In part 1 of this essay, I explain the difference between the Cartesian subject and Heidegger’s Dasein. Descartes was primarily concerned with skeptical doubts about the state of knowledge accessible to a thinking subject. Heidegger was primarily concerned with how we are to understand the being of Dasein, i.e. human nature. In this essay, I elaborate on Heidegger’s notion of authenticity to advance a conception of the individual as ontologically intertwined with her environment, but nonetheless with the ability and responsibility to examine and evaluate her surroundings objectively, as a means of conceiving and pursuing her own ends in society.
In the previous essay, I argue that,
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.
For Heidegger, being is becoming. 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 a unity defined by an interdependence between the framework of purposes that it pursues and the handy objects of the world onto which Dasein projects its purposes.
This does not mean, however, that Dasein is so intertwined with its environment that it has no capacity for self-reflection. Dasein possesses the capacity for self-reflection. But, Heidegger asserts, from the moment it is born, Dasein is “sucked into the eddy of the they’s inauthenticity.” Dasein is “thrown” into a complex network of relationships with people and events in the world. It is immersed in an environment it did not explicitly choose, a predicament that cannot be avoided. The being of Dasein is such that it is not possible for Dasein to choose in a vacuum. The individual may be able to detach from his surroundings, but he does not exist (i.e. become) in a vacuum.
Dasein’s relationships are, in the perfunctory and mundane aspects of its daily life, handy, i.e. useful for the immediate purposes pursued by Dasein. In the first essay, I invoke the example of a computer, which is a mere amalgamation of concrete entities (chips, keyboard, screen) until the purposes of Dasein—e.g. efficient storage of information and computation—“project onto this amalgamation of entities and make it a computer.” “Similarly,” I argue, “Dasein does not have the particular determination of, say, a computer programmer or builder without a computer to program or build.”
These relationships are not subject to immediate reflection. Dasein is easily “sucked into the eddy of the they’s inauthenticity.” What does this mean? To answer, one must distinguish between the they-self and the authentic self. For Heidegger, the they is the social matrix in which the criterion for individuality is public rather than private. The everyday existence of Dasein within the public character of its individuality—its they-self—reinforces its congenital tendency to live an inauthentic existence. By contrast, an authentic existence entails an escape from the they-self—though not from the they. Liberal individualism, then, can be conceived as an attempt to extricate oneself from the they-self, while Social Justice activism can be conceive as attempting to facilitate this disentanglement by exploring the ways in which group identity can be exploited as a means of social marginalization, where marginalization then leads to a kind of inauthenticity. The problem of structural inequality, then, is not merely an instrumental and material concern with means and ends, but a concern with how structural inequalities undermine Dasein’s pursuit of existential fulfillment.
Philosophy professor Richard Polt has suggested an alternative translation of the they as the anyone. This alternative translation helps clarify how the everyday being of Dasein is average. Someone who is average could be anyone. She is typical of the kind of person one expects upon encountering someone in one’s daily existence. This is similar to a modern statistician’s use of average to describe individuals within a population. The statistician might collect data on a population and talk about the average test score of a person in the population. While her analysis may be geared toward improvement of the educational achievement of the population as a whole, one effect of this is that it views individuals within the population relative to the average. She might speak of the test score of an individual in terms of its deviation from the mean. This is not unlike what Social Justice activists have in mind when they discuss systemic, or average, differences in group outcomes.
How close or how far away from the average an individual is, is a question that serves to reinforce the average everydayness of the existence of Dasein. In its average mode of existence, Dasein takes other people to be like itself. Individuals are inconspicuous: their differences do not make them authentic beings. Differences are understood only in relation to the average. Individuals perform similar activities, have the same expectations and tastes, partake in the same customs and traditions, attain varying levels of the same educational quality, all without deliberately choosing from among the possibilities that arise in these contexts in a way that is in accord with the true demands of their authentic individuality. As Heidegger writes in Being and Time:
In utilizing public transportation, in the use of information services such as the newspaper, every other is like the next. This being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of being of “the others” in such a way that the others, as distinguishable and explicit, disappear more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the they unfolds its true dictatorship. We enjoy ourselves and have fun the way they enjoy themselves. We read, see, and judge literature and art the way they see and judge. But we also withdraw from the “great mass” the way they withdraw, we find “shocking” what they find shocking. The they which is nothing definite and which all are, though not as a sum, prescribes the kind of being of everydayness.
Dasein finds itself immersed in a network of relationships with the people and events that constitute its surroundings. The modes of relating to these aspects of its community are the ways in which Dasein relates to the they. The typical ways in which it relates to the they—the ways of reading and responding to news in the newspaper, seeing and judging works of art, reading and judging literature—constitute the mode of being in Dasein which is the they-self. This they-self is the inauthentic self. One is reminded of discourses that reinforce white privilege, patriarchy and numerous other examples of what Social Justice activists would call marginalizing institutions, though we should be mindful of Richard Polt’s warning that one does not “escape the ‘they’ by (for example) dressing against prevailing fashion.” This risks “embracing a new ‘they’ – the countercultural ‘they’” and “[o]ften enough, ‘nonconformists are rigid conformists within their own subculture.”
Dasein relates to its surroundings in a complacent fashion. It takes them for granted. The laziness of Dasein in its average everydayness means that Dasein flees from the responsibility to reflect on its status within the matrix of the they. In other words, the standard for individuality is public. One defines oneself in terms of external expectations. A person is in an art gallery and hears an art critic expound on the marvelous and remarkable aspects of a particular painting, and he is inclined to agree. In acceding to the critic’s praise, he performs agreement, lest he alienate himself from other people in the room who also accede to the critic.
But if he accedes to the critic lest he alienate himself, then he probably relates to the painting in an inauthentic way. He does not view the painting, at least not initially, in such a way that the painting moves him. He views the painting through the eyes of the critic and the people who agree with the critic. Of course, it is not the sole fact of agreeing with the critic that makes him inauthentic. The critic may present ingenious insights about the painting, which genuinely move him. But, as long as his response to the painting does not reflect the way it truly moved him, he relates to the painting in an inauthentic way. The idle chatter of the people who are uniform in their approval of the insights of the critic influence the individual to conform to their approval of the critic. Dasein is in the grip of the they-self.
The they-self is thus that part of the existence of Dasein in which it falls prey to the expectations of the they—e.g. external institutions, discourses and ideological influences. It is immersed in the idle talk of the social matrix and hence susceptible to knowledge not grounded in its proper depth. The man in the art gallery’s knowledge of the painting is not grounded in the proper depth of his own individuality: he does not respond to the painting in a way that reflects the way it truly moved him. The they-self is that part of Dasein that, in the laziness or fearfulness of its average everyday mode of existence, is inauthentic.
In its everyday mode of existence, Dasein is a public individual. It is not especially reflective about how the possibilities that it chooses stem from the way in which Dasein succumbs to the expectations of its social environment. Thus, Dasein is not likely to choose the possibilities that it ought to choose. This everyday indifference to Dasein and the real possibilities of its existence is its averageness. The being of Dasein degenerates into the averageness of the they.
An essential part of the being of Dasein is being-in-the-world. The being of Dasein is grounded in the ways in which it relates to the world. It already dwells in the world. Since the world is always already there in front of Dasein, waiting to be used, Dasein is compelled by its very nature—i.e. by the very fact that it encounters the world—to relate to the world in some way. In relating to the world in some way, Dasein presumes a conception of being in terms of its relationship with the world. This is loosely analogous to what Social Justice pedagogy has in mind when it emphasizes the powerful influence that ideology and discourse exert on the social roles an individual performs.
The point is that Dasein’s world is not chosen. Rather, Dasein must choose its possibilities from a world it has not chosen. These possibilities make up the being of Dasein as potentiality-of-being. As I note in the first essay, a study of Dasein as being-in-the-world is helpful for an understanding of the philosophy of existentialism. The converse is also true: a helpful way to understand the notion of being-in-the-world is to invoke Sartre’s essay Existentialism Is A Humanism, in which he argues that existentialism is a philosophy of hope and anxiety because it insists that the individual bear the responsibility for her freedom, i.e. that an individual must enjoy the hope and endure the anxiety that come with the freedom to make the most of her circumstances.
Freedom and opportunity are wrapped up in circumstances that are constantly evolving and constantly 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. As I write in the first essay,
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, which is to say that the choices we make reflect the beings that we are (have become) and the beings that we might become. But when “sucked into the eddy of the they’s inauthenticity,” Dasein does not assume the responsibility of choosing ends in an authentic way. Dasein confuses its choices of possibilities with the choices of possibilities suggested by the they. Dasein idles in the grip of the they-self.
The idle talk of the people acceding to the critic in the art gallery influences the individual Dasein such that Dasein is entangled in the they. The knowledge gained from listening to the critic is not grounded in its proper degree of depth so long as it does not help the individual understand the way in which the painting really moves him. His knowledge of the painting is shallow. But, worse, this idle talk plunges Dasein further into its they-self, and Dasein fails to distinguish between understanding that is genuine and understanding that is not genuine. Again, this is not to say that the critic’s insights are false. Rather, they fail to be appreciated by Dasein so long as they do not correspond to the way in which the painting moves Dasein. Dasein instead tries to let the painting move him in the way the critic and the people in the audience expect it to move him. The individuality of Dasein is thus made public. It reflects public expectations and is thus in the grip of the they-self:
“The others” does not mean everybody else but me—those from whom the “I” distinguishes itself. They are, rather, those from whom one mostly does not distinguish oneself, those among whom one is, too.
Conformity cultivates a state of vague anxiety about how and where one stands in relation to one’s true or authentic self.
The Authentic Self
The most significant achievement of a human being is an authentic existence, which entails a mode of being in which Dasein does not confuse its choices among possibilities with the choices among possibilities suggested by the they. As Heidegger writes:
The “they” even conceals the way it has silently disburdened Dasein of the explicit choice of these possibilities. It remains indefinite who is “really” choosing. So Dasein is taken along by the no one, without choice, and thus gets caught up in inauthenticity. This process can be reversed only in such a way that Dasein explicitly brings itself back to itself from its lostness in the “they.” But this bringing-back must have the kind of being by the neglect of which Dasein has lost itself in inauthenticity.
How does Dasein discover “the kind of being by the neglect of which Dasein has lost itself in inauthenticity?” Authentic selfhood is an escape from the they-self. It is that part of Dasein that cultivates its own being. Dasein, thrown into its possibilities, projects itself onto those possibilities and chooses them in a way that accords with authentic being. Authentic selfhood is not an escape from the they. It is an escape from the they-self. Authenticity thus entails the refined relationship Dasein has with the they.
The essence of Dasein is existence (becoming), the process of choosing from a range of purposes and making use of objects in ways that are instrumental to the pursuit of such purposes. In this way, Dasein comes into a particular determination of itself. Heidegger considers how objects factor into the purposes embraced and pursued by Dasein. In so doing, he points to the essential connection between Dasein and the world. This connection is being-in-the-world, a totality of relations that Dasein has and may have with the objects that comprise the world and the purposes to which they give rise. In these relations, Dasein and objects of the world obtain the meaning of their being.
An important component of authentic existence is to be in the proper relation toward one’s own death. Authentic being-toward-death entails an understanding that death can come at any time. This does not mean we must become hypochondriacs. Rather, it should compel us to make decisions in accord with the significance of death, or the idea that death may come at any time and thus we ought to take seriously the demand that we make choices that lead to a fulfilled life. Otherwise, the approach of death carries the extra baggage of dying with the knowledge that one did not live a fulfilled life.
What is a fulfilled life? In keeping with the meaning of being that Heidegger has developed in Being and Time, we may think of a fulfilled life as one in which Dasein has projected itself onto possibilities that arise in the world such that it becomes its own-most potentiality of being. As being-in-the-world, Dasein has an essential relationship to its surroundings. Dasein must choose how to relate to its surroundings. It chooses from a range of possible ways in which it may manipulate its surroundings. In its average everyday mode of being, it pursues numerous purposes by making use of useful things. If Dasein is authentic, it pursues purposes that align with its existential possibilities.
These existential possibilities are not possibilities that pertain to Dasein in general. They pertain to a particular Dasein. Any individual has particular talents, desires and ends. Authentic individuals choose possibilities that accord with these talents, desires and ends. But choosing among possibilities is a responsibility. One may galvanize Dasein into self-reflection such that it is not in the grip of the they-self by serving as the call of conscience to which Dasein is purportedly ready to respond. The call of conscience ought to instill in Dasein a respect for the imminence of death. Whether it is resolute Dasein or some inner voice that serves as the call of conscience, Dasein must be summoned to respect the imminence of death. It thus makes every choice with the awareness that the choice could be its last. Proper being-toward-death leads Dasein to make the most of every choice. Dasein thus projects itself in such a way that it becomes its own-most potentiality of being. In short, the individual is equipped with intellectual tools to detach from social surroundings that are oppressive and reflect on how they obscure the vital effort to extricate oneself from the they-self in order to achieve existential fulfillment in the face of death.
Dasein cares about its being. It is thrown into a network of relationships and web of possibilities and manipulates them throughout life. It seeks to improve its status and well-being in life and does so in the presence of others who may influence how it pursues its goals. It thus pursues its goals in either an inauthentic or an authentic way. The essence of being for Dasein is being-in-the-world. It relates to the world in purposeful ways. The “worldliness of the world” refers to the purposeful nature of the world: “[w]orldliness was interpreted as the referential totality of significance.”
One way in which Dasein relates to the world in purposeful ways is the way it relates to other people. An essential part of the being of Dasein as being-in-the-world is being-with. It is perpetually in the presence of other people and other things to which it relates in some purposeful way. The existence of Dasein entails its purposeful existence within a cultural setting. The being-with of Dasein as being-in-the-world means that Dasein is always in the presence of the they. When Dasein is inauthentic, it is in the grip of the they-self. It is susceptible to the influence of the they. When Dasein is authentic, it relates to the they in such a way that it pursues its goals with the awareness of the imminence of death. It takes seriously the motivation to lead a fulfilled life, to make every choice with the anticipation of its own finitude. It cares about making choices that accord with its own-most potentiality of being. It does not confuse choices that are its own with choices suggested by the they. Dasein is inherently capable of such reflection.
When Dasein makes authentic choices, it is still in the presence of the they, but it is not the grip of the they-self. It relates to the they in a modified way, such that its choices reflect its own desires, tastes and talents. Authentic being is not an escape. It is a modified way of being. As Heidegger writes: “[a]uthentic being one’s self is not based on an exceptional state of the subject, a state detached from the they, but is an existential modification of the they as an essential existential.” The individual is not a Cartesian subject completely detached from objective surroundings, but also is not a subject inescapably in the grip of the they-self. Authenticity is within reach of the individual. Ideology, discourse, norms and other societal influences are not intractable obstacles, but it is the responsibility of the individual to arrive at a unique determination of the self, pursue his own conception of the good life and realize his full potential.