Dreyfus on Heidegger No.1; also, Thoughts on Ecological Perception and Self-Image.

The False Mirror,’ Magritte.

In my sort of quest to understand Heidegger, I’ve been looking for a suitable lecture series. The reason he’s such a live figure to me is that he figures substantially in Peterson’s lectures on personality, specifically in the borrowed notion that Human Being is an essentially purposive being: human being is oriented being for a given purpose, and that it’s better to pick a purpose than have none.

He is also a key resource for John Vervaeke regarding his thought on the Meaning Crisis both directly and indirectly through his student Nishitani. 

These guys get me excited, as longer-term readers will probably know. In order to get properly to grips with them, and also just to check something off my philosophical bucket list, Heidegger now must be pursued and shaken down for all he’s worth. So far, he’s turning out to be more than enough fun to justify the effort.

Today, I started on Hubert Dreyfus’ series of Lectures on Being and Time, and I was very impressed. I thought he managed to approach a very difficult thinker in a very simple and understandable way. I’ve embedded it at the end of the post in case you want to listen to it, which I really recommend.

I thought it might be worthwhile to report what I took away from his first lecture. This gives me an opportunity to reflect, and hopefully it gives a reader who’s trying the same an opportunity to get into conversation with someone who is also studying the material. Later, I try and synthesize what I learned with some other ideas, including findings from Psychology which I hope you find interesting.


In Dreyfus’ formulation, Heidegger is concerned with Being in terms of that thing which is consistent or present between three different modes of being. Dreyfus categorizes Heidegger as thinking in terms of three different modes: Substance (Heidegger’s Vorhanden); Equipment (Heidegger’s Zuhanden/Handy); and Personal (Heidegger’s Dasein.)

Dreyfus reproduces the idea of Vorhanden/Substance in terms of self-sufficiency and the possession of properties. So, for example, in a Substance Ontology, a chair is a chair by virtue of having all the properties that make it so, and would have those properties regardless of the co-presence of anything else.

Towards the end of the previous sentence, you’ll note that I avoided using the term ‘existence.’ This is for a very particular reason. ‘Existence’ is a special term for Heidegger that applies only to the Personal mode of being/Dasein.

For Dreyfus, the Vorhanden is distinct from the Zuhanden in that some things depend for their essence on the co-presence of other beings. He gives the example of a hammer, which is only a hammer inasmuch as there are nails and pieces of wood and so on. Another example is a hair-brush, which can certainly only be a hairbrush if there is also hair.

In modal terms we might say that the property of *being* a hair-brush is only instantiable in worlds where hair is co-present. But Heidegger via Dreyfus goes deeper than this: he also claims that the Zuhanden is defined in terms of the cultural context in which it appears.

For instance, a hairbrush with certain flat properties like pinkness might be a particularly a woman’s hairbrush by virtue of this. A hairbrush of inordinate size might be a horses hair-brush. In these cases, only a single property changes (color/scale), but the essence of the object changes. 

This means that not all objects are themselves in a purely independent way; there are some objects we cannot separate from their context– we must process them holistically. The pink hairbrush would not be a woman’s hairbrush per se in a culture where pink did not have traditionally feminine associations, and the large hairbrush would not be a horse’s hairbrush in a culture with no horses. This means that the Zuhanden is determined in its essence to some degree by the culture in which it is situated.

The third type of being, existence/Dasein, is the sort of being that people have. Heidegger offers an indication as to what sort of being this is when he says that Dasein is the ‘being for whom being is a problem.’ Dreyfus puts it: ‘Dasein is a being who takes a stand on it’s own being.’

We see something later picked up by Sartre here– who Dreyfus describes as ‘such a genius that he can completely misinterpret Heidegger but produce something genius’– in Aristotelian terms, there is something mutable in the essence of Dasein such that Dasein can take many different existences without determination by an essence as such.

This isn’t to say that Heidegger believes that human essence is completely mutable as such– I don’t know if I know enough to argue for or against that interpretation, and I haven’t gotten far enough into Dreyfus’ work to say what his interpretation is.

Given that Dasein has the same sort of hollistic inter-determinacy that the Zuhanden has, and given Heidegger’s notable ideas around the importance of culture in determining the self– which likely related to his unfortunate Nazism– I think we are safe in the assumption that for Heidegger, human Dasein is not necessarily/condemnedly free in the way Sartre would put it.

My favorite part of the lecture was the final few minutes, where all of this came together. This is where Dreyfus gives an interesting account of how Dasein ‘takes a stand on its own being.’

For Heidegger via Dreyfus, Dasein takes a stand on its own being when it takes the Vorhanden into the Zuhanden, for the purpose of becoming *for* something itself. So, Dasein becomes a Carpenter when, taking the substance-arranged-hammerwise, uses the hammer and therefore transitions the substance-arranged-hammerwise *into* a hammer; this is the transition from the Vorhanden to the Zuhanden.

In doing so, and in using the hammer to do carpentry, for example, Dasein *becomes* a carpenter. This is what is meant by Dasein ‘takes a stand on its own being’: by taking action, and by relating to the world in a determinate way, Dasein is determined itself and determines itself.

Remember, we stated above that the Zuhanden is defined in terms of it’s culture. This means that the range of modes of being that Dasein can inhabit by the mediation of the Zuhanden is also circumscribed and determined by the culture that it is situated in. Though again, as I stated above, I couldn’t tell you at this point how socially deterministic Heidegger is or isn’t.

I haven’t studied much social anthropology as such, but I have studied qualitative methods in the social sciences, and I know enough about social psychology to make the claim that Heidegger is very important there. Now that I understand these consequences of his characterization of Dasein, I can see pretty clearly why this is so. Arguably, Heidegger has invented the idea of a ‘social construct.’


I thought that was just a fantastic idea. If we do what Dreyfus characterizes Heidegger as doing, which is move away from a model of being where all beings are themselves independently, and move towards a model of being where beings are themselves by virtue of their inter-relatedness, then we begin to get a much better idea of the sense behind Peterson’s aggressive imperatives to pick a skill. 

Consider the links that Peterson makes between Heidegger and an Ecological Theory of Perception. For those who haven’t watched his lecture on Phenomenology, I’ll summarize. Peterson suggests that clinical cases of blind-sight suggest that there is an essentially function-oriented module of visual perception which may be independent from propositional or representational modules.

In cases of clinical blindsight, some stroke patients lose the ability to consciously represent objects visually– that is, they become representationally blind. These patients will never-the-less pick up and use or examine certain objects placed in front of them. In these cases, the patient will be unable to report what it is that they’ve picked up, or why they’ve picked it up.

This phenomenon also occurs in use of doorknobs. Some patients will be able to open doors. Likewise, blindsighted patients won’t bump into obstacles, and will have physiological responses consistent with a startle response if you flash a distressing image in their visual field including raised heart-rate and increased skin conductance.

Peterson suggests this implies that there is a ‘part of you that sees things’ and ‘a part of you that sees tools.’ This sort of characterization would be very consistent with Heidegger’s distinction between the Vorhanden and Zuhanden.

Peterson is infamous for his advice to clean your room– this is seen as simple common sense. If we analyse it in the terms of Dasein explored above, we can see why this might be important to one’s self-determination. In the immediate moment, if Dasein looks to its context in the world to determine the being of its properties, then Dasein had better see a nice world to determine itself by. 

This is something I’ve been considering a lot lately. Imagine bursting into existence with no prior memory of who you were, but with a complete memory of what a certain mode of being signified. So, imagine bursting into being, with complete explicit retrograde amnesia, in a very clean, neat, and nicely decorated home in a nice part of whatever town you were in.

You would either come to the conclusion that you were a very effective burglar, once you’d noticed that no windows were broken, or you would likely assume that it was your house, and start drawing conclusions about yourself from there. You might come to the conclusion that you were a very neat and affluent person. That’s a nice sort of person to be, so it would likely put you in a good mood.

For the rest of the day, while you tried to track down your memories and past, you would probably do it with a sense of comfort and security, in the knowledge that you had high enough status in society that people would be all too willing to overlook your odd situation. This would be an instance of Dasein determining itself through the Zuhanden.

What about what it might be like to wake up in less positive circumstances? To be thrown into worse situations? How might that make us appear to ourselves? I certainly like myself a lot more when I relate to myself as someone who produces work he is proud of than when I relate to myself as someone who produces work he hates.

For Heidegger via Dreyfus, this determination needn’t even happen consciously. As with our blind-sighted patients, you might have your physiology affected by non-explicit queues which you might not even necessarily be able to explain or represent.

There is a well-replicated finding in Cognitive Psychology to the effect that study participants, when asked to complete a fill-in-the-blanks task where the target words were all associated with old age, moved towards the elevator at the end of the study significantly slower than the participants who received the control condition: a fill-in-the-blanks whose target words had no particular associations.

How else might subtle queues like context and environment influence one’s style of being? It’s certainly a question for a literature review more than theorizing. So I guess I’ll get around to it later.


To tie theory back into my every-day work in mental health and with the homeless, I often wonder what it’s like to wake up in the morning in a messy room, filled with tobacco smoke– a room which clearly speaks to ones own disorganization.

In the moments before completely waking up, your experience of yourself is pretty permeable. I remember times when I was most heavily depressed: I could wake up and be perfectly happy until I remembered who I was and whose life I was living.

Otherwise, I wonder what it’s like to wake up in a homeless shelter, or in a sleeping bag in a tent on a park. I can’t imagine it leaves you with a good taste in your mouth. It must leave some indelible marks on Dasein, at least for the rest of the day. A sufficiently large amount of narcotics could be used for the purpose of blinding Dasein to determination by the Zuhanden. On the downside, this might make it difficult to do anything useful at all.

I’m sure anyone who has ever used a substance of any kind to numb could get some value out of considering that.

I once knew a recovering heroin addict who commented that getting clean involved so much too much time on his hands. He complained that he didn’t know what to do with it. “I used to just spend all day getting a score and then staring at the floor.” He told me.

This suggests a model of Dasein for-the-addict that I think is substantially more sympathetic than the standard junky characterizations. All that is Zuhanden for the addict as a style of being are those things which are necessary to make being a non-problem for the addict; which therefore renders the addict non-Dasein in a sense.

This is similar to the idea that addiction is simply a slow suicide and– psychoanalytically speaking– may explain why so many homeless heroin addicts are known to sleep in graveyards. That might be odd news, but trust me, it happens.


Here’s the lecture, in case you want to watch it:

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