A Note on “Breakdown”

I have seen a number of posts and comments that grapple with the notion of “breakdown,” and I thought it might be constructive to clarify something.

“Breakdown” in everyday English is a bad and destructive thing. “My car broke down.” “He had a nervous break down.”

The phenomenological notion is derived from this, but as some of you have noted, it often has a positive outcome: breakdown introduces the opportunity for critique and heightened awareness. Here’s how that works:

(1) I am performing a task using a tool. I am so focused on my task that I am not really all that conscious of the tool. (The tool is ready-to-hand.)

(2) Something happens and suddenly the tool is no longer invisibly helping me solve the problem. Perhaps the tool breaks. Perhaps the tool is not the right one (e.g., a screwdriver that is too small for a screw.) Perhaps it is so lovely that I just enjoy playing with it for itself (e.g., my first reaction to the iPhone.) Regardless, this moment is a breakdown–not of the tool but of my attitude or attention towards the tool.

(3) Now I am thinking about the tool explicitly. It is broken. It is the wrong size. It is so lovely I wish the task took longer so I could spend more time with it. Regardless, my attention is now focused on the tool itself: I need a new one, or I need to use it in a new way, or just “dang! I love this thing!” Now, the tool is present-to-hand.

So, the point of this post is that it is very important when talking about “breakdown” (and many other key concepts) to be careful to distinguish between when you are using it in an everyday sense, and when you are using it in a special technical sense.


  1. mingxian

    We suppose that we are using it in the special technical sense here within our blog, right? ^_*


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