Heidegger often tried to give examples of everyday situations to help understand his theories. When he speaks about the ways in which we interact with the world. Our immediate environment in our average everydayness is referred to as umwelt, where we are absorbed by our everyday pursuits and everyday concerns.
Heidegger describes our coping in a familiar environment, where we have existing knowledge and experience as zuhanden or ‘ready-to-hand’ and it is in this way that we engage with the world most of the time. His example of this is when we see a skilled carpenter hammering a nail into a piece of wood. The carpenter skilfully uses the hammer, not having to contemplate the hammers size, shape or weight. Indeed he could be thinking of other things. The hammer becomes almost an extension of his own hand. This interaction is described by Heidegger as ready-to-hand coping. Dreyfus (1991) terms this as transparent coping, as it no longer needs to pass through our consciousness. A further example which would suffice here, would be an experienced driver, driving a car. He is not consciously aware of changing gear, and of how to position the steering wheel. Indeed an experienced driver can be thinking of a whole host of things whilst driving.
However when this transparent and skilful coping is interrupted for some reason we experience Unzuhanden or ‘unready-to-hand’. Returning to Heidegger’s example of a carpenter, let us assume there becomes a problem with the hammer he was using, perhaps the shaft becomes loose. The hammer is now no longer able to complete the function, and is now no longer transparent in his hands. The carpenter must now openly focus on the hammer and problem solve. The carpenter may feel frustration and annoyance as he is now encountering a deficient mode of readiness-to-hand. Heidegger also observes that we experience the world as vorhanden or ‘Present-at-hand’ which would be present when the carpenter stopped hammering and started to think about the hammer, its shape, colour, or weight. When engaging in a ‘Present-at-hand’ mode the hammer becomes purely an object with specific properties. We are no longer hammering with the hammer, instead we are studying its properties.
Heidegger gives another example to clarify this theory of how we experience the world by illustrating that we only become aware of things when things go wrong, and we have to resort to problem solving. At the beginning of a lecture he asked his assembled students how they had entered the room. The entrance into the room involved them turning a door knob, but because they were familiar with the door knob and the door, the door knob had become almost invisible to them, and they could not recall using it. If the door knob had become stuck, they would have been forced to change their coping mechanism from zuhanden to become unzuhanden, a problem solver who needs to focus on the task.
It is interesting to note that when we are in our familiar everyday umwelt we fail to recognise our zuhanden coping mechanisms, and equipment becomes almost unseen as we skilfully utilise it. When things malfunction, or we are thrown into a new situation or role, our coping mechanisms change to unzuhanden and we gain new awareness of our umwelt.