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On Heidegger’s “Being and Time”, by James Shapiro

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On Heidegger’s “Being and Time”, by James Shapiro

Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time is a work primarily concerned with the explication and understanding of the specific brand of existence and consciousness that is unique to man—or perhaps stated more succinctly, what it means to be a human being. This unique human existence Heidegger calls Dasein, a term used similarly but not altogether in the same way by some previous German philosophers. Rather than considering simply the presence of consciousness as the distinctive feature of the human condition, as many philosophers traditionally have, Heidegger offers man’s time-governed existence as the defining characteristic. By this I mean that human consciousness is constituted always of the past, present and future, and furthermore that we are aware of our own mortality, and are always looking toward the next step in our lives, both in the very small and large-scale sense. This paper will deal for the most part with the nature of Dasein as it relates to others (mit-sein) and makes sense of itself. I will argue that while Heidegger apparently considers interactions and relationships with others to be very important, he seems only to value interpersonal relationships (and furthermore that his account of ‘solicitude’ contradicts other elements of his theory). Large-scale politics, in terms of community and society at large, are ascribed a strikingly threatening character. This threat is to Dasein’s most fundamental possessions—its authenticity and individuality. I will explicate how Heidegger presents this threat in terms of four main, interconnected concepts: authenticity, ‘falling,’ anxiety (angst), and the “they.” Interestingly, after speaking of ‘publicness’ and mass society pejoratively throughout the entirety of the book, Heidegger hints at an ideal state of political affairs towards which we should strive. I will finally attempt to offer a critique of this idea.

Although in Being and Time Heidegger purports to investigate the nature of Dasein without offering ethical or normative judgments, it seems clear that he holds individuality, and certainly ‘authenticity’ of being, in very high esteem. Thus, his casting of ‘publicness,’—which we can interpret as mass society—as something which quite literally destroys Dasein’s authenticity seems to necessarily be an evil. We can see this on the basis of the terminology alone—the ‘authentic’ is by definition more virtuous and desirable than the ‘inauthentic’; the “they” and the “Others” are at least vaguely pejorative labels. Heidegger’s analysis of the “they” reads very much like the Rousseauian account of the society’s corruption of man through the transformation of amour-propre to vain pride, and the subsequent obsession with comparing oneself to and competing with others. This is seen strongly in the concept of ‘distantiality,’ which is Dasein’s impression of (or concern with) its distance (read also as standing or social status) in relation to other people. ‘Distantiality,’ along with averageness and ‘levelling down,’ are the existential qualities (or “ways of Being”) of the “they” and, additionally, constitute the content of ‘publicness.’ ‘Levelling down’ seems to be the phenomenon of the reduction of all things to averageness or the status quo. A way to think about this last term which I believe captures its essence in a way easily relatable to contemporary readers is the oft-lamented “lowest common denominator” appeal of most mainstream movies and television. “Publicness proximally controls every way in which the world and Dasein get interpreted,” says Heidegger (165/127), and this ‘way’ seems to involve a mass dumbing down of everything. In a striking pronouncement, hammering home the magnitude of mass society’s threat to Dasein, Heidegger states that “everyone is the other, and no one is himself” (165/127).

Roger Waterhouse makes note of a crucial point on Heidegger’s concept of the “they” which gets lost in translation:

Macquarrie and Robinson translate ‘das Man’ (the anonymous “one”) as “the they”, by analogy with such usages as ‘They always say that…’; but this carries much more implication of ‘otherness’ than does ‘das Man’ (Waterhouse, 82).

Waterhouse’s point here is that Heidegger’s idea of ‘das Man’ implies an identification of oneself with the Others; “‘One always says…’ makes it clear that I include myself in this way of talking,” Waterhouse continues. “It is crucial to Heidegger’s argument that I think of myself in terms of this anonymous ‘one’” (Waterhouse, 82). The importance of this equarion of the self with the Others lies in explaining the phenomenon of the Others taking over for Dasein, if you will:

But this distantiality which belongs to Being-with, is such that Dasein as everyday Being-with-one-another, stands in subjection to the Others. It itself is not; its Being has been taken away by the Others. Dasein’s everyday possibilities of Being are for the Others to dispose of as they please (164/126).

The condemnation of public life in this passage should not be understated. Absorption with the concerns of the everyday work-world in effect prevents Dasein from existing at all (at least, seemingly, temporarily). If the presence of Dasein is the defining characteristic of human existence, Heidegger seems to argue here that we are not really human when we are engaged with the concerns of the everyday work-world.  We are, at least, not authentically Being-in-the-world in this state. This is because, as just said above, we are conceiving of our ‘selves’ through the lens of the Others; both by interpreting our ‘selves’ in the way that we imagine that “they” do, and by thinking of ourselves as like Them, or as a member of their ranks. What makes this even more troubling is that, due presumably to our inability to engage with the Others authentically, “they” take on the character of a faceless mass; an ambiguous and mysterious collection of impressions we have about what everyone else is like. By extension, our conception of our selves is, in turn, also no more than a vague, “indefinite” impression.

In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the “they” is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [das Man] take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The “they”, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness (164/126).

This is in effect the phenomenology of ‘falling’—the fleeing of Dasein from itself, or more precisely, from its authentic way of Being. In terms of the three existentiales, everyday Dasein in its fallen state is absorbed in idle talk (discourse), curiosity (disposedness) and ambiguity (understanding).

The only possible cure for ‘fallenness’—the state of Dasein’s inauthentic Being-in-the-world—that Heidegger suggests is anxiety. Anxiety has the potential to ‘disclose’ Dasein to itself, to better understand its own nature and thus (possibly) “choose” to live more authentically. By “orienting [the] analysis [of anxiety] by the phenomenon of falling” (229/185), Heidegger hopes to learn about “the Dasein disclosed in that phenomenon.” Anxiety, he says, is a “disclosive state-of-mind” that can be used methodologically to reveal aspects of the ontology of Dasein. Anxiety, in the Heideggerian picture, is very similar to fear. Yet there is an important distinction between the two, which seems to be this: that fear is a response to a real stimulus which comes from a “definite region” and poses an imminent threat or detriment; and conversely, that anxiety is a response to something which is vague and indefinite. It lacks any involvement in terms of the ready-to-hand or present-at-hand. It “is not an entity within-the-world,” and rather “is nothing and nowhere,” and it “‘does not know’ what that in the face of which it is anxious is,” and finally that “the world as such is that in the face of which one has anxiety.” (231/187). Heidegger says further that fear is made possible by anxiety, and also that the “turning-away” involved in the “falling” of Dasein from its authentic Being-in-itself is rooted in anxiety rather than fear.

The most crucial point, though, is that it is Dasein which is the cause of anxiety to itself: “Being-in-the-world itself is that in the face of which anxiety is anxious” (232/187). The actual phenomenology of anxiety seems to center on Dasein’s discomfort at the possibility of its involvement with the ready-to-hand. This discomfort arises from Dasein’s facticity, or ‘thrownness,’ which at the most basic level refers to Dasein’s existence, or Being-in-the-world. “I find myself inevitably and inescapably cast into the world,” comments Waterhouse. “[Thrownness consists of] this brute fact of simply being there, willy-nilly” (Waterhouse, 85). The seemingly random element of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world which Waterhouse picks up on is the crucial point in our present discussion. Whereas the ready-to-hand always has a specifically defined purpose, as determined by its human creators, Dasein finds itself in the world through, of course, no will of its own, unsure of what purpose (if any) it has. Anxiety has therefore presented to Dasein its ‘thrownness’ and put it into a state of “Being-not-at-home” (uncanniness). This is ultimately also the way in which anxiety as a state-of-mind is disclosive of Dasein. Heidegger describes the feeling of Being-not-at-home as essentially a lifting of the anesthetic veil of the false comforts provided to Dasein by absorption in the everyday work-world, through “Being-in” (as in “being involved with”):

In our first indication of the phenomenal character of Dasein’s basic state and in our clarification of the existential meaning of “Being-in” as distinguished from the categorial signification of ‘insideness’, Being-in was defined as “residing alongside…”, “Being-familiar with…” This character of Being-in was then brought to view more concretely through the everyday ‘publicness’ of the “they”, which brings tranquillized self-assurance—‘Being-at-home’, with all its obviousness—into the average everydayness of Dasein. On the other hand, as Dasein falls, anxiety brings it back from its absorption in the ‘world’. Everyday familiarity collapses. Dasein has been individualized, but individualized as Being-in-the-world. Being-in enters into the existential ‘mode’ of the “not-at-home”. Nothing else is meant by our talk about ‘uncanniness’ (233/188-9).

Dasein can now see through the superficiality and meaninglessness of everyday ‘publicness’ and is in a position to “choose” between continuing to flee from its authentic self (which would seem to take the form of trying one’s best to keep up appearances and continue to live in a manner governed by the “they”) and “facing up” (Dreyfus, 183) in order to unlock one’s potential for authentic being-towards-death.

While the phenomenology of anxiety’s “individualization” and disclosiveness of Dasein is, in my opinion, in need of more explication, there seems to be a certain intuitive quality to the argument. To leave Heideggerian terminology aside for the moment, it just seems to make sense that anxiety jars us out of complacent acceptance of mass society and reminds us of our true individuality; and perhaps that we don’t necessarily want to fit in with everyone else in the way that mass society wants us to. “Anxiety makes manifest in Dasein its Being towards its ownmost potentiality-for-Being—,” Heidegger writes. “that is, its Being-free for the freedom of choosing itself and taking hold of itself. Anxiety brings Dasein face to face with its Being-free for the authenticity of its Being, and for this authenticity as a possibility which it always is” (232/188). Yet I think an important counterpoint to consider is the fact that we can conceive of a brand of anxiety which exists entirely in the Being-in of the everyday work-world—an anxiety which fails to provide the utility of “freeing” us from our absorption that world, as Heidegger seems to imply. Imagine, for example, a case like the Columbine shooters. Looking at those tragic events on a very superficial level, it seems fair to say that those two young men were deeply afflicted by anxiety about not belonging in the artificial social structure of their school. Rather than being jarred out of their absorption in the concerns of the everyday world by this anxiety, they were utterly consumed by them and it, to the point that it led them to commit murder-suicide. At the very least, this example points to the fact that Heidegger only considers a very specific type of anxiety—one which seems similar to a Sartre-like existential questioning of the value of worldly pursuits and accomplishments in view of the fact that sooner or later we will all be dead anyway. It is unclear, furthermore, how even this type of “existential” anxiety could be constructive, but this will be addressed later on.

Heidegger states that “the ontologically relevant result of our analysis of Being-with is the insight that the ‘subject character’ of one’s own Dasein and that of others is to be defined existentially” (163/126). This seems to mean that Dasein is characterized and made sense of in terms of being (facticity) and doing, in terms of performing a function or duty, or fulfilling a role. This obscuration of the self through role-playing is a characteristic of ‘averageness.’ We all play a variety of roles every day. I am not simply ‘me’—I am ‘son,’ ‘brother,’ ‘boyfriend,’ ‘student,’ ‘librarian,’ ‘coach,’ etc. Does this role-playing actually harm our authenticity? In some cases, it does seem to. In A Heidegger Critique, Roger Waterhouse provides an example of how this can happen without necessarily being in any way harmful:

I put myself into the part, now of a teacher, now of a neighbor, now of a father etc., so that no space seems to remain for the ‘I’ which is playing these roles… But the situation is more complex than that, because what I do I do together with others, and with their help. If I walk into a class and deliver a lecture to students, I am only able to do that because the students let me. They are deliberately ‘being’ students, which means that they need ‘teachers’ such as myself. If I am playing the part of a lecturer, that is because the students are playing the their part as students. We are all colluding in the game, and without that collusion the game would not be possible… So the typical situation is not one of lying or deceit, since I do not really deceive the other person. Rather it is one of an unspoken agreement to avoid real encounter, to remain on a bland superficial level which deliberately obscures how each of us actually is (Waterhouse, 137).

There seems to be no direct harm in this situation. If there’s anything wrong with it, it’s the “agreement to avoid real encounter”; to deny our authenticity. In fulfilling our duties qua these roles, we act in the ways which we perceive that “they” act to fulfill them. Accordingly, on Heidegger’s theory, we are replaceable in all of these roles by any given Other.

But can we even conceive of a world in which we are one hundred percent ‘authentic’ at all times? I would argue that such a suggestion is against human nature (as does Heidegger, in fact). It is neither possible nor practical. Were everyone constantly to act in accordance with their authentic way of being, it seems that the type of public, utilitarian relationships such as student-teacher, as Waterhouse offers, which are so important to society, would be less plausible. More basically, it is just not natural for human beings to be perfectly open and revealing of themselves to every stranger they encounter. Additionally, if authenticity means simply acting truly in accordance to one’s inner desires and tendencies, wouldn’t there be a lot more repressed anger and violence manifested?

Actually, Heidegger does have an answer to this critique. It was said in the introduction that he values positive interactions with others in inter-personal relationships. This is perhaps the only normative ethical suggestion Heidegger offers in Being and Time, and it lies in the “care-structure.” The central goal of Being and Time is to find the ontology of Dasein and the first answer offered is Dasein’s being as ‘care’ (besorgen). Care for others (as in Mit-Dasein) is defined as ‘solicitude’ (fürsorgen). He makes a distinction between ‘leaping-in,’ which is the domination of another person by which one tries to run that person’s life (the extreme of this form is slavery), and ‘leaping-ahead,’ which is a brand of caring by which one respects the other’s choice in determining what is the best way to be free for them. The latter is the authentic way of relating to another. Yet this assignment seems arbitrary, especially given Heidegger’s devaluation of standard ethical norms as merely products of the “they” and its taking over of Dasein’s capacity for choice (‘disburdening’). Indeed Heidegger’s talk of Dasein’s need to accept the ‘call’ toward authentic being rings strongly of the Nietzschean idea of the Übermensch, which must overcome traditional morality to realize its greatness, in the way that Raskolnikov believes he is justified in murdering the pawnbroker.

It is important to note that ‘publicness’ is constituted by more than just a community of people. Its content is also formed by the products of those people—namely man-made media and technology, or the ready-to-hand.

…the environment which lies closest to us, the public ‘environment’ already is ready-to-hand and is also a matter of concern [mitbesorgt]. In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every other Dasein is like the next (164/127).

Here the use of mass society’s technologies and the consumption of its information are described as constituting a tacit compliance in the de-authentication of the self.  This passage is fascinating, and is more relevant now than when Heidegger wrote it, as the twenty-four hour news cycle continues to create a need for news outlets to exaggerate and manufacture stories, and tell the public what it should care about. This line, along with Heidegger’s account of the ready-to-hand more generally, shows that media and technology are main elements of what he referred to as the “tranquilizers” of ‘publicness’. This is made clear by Heidegger’s theory that broken technologies are ‘disclosive’ of the [natural] world.

When we concern ourselves with something, the entities which are most closely read-to-hand may be met as something unusable, not properly adapted for the use we have decided upon. The tool turns out to be damaged, or the material unsuitable… when equipment cannot be used, this implies that the constitutive assignment of the “in-order-to” to a “towards-this” has been disturbed. The assignments themselves are not observed; they are rather ‘there’ when we concernfully submit ourselves to them… But when an assignment has been disturbed—when something is unusable for some purpose—then the assignment becomes explicit… The context of equipment is lit up, not as something never seen before, but as a totality constantly sighted beforehand in circumspection. With this totality, however, the world announces itself (104-5/74-5).

I think of this phenomenon as a sort of reminder of the artificiality of everyday technologies which we take for granted, indicating to us that we are living more and more unnaturally as time goes on. If the car breaks down, we must walk. If the internet is out, we must do our research with books rather than Wikipedia. The line about public transportation fits in here, as Heidegger seems to be hinting at the fundamental shift in the basic activity of travelling—for thousands of years, one had to walk or ride a horse to get where they were going, but all of a sudden one could hop on a train or trolley, etc. This signifies a separation from the original, natural condition of Being-in-the-World.

Additionally, as Dreyfus points out, technology (or more broadly, equipment) in Heidegger’s picture is a public tool of normalization. “…One does not understand a chair by sitting on it,” writes Dreyfus, “but by knowing how to sit on it or by knowing that it is normally used for sitting. One sits on a chair” (Dreyfus, 152). Again, Heidegger’s analysis is very prescient to today, as technology increasingly seems to be developing a universal average consciousness. Through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, friendship, sexuality, and even opinions are all commodified  and thus made less than authentic. At any rate, the word equipment (das Zeug) as Heidegger uses it in many contexts actually refers to the broad network of “towards-which’s” (or “in-order-to’s”) by which objects of the ready-to-hand are linked. The hammer is for driving in the nail which is for bonding together the pieces of wood which are for the bedframe which is for the mattress which is for sleeping on. Accordingly, such a ‘disturbance’ in the assignment of one object’s “towards-which” seems like it could trigger a widespread disturbance in the entire nexus of equipment collectively, by which the world is ‘announced.’

One of the fundamental problems of Being and Time is that Heidegger offers little to no explication of what it actually means for Dasein to be authentic. There is the vague sense that authenticity is a state of “Being-towards-death,” by which Dasein is aware of the definitiveness and unavoidability of its own death, a realization which frees it to experience its ownmost self. As we said earlier, this is achieved through what Dreyfus calls “facing up” to, or accepting, the nothingness and meaninglessness of everyday being. This acceptance is possible only if Dasein can achieve the disclosive state-of-mind known in Heidegger’s picture as ‘Resoluteness’ (Ent-schlossenheit; “openness” [Dreyfus, 318]). “‘Resoluteness’,” writes Heidegger, “signifies letting oneself be summoned out of one’s lostness in the “they”. The irresoluteness of the “they” remains dominant notwithstanding, but it cannot impugn resolute existence” (345/299). So the picture of authentic being seems to look like this: Dasein encounters anxiety and embraces it through the state ‘resoluteness,’ which allows it to be open in order to answer the call of conscience, allowing Dasein finally to see through the “dictatorship of the “they”” and its falsely constructed ontology. But after this transformation—what “Heidegger calls the Augenblick, literally the glance of an eye… Luther’s term for what the King James Bible calls the “twinkling of an eye,” in which “we shall be changed” (Dreyfus, 321)—what comes next? It seems Heidegger’s only explanation for this are more vague terms which don’t really answer the question. After the transformation to authenticity, Dasein has entered into the ‘unique Situation.’ Being “in the Situation” seems to be the existential form of living authentically. But again I must belabor the point that there is no content behind this label. Perhaps the authentic form of being is nothing more than being free: “The “moment” means the resolute [way] Dasein is carried away to whatever possibilities and circumstances are encountered in the Situation as possible objects of concern” (387/338). But what is left for Dasein to concern itself with? It has resigned itself to the reality that both public and private life and meaningless, and that any sort of worldly accomplishments are meaningless. Is there anything left at all?

As alluded to in the introduction, the one sense in which mass society is discussed in a positive context comes toward the very end of Being and Time. This occurs in Heidegger’s discussion of ‘historicality,’ which seems to refer to the temporal grounding of Dasein’s existence—“Factical Dasein exists as born; and, as born, it is already dying, in the sens of Being-towards-death. As long as Dasein factically exists, both the ‘ends’ and their ‘between’ are, and they are in the only way which is possible on the basis of Dasein’s Being as care” (426/374).  Here Heidegger considers an ideal political circumstance in which Dasein’s authentic destiny is intertwined—through Mit-Dasein—with the destiny of the rest of its ‘generation.’

Our fates have already been guided in advance, in our Being-with-one-another in the same world and in our resoluteness for definite possibilities. Only in communicating and in struggling does the power of destiny become free. Dasein’s fateful destiny in and with its ‘generation’ goes to make up the full authentic historizing of Dasein (436/384-5).

This ideal circumstance seems to presume all—or at least most—of this ‘generation’ being able to overcome the “fallenness” of everyday Dasein through ‘anticipatory resoluteness.’ He seems to say that if these conditions are met, an ‘authentic historicality’ (authentic Being in the present and in the ahead-of-oneself) of a people is created, and that this reveals the said people’s fate. Here lies perhaps the only point in at which Heidegger’s subsequent ties to Nazism can be traced back to Being and Time. Earlier I characterized Dasein’s pulling back the curtain, so to speak, on the shallow, artificial nature of everyday ‘publicness’ as a feat similar in challenge and character of the Nietzschean transformation into the Übermensch. In keeping with that idea, it easy to see how this account of the ‘generational’ struggle of a people toward a single destiny can align with the ideals of Nazism as presented to the German public.

On another note, it seems unclear why Heidegger says we are able to receive an authentic ‘heritage’, consisting presumably of positive values and ideals. It is a fact that our impressions of history and of the generations before us are understood through the “they” and it seems that we cannot have an authentic picture of the past. In any case, even granting the fact that Heidegger presents this glorious, enlightened political circumstance as an ideal, it seems like quite a jump from his account of individual authenticity. For the reason discussed earlier, the lack of content and meaning behind the idea of ‘authentic being,’ I don’t see why a ‘generation’ of resolute, authentic Daseins would not result in a nation of Meursaults (Camus, The Stranger) and Roquentins (Sartre, Nausea). Regardless of whether or not one accepts my criticism that Heidegger’s privileging of ‘leaping-ahead’ over ‘leaping-in’ is arbitrary (due to his casting aside traditional ethics as a product of the “they”), it seems that the ‘unique Situation’—understood as a state-of-mind in which Dasein understands the meaninglessness and nothingness of public life and worldly concerns—would be likely to dispose Dasein to only take concern with its own pleasure.

Works Cited (in order of appearance):

Heidegger, Martin; Macquarrie, John and Robinson, Edward (ed.). Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962.

Waterhouse, Roger. A Heidegger Critique. Sussex, England: The Harvester Press Ltd, 1981.

Dreyfus, Hubert. Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s “Being and Time“, division I. New York: Bradford Press, 1990.

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