “reversal” of presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand.  These people will of course tell the standard story of how Heidegger was dissatisfied with traditional philosophy making vorhandenheit dominant in  Western thought. Being dissatisfied, they say Heidegger then “reversed” vorhandenheit with zuhandenheit, and made readiness-to-hand dominant in ontology. That is, Heidegger hated how objects and objectivity had played such a dominant role in philosophy and created all these problems so he replaced it with Dasein i.e. readiness-to-hand. These two ontological modes play off each other. Traditionally, zuhandenheit was derivative of vorhandenheit but it is said that Heidegger “reversed” this relation, claiming instead that vorhandenheit was derivative from zuhandenheit.

According to this line of thought, Heidegger’s ontology consists of a dualism between vorhandenheit and zuhandenheit. Being a dualism, this will obviously get Heidegger into a lot of trouble, especially with the so-called “anti-correlationists”. The anti-correlationists claim that because of Heidegger’s reversal, he is stuck with anthropomorphism because he claims that vorhandenheit (objectivity) is derivative from zuhandenheit (subjectivity).

I want to challenge this dualism. A careful reading of Being and Time reveals that there is actually a tripartite ontology in Heidegger’s phenomenology: zuhandenheit, vorhandenheit, and the real. This is evidenced in the following passage:

The ‘Nature’ by which we are ‘surrounded’ is, of course, an entity within-the-world; but the kind of being which it shows belongs neither to the ready-to-hand nor to what is present-at-hand as ‘Things of Nature’. (SZ 211)

Passages like these clearly call for a rejection of the simple dualism between readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand. There is a third element in play: the Real, the environs, the Earth, etc. These terms are all synonymous with Heidegger’s first definition of world as “the totality of entities present at hand”. Thus, we need to distinguish between two different forms of vorhandenheit. There is the vorhandenheit which shows up within-the-world which is derivative from zuhandenheit. This is a phenomenological conception of presence-at-hand. It describes how the world shows up as objective when our familiarity breaks down. But then there is the ontic and naturalistic conception of presence-at-hand which is independent of human concerns. This is a metaphysical notion of vorhandenheit. Heidegger cashes it out in terms of the “Real”.

“As we have noted, being (not entities) is dependent upon the understanding of being, that is to say, Reality (not the Real) is dependent upon care” (SZ 212)

“But the fact that [phenomenological] Reality is ontologically grounded in the being of Dasein, does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists, can the Real be as that which in itself it is” (SZ 212)

This means that there is an underlying naturalistic metaphysics in Being and Time (*gasp*). This metaphysics isn’t made very explicit, but it is there. For example, he says:

Thus Dasein’s Being becomes ontologically transparent in a comprehensive way only within the horizon in which the being of entities other than Dasein — and this means even of those which are neither ready-to-hand nor present-at-hand but just ‘subsist’ — has been clarified. (SZ 333)

Only in so far as something resistant has been discovered on the basis of the ecstatical temporality of concern, can factical Dasein understand itself in its abandonment to a [totality of entities] of which it never becomes master. (SZ 356)

Clearly, Heidegger wants to separate the Earth as it exists naturally and the Earth as it exists within-the-world of human experience. Heidegger recognizes that if humans vanished from the planet the planet would still exist, without Dasein. Indeed, he says that “The present-at-hand, as Dasein encounters it, can, as it were, assault Dasein’s Being; natural events, for instance, can break in upon us and destroy us” (SZ 152).

Accordingly, I have never understood the claim that because Heidegger “destroyed” Western metaphysics he didn’t have his own metaphysics. I find this claim to be absurd, not only philosophically, but textually as well. A close reading of Heidegger reveals that even within the densest descriptions of worldhood there are oftens cracks of Earth poking through, “rupturing” the world structure. In fact, I think this is what Heidegger is describing when he talks about the breakdown structure of both circumspective concern and anxiety before the “nothingness”. The nothing is literally the no-thing, the Real which has not yet been “worlded” and object-ified in terms of human concern. The no-thing is not itself nothing. It is something. It is the all-present, all-surrounding natural environs which grounds our dwelling. We can thus see a metaphysical continuity running from early Heidegger to late Heidegger.



Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

3 responses to “On the Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit "Reversal"

  1. John Townsend

    There are at least two issues here: the anti-correlationist gripe with always needing a human being on the scene for anything to exist or to be considered philosophically interesting. So they are especially ticked off by Heidegger’s “alles tragenden Bezug”. The second issue is the supposed vor/zu dualism.

    Before getting to these, first I’ll say: I’m not sure how one could, by any stretch, equate the ready-to-hand with subjectivity. Traditionally subjectivity is supposed to be the vorhanden of both subject and object, the reciprocal subject-object relation. At any rate, the readiness of zeug are not any more related to subjectivity than, say, what is vorhanden. Also, certainly Heidegger makes the clear distinction (but not seperation) between the world, the umwelt, universe, etc. Things are extant, animals live, and Dasein exists. I put these two points here because they didn’t really fit in anywhere else below. OK

    I think what the anti-correlationists (I think you mean Quentin Meillassoux in his book After Finitude?) would object to are statements such as, “A cat does not exist, but it lives; a stone neither lives nor exists but it present-at-hand [vorhanden]” Or even more annoying to the Anti-Correlationists: “..there cannot be the being of beings at all without the human being” and Heidegger’s critical attitude toward science which would claim: “Earth has already existed for about four billion years, whereas the first man appeared only about two million years ago. At the very least, the being we call earth was already here long before human beings appeared.”

    But the distress over H’s claims regarding being and existence are a misunderstanding partly due to Heidegger’s own battle with ordinary language and partly due to the Anti-Corr’s own laziness in not reading Heidegger carefully enough (or in G. Harman’s case, for a little publicity/attention). cf Heidegger’s critical remarks on the holding sway of objective presence (‘reality’). It just makes no good sense to say the world is ‘there’ if no Dasein exists.

    Anyway, Heidegger is going to turn the whole argument upside down and claim, “The selfhood of the Dasein is founded on its transcendence…” and “transcendence means to understand oneself FROM A WORLD”.

    As for the dualism, the notion that Heidegger is “stuck with anthropomorphism because he claims that vorhandenheit (objectivity) is derivative from zuhandenheit (subjectivity)” is nonsense since there is no duality here. There are many more modes of being which Heidegger recognizes that these two, including existence, mitdasein, the work of art (a kind of Ding sharing in Zeug and Vorhandens, but differing from both), etc. For Heidegger the ready-to-hand is not more real or true or genuine, it enjoys no absolute priority except as how things are “proximally and for the most part” encountered — even in “that concern in which we tarry and look at something, uncovers entities”. As Heidegger says, there is no priority of the practical over the theoretical; rather, care is the basis for both (BT 193-4, etc).

    Finally, Merleau-Ponty writes, “The brute or wild Being (= the perceived world)…this perceptual world is at bottom Being in Heidegger’s sense..” (VI 170).

  2. Gary Williams

    Hey John, thanks for the comment. I think you hit upon the core of the issue here. I liked what you said about readiness-to-hand not necessarily being “subjective” in the way Heidegger’s critics accuse him of. This reminds me of J.J. Gibson’s comment that affordance ontology cuts across the subject-objective divide because it is simultaneously objective and subjective in virtue of there being a “real” relation between an organism (the Dasein animal) and the Earth (that which appears to us). I think Heidegger commentators get confused when they fail to realize that for Heidegger Dasein is an ontic entity just like any other animal. They think that Dasein is some kind of “consciousness” or “awareness” or pure temporal existence that somehow metaphysically transcends the ontic world. In other words, they interpret the subjectivity of animals in terms of metaphysical distinctions rather than phenomenological psychology. Moreover, I think people get hung up on Heidegger’s notion of Being, thinking that Heidegger is interested in metaphysics (“Being qua Being”) when in reality he was interested in phenomenology alone. Accordingly, Big B Being should not be understood as some mysterious Thing or Process but as the meaning of significance of entities as they manifest themselves in relation to the Care structure. Thomas Sheehan has a paper coming out called “What if Heidegger was a Phenomenologist?” that argues exactly this. If you can get your hands on some of his work, you should. Cheers.

  3. john townsend

    Well, my comments were poorly organized at best, but thanks anyway Gary. Also, I have read some of Sheehan’s work and I agree, its good stuff. He reads deeply and makes connections most would skip over.

    Interesting/surprising quote by Heidegger on this issue:
    “World” is not over-against the subject; world is more subjective than “subject,” more objective than “object”. (Zollikon Sem. 194/242)

    In the end, I’m not sure how many persons could genuinely claim to have fully grasped what Heidegger meant by Dasein during any particular stretch of his life as a philosopher.

    Take s.10 of “The metaphysical foundations of logic” (p. 136 ff). To me, this seems to make Dasein a quite complex (or perhaps radically simple) concept. For example, “neutral-Dasein” doesn’t necessarily entail a body but rather, “harbors the intrinsic possibility for being factically dispersed into bodiliness and thus into sexuality.” (137) Seems, in many cases, to be a kind of ‘methodological’ attitude or a way into ontological/phenomenological seeing.

    Heidegger’s description of Dasein as a monad (i.e., in his reinterpretation of Leibniz’s monad) is enlightening and perplexing all at once.

    How do you square with this?

    “As a monad, the Dasein needs no window in order first of all to look out toward something outside itself…because the monad, the Dasein, in its own being (transcendence) is already outside, among other beings, and this imples always with its own self. […] …a window would be superfluous for Dasein…[Leibniz] was not able to see that the monad, because it IS ESSENTIALLY REPRESENTATIONAL, mirroring a world, is transcendence and not a substantival extant entity, a windowless capsule. Transcendence is not instituted by an object coming together with a subject, or a thou with an I, but the Dasein itself, as “being-a-subject,” transcends.” (Basic Problems of Phenomenology p. 301 {s. 20 Temporality [427-428]}

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