On Reading Being and Time:

An Explication and Commentary by Roderick Munday



The Interpretation of Dasein in Terms of Temporality
and the Explication of Time as the Transcendental
Horizon of the Question of Being



The Worldhood of the World



In this document: "Explication and Commentary 6"


III. The Worldhood of the World

  16. How the Worldly Character of the Environment Announces Itself in Entities Within-the-World

  17. Reference and Signs


For the contents of other sections see the main index

There is also an online glossary of terms referred to in this document.

Your comments are welcome. Please make them at my blog site Synthetic Knowledge




October - December 2006


(page 102)





¶ 16. How the Worldly Character of the Environment Announces Itself in Entities Within-the-World

The Being of Dasein is grounded on its Being-in-the-world. In order to understand what this compound term means ontologically, Heidegger is analysing each part of the phrase in turn. In this section (Part 1, Division 3 of Being and Time) he is focussing on 'what the world is,' when understood ontologically.

Heidegger argues that the Being of the world cannot be adequately defined in terms of the Being of entities within-the-world. There is always a surplus quality left over, which resists this reductionist definition and moreover this surplus quality of 'world' seems in the first place to be determinate of the notion that there are entities within the world. The world then is that which allows us to encounter entities within the world and show themselves in their being [¶14, page 91].

In what way then does the world exist?

We can articulate a way of answering this question if we consider three additional questions.

1/ If the Being of Dasein is constituted by Being-in-the-World, should not Dasein therefore already have a pre-ontological understanding of the world, no matter how indefinite that understanding may be?

2/ When Dasein's encounters entities within-the-world, does not something like the world show itself for concernful Being-in-the-world?

3/ And does not Dasein itself, in its concernful absorption in equipment ready-to-hand, glimpse a possibility of 'Being in' in which the worldhood of those entities within-the-world is lit up for it, in a certain way?

Pertaining to question 3/, in the last section, Heidegger concerned himself with defining equipment and explaining how it differs from Being a 'mere thing.' The difference stems from the fact that equipment is used for a purpose--Heidegger calls this an 'assignment'--which arises because a goal is awaked, a 'towards which' much can be fulfilled by using the equipment [ref. ¶15, page 97]. A piece of equipment, such as a hammer has an assignment but it also can be regarded in a metonymical sense as part of a much bigger system--an 'equipment structure,'--which spirals out from the work that equipment does with no neat beginnings or endings until contemplation of the whole world is reached. For example, the equipment structure of hammering also involves nails, wood, a workshop, trees, metal, metal, mining ores from the ground, etc., etc. [¶15, page 97 - 98]. Heidegger argues that by using any piece of equipment the existence of the world as a whole is partially disclosed [¶15, page 100].

The various structures of equipment and the fact that equipment cannot be regarded as a 'mere thing' are both encapsulated in the term ready-to-hand. The ready-to-hand is a state equipment possesses which is opposed to presence-at-hand, or the state and entity possesses when it is regarded as Being 'a mere thing' [ref. ¶15, page 98]. However presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand are not intrinsic states possessed by the Being of an entity. For example, if I decide to take up a rock and start hammering with it, the rock is transformed from something present-at-hand into something ready-to-hand. It becomes a hammer simply by my giving it the assignment of a hammer.

This prompts an intriguing question: which came first, the understanding of a rock as something present-at-hand (merely existent), or the understanding of the rock as something ready-to-hand? Common sense would dictate that the answer should be the former - an entity would have to be understood as present-at-hand before it could be taken up and used as something ready-to-hand. However, Heidegger argues that the 'thinghood' of an entity is actually formed by our taking it up and using that entity as a tool. This is in fact one of the reasons that Heidegger asserts we should unlearn the prejudice of regarding entities within the world simply as things. For the 'thingness' of entities blocks access this realisation [¶8, page 66]. If we return to the 'which came first' question, we have to ask ourselves, where did our common-sense notion of entities as 'things' arise? Does it arise in disinterested contemplation? Or isn't it more plausible to suppose that our notions of an entity are formed through use? Heidegger suggests that, first and foremost, we come to name the things that are most useful to us, and these entities become the 'things' that initially stand out from the wholeness of existence to arrest our attention. Thus, there are things called "rocks" that are good for hammering, and things called "trees," that are strong and tall and can be used for shelter. And trees are also made of "wood" that is very useful for fuel and for building.

Heidegger focuses on the readiness-to-hand of equipment because of the possibility that the phenomenological aspect of the world can be exhibited through it. The analysis of equipment as 'ready-to-hand' therefore becomes the correct point of departure his inquiry. Our understanding of things (and therefore our pre-ontological understanding of the world) comes in the first instance from taking up and using entities ready-to-hand.

However, Heidegger at the end of the last section has thrown in a word of warning. He tells us that we should not be too complacent and imagine that the puzzle of knowing the world is solved simple because we have substituted 'ready-to-hand' for 'present-at-hand.' For while Readiness-to-hand is a way in which we can encounter the authentic Being of entities phenomenologically. It is only by reason of there being first something that is present-at-hand that we know there is something to be taken up and used. Indeed this pre-understanding has more of the character of a present at handedness (or maybe its better to see it pre-conscious, because it has not been awakened by its use). The point is, merely swapping one category for another is not sufficient to understand the being of entities phenomenologically.

So the most pressing question to ask at this point is how are we to 'square the circle' of the present-at-hand and ready-to-hand and understand the reciprocal interconnectedness of the two? Heidegger attempts to find the a solution by seeking some common ground in the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand in terms of an entity's relationship to Dasein. He begins by observing that, in Dasein's everyday Being-in-the-world there belong certain modes of concern in which the worldly character of entities comes to the fore.

As a reminder, the term "worldly" designates the ontologico-existential concept of Worldhood [¶14, page 93]. Worldhood serves as an umbrella term for three other meanings of the term world.

1. an ontical concept, which signifies the totality of things present-at-hand within the world.

2. as an ontological term, which signifies the Being of those things within the world.

3. In an additional ontical sense as the place where a factical Dasein (people) 'live'.

Using the concept of Worldhood, we can regard these definitions of world as essentially framing devices. A frame can can be likened to a certain perspective through which we view a problem. Frames reveal; but they can also conceal. That which lies outside the frame is not considered, not because it is not worthy of our attention, but because it is hidden by the frame. The above explanation clarifies the issues of frames to a certain extent but it is an overly simplistic way of understanding how they operate. It is not a case that the view afforded by the frame needs enhancing or changing in order for us to see more clearly. Rather it is as case that the person doing the viewing needs to change. The idea of frames suggests a reciprocity between viewer and viewing. Habitual ways of seeing leave us blind, not to those things that are concealed from us, but to those things that are right in fromt of our noses. Being is a case in point. It is very difficult even to conceive of an alternative way of seeing outside of one's habitual fame (and frames are ossified by culture to become even more opaque). A frame, therefore, can be defined as something that grants A certain kind of access to the world, while foreclosing the possibility of others.

Since worldhood itself can be regarded an umbrella term under which three different frames operate. What Worldhood demands of us, is essentially the ability to see the interplay of these frames as well as the problems they individually reveal and do not reveal. This is part of the self-conscious interrogatory proceedures of phenomenology. It is not so much a case of comparing frames, as keeping them all imultaneously in our sight. Noticing the way the wholeness of the world is mediated by each framing. Noticing that certain aspects of the wholeness rise to the surface while others sink below: depending on how our attention shifts within this picture.

As for the problem of uniting the ready-to-hand with the present-at-hand, the answer is actually quite simple.


The Unreadiness-to-Hand of the Broken tool

Heidegger asserts that in Dasein's everyday Being-in-the world there are certain modes of concern that bring the wordly character of entities to the fore. He notices that when equipment is damaged its readiness-to-hand departs and it becomes conspicuous as something present-at-hand...


...or more accurately its readiness-to-hand changes into a certain unreadiness-to-hand. The unreadiness to hand of a piece of broken equipment becomes an obstacle to the realisation of the assignment for which the equipment was taken up in the first place and thus the broken equipment reveals the assignment starkly and in a concrete form as an obstacle. Thus its readiness-to-hand becomes present-at-hand in a particularly noticeable, albeit obstreperous way.

However this presence-at-hand of something that cannot be used is still not devoid of all readiness-to-hand whatsoever. Equipment which is present-at-hand is still not just a Thing which occurs somewhere, but rather it is something in which both presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand can still be glimpsed - Thus broken equipment is worldly because in it can be glimpsed two 'world-views' one that sees it at ready-to-hand; the other that sees it as present-at-hand.

In the unreadiness to hand there are things that are missing-which not only are not 'handy' but are not 'to hand' at all. The helpless way in which we stand before a broken tool is what Heidegger terms a deficient mode of concern. He argues that what we notice about the un-readiness-to-hand of a tool is that its ready-to-handedness enters a mode of obtrusiveness and thus become visible. The level of obtrusiveness that the ready-to-hand can reach depends upon the strength of the assignment, or the urgency of our need. Something that is really necessary for the completion of some assignment becomes the most important thing in the world when it fails to function properly. Heidegger says of this frustrating experience, that its unreadiness to hand is then encountered most authentically. (so next time you are running late for an really important appointment and the car won't start, you can at least ruminate on the fact that you are appreciating the unreadiness-to-hand of equipment in its most authentic aspect!)

Pure presence-at-hand announces itself in broken equipment, but this is not necessarily a permanent state either. For presence at hand can withdraw into readiness-to-hand again simply by the act of repairing the equipment.

Other ways of encountering unreadiness-to-hand

The unready-to-hand can also be encountered as something which 'stands in the way' of our concern, but which is not broken, missing nor unusable. For example we may be perfectly happy with our cheap stereo until we hear our favourite piece of music played on a really good system. Then our cheap stereo becomes unready-to-hand because we will always feel we are missing out on something when we listen that particular piece of music on our system in future. In this context, the obstacle to progress has the potential of allowing us to glimpse the present-at-hand emerging out of what we hitherto considered ready-to-hand. Anything which is unready-to-hand in this way is disturbing to us, and enables us to see the obstinacy of that with which we must concern ourselves in the first instance before we do anything else.


A 'Worldly' Obstruction

Modes of consciousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy all have the function of bringing to the fore the characteristic of presence-at-hand in what is ready-to-hand. Allowing us to see both in this way also allows us to understand how the way we frame entities is different in each case, thus we are viewing equipment from a worldly perspective

But the ready-to-hand is not thereby just observed and stared at as something present-at-hand - even when it is unready-to-hand, a piece of equipment does not veil itself in the guise of a mere thing.

The point Heidegger is making here is that the distinction present-at-hand and ready-to-hand is subtle. For example we do not habitually see a hammer as an assignment, or as part of an wider equipment structure which aims to fulfil a certain 'towards which.' In our common sense understanding, we see a hammer as a mere thing - a particular species of those things we call 'tools'. The novelty of Heidegger's argument is that he allows us to see the hammer in a new way - in terms of what it does. In doing so, he allows us to see the tool as resources. However, as Heidegger has warned us, it is very easy to get stuck in a kind of binary thinking where we start of to pair off entities into colums of opposite, depending upon whether they are present-at-hand or ready-to-hand. This kind of logical thinking misses the point entirely.

A Broken Tool Reveals the World

Now we must qualify that thinking by asking how far does the ready-to-hand, thus encountered under modifications in which its presence-at-hand is revealed, clarify the phenomenon of the world?

In conspicuousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy, that which is ready-to-hand loses its readiness-to-hand in a certain way. However readiness-to-hand still shows itself, and it is precisely here that the worldly character of the ready-to-hand shows itself too.

So firstly the unreadiness to hand allows us to appreciate (albeit negatively) that entities within the world are not things, and secondly (in a more positive sense) it grants us a way into thinking about the world as a phenomenon.



We already know that the structure of the Being of the ready-to-hand is determined by references or assignments and we understand that this is a way of understanding a general readiness-to-hand, although not thematically yet. Nevertheless, when equipment cannot be used, what is revealed is that the equipmentality of equipment is not in its thingness, but in what it is used for. Thus the object which we call a hammer is merely a means to an end (the assignment), and this is revealed because when a hammer is not 'to hand' we will make use of another object to serve as a hammer. Heidegger makes use of this truism about equipment by reversing it. For when something is unusable for the assignment it was designated for, only then does that assignment becomes visible to us. When the tool is broken the assignments themselves are not so much observed; they are simply 'there.'

Similarly, when something ready-to-hand is found missing, though its everyday presence may have hitherto been taken it for granted, the absence makes a break in those referential contexts which circumspection discovers and we see for the first time what the missing article was always ready-to-hand for. For example, when your car breaks down, you suddenly realise the huge distances involved in making your journey. Furthermore you realise that a car is, in fact, a device that collapses distance (and space and time also), so that you now realise that the assignment for which the car was created, is shrinking the world.

Formulating a Thematic Understanding

Even now, of course, the theme of our inquiry has not become explicit as an ontological structure. In the above example of the car we have merely intimated an ontological understanding of a world made smaller by the car. But the notion of the unready-to-hand has made it explicit ontically, in the sense of revealing the circumspection which comes up against a broken or badly performing tool.

When an assignment to some particular "towards-this" has been thus circumspectively aroused, we catch sight of the "towards-this" itself, and along with it everything connected with the work-the whole 'workshop'-as that wherein concern always dwells [ref. ¶15, page 98]. The context of equipment is lit up, not as something never seen before, but rather it is lit up as a totality constantly sighted beforehand in circumspection.

And in this totality the world announces itself.

What is thus lit up is not itself just one thing ready-to-hand among others; still less is it something present-at-hand upon which equipment ready-to-hand is somehow founded: it is in the 'there' before anyone has observed or ascertained it, but it is itself inaccessible to circumspection. Because circumspection is always directed towards entities.



The previous paragraphs showed how our pre-ontological understanding of the world forms, because the worldly character of the ready to hand is already disclosed for in taking up any object as something ready-to-hand. In fact this is the very "pre-ontological understanding" that Heidegger referred to somewhat enigmatically in the introduction of Being and Time [¶4, page 32]. Note also that 'disclose' and 'disclosedness' are be used as technical terms here to signify the concept of 'laying open.' Heidegger uses the term disclosed to get away from the idea that these facts are obtained indirectly by inference - for this is not an operation of cognising but of perceiving [see phenomenological method, ref. ¶ 7, page 49 - 51].

That the world does not 'consist' merely of the ready-to-hand shows itself in the fact that whenever the world is lit up in the modes of concern where ready-to-hand becomes present-at-hand.

If we still have not appreciated how the world is lit up for us by considering a broken tool, remember that Heidegger defined the term worldly and worldhood, not as a new way of seeing, but as a way of seeing simultaneously different things in the same object. Worldly allows us to view something through the ontical frame as a entity in the world, and also through the ontological frame as an entity whose being is intimately interconnected with other entities because of Dasein's concernful dealings with the world. Now the task here is to realise that the presence of the world as a phenomenon--which was hitherto either considered to be a spiritual aspect or simply dismissed as not being there at all [ref. ¶14, page 91]--is in fact an expression of Dasein's concernful dealings with entities. Therefore the world as a phenomenon is both formed in Dasein's concern and the world is also the basis on which that concern is grounded. This almost paradoxical sounding statement in fact defines Dasein's pre-ontological understanding of the world. In the light of this understanding, we can see that the world is truly "there," but that it is only disclosed as being there when we disrupt the habitual mode of circumspection in which Dasein sees entities only as 'things.'

Summing up

The world has already been disclosed beforehand whenever what is ready-to-hand within-the-world is accessible for circumspective concern. In the example of the car, the world was already 'big,' in our pre-ontological understanding, in order that it could be made smaller by the car.


But moreover, the world is therefore something 'wherein' Dasein as an entity already was, and if in any manner it explicitly comes away from anything, it can never do more than come back to the world.

This pre-ontological understanding can now be explained with reference to equipment and resource structures and assignment (namely that which is ready-to-hand). The ready-to-hand constitutes the ontological character of tools and forms a tension with that which we call present-at-hand. By holding both sides of this tension in view (in other worlds by seeing the worldly character of things) we will be able to disclose the phenomenon of the world.

In such privative expressions as "inconspicuousness", "unobtrusiveness", and "non-obstinacy", what we have in view is a positive phenomenal character of the Being of that which is proximally ready-to-hand. With these negative prefixes in mind we have a view of the character of the ready-to-hand as "holding itself in."

To flesh this out a little more, imagine a thirsty man in a desert who encounters a sealed container made of some unbreakable transparent material containing a generous amount of water. The man is thirsty and he can see the water, but he cannot drink. He tries to break the container, but every strategy he thinks of ends in failure. The situation is hopeless and in his despair, the man reflects upon all the times in his life when he had access to water and he drank and bathed so freely that he took the existence of water for granted and never stopped to consider how essential it was for his survival. Thus it only when the man is deprived of water, in a situation where water is literally 'holding itself in,' that he can discern the true worldly character of water.

Being-In-The-World - As I Understand It Thusfar

Question: 'Where does Dasein's concern for the world come from?'

Answer: 'From its Being-in-the-world.'

Question: 'Where does Dasein's Being-in-the-world come from?'

Answer: 'From Dasein's concern for the world

Any concern is already as it is, because of some familiarity with the world. In this familiarity Dasein can lose itself in what it encounters within-the-world and be fascinated with it.

Question: What do we understand by the term Being-in-the-world?

Being-in-the-world (as we have understood it up to now) amounts to a non-thematic circumspective absorption in references or assignments constitutive for the readiness-to-hand of a totality of equipment.

Heidegger calls his analysis so far "non thematic," because at the moment it has not been generalised into a principle or set of principles we can apply thematically (generally) - here the metaphor of a theme is employed as something which allows us to guess where the work is heading. The is most overtly apparent in music where the central theme of a composition sets the tone, for instance by being played in the minor or major key or in a fast or slow tempo.

In this section Heidegger has disclosed the worldly aspect of the world. In the next will be able to describe with more precision what exactly this world is that Dasein is so familiar with?


¶ 17. Reference and Signs

Heidegger demonstrated, by provisionally interpreting the structure of Being which belongs to equipment ready-to-hand, how the phenomena of assignments became visible. In the last section this visibility was only sketched out. Now Heidegger sets about uncovering it properly with regard to its ontological origin.

Every entity that Dasein takes up as ready-to-hand is bound to the interconnectedness of resource, equipment and assignment structures which lie behind that entity. Heidegger's analysis has revealed that the assignments and referential totalities of equipment have no neat point of terminus. He articulate two implications of this theory:

1/ Entities like hammers and radios and cars which are ready-to-hand cannot be described as merely 'pieces of equipment' (for this particularised description is more suited to entities present-at-hand)

2/ The structures that lie behind that which is ready-to-hand become constitutive of the world itself. For example Heidegger talked about hammering involving nails and wood that in turn references metal and trees and ores in the ground, etc., etc. so that the act itself discloses the world.

Heidegger says of the inter-relationship of the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand that it constitutes an entities worldly character - that is to say they are two paradigmatically opposed way of looking at entities. The ready to hand is usually hidden from view, we regard entities simply as 'things.' However, the present-at-hand is starkly revealed in the ready-to-hand when a piece of equipment is broken. In the last section, Heidegger showed how consideration of the unreadiness-to-hand, or a broken tool, led to consideration of its worldly character.

Discerning an entity's worldly character is the act of superimposing one viewpoint (ontological) over another (ontical). This is something we normally do without thinking about it when we are faced with a broken tool. A problem with the broken tool as a method for revealing an entity's worldly character is it manifests as an obstruction; blocking the assignment that piece of equipment was to fulfil. The tool's worldly character takes the form of an obstacle.

Our purpose now is to find a way of grasping the phenomenon of the assignment more precisely. To do this we shall do a phenomenological analysis of a particular kind of equipment whose ordinary job is communicating a sense beyond itself, an article of equipment that specialises in 'referring.'

A Sign

This piece of equipment is a sign. Now it is true that we don't often think of signs as a pieces of equipment. The word "sign" designates many kinds of things: and ontologically speaking, Being-a-sign-for can


be formalised as a 'universal kind of relation' and this is how the sign-structure itself provides us with an ontological clue for 'characterising' a relationship between any entities whatsoever. For it is this function of signs as 'equipment-for-referring.'


If we were asked to think of a sign as a piece of equipment, common-sense may in the first instance define it as equipment whose job is to indicate something - and we may find examples of such signs in signposts, road markings and hoardings. Indicating is indeed a concept that can be defined loosely as a 'kind of referring.' But lets now attempt to define referring as generally as possible. We may start by saying that referring is a kind of relating - the terms may even be were synonymous. But here Heidegger warns us that referring as a kind of relation should not be taken as a genus for other kinds or 'species' of references. In other worlds, a sign should not become differentiated into categories such as sign, symbol, expression, or signification, because to make such categorical distinctions implies that the sign is different in each case.

This, says Heidegger, is not the case. He argues forcefully that the equipmentality of the sign, when defined formerly is in every case merely a system of referring and nothing more. In phenomenology, the entities to which a sign refers are not important (when considering the function of a sign as a piece of equipment), they certainly do not change the ontology of the sign itself. This is because all signs are systems of referring, in essence. In a phenomenological analysis, a sign-relation may be read off directly from any kind of context whatever its subject-matter. Heidegger does not deny that sign have other functions and meanings in other domain, but he asserts that within the phenomenological domain, this is the only form sign structure can take, and, moreover, because they have this form they can reveal the worldhood of the world.


Signs a equipment for referencing

By treating signs as formal systems of relating, the general character of relation is brought to light. (Note: general and formal are synonymous terms in philosophy)

However, we are not to characterise these referrals as relations, because to do so would suggest a symmetry between the two terms, which is not the case: every reference may be a relation, but not every relation is a reference. (For example, in written language the world "apple" serves as an adequate reference for the entity "," despite the fact that the world and the entity are totally unrelated in terms of their Being). Indeed Heidegger claims there is an argument that all signs when considered as relations have their ontological source in a reference because of the sign's general character.

Among signs there are symptoms, warning signals, signs of things that have happened already, signs to mark something, signs by which things are recognised. All of these examples have different ways of indicating, and this is true regardless of what may be serving as such a sign. Heidegger cautions us that if we start to interpret signs by departing from the concept that they are references, we will find ourselves unable to investigate the full multiplicity of possible signs.

Signs of referral

A simple sign of this type is the indicator light on a car. Actually in Heidegger's day, it wasn't a light but an adjustable red arrow, whose position indicated which way the car was going to turn (Heidegger was writing in the 1920s!)


Anyway, the important thing to realise is that the arrow is a sign of referral. The position of the arrow is controlled by the driver, but it is not exclusively for his benefit since pedestrians and other drivers also make use of the car's indicator signal as well, by stopping at a curb or giving way to the car etc.

Here we must notice that this 'referring' as indicating does not constitute the ontological structure of the sign as equipment. Instead, 'referring' as indicating is grounded in the Being-structure of equipment in-serviceability-for 'x', where 'x' indicates the assignment of the equipment.


Now we must bear in mind that the above formula states in the most abstract terms what the ontological function of a sign of indication is, and consequentially it does not tell us very much. So to flesh this out a little we need first to answer two questions.

1/ what is this 'x' that the Being structure of equipment is serviceable for; what does it indicate? And

2/ what do we mean then when we say that a sign "indicates?

We can answer these questions only by determining what kind of 'dealings' are appropriate when faced with equipment for indicating. And we must do this in such a way that the readiness-to-hand of that equipment can be genuinely grasped.

Ok so what does the indicating sign do ontologically? We can say that the equipment-in-serviceability-for 'x' of indicating is to modify the behaviour of other road uses with respect to the car which is doing the indicating. The sign is not just there for itself as a way of telling others that the car is about to turn, its purpose by indicating the driver of the car's intentions is to instigate some change of behaviour in other road users, based on a commonly understood scenario of the consequences of the car's turning. In this particular case a pedestrian sees that a car is indicating to turn into the side road she is about to cross, and modifies her own behaviour by stopping for the car. Therefore the 'x' of this sign is in fact a kind of behaving (Being) which corresponds to the sign we encounter, which is manifested either in the pedestrian 'giving way' or 'standing still,' as these are the 'instruction' which the car with the indicator is signifying.

Ontologically, giving way as taking a direction, belongs essentially to Dasein's Being-in-the-world, because Dasein in the world is always somehow directed and on its way; (standing and waiting are only limiting cases of this directional 'on-its-way'). Thus the sign of indication addresses itself to a Being-in-the-world which is specifically 'spatial'. Notice that the sign of indication is not authentically 'grasped' if we just stare at it; we have enact the scenario indicated by the sign by actually changing the directedness of our Being at that moment.

Because it is equipmental, Such a sign also addresses itself to our circumspection of our concernful dealings with the world. And it does this in such a way that it brings to the forefront of our thoughts an explicit surveying of the aroundness the environment. This circumspective survey does not grasp the ready-to-hand as such; what it achieves is rather an orientation within our environment (the car is going left, I must stop here at the curb in order to let it pass). Notice that the aroundness of the world is only an implicit component of our everyday dealings with cars indicating and yet regarding the referentiality of the sign brings this to the forefront of the analysis. Phenomenologically, we can see how the word's spatiality is disclosed by the sign of indication. Signs of indication allow for context to become accessible in such a way that our concernful dealings take on an orientation and hold it secure.

Signs of reference will be the way that we will uncover the worldly character of entities within the world, and thus reveal the world as a phenomenon.


[* note: the page reference flips back to 109 here because I think it clarifies Heidegger's argument to focus on signs of referral before comparing them with other equipment]

The inadequacy of equipment per se as a sign

Heidegger has focussed on signs of reference because he asserts not all equipment necessarily signifies. An entity may have serviceability without becoming a sign. For example take the 'hammer' which Heidegger spoke of at length in the previous sections. We can say that a hammer is constituted by a serviceability, but this fact does not make it a sign. The difference between the reference of serviceability in the case of the hammer and the reference of serviceability in a sign of referral is that in the former this serviceability only becomes visible in a rough and ready fashion. On the other hand, the car indicator arrow allows us to see the reference precisely because it is a piece of equipment whose job is to bring this relationship into focus.

A sign of referring, by allowing us to see what it references, allows us to grasp the world in a way that is more amenable to ontological interpretation. Indicating as a 'reference' is only one way in which the "towards-which" of a serviceability becomes ontically concrete; not all equipment can serve as suitable signs to explore the phenomena of the world ontologically. So while in the previous section the example of hammering was useful because it shed light so clearly on the phenomena of the ready-to-hand, It must be jettisoned now, because a hammer is not a formal sign of referring and it would actually obscure the shifting viewpoints between that which is present-at and that which is ready-to hand, which are necessary to distinguish if we are to disclose the worldhood of the world.

So why is a referral sign like indicating a better example? Precisely because, like a broken tool, it allows us to glimpse what is both ready to hand and present at hand in phenomena (i.e., the wordly character of entities).

When considered as something purely present to hand a sign is found to be somewhat wanting. As Heidegger says we do not encounter a sign of indication "if we just stare at it and identify it as an indicator-Thing which occurs" although that is what an indicator is of course when considered as an entity present-at-hand. We encounter a sign authentically when we also see the its significance i.e. we see that which is ready to hand which is referred to by the sign. Note that we still do not see this ready to hand ontologically in terms of Being-in-the-world, but rather we interpret it as a specific instruction. However if we unpack this instruction in terms of ontology, the world is nevertheless revealed as in the case of the car indicator referencing Dasein's "spatiality" and "aroundness." The sign of indication has evoked the world for us as a context for our actions and the actions of others.

Sign of relation are general and do not describe particular relations

While it is certain that indicating differs in principle from reference as a constitutive state of equipment (the hammer for example). It is just as incontestable that the sign in its turn is related in a peculiar and even distinctive way to the kind of Being which belongs to whatever equipmental totality may be ready-to-hand in the environment (its worldly character). While on the other hand indicating is easily shown to be related to aroundness, spatiality and directedness which are all aspects of the world as a phenomenon.


In our concernful dealings, equipment for indicating gets used in a very special way. But simply to establish this fact is ontologically insufficient. The basis and the meaning of this special status must be clarified and that is what is achieved if we define signs of referral more precisely.

Defining signs of referral

The definition of a sign of indication is not one thing which stands for another thing in the relationship of indicating; it is rather an item of equipment which explicitly raises a totality of equipment into our circumspection so that together with it the worldly character of the ready-to-hand announces itself .

To take another example, a sign as a symptom of an illness announces what is coming, but not in the sense of something merely occurring. which comes in addition to what is already present-at-hand.


but as an indication of something coming that we are ready for, precisely because we have attended to the sign's significance (conversely, if we had not paid attention to the sign, its significance would elude us as well and we would be unprepared). This relationship between signs and what they signify alerts us to the reciprocity between the worldly context in which actions take place (context defining actions) and the worldly consequences of actions (actions defining context).

Signs become established due to prior conventions. But these conventions only get established on the basis of our prior ontological understanding of the world, and this is in fact what the significance of the sign addresses.

On the other hand the assignment of the sign could be that which we "weren't ready for," if we had been attending to something else. In which case in the example of the car indicator it means that the inattentive pedestrian gets squashed!

In signs of something that has happened already, what has come to pass and run its course becomes circumspectively accessible. A sign to mark something indicates a state of being, literally "where one is at," at any particular time. Heidegger argues that signs of referral indicate three things primarily:

The peculiar character of signs as equipment becomes especially clear in the circumstances when a sign is first established. For example a sign may be established because people local to a rural area notice that large animals such as deer have a habit or bolting across a newly build busy road. This is not to say that a sign is necessarily established immediately. Say, for instance, this observation is not acted upon until a car driver is badly injured or killed in a collision with a deer. So, much in the spirit of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, it is then decided to put up a sign to warn other drivers of the danger. This sign consists of a red triangle (the convention for a warning signal) with an image of a running deer inside. However the sign is not there to announce a fact--a deer will bolt across the road here. Rather, the sign explicitly refers to the drivers circumspection dealings with the world, because it depicts, in symbolic shorthand, a possible incident that a diver may encounter in that particular area at that particular time. Thus the sign councils the driver to 'take care,' specifically be being aware of the aroundness of the world, in the sense of keeping and eye open for bolting deer.

But even when signs are thus conspicuous ' one does not let them be present-at-hand at random. It is importance to realise that context is crucial for signs (another reason why they are so revealing of the world)

Signs depend upon context and, thus, upon the existence of the world. If the deer road sign is stolen and ends up as a trophy in someone's bedroom, one does not look under the bed to check for the presence of running deer.

Signs always get 'set up' in a definite way with a view towards easy accessibility. The Being of what is most closely ready-to-hand within- the-world possesses, the character of holding-itself-in and not emerging, [¶ 16, p106] and this is precisely why the sign is employed, in a manner of speaking to us that enables that which is holding itself in to free itself.

This is the importance of the sign of referral, because its job is to reveal that which is most primordially ready to hand. Thus the warning sign of the deer is not announcing itself as a red triangle with a drawing of a deer inside, but alerting us to a real world danger. So that when we see the sign, we immediately look around us - (thus reading through the present and hand and letting the ready to hand be seen).

One does not necessarily have to produce the sign that significes the ready-to-hand. Signs arise when one takes some naturally occurring thing to be a sign. For instance, the south wind is taken by the farmer to be a sign of rain. In this mode, signs "get established" in a sense which is even more primordial.


In fact it is only by the kind of circumspection with which one takes account of things in farming, that the south wind is discovered in its Being. This incidentally is another example of how nature is discovered in the ready-to-hand - ref. [ref. ¶15, page100]

And yet we might argue, that signs cannot truly reveal what is yet to be, because that which gets taken up as a sign must first be accessible in itself, and must therefore become apprehended before the sign can be established. Heidegger answers, certainly a sign must be established in some way so that we can come across it. But the question remains as to how entities are discovered in this previous encountering, whether as mere Things which occur, or as equipment which has not been understood-as something ready-to-hand yet. It is a fact that the origins of things is kept veiled from the purview of circumspection. In some cases the existence of entities is discovered by merely revealing what has hitherto been invisible in our circumspection (a paradigm shift). A sign does not have to miraculously appear to tell of things which are yet to happen. Even though, on a very literal level, that is precisely what a sign appears to do (for example the running deer sign foretells an unfortunate incident with a car and a running deer which can be assumed to be a possibility otherwise why would the sign be there?). We are not astonished by prophetic qualities of a sign, because we know that a sign can only alert us to possibilities that others are already fully aware of.

The Being-ready-to-hand of signs in our everyday dealings, and the conspicuousness which belongs to signs and which may be produced for various purposes and in various ways, do not merely serve to document the inconspicuousness constitutive for what is most closely ready-to-hand; the sign itself gets its conspicuousness from the inconspicuousness of the equipmental totality, which is ready-to-hand and 'obvious' in its everydayness.

The sign of the running dear gets its meaning from the context of the busy road (the world in other words). The context allows the sign to signify beyond itself and foretell of a possible dangerous scenario in order to warn drivers. (A sign of a running deer out of context, say, in a bedroom, or at a discotheque would be incongruous and surreal, precisely because of the lack of worldly applicability for the sign in those places).

A sign which references context explicitly (albeit without precision) is the knot which one ties in a handkerchief I as a sign to mark something is another example. What such a sign is to indicate is always something with which one has to concern oneself in one's everyday circumspection. Such a sign can indicate many things, and things of the most various kinds. The wider the extent to which it can indicate, the narrower its intelligibility and its usefulness - it can even become inaccessible. In this instance, the knot does not lose its sign-character, but it acquires the disturbing obtrusiveness of something most closely ready-to-hand. Hence the frustrating experience of tying a knot in a handkerchief and not remembering what the knot is for


This interpretation of the sign should merely provide phenomenal support for our characterisation of references or assignments. The relation between sign and reference is threefold.

  1. Indicating, as a way whereby the "towards-which" of a serviceability can become concrete, because it is founded upon an equipment-structure and an assignment.

  2. The indicating that the sign does is an equipmental character of something ready-to-hand, and as such it belongs to a totality of equipment, and to a context of assignments or references.

  3. The sign is not only ready-to-hand with other equipment, but in its readiness-to-hand the environment becomes in each case explicitly accessible for circumspection.


Heidegger's onto-ontological definition of a sign

A sign is something ontically ready-to-hand, which functions both as this definite equipment and as something indicative of the ontological Structure of readiness-to-hand, of referential totalities, and of worldhood.

This definition underscores the special status of the sign as something ready-to-hand in the particular environment with which we happen to Be. In that it discloses our circumspective concern for the world at that moment. However, the assignment itself cannot be conceived as a sign of this. Reference is not an ontical characteristic of something ready-to-hand, rather it is that by which readiness-to-hand is itself disclosed. References and assignment therefore cannot be signs if they are to serve ontologically as the foundation upon which signs are based. Hence a hammer cannot serve as a sign of reference.

Two questions for the next section

So in what sense, then, can a reference be 'presupposed' ontologically in the ready-to-hand? And to what extent is it an ontological foundation of a sign and at the same time constitutive for worldhood in general? These will be answered in the next section.

Two Criticisms

Magic, Fetishism and 'Primitive Dasein'

On page 112 and 113, Heidegger indulges in what today would be regarded as very politically incorrect speculation about the sign use of 'primitive Dasein' in magic and ritual.

One might be tempted to cite the abundant use of 'signs' in primitive Dasein, as in fetishism and magic, to illustrate the remarkable role which they play in everyday concern for and understanding of the world (B&T, p 112).

Heidegger argues, in this case the establishment of signs which underlies this way of using them is not performed with any theoretical speculation. And so this way of using signs always remains completely within a Being-in-the-world which is 'immediate'. But on closer inspection it becomes plain that to interpret fetishism and magic by taking our clue from the idea of signs in general, is not enough to enable us to grasp the kind of 'Being-ready-to-hand' which belongs to entities encountered in the primitive world (B&T, p 112-113).

The first reason is that primitive man regards a sign as a substitute for the thing it signifies, "for primitive man, the sign coincides with that which is indicated." Thus a voodoo doll is the person, it signifies, rather than being abstracted from its referent and its function does not deviate from this.

The second reason is bound to the first. Primitive Dasein lacks the power of abstracting the sign away from its signify and thus also lacks the power to objectify things. Therefore what Heidegger calls the "coinciding of the sign" is completely embedded in the immediate apprehension of the world, rather than a reflexive understanding.

This "coinciding" consists in the fact that the sign has not as yet become free from that of which it is a sign. Such a use of signs is still absorbed completely in Being-towards what is indicated, so that a sign as such cannot detach itself at all. Thus the coinciding is based not on a prior Objectification but on the fact that such Objectification is completely lacking.


The point Heidegger is making is that signs do not signify for primitive Dasein in the same way as they do for civilised Dasein. Heidegger says that a sign's portability derives from the fact that it can be applied mutatis mutandis to multiple situations. Civilised Dasein can make a sign portable because it has the ability to abstract and isolate certain aspects of a sign to apply them in various contexts. For example the sign of the sun can stand for heat or brightness (qualities of the sun), roundness (its shape) and yellowness (its colour). All of these metaphorical abstractions can in turn be applied to other things and serve as points of departure for new ways of thinking about the world. However, Heidegger claims that for primitive Dasein signs only signify in a very concrete way: referring only to a particular thing, and consequently having no portability. No evidence is cited to back up this claim, which cannot be derived from direct access to the phenomena, since, to my knowledge, Heidegger never visited any primitive societies. Therefore these remarks seem to be grounded on the phenomenon of Heidegger's prejudice towards 'primitive Dasein'.


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Heidegger, Martin (2000), Being and Time, John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (trans), London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.



This is the sixth part of my explication and commentary of Being in Time, for contents of previous sections see the main index

There is also an online glossary of terms referred to in this document.

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