What does a Coke bottle mean in a world where there is no such thing as Coke in particular or bottled beverages in general? How are we to understand “Coke bottle” apart from a world in which “Coke” and “bottle” have meaning? Hubert Dreyfus (UC Berkley) has explored these questions in his Fall 2007 lecture on Heidegger’s Being and Time (available on iTunes for free). I am now listening to this lecture series for the third time and Heidegger’s concept of worldhood is finally becoming clear.
Dr. Dreyfus says that Heidegger distinguishes three types of being. The first way is translated as present-at-hand and relates to substances whose properties can be analyzed. Gold is an example of present-at-hand. The next type is what Heidegger calls ready-to-hand and relates to equipment. A hammer is an example of ready-to-hand. Finally, there is Heidegger’s beloved Dasein which is German for being-in-the-world and relates to any being that takes a stand on its own being. Human beings are examples of Dasein. Both present-at-hand and Dasein have self-sufficientt being; that is, their being is not contingent upon on the being of anything else. However, ready-to-hand does not have this type of self-sufficiency. In fact, equipment such as hammers have their being only within a world in which there are nails, wood, and carpenters. Hammers are meaningless or unintelligible (Dreyfus’ term) without something to hammer. The being of hammer is contingent on the being of nails, lumber, and carpenters.
Coke bottles are the same way. Without Coke or bottled beverages the bottle as equipment is meaningless. Dr. Dreyfus’ points out that in the movie The God’s Must Be Crazy a bottle drops out the sky into a primitive culture which is unfamiliar with Coke. The bottle is meaningless as equipment and becomes a rolling pin (I haven’t seen the movie so I am taking Dr. Dreyfus’ word for it.) In order to be a Coke bottle in that culture there would need to be such a thing as Coke or bottled beverages.
Heidegger’s notion of worldhood reveals how much we take for granted in our every day existence. The simple act of drinking a Coke is revealed to be tethered to a host of other referentials that allow such and act to be intelligible. It has also caused me to be more reflective about the average-every-day world I live in.