Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Authentic Existence in Heidegger’s “Being and Time”

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Authentic Existence in Heidegger’s “Being and Time”, by Alan N. Shapiro

In his excellent essay on Heidegger’s Being and Time, which I have just published here at my website, my nephew James Shapiro argues (among other things) that Heidegger gives little content to or explanation of what he means by authentic being. Jamie said that he was influenced in formulating this view by one of his philosophy professors at Boston University, Daniel Dahlstrom, who is a relatively well-known Heidegger scholar.

My own reading of Being and Time led me to a rather different conclusion. I think that Heidegger, in that major work, does indeed explain a lot what he means by authentic being or existence.

According to Mark Poster, in his great book Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser, the student-worker near-revolution in France in May-June 1968 was the moment when the existentialist-Marxist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had “won the day.”

But when Sartre took to the stage to speak at a radical student movement meeting shortly after May-June 1968, he found a handwritten note left for him on the podium which said:  “SARTRE, BE BRIEF!”

This anecdote is not mentioned by Poster, but it was often cited by my professor of French and German Intellectual History at Cornell University, Dominick LaCapra.

Therefore, my defense of the position that Heidegger does indeed explain in Being and Time what he means by authentic existence will be BRIEF. It will consist of BRIEF citations, and very BRIEF commentaries by me. Fifteen passages in all.

It should be noted that I am using this as an opportunity to say WHATEVER IT IS THAT I FEEL LIKE SAYING. So this is about a Heidegger-Shapiro hybrid.

Here goes:

(Page numbers are from the John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson English translation)

p. 71 – “The existential analytic of Dasein comes before any psychology or anthropology, and certainly before any biology.”

The social sciences and natural sciences as they are presently constituted at universities are not in contact with the most authentic, intensive, and meaningful questions of knowledge and existence. This accounts for how boring and lifeless and fake they are, and explains why we are Lost and not making any progress whatsoever in getting out of our present Jacques Derridean conundrums and aporias, untangling our R.D. Laingian knots, making real Nietzschean overcomings, finding the way off of our very own collective Wheel of Samsara in the Buddhist sense that we are stuck on in an endlessly-looping badly-written snippet of mediocre C/Assembler code.

p. 75 – “In suggesting that anthropology, psychology, and biology all fail to give an unequivocal and ontologically adequate answer to the question about the kind of Being which belongs to those entities which we ourselves are, we are not passing judgment on the positive work of these disciplines.”

In spite of all that critical hyperbole in my previous paragraph, existing research and the state of knowledge in the social sciences and natural sciences is not all bad. It is 50% very good and very positive stuff, and 50% to be completely overturned and overthrown. This is an Alan N. Shapiro basic principle: I defend and advocate the greatness of the achievements of the established mainstream society 50%. And 50% I call for the non-violent revolutionary transformation of it all. I learned this principle from the philosopher Richard Rorty, who said that we must be both liberal and radical!

p. 149 – “Proximally and for the most part Dasein is fascinated with its world.”

Authentic existence is related to continuous fascination, curiosity, excitement, engagement, astonishment with the world, including the social world. There should also be a certain alteration of fascination with tranquility, relaxation, and meditation in the Buddhist sense. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

p. 203 – “The existential-ontological foundation of language is discourse or talk.”

Ordinary language is all right (Wittgenstein). Cut all the formalistic and jargonistic high-fallutin’ bullshit. Just say what you mean in plain language.

p. 208 – “Keeping silent is another essential possibility of discourse, and it has the same existential foundation. In talking with one another, the person who keeps silent can ‘make one understand’ (that is, he can develop an understanding), and he can do so more authentically than the person who is never short of words. Speaking at length [Viel-sprechen] about something does not offer the slightest guarantee that thereby understanding is advanced.”

Silence is golden. Periods of silence – say, lasting exactly two weeks plus one day (but who was counting?), for example – can be the deepest form of communication — entre les Deux (Alain Badiou).

p. 235 – “Individualization brings Dasein back from its falling, and makes manifest to it that authenticity and inauthenticity are possibilities of its Being.”

Become a true individual, a singularity. Differentiate yourself. You are not your Dad, and you are not your Mom, and you are not the negation of or the rebellion against them. Develop your creativity, your expressiveness.

p. 349 – “An authentic potentiality-for-Being-a-whole on the part of Dasein has been projected existentially. By analysing this phenomenon, we have revealed that authentic Being-towards-death is anticipation. Dasein’s authentic potentiality-for-Being, in its existentiell attestation, has been exhibited, and at the same time existentially Interpreted, as resoluteness.”

Never, ever give up! No matter what the circumstances. You must have will and strength, and lots of it.

p. 354 – “When Dasein is resolute, it takes over authentically in its existence the fact that it is the null basis of its own nullity. We have conceived death existentially as what we have characterized as the possibility of the impossibility of existence – that is to say, as the utter nullity of Dasein. Death is not ‘added on’ to Dasein at its ‘end’; but Dasein, as care, is the thrown (that is, null) basis for its death. The nullity by which Dasein’s Being is dominated primordially through and through, is revealed to Dasein itself in authentic Being-towards-Death.”

You must be nothing, you must become less than a fly, you must experience this, before you can authentically become someone. You must face your own death, come to the very edge of death, and quite a number of times, again and again, before you can authentically live. Before you truly know how to say “Yes” to life, and then you live that “Yes” with all of your heart and soul, and in all of its ramifications. And once you have crossed over that bridge to authentic existence and lasting happiness, you will never again have to stand on that precipice of the possible end of your life, where you stood with fear but also with courage. If you wish, you can revisit that scene of your demise from time to time in a game of simulation.

“Insofar as Camus’s humanism contains a human attitude toward the death that was to take him by surprise, insofar as his proud and pure quest for happiness implied and called for the inhuman necessity of dying, we shall recognize in that work and in the life that is inseparable from it the pure and victorious attempt of one man to snatch every instant of his existence from his future death.” — Sartre, writing about Camus on January 5, 1960, the day after Camus was killed in a car crash at age 46.

p. 372 – “Dasein is either authentically or inauthentically disclosed to itself as regards its existence.”

Finally a binary opposition that should remain intact. You are either authentic or you are a fake.

p. 376 – “The primary meaning of existentiality is the future.”

In the conventional paradigm of the humanities, the Queen discipline is history. In the new paradigm of knowledge (which is beyond the binary opposition between the sciences and the humanities), the Queen discipline is science fiction. Beyond that, we will need to think a synthesis of history and science fiction. The technologies of the future will free us to say “No” to the murderous regimes of the past.

“To the undiscovered country: the future” — Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1; Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

p. 386 – “The future itself must first win itself, not from a Present, but from the inauthentic future.”

From three possible futures, the authentic future must be weaved.

p. 408 – “We are asking which of those conditions implied in Dasein’s state of Being are existentially necessary for the possibility of Dasein’s existing in the way of scientific research. The formulation of the question is aimed at an existential conception of science. This must be distinguished from the ‘logical’ conception which understands science with regard to its results and defines it as ‘something established on an interconnection of true propositions – that is, propositions counted as valid’. The existential conception understands science as a way of existence and thus as a model of Being-in-the-world, which discovers or discloses either entities or Being. Yet a fully adequate existential Interpretation of science cannot be carried out until the meaning of Being and the ‘connection’ between Being and truth have been clarified in terms of the temporality of existence.”

Towards an Existentialist Science.

p. 435 – “Once one has grasped the finitude of one’s existence, it snatches one back from the endless multiplicity of possibilities which offer themselves.”

Time to play for real.

p. 437 – “Only authentic temporality which is at the same time finite, makes possible something like fate – that is to say, authentic historicality.”

Authenticity is, after all, connected to temporality and historicality.

p. 486 – “Our task has been to Interpret the primordial whole of factical Dasein with regard to its possibilites of authentic and inauthentic existence, and to do so in an existential-ontological manner in terms of its very basis. Temporality has manifested itself as this basis.”

To know how to act in the present, which actions to take. To know what to defer, and to what date to defer until, and to act later, at that date, in a coupled relation to the promise of the resolute non-action of today.

James Shapiro replies:

In arguing that Heidegger gives no content to “authentic being,” I am essentially saying that he provides no definition of that concept aside from acting freely. When we realize that the social structures, values and norms that exist within the everyday work-world are meaningless in the grand scheme of things because we will die anyway (which is essentially what Heidegger means by authentic ‘Being-towards-death’), what we choose to do or to pursue in light of that revelation is our uniquely authentic way of being.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this definition of authentic being—true choice of action, free of constraints and compulsions, seems the logical manifestation of the concept. Yet, as I argued in my paper, Heidegger’s ethical normativity undermines the idea of individual authenticity.

Man cannot be pigeonholed to certain courses of action—my authentic way of being may be a contemplative, peaceful existence spent reading and drinking tea, but that does not mean that another person’s authentic way of being can’t be a life of crime and  violence against others. Heidegger’s privileging of “leaping ahead” in the Care-structure over “leaping-in.” In fact, if “authentic being” is understood as acting in accordance with one’s nature, as Heidegger seems to intend, “leaping in” would often seem to be the most authentic way of relating to others.

On a slightly different note, I also take issue with the intense cynicism present throughout Being and Time. As I mentioned in my paper, there is no doubt that mass society promotes a type of uniform consciousness that has many undesirable effects. Resisting the influences of this mass consciousness is crucial to maintaining our individuality. However, I strongly feel that the type of complete disconnect from mass society and all its products that Heidegger advocates is unhealthy.

One Response

I think I forgot to finish a sentence there. Should read something like ‘Heidegger’s privileging of “leaping ahead” in the Care-structure over “leaping-in” assigns a higher value of authenticity to benevolent actions, even though it may not be the most natural behavior of an individual in many circumstances.’