Kultur, Zoologi og metafysisk spekulasjon

.. in the rock dwells the dark slumbers of the earth

In Arkeologi, Filosofi, Vitenskap on mai 19, 2011 at 9:58 pm

What does it mean to make a flint tool from scratch?

The other day I forged a scraper in flint and someone asked me if it was made from scratch. I did not know what to answer.

In the basement I have a box full of flint. This box carries all the raw material needed to make the classic early Mesolithic flint tools from Norway. If we choose to call the flint a raw material it is an awkward description, because every natural piece of flint is different from all the others. It is only homogenous in the sense that it is made of the same mixture of atoms. Practically it means that every piece of flint that makes the starting point for a construction phase is different from all the others. Naturally some of them will have certain morphological similarities, but they are all unique.

There are two aspects with this phenomenon that is worth noting. Irregularities make the choice of method in the manufacture process a challenge. What tool should/could I make? Where to place the first hit? How hard? Should I use stone or antler? How do I hold the flint in my hand?

The other aspect has to do with the nature of the flint itself. If every piece of flint is unique, what can that tell us of the nature of the flint?

We can start answering by denoting the flint with most general ontological entity we can imagine; a thing. Flint is a thing, just like all other things. The word thing refers to something that exists, as a thing. It is something being, in some way or another. Being a thing is not the same as being an object. The concept of object is inevitably linked to the concept of the subject. If we were to introduce the concept of object into this meditation we have already then, parted ourselves from the thing. Humans are also things. Martin Heidegger once pointed out that a thing is not in itself an object (Heidegger [1975] 2001). An object for itself is not receptive for human perception, because an object for us will always be something – something different. It will be formed by our sense perception and of my cognitive abilities. To say something about the nature of something – like we are trying to here and now – means, to Heidegger, to say something about a thing as a thing. The nature of the thing is the thingness of it. The relation between the thing and thingness could be the same as the relation between person and personality; the personality is what can be said about a thing as a person.

Already I have cited Heidegger. What more did he says about things? A vase, he said, is a thing. It is certainly a container for liquids, but it is not a vase because it was formed that way. The vase has always showed itself in that form to the one who made it. Even before it was made, it was inside her head.

This aspect with the vase – that it is something that can become something else with a being separated from myself, is what Heidegger calls the eidos (Heidegger [1975] 2001, p.166). The flint has its own eidos. This eidos will increase in complexity as the flintknapper gains experience in knapping. As every piece of the flint is unique, gaining experience can take time. But does this mean for the concept of flint as a raw material?

There are no aspects of the flint as a thing that enables us to call it a raw material. The arbitrariness of it shows us that it has already been produced. The form takes precedence over our own procedures – the process of forming the flint was already at work before we started. The eidos of the flint presupposes and is independent of my own presence before it, holding it in my hand. By forming the flint I take part of process that is bigger than me.

But none of this is being thought while I am knapping the flint. It is not my consciousness that forms the flint, but my hands. In a situation like that it is like my brain is inside my hands (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2008, p.368-369). The difference between me and the flint, as two different objects in space and time, is nonexistent. As the flint can never be in a state of an original form, it follows that a flint tool can never be made from scratch .

Heidegger writes that when we perceive the vase as a product – as something made, we are also understanding the vase as a thing and not an object. It is something for me, but at the same time something in front of me, something for itself. Heidegger can state this because the vase in its nature has been made. The flint, on the other side, will always remain unique. Even the types of finished products from early Mesolithic look different. It will always seem independent of me. And in that sense, again, to know the flint one needs to work with it.

The attitude toward a thing as a tool – as something relevant for my own being in the world, is what Heidegger calls present-at-hand. The things that we relate to as present-at-hand carry the characteristics of being close to me. Every thing has a nearness to me. How can we measure this nearness? As we are talking of the thingness of the thing, and not the thing as a measurable object, Heidegger says that the nearness is regulated solely by the person using the tool (Heidegger [1926] 2008, p.135). And as the flint carries a nearness, it has also a place it belongs. The aspect of belonging to is the only way one can say that the flint has an origin. Even before I picked the flint from the ground, it had a place it belonged to. Where exactly this place was is unknown, and irrelevant. But it was not just laying around; even before I started shaping it into a tool it belonged to the landscape from where it was found.

Some flint still belong to the earth, and some belong in a museum.


Heidegger, M. [1926] 2008: Being and Time. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.

Heidegger, M. [1975] 2001: Poetry Language Though. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.

Merleau-Ponty, M. [1945] 2008: The Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge, London og New York.

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