Frames /sing


Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr

How to Philosophize With a Hammer (or better…Spinoza’s Hatchet)

Heidegger is credited with profound originality in his treatment of “the hammer”, something even it is said his critics have to doff their hat to. With this we cannot, and should not dispute. But, it may be enough to point out that approximately 265 years before there was Heidegger’s Hammer, there was a similar point made by Spinoza, in the carpenter’s hatchet. Spinoza indeed, as a actual craftsman who thought deeply about his tools, had a sort of Tool-Being analysis which might help us reflect upon the nature of distinction that Heidegger was making (and that those that follow him continue to make). The comparison of these tools I originally found here, but is in reference to the essay “Heidegger’s Hammer, Spinoza’s Hatchet” by Eccy de Jonge, apparently defunctly found here, but which I have not been able to read. Here are the two complimentary passages:


Seventhly, this knowledge also brings us so far that we attribute all to God, love him alone because he is the most glorious and the most perfect, and thus offer ourselves up entirely to him; for these really constitute both the true service of God and our own eternal happiness and bliss. For the sole perfection and the final end of a slave and of a tool is this, that they duly fulfill the task imposed on them. For example, if a carpenter, while doing some work, finds his Hatchet of excellent service, then this Hatchet has thereby attained its end and perfection; but if he should think: this Hatchet has rendered me such good service now, therefore I shall let it rest, and exact no further service from it, then precisely this Hatchet would fail of its end, and be a Hatchet no more. Thus also is it with man, so long as he is a part of Nature he must follow the laws of Nature, and this is divine service; and so long as he does this, it is well with him. But if God should (so to say) will that man should serve him no more, that would be equivalent to depriving him of his well-being and annihilating him; because all that he is consists in this, that he serves God.

The Short Treatise On God, Man and His-Well-Being, part II, chapter XVIII “On the Uses of the Foregoing”


[The] less we stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is-as equipment … If we look at Things just ‘theoretically’, we can get along without understanding readiness-to-hand. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one; it has its own kind of sight, by which our manipulation is guided and from which it acquires its specific Thing character …

The ready-to-hand is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself the sort of thing that circumspection takes proximally as a circumspective theme. The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in order to be ready-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically. That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell is not the tools themselves. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work – that which is to be produced at the time; and this is accordingly ready-to-hand too. The work bears with it that referential totality within which the equipment is encountered.

 Being and Time, section 15, “The Being of Entities Encountered in the Environment,” under the Analysis of Environmentality and Worldhood in General 

First, I want to really thank the initial two authors for bringing the two selections into contact for me. It never had occurred to me that there would be so close an analogical connection between Spinoza and Heidegger, in text, though long I had sensed that Spinoza works to resolve something of the strained and willfully produced tension in Heidegger’s human-torqued universe of fundamental alienation. (Briefly I could say that metaphysics of alienation are naturalizations of political products, and as such work to make invisible the results of choices we have collectively made.) Spinoza’s insistence that human beings are not “a kingdom within a kingdom” seems a well suited antidote to Heidegger’s “thrownness” [Geworfenheit], in concrete terms.

How the Hammer and the Hatchet Touch

But let us look at the two passages and see if we can rough-cut the correspondences and divergences in such a way to see were the Heideggerian and Spinozian realms touch. Happily, each uses the example of a tool, Heidegger famously so, to illustrate a fundamental metaphysical realty. For Heidegger it is to point out just what readiness-to-hand is, and kind of invisible power of the efficacy of the tool (as Graham Harman will tell us, of any object), whose power defies conception, theorization, or presentation. When we cease to engage a tool, pausing to look at it and frame it (the move from ready-to-hand to present-at-hand), breaking it out of its assemblage of powerful action, the tool becomes strange for us. It recedes from our occupation of it. Its presencing veils it from us, like an apparitional cloak. Yet if we look to strip away this veil by taking up the tool again, and using it, as the veil fades, along with the increasing efficacy of tool in use, so does the object itself. What we are looking to grasp, in literal grasping, vanishes.

A similar thing seems to happen to Spinoza’s carpentry hatchet. While it is being used by the carpenter it is filled with hatchetness, performing all the hatchet-effects of what it is, but once it is retired from work, it no longer is a hatchet at all. Its very essence seems to retreat from the carpenter into a distinct but unspecified objecthood. How much are Heidegger and Spinoza pointing out similar things?

Let us dig into Spinoza’s illustration though so to see how deeply it cuts into Heidegger’s hammer example. The first thing to note is that Spinoza is using an analogy meant to describe both human, teleological action, and the ultimate ground of those actions, the ateleological actions of Substance. In that he is describing human action in which things are characteristically marked by their place in function, he seems to be touching on something quite close to Heidegger’s point. The object of the hatchet, even when being fully used by the carpenter, or when laid down and retired, is in surpass (or retreat) of either condition. The ultimate ground of the object is deeper than each, teleological action, or contemplative repose. It oscillates between hatchet-in-action and not-hatchet-in-inaction.

But there is a further dimension to Spinoza’s point, for by analogy the “carpenter” is not a functionally minded man, but God, Substance, Nature. And the use that the “hatchet” is put to is not to build a wall, house or chair, but simply to exist and express Substance. In this way the object is fully deployed when existing. It cannot be named because its function runs in every direction along the full web of interactions which it supports, and is supported by. So in existence, the object stands bright. radiating out all its possibility (though the human carpenter locked in his teleological perspective does not fully see it). And when the carpenter “God” lays the hatchet down, to retire it, it simply passes out of existence, though still having Being under an aspect of eternity. It is no longer deployed, no longer what it was, but its objecthood, as an essence, remains, de-nominated.

The Carpenter’s Hand

Yet, there is a bit of a trick here. Is it so for Spinoza that Heidegger’s general claim of two kinds of invisibility of objects, those invisibly in use, and those present in rest, are present in Spinoza’s example of the human carpenter? We can see that as the human carpenter looks to his hatchet he only grasps some aspect of it in the as-structure of its use, something that is a veil of its ultimate and active object-capacities. But is the hatchet also invisible when being used, and the carpenter concentrates on his work? I think that the whole of Spinozist philosophy works against just that kind of imagined and absolute invisibility.

First take in Graham Harman’s summation of the Principle of Invisibility  implied by Heidegger’s tool-analysis. Graham’s interpretation is important because it pushes to the limit the fully abstract character of Heidegger’s claims, and as such makes clear just where Heideggerian abstractions depart from the relevant world, forcing open a gap between a science fiction philosophy of objects, and an abstract philosophy of what matters.

Heidegger has shown that its [tool-being’s] first notable trait is its invisibility. As a rule, the more efficiently the tool the tool performs its function, the more it tends to recede from view: “The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw [zurückziehen] in order to be ready-at-hand quite authentically.” But this familiar point is rarely grasped in a sufficiently rigorous way. It is not just that equipment is generally invisible as long as it is working properly. Such a notion could never surpass the level of empirical anecdote, and only invites free-wheeling attempts at contradiction (“but then we noticed that it worked a lot better if you stared right at the damn thing”). The truth is far more radical than this. In the first instance, there is an internal chasm between equipment and tool-being. The wrench as reality and the visible or tactile wrench are incommensurable kingdoms, solitary planes without hope of intersection. The function or action of a tool, its tool-being, is absolutely  invisible – even if the hammer never leaves my sight. Neither gazing at an object nor theorizing about an object is enough to lure its being from concealment (21) 

Tool-being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects, Graham Harman

I want to take up Graham Harman’s call for “sufficiently rigorous” grasping of the Heideggerian notion of withdrawl. I think it is important though, as fast as Graham wants to fly into things other than outright tools (bank accounts, mindless jingles, hairballs), to stay with tools. For its is from human experiences with tools that Heidegger derives much of the convincing power of his great abstraction. If we are to be rigorous about the claim, we must concentrate on the exact nature of the site of the illustration, and see if the general point being made  can  even find enough ground there. Once approved there, we then can track out all the translations into The Great Wide Open of any object whatsoever.

Carefully we note that for Heidegger the two occluded states of invisible action (equipment) and veiled repose are the famously the two states of working and broken tool:

Equipment in action operates in an inconspicuous usefulness, doing its work without our noticing it. When the tool fails, its unobtrusive quality is ruined. There occurs a jarring of reference, so that the tool becomes visible as what it is: “The contexture of reference and thus the referential totality undergoes a distinctive disturbance which forces us to pause.” There is thus a double life of equipment – tool in action, tool in disrepair. These two planes would seem never to intersect, since the visibility of the tool immediately marks it’s cessation as equipment. But in fact, their point of intersection provides what amounts to the central theme for Heidegger’s career: namely, the as-structure. Through the “as,” the two worlds actually turn out to exist only in communion, in constant intersection with one another… (Harman 45)

Now we all know exactly what Heidegger is talking about. We are working away, concentrating on the nails, the wood-finish, thinking about lunch, hammering away, and the hammer is very close to being “invisible” (if we are a good enough carpenter). But then if the handle fractures, it sends up a vibration to the hand that suddenly shocks it into visibility, but as a hammer, as we look at it that is somehow lost. Beautiful, excellent poetic description of some aspects of what it is like to use a hammer, it kind of passes between these two states. I wish to bring up an objection though which hopefully will not fall too much into the category of “free-wheeling” “empirical anecdote” for a reader such Graham, for I already find Heidegger’s analogical binary a bit too free-wheeling on its own right. The objection to invisibility is not as Graham states it, “but then we noticed that it worked a lot better if you stared right at the damn thing” but it is much more radical than that.

The Texture of Communication

And that is, for a great variety of tools (and I will come to suspect, perhaps all tools and therefore objects), Heidegger and his radix purifier, has left out an entire dimension of visibility, the way that visibility and workability actually coincide together. In their pursuit of irreconcilable binaries something important has been lost, and their entire reductive, categorical claim depends upon the exhaustabilty of its split. Heidegger wants withdrawal to be the very mark of the authenticity of readiness-to-hand, but if anyone has used a tool that excels in its capacities, one understands that there is a way that the tool leaps into visibility that has nothing to do with repose or reflection or theorization. A musician who picks up a Stradivarius and pulls the bow, whether for the first time, or 1,00oth, has something of the instrument’s depth that reverberates with its very surplus of the mere functionality of the thing, a surplus that feeds back into its very function and performance. A baseball player who lifts and swings the right maple-wood bat, testing out is character of distribution, a character which fills his hands, has a presencing of the object which is conditioned upon its very performance. Swinging the bat in its arc, the bat only “disappears” in the most restrictively defined notion of sense. Instead the bat continually reports and manifests because of its mutuality with the human body. A racecar driver that is prostheticallyextended to the road through an expert suspension system, does not actually feel the suspension system become invisible in its performance, but rather the suspension is cybernetically feedback into the horizon of the body as a constitutive factor in the performance itself, making itself known as a series of limits and expressions. This is known as the “feel” of an instrument, not as the last visible vestige of  a tool’s inefficiency, but the very live, material connectivity to the world. As much as Heidegger (and perhaps even more Graham Harman) may want to divide an object into “working” invisibility and “broken” (in)visibility, there is a profound aspect of “working” which is made up of the very substance of revealed and composite com-munication, which means literally “to divide up within one, to share”. As such there is a variability of consubstantial change (the violin becomes the musician, the musician the violin) which oscillates between the parts, such that we can say that the parts are “seen” by each other. We certainly admit that the violin can indeed disappear before the music, the car before the road, but in no way is there a categorical link between efficacy of performance and invisibility. In the very fact that objects regularly become visible through their performability, the charge of their expressivity. This visibility of expression might indeed get us to pause, and to do as Graham says, look at the object, and notice its performance in it own right, but this is distinct from the expressive inter-relationship itself, the way that the very effective performance of a tool, and instrument, a prosthetic, depends upon the inter-relatability of the combination of our parts with its parts. We do not only notice our body when it breaks down. In fact, and dancer knows, inhabits with great visibility its own body, increment by increment, capacity by capacity, in such a way that the dance itself becomes visible, as an excellence.

So why did Heidegger (and Graham) miss this (or subdivide it into non-importance), and what does this have to do with what Spinoza says? Well, the problem is that each of the former are looking for binaries that will be locked against each other and that is because they come from an intellectual heritage of Idealism which wants to profoundly assert subject/object, Being/Non-Being, object/object dichotomies (CCC). When each looks at a tool they want to see how it can break into two, and only two pieces. In fact though, once Graham has isolated out this neat binary of the hammer, its supposed broken and unbroken parts, he wants to get as far away as possible from actual tools, real world human actions altogether:

I will argue that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has nothing to do with any kind of “pragmaticism,” or indeed with any theory of human action at all. Instead the philosophy of Heidegger forces us to develop a ruthless inquiry into the structure of objects themselves, and to a greater extent than even he himself would have endorsed (15).

He says this I think because he feels that Heidegger gives us conceptual capacity to be ruthless and transgress the human realm and give full rights to objects as things themselves, to make them each a miniature neutron star bombarding us with unknown energies. But the problem is that he runs a bit too fast from the human realm, and has not inspected the full vibrancy of tool use itself, the way in which tools necessarily employ visibility through performance.

The De-Centered Human in the Use of Mechanism

Counter to this I place Spinoza who like Graham also had a philosophical bent to de-centralize humans (nothing that Heidegger shares). Additionally, instead of using hammers as abstract, and quite theoretical objects like Heidegger, Spinoza was a craftsman of great care and precision. Much of his days was spent thinking about, choosing and using tools. A process which relied upon the manual improvements that come from a craftsman’s hand. One might say that as adept as Heidegger was at metaphysical reasoning, Spinoza was at instrument making (leaving his own metaphysics aside). His practice as lens-grinder was necessarily laborious and technique rich, relying upon not only precise measurement and material choice, but also harmonious and embodied physical labor. And with his hand-ground lenses he made some of the more respected microscopes and telescopes of his day:

A Spring-pole lens grinding lathe, mid 17th century

I believe much of his metaphysics was causally derived from his experiences with tools and their projects [An example]. If anyone would have concluded through a real life engagementwithtools that tools become categorically invisible when they perform well, it would have been Spinoza. It was precisely the opposite. Spinoza’s interaction with the glass blank and his lathe produced in him a shattering of the very human/world divide that enrapture’s Heideggerian disjointed universe of veilings. Likely, it was the distinct way that tools become visible in the very fabric of their performance (and not as an after thought, though that too), that Spinoza realized that human beings must be tools like all other things, and that only by the lived combination of powers, in manifesting displays of created self-determinations, that human beings experience a (relative) freedom. For this reason, human beings (and all things) become more perfect, more active, and most importantly in Heideggerian terms, have more being, to the degree that they combine with the manifestation of others. And tool use, tool-combination, is an irreplaceable aspect of this freedom. Performance is visibility.

So when Graham attempts to minimize the actual states of human consciousness under ultimate questions of visibility and performance, setting up two worlds…:

Someone might object that the tool is always invisible “only in a certain respect” rather than absolutely. And sure enough, a table obviously does not vanish into the ether once it begins to function as a support for plates and apples. But this complaint once again presupposes the idea of the table as a natural object, proportions of its reality momentarily visible and others unseen. On the contrary, it is not the chance fluctuations of human attention that determine whether the ready-to-hand is invisible or not. To say that the tool is unseen “for the most part” is ultimately superfluous, even incorrect. Whatever is visible of the table is in any given instant can never be its tool-being, never  its ready-to-hand. However deeply we meditate on the table’s act of supporting solid weights, however tenaciously we monitor its presence, any insight that is yielded will always be something quite distinct from this act itself.

(The Weight of Fleeting Thoughts)

…I feel in his quest to over shoot the concrete example and ascend to universalizing abstractions, he he misses the determining aspect of human action. It is not its the “humanness” of human action, or even its subjective character that makes it what it is. Rather it is exactly the incremental “fluctuations of human attention” that indeed do make up the degrees of power of ontological change. Spinoza I think would indeed agree that when using a tool or object or condition we as teleologically oriented beings do not fully grasp it, that there is a degree of invisibility (and also that when we nominalize it in a system of use and reference, particularly those of functional definition, we also have inadequate ideas, and it surpasses us). But what he would refuse is that our combination with other objects necessarily and categorically forecloses their visibility. Instead, it is our very participation with them that their internal natures are communicated to us, revealedly, in our bodies, because our bodies have become mutual. The reason for this is twofold. One is that, because Heidegger’s Idealist derived object-consciousness of definition of mental action has to be abandoned if we are ever to let go of a human-centric philosophy of the world, ultimately whether an object is not before our “mind’s eye” or not, whether we are locked in on the Stradivarius or not, is not a true measure of visibility. Mental action is not a picture-making, or picture-defined process. Mental action is revelation through both internal experience (across bounds) and expressional freedom to self-determine. The second reason for this is found in Spinoza’s treatment of just those “chance fluctuations” that Graham is so quick to dismiss as anything important.  Heidegger is talking about big things, not whether one’s mind lights upon the length of a table or the timbre of a cord played.

But Spinoza has it right, as he expresses in the General Definition of the Affects:

But it should be noted that, when I say a greater or lesser force of existing than before, I do not understand that the Mind compares its Body’s present constitution with a past constitution, but that the idea which constitutes the form of the affect affirms of the body something which really involves more or less reality than before (E3, General Definition of the Affects)

It is precisely in the moment to moment fluctuations of the mental life that the moment to moment ontological fluctuations of the power of the human body and mind are found. Each and every moment, each trace of thought to another thought, is veridically linked to increases and diminishments of the person’s capacity to act in the world. The Principles of Invisibility and Veiledness which Spinoza has some affinity toward, are cross slashed with vectors of raw power ruled by the experience of Joy. It is for this reason that Spinoza speaks of the excellent service of his hatchet. We human beings are already, as tool-beings of Substance, fully expressing ourselves unto our contingent causal matrix. We are at full service to Being. But through the following of Joy and the reading of the expressive power of other tool-beings, in increasingly self-determined assemblage, we can acquire more being, more freedom, more Joy. It is the very visibility that is experienced with tool performance, the way that a violin sings, and must sing, in order to be a playable violin, in order for our fingers to combine with it, that points us between Heidegger’s twin realms, making ourselves more visible.

In a certain sense Spinoza realizes that we are both external to events as human beings, and internal to them. Which is to say that because human beings do not comprise a kingdom within the kingdom of Being, but rather ultimately are expressions of it, though our passings between Heideggerian veiled and invisible realms seems to lock ourselves in, the greatest portion of our capacity to ingest our abstactions seems to be that like a water-mammal: when we go under the surface in performance with objects and they seem to recede into optical invisibility, because we too are made of the same stuff (the same primary connections between body and mind) and thus are in communication with it, when things appear to vanish into equipment, this is livingly so as an expressive state such that our growingly extensive bodies become inhabited across their dimension with perception and internal revelation. Subcutaneously there is conscious revelation in the experience of powers and Joys such that never is that world in-cognizant. We become what we know in action because we are already conjoined to it, however confusedly.

For those who want a world that is fractured, alienating, eruptive, weird, schizophrenic, I believe that there is plenty of room for that on the lived Spinozist plane of affective, bodily cybernetic reveal. There are disruptive paths that leap between local minima, that makes of one object the surprising neutron star of rays and beams. What is important though is not to naturalize our alienations as metaphysical boundaries in their own right, and so to see that the bridgings between this ontological moment so constituted by your relations, and the ones they follow, can rightfully have a path as vectored and free as our capacity to grasp and combine as we can make it. There can be no real hiding when we are part of the hidden, by degrees.


5 responses to “Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr

  1. Pingback: The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman) « Frames /sing

  2. Pingback: The Praise of Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic « Frames /sing

  3. john doyle August 18, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    There’s a lot going on in this post, kvond, but I”ll stick with the broken tool. In science the broken tool provides a prime opportunity to reverse engineer the tool’s operation at a more detailed level. A tool that’s broken in one particular way manifests these corresponding performance defects; a different sort of breakage yields different adverse consequences. Breakage disrupts the mystifying image which the intact tool presents, allowing the investigator to see behind the veil to the inner workings, the cause-effect relationships, the interconnections of components. Studying brain-injured people and the specific errors people make on experimental tasks gives scientists a peek under the hood of the tool-user as well. I’d regard this as a praxis of non-speculative realism.

    In Heidegger it seems that the tool’s brokenness has a similar effect as the tool-user’s withdrawal into abstract contemplation of the tool. A sort of alienation ensues in encountering the tool in its “merely objective” state, decoupled from its being in the world and from the tool-user’s being with the tool in jointly performing an action of care for the world. Heidegger doesn’t deny the merely-objective: it’s just that the act of transcending being-in results more in a sense of alienation from the objects populating the world. They’re not purified by objectification; they’re diminished, having been stripped of the utility which is their essence. Isn’t this register of Heidegger’s thought pretty compatible with Spinoza’s?

    I’ve not read Harman’s Tool Being, but I suspect he goes through the rabbit hole that Heidegger opens up to the merely-objective. Heidegger goes there too, repeatedly, in Being and Time. So a person is always already among the They, but this being-with results in a loss of self-awareness, an angsty self-alienation. But to withdraw from the They into hermetic isolation results in a different sort of alienation, a diminution of self that results from the self’s essential engagement with and care of others. The vacillation between these two registers is explicit in Being and Time, no? So I’m not sure why Harman thinks that he’s going places Heidegger wouldn’t have gone. Am I reading more into Heidegger than is there? I don’t believe so.

  4. kvond August 18, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    John: ” They’re not purified by objectification; they’re diminished, having been stripped of the utility which is their essence. Isn’t this register of Heidegger’s thought pretty compatible with Spinoza’s?”

    Kvond: As I said, there is compatibility between Heidegger and Spinoza here. What Heidegger loses out on, in particular in Harman’s polarization into object types, is the very expressiveness, the non-veiled character of tool use. Really, the prosthetic and cybernetic ascendency. In short, there is no alienation, but rather degrees of freedom. The point is that the “tool” does not categorically become invisible. Rather, it is necessarily inhabited and embodied through its very working pleasure.

    As to what Harman thinks he is doing that is over and above Heidegger, I think Harman himself is confused over this. He wants to have said the core of what Heidegger was trying to say, but he also wants to be saying something entirely his own, and original. This claim to both authenticity and originality is accomplished through very selective methtological interpretation. I speak of some of his gaming here:

  5. Pingback: What Thinking God Means to Spinoza « Frames /sing

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