I'm talking about the learning process... whereby a tool, first unfamiliar to the user, after some period of time, becomes transparent to the user. For example someone learning to play an instrument.

I assume when someone encounters their instrument for the first time... that's "present-at-hand". He's conscious of the instrument, and has to be conscious of almost every motion. After many years practice it becomes "ready-to-hand". Even operating complex machinery like an aeroplane can become ready-to-hand.

But what is the process by which this happens. Does Heidegger talk about this?

Also... what is the role of language here... language is clearly involved in the learning process... but when something becomes "ready-to-hand" has the brain bypassed language now... are we operating without language until we return to the "present-at-hand". Is language still operating or is it just an intermediate tool to get to mastery of a skill?

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    Heidegger is focussed on our consciousness, not our learning process. People have studied this, it is the topic of 'expertise' in developmental psychology and 'flow' in the study of attention. But Heidegger is taking us in a different direction. He is only talking about the adult mind which has already formed its habits of attention. Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 18:18
  • So Heidegger doesn't discuss the "phenomenology of learning" ? It seems to me, even as adults... we are constantly experiencing new things as "present-at-hand" and bringing them into the "ready-at-hand"... surprises me that Heidegger wouldn't be interested in the phenomenology of this process. Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 18:35
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    But the mechanics of learning do not address what he is after in the context where he raises this notion. The discussion is in "Being and Time", so the focus is on the self and how it is different at different times -- about how we become more or less of ourselves in a given moment by attaching to tools or ideas and then go back to being less by putting those back outside our state of being... He had to make the point before other people could flesh out the details. As I have pointed out, there has been a lot fof fololw-up in Education and in Psychology. But only decades later. Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 22:48

2 Answers 2


I would take a look at Heidegger's account of Aristotle's four causes in The Question Concerning Technology (trans. 1977). I suspect he would answer that present-at-hand becomes ready-to-hand where given meaning through use.

As is usual with Heidegger he rarely commits to clear distinctions or associations in his later work. It's tempting to simply say 'techne' makes this kind of difference - but then again this would be open to the reader's interpretation. Some interpret Heidegger's references to techne as akin to meaningful use - as found in tradecraft. Others are prone to give his take on techne a more esoteric and less practical meaning.

Personally I'm pretty confident going with the former interpretation. Meaningful use fits with his views on both techne, tradecraft and things like bridges and old boots!


"I assume when someone encounters their instrument for the first time... that's "present-at-hand". It seems to me that your reasoning is wrong.

When we first encounter instruments they are not present-at-hand. They are ready-at-hand because with their help Dasein copes with the world, meets it's challenges and projects itself into the future. Even when we are learning to use equipment it gets incorporated into the totality of tools. Ready-at-hand forms a totality.

Tools become present-at-hand when they break, malfunction or become useless, and we start seeing them as physical matter with scientific properties like density, weight, chemical composition etc. Present-at-hand is being as substance, it is the basis of modern science that Heidegger opposed.

Your assumption that we start using equipment in the mode of present-at-hand means we have some mechanism in our minds, a program, an algorithm etc. That is how Husserl and modern cognitive scientists saw it, but for Heidegger this approach is the most derived and the most artificial.

Merleau-Ponty investigates the body in greater depth than Heidegger, and you might want to check out his 'Phenomenology of Perception'. If you do, stay away from Routledge translation, it is pretty awful.

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