In a recent exchange of letters on the platform Letter (more on which here), Matthew McManus and I explored the topic of inequality, with a focus on leftist critique. The discussion included an in-depth exploration of the meaning of individualism, in relation to Social Justice activism’s emphasis on group identity. In one letter, McManus summarizes the views of critics of liberal individualism: “What these thinkers insist upon is that liberal individualism is not wrong, but only incomplete,” and that “[u]ntil we recognize the deep and complex ways in which our sense of self is interconnected in our relations with others, we can never be truly free to realize how we are.” McManus is more sympathetic to group identity activism than I am, but, as he acknowledges, we “gradually [are] moving towards a position of unexpected agreement on the moral and methodological priority of the individual; though we will no doubt cash that out in very different ways.”
In this and a follow-up essay, I distinguish between Heideggerian and Cartesian conceptions of individualism, in order to show that liberal individualism and identity politics can be reconciled. I argue that individualism and identity politics can be in dialectical conflict, but are not diametrically opposed. This advances the progressive cause, while accommodating the concerns of libertarian and postmodern conservative critics of Social Justice activism. The resolution lies in a shared conception of individualism, which synthesizes the Cartesian subject that underlies liberal individualism with an existential conception of the individual, proposed by Martin Heidegger, which, in important ways, underlies the worldview of twenty-first century Social Justice activism.
This essay explains the difference between the Cartesian subject and Heidegger’s Dasein. It concludes that Descartes and Heidegger are ultimately concerned with different questions, but Heidegger’s question is more fundamental. In a follow-up essay, I elaborate on Heidegger’s notion of authenticity, arguing that the individual is intertwined with her environment, but nonetheless has the ability—and the responsibility—to examine and evaluate her own surroundings objectively, in order to conceive and pursue her own ends in society. This preserves the Cartesian subject but invokes Heidegger’s conception of the they-self and prioritizes Heidegger’s concern with Dasein’s authenticity. Individualism and social constructivism are not irreconcilable. The liberal emphasis on the individual, and her responsibility to conceive and pursue a good life for herself, is compatible with a recognition that ideological and discursive forces that arise in social, cultural, historical and institutional contexts may reinforce group inequalities at the expense of the individual’s dignity, integrity and pursuit of a good life. But societal influences, a principal concern of Social Justice activism, are not so intractable that an individual is incapable of transcending false consciousness on her own, apart from her group identity. In fact, it is the individual’s responsibility to achieve unique self-determination and a good life.
The Cartesian Subject
Heidegger, as William Barrett explains in this video, is part of the “whole epoch of modern philosophy which begins with Descartes,” whose epistemological skepticism led him to view the mind and body as distinct substances. A substance, according to Descartes, is unique because it possesses a clear and distinct essence. The essence of mind is thought. The essence of body is extension. The mind is a single and complete entity, incapable of being divided. The body, however, is divisible. Indivisibility is in the nature of thought; divisibility is in the nature of extension.
The human intellect clearly and distinctly perceives the idea that each substance—mind and body—is characterized by a distinct essence: thought and extension, respectively. The human intellect then clearly and distinctly discovers the idea that God has the power to separate each substance from the other. The result is the radical subjectivism underlying much of modern western philosophical thought, including liberal individualism. Each of us is an individual, who can be considered ontologically distinct from the world in which he lives and is equipped with the intellectual wherewithal to examine this world: I think, therefore I am.
In his book Being and Time, Martin Heidegger breaks with the idea that the individual can conceive of herself as a clear and distinct entity, separate from the world in which she lives. Heidegger’s fundamental philosophical concern was the meaning of Dasein. Dasein (human existence or human nature) is the combination of characteristics that comprise the essence of what it is to be a human being. Its basic essence is being-in-the-world, denoting an interplay between the human being and her surroundings. This interplay is irrevocable, and this irrevocability is central to an understanding of the nature of Dasein. The irrevocable, or necessary, interplay between Dasein and the world, i.e. the being-in-the-world, contrasts sharply with the Cartesian view that there is a clear dichotomy between the human subject and the external objective world she seeks to understand.
Being-in-the-world is a central concept in existentialism, and stems from Heidegger’s revision of the traditional ontological view that the essence of Dasein is a fixed, reflective being that can be distinguished from its surroundings. The central concern is to determine the question of being, which, in contrast to Descartes, Heidegger views as prior to the question of knowing. As philosopher Richard Polt writes, “Intellectualists, such as Descartes, try to understand the self and the world primarily in terms of knowing. They fail to recognize that knowing presupposes dwelling.”
In his Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre argues that existentialism is a philosophy of hope and anxiety because it insists that the individual bear responsibility for his freedom. The individual must enjoy the hope, and endure the anxiety, that comes with the freedom to make the most of his circumstances. Freedom involves anxiety. Why should the freedom to make the most of our opportunities involve anxiety? The answer, Sartre says, is that freedom and opportunity are wrapped up in circumstances that are constantly evolving and being reconsidered. Human beings assert their freedom when making choices, which are made because they live and act within an environment in which ends can be chosen and human beings may act. This environment is irrevocably intertwined with other human beings. It consists of an ever-changing totality of ends that may be pursued through an assortment of means. The ends we choose depend on who we are and what we desire, which are themselves a function of our histories, our facticity. We transcend our facticity when we assert our facticity: the choices we make reflect the beings that we are (have become) and the beings that we might become.
For Heidegger, the being of Dasein is being-in-the-world. The circumstances in which a human being exists define a range of possibilities for action from among which Dasein chooses, and thus comes into being. Being is becoming. Dasein chooses to undertake certain actions, whose possibilities arise because of purposes that can be pursued within the world in which Dasein operates.
Consider an example offered by Richard Polt. A Canadian geologist, who is also the mother of two children, makes choices that reflect her capacities as a Canadian professor and as a mother of two children. She makes choices that flow from the demands that her capacities as Canadian professor and mother of two place on her. As she makes these choices, her being becomes. Her past factors into her decisions and influences her future:
Being Canadian, being a mother, and the other dimensions of her identity are not just facts given here and now. They are part of her past—and also part of her future, since they open up possible ways for her to be in her world. She is able to act, think and feel as a mother, a Jew and a geologist. Whenever she realizes one of these possibilities, she is choosing to be someone—she is interpreting who she is. The question of who she is, is always “an issue” for her; she is always assigned the task of being someone, like it or not. She may acknowledge this task and accept her existence as her own to take over, or she may exist “inauthentically,” avoiding owning up to the task of Being.
Human beings, their pasts and their futures, are irrevocably intertwined with their environment. This interplay is a temporal process in which human beings evolve in, and into, their being. Being is becoming; it finds its essence in Temporality, which refers to the course of time in which Dasein evolves in, and into, its being. Dasein’s being “is an issue for it.” Being flows from the awareness of choices made, and the awareness of the dependence of those choices on the facticity (the sum total of facts about itself, its past, its present and its possible futures) of Dasein.
How Heidegger Diverges from Descartes
Heidegger’s concern with what it means to be a human being was motivated by a similar reason to Descartes’ concern with discovering the fundamental principles of human knowledge. Both wanted to establish the principles upon which subsequent empirical inquiry into human beings and the world may rest. Heidegger claimed that Descartes went astray by not pursuing the question of the I am. Heidegger claimed that Descartes was unable to pursue this question because he ignored the important relationship between Dasein and the world. Descartes’ mind-body dualism suggests that objects of the external world can be treated by theoretical cognition as distinct from Dasein, as if they could be studied in isolation from Dasein.
Descartes sought firm foundations for the sciences. He wanted to escape the doubts in which he was immersed. Heidegger claimed that Descartes focused on a pseudo-problem: the ultimate foundation that philosophy must provide is the analytic of Dasein, which precedes the sciences. Descartes was concerned with establishing conditions for the certainty of our knowledge. The cogito is the essence of the I am, i.e. the human being. One important implication of this is that true propositions are those that the intellect perceives clearly and distinctly, a fundamental principle by which we must abide in all future investigations. Cartesian science is mechanistic, as we might expect given Descartes’ conclusions about the nature of true propositions. Descartes was concerned in part with the knowledge we may have of the object, as distinct from the intellectual self. He was concerned with acquiring certainty about the objects of our knowledge. From his meditations, he arrives at what he considers to be the most certain truths.
Heidegger is concerned with what he believes is a more fundamental question for philosophy, a question that supersedes the question of the certainty of our knowledge because our knowledge must proceed from an adequate understanding of the relation that we, as Dasein, have with our surroundings. Dasein and its surroundings derive their existence—the meaning, or significance, of their being—from the instrumental relationships they have with each other. The way we exist, live and relate to things in the world in various practical contexts must be explained before we can proceed with an investigation of ourselves and the world. While Descartes considers objects merely in their objective presence, Heidegger extends our consideration of objects to their handiness, i.e. how they factor into the purposes embraced and pursued by Dasein. For example, a computer is a mere amalgamation of concrete entities (chips, keyboard, screen, etc.—even the names of chips, etc. presuppose some kind of being in the names chips, etc.) until the purposes of Dasein—efficient storage of information, computation—project onto this unified amalgamation of entities and make it a computer. Similarly, Dasein does not have the particular determination of, say, a computer programmer or builder without a computer to program or build. For Heidegger, there is no circle of consciousness that divides an intellectual self from objects of the external world: the circle of consciousness implicit in the mind-body dualism of Descartes does not capture the essential meaning of Dasein and objects that is inherent in their interdependence.
Heidegger thus points to the essential connection between Dasein and the world. Dasein is being-in-the-world. Descartes considers objects as having objective presence and makes them into objects of theoretical cognition. The investigation of objects is merely theoretical and static, as if the object could be isolated from its environmental context and studied to determine its fundamental and unchanging attributes. Heidegger, however, perceives objects as intrinsically dynamic, as if they lived and breathed within the world in which Dasein is and acts. For Dasein, the essence of being is endlessly unfolding. It consists of the constantly evolving interdependence between the history of Dasein and its future possible purposes, which are combined to comprise the context in which Dasein pursues and comes into its being. The essence of Dasein’s existence is a process of becoming, of choosing from a range of purposes and making use of objects in ways that are instrumental for the pursuit of such purposes. In this way, Dasein comes into a particular determination of itself and the objects used in this process obtain their characteristic being. Dasein becomes a Canadian geologist and mother of two. A chair becomes a chair.
In an important sense, Heidegger and Descartes are concerned with different problems, and thus Heidegger does Descartes a disservice by attributing such a great error in philosophy to him. Descartes’ concern is primarily epistemological. It is a concern with skeptical doubts about the state of our knowledge, e.g. knowledge of objects obtained through the senses. Heidegger’s concern is primarily metaphysical. It is concern with the primacy of the meaning of the being of Dasein.
But, in overcoming his doubts, Descartes draws a conclusion about the nature of human existence that Heidegger felt compelled to dispute. Heidegger does not say that objects and human beings depend for their tangible existence on their interdependence with each other. Instead, he argues that, as long as philosophy maintains a belief in the dualism of mind and body, it will focus on an epistemological concern with the ontological status of Dasein and the objects of the world that leads to incorrect conclusions about the fundamental principles to be established to permit further investigations into the world. One such principle is the notion of clear and distinct perception as a criterion of truth, which leads to mechanistic science. Heidegger argues that this concern bypasses the more fundamental issue of the meaning of Dasein and the objects of the world. Descartes’ epistemological concerns lead to metaphysical conclusions—such as mind-body dualism—that overlook the importance of the interrelationship and interplay between Dasein and the world.
Heidegger conducts his own meditation on philosophy first. He wants to answer what he considers the fundamental question, the answer to which serves as the foundation of all subsequent inquiries and investigations. It is the question of the meaning of the being of Dasein. Dasein—the nature of the human being—has its essence in existence, and its existence is being-in-the-world. Dasein cannot exist apart from the world. Being is definable only in relation to the context in which it comes into its being. It is definable only by reference to the interdependence and unity between the framework of purposes it pursues and the handy objects of the world onto which Dasein projects its purposes.
This essential relation between Dasein and the world is not captured by a mere theoretical account of the human intellect or things in the world. When it employs such theoretical accounts, philosophy collapses into skeptical doubt. Heidegger believes that the analytic of Dasein provides the escape from skeptical doubt that philosophy ought to accomplish. The analytic of Dasein reveals that Dasein and things in the world are extant in the meaningful way we take for granted every day only in relation to the framework of purposes in which Dasein projects a purpose onto handy objects. In the next essay, I explore how this analytic of Dasein facilitates a reconciliation between liberal individualism and Social Justice activism.