Existential Reflections: The Shadow Side of Human Existence (2)

In the first article of this series, we looked at two religious thinkers; Kierkegaard and Levinas, and explored their respective notions of anxiety and separation. In this article, we turn to Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre as we continue to investigate the idea that human existence is fundamentally and unavoidably characterised by what we would usually consider unpleasant or undesirable features, features we also typically believe we can overcome or otherwise eliminate.

Heidegger: Everydayness (Das Man)

In Being and Time, German philosopher Martin Heidegger was principally concerned with explicating the manner, or mode, by which human beings exist. This means a concern with the ontological (‘existence’ or ‘being’ as a universal, applying across a number of individual beings) as opposed to the ontic (contingent features of individual, particular beings). The word Heidegger used to signify human beings’ existence was Dasein, and he was interested in what he called existentials, which are structural aspects of human existence; that is to say, the characteristics of Dasein that make its existence possible in the first place. In the first half of B&T, Heidegger breaks existentials down into three broad categories: attunement, understanding, and discourse. Attunement is something like our ‘orientation’ or ‘disposition’ towards the world as a whole, a kind of original ‘turning towards’ in which the world first appears as a world. It is therefore prior to the disclosure of specific things in the world. The second existential, understanding, somewhat surprisingly has nothing to do with the intellect or thought; rather, it refers to our practical engagement with the world and things in it, especially the way we project ourselves towards goals. Thought is a derivative mode of being that is grounded in understanding. A central part of understanding is the ‘as-structure’ of interpretation, which is how we understand the world; i.e. the way that things always appear as certain things, which sounds tautological, but captures the idea that everything always appears as already meaningful. In other words, we never encounter ‘raw,’ inchoate sensations or ‘data’ to which we only subsequently attribute meaning. The final existential, discourse, encompasses more than just spoken or written language for Heidegger, which he somewhat disparagingly calls statement. More than simple communication, Heidegger calls it the “articulation of intelligibility,” by which he means to connect it with the ‘as-structure’ of interpretation, in the sense that discourse enables things to appear as things; that is, to appear as meaningful. Interpretation (and understanding) is therefore only possible through discourse.

One of the ways in which Heidegger’s phenomenological approach was different to that of his teacher Husserl was his (Heidegger’s) assertion that human existence is fundamentally and necessarily in the world. It can thus only be understood by, contrary to Husserl, moving outwards into the natural world, rather than turning inwards by effecting the phenomenological epoche to bracket it out. This outward focus reveals what Heidegger calls our everyday being, and it is this which will interest us in this article.

The original and fundamental mode of being of Dasein is everydayness, and everydayness is represented by the ominous-sounding expression das man, often translated as the they. The way to think about das man is as the anonymous (and anonymising) force in any society that encourages conformity to that society’s norms and customs; e.g. “We do things the way ‘they’ do them;” “We don’t say that because that is not how ‘they’ talk.” Heidegger identifies a few features that characterise our everydayness:

  1. Distantiality – The tendency we have in society to pay attention, and compare ourselves, to other people, as opposed to focusing on ourselves as individuals
  2. Averageness – The urge to mediocrity that dominates in society, and which ensures that no individual Dasein breaks the norm
  3. Levelling down – The restriction of the possibilities for Dasein imposed by ‘the they’          
  4. Disburdening of one’s being – The way one ‘blends in’ with the crowd in society, thereby abandoning responsibility for one’s own being
  5. Accommodation – The way ‘the they’ encourages Dasein in his or her tendency to eschew difficulties and live ‘easily’ or comfortably, rather than undertaking the hard work involved in taking care of one’s own being

Clearly, everydayness is a fairly negative place to be. The theme running through each of these characteristics is conformity to the dictates of society, an adoption of ‘their’ goals and norms of behaviour, accompanied by the loss of one’s individuality. This makes everydayness an inauthentic mode of being. However, against this, Heidegger argues that everydayness is actually a positive constitution of Dasein. What could this mean?

Heidegger isn’t using the word ‘positive’ to mean anything like ‘desirable,’ ‘pleasant,’ or ‘authentic.’ In the first place, he means it as a contrast with the word ‘negative,’ understood as ‘lack.’ Dasein’s everydayness isn’t a lack or deficiency in any way, such that it could constitute something like a “non-being” of Dasein, or a case in which Dasein has somehow lost its being. Against this notion, everydayness is a real, positive way of being in the world. This means that everydayness is positive in an ontological sense, as a structural feature of Dasein’s existence. In other words, it is an existential. Dasein’s lostness in the they, its absorption in society at the expense of its individuality, isn’t an accidental (ontic) feature of its existence, something we could imagine having been different. On the contrary, it is our original (Heidegger uses the word ‘primordial’) mode of existing. But if this is true, everydayness should map onto those earlier existential categories we outlined. It turns out that it does this through discourse, understanding, and interpretation. The following are the existential characteristics of everydayness which Heidegger identifies:

  1. Idle talk – An approximate and superficial understanding of what is spoken about. A listening to what is spoken about, but a failing to understand (in that sense of the unconcealment of beings through a practical engagement with them) the beings involved. Idle talk is constituted by gossip and passing the word along as opposed to discourse. It can also be passed along in writing, where it becomes scribbling. Heidegger notes that idle talk is not necessarily deceiving, just a groundless passing along. Another feature distinguishing idle talk from discourse is that the latter is a way of keeping being-in-the-world open, a way of discovering being-in-the-world, but the former is a closing off since it never goes back to the foundation of what is being talked about (Being itself).    
  2. Curiosity – A superficial engagement with things, a way of being that “…takes care to see not in order to understand what it sees… but only in order to see.” Curiosity seeks novelty rather than truth and is therefore often characterised by distraction.   
  3. Ambiguity – The above two aspects of everydayness comprise the third; ambiguity. Being-in-the-they means that everything is accessible to everybody and anyone can say anything about what is encountered. It therefore becomes impossible to disclose beings with genuine understanding.

Idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity thus loosely correlate with discourse, understanding, and interpretation as existentials which define the ontological structure of Dasein. Together, they reveal the being of everydayness which Heidegger calls, the entanglement of Dasein, and being absorbed in the world in this way; i.e. through idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity, is what he calls falling prey. Hardly expressions that make life seem particularly worth the trouble. So, are we forever condemned to live inauthentic lives in Heidegger’s philosophy? No. Authenticity is possible through what he calls anticipatory resoluteness. We won’t be looking at exactly what this means here, but what is interesting for us is how authenticity is achieved. According to Heidegger: “Authentic being a self is not based on an exceptional state of the subject, detached from the they, but is an existentiell modification of the they as an essential existential.” (A quick terminological note: ‘existentiell’ refers to the understanding we get of existence in general (ontology) through the contingencies of a particular life. It is thus similar in meaning to ‘ontic.’) What Heidegger is saying in this quote is that authenticity is not an original mode of being; rather, it is founded on inauthenticity (everydayness, ‘the they’), which is the essential, primordial existential, and, rather than the authentic replacing the inauthentic, the way that deleting an old version of a software program and installing a new one gives you a completely new program, it is more like installing a patch which only modifies or updates the existing program. In other words, human beings, as fundamentally societal beings, are originally and unavoidably inauthentic.

Heidegger insisted that falling prey was not a “night view” of Dasein, a notion that seems to contradict the title of this article, but what he was arguing is that we shouldn’t think of falling prey as a lack or something negative which could have been, or should be, avoided; in other words, we shouldn’t think of it as an ontic property that we can attribute to individual Daseins. Falling prey, as an “…essential, ontological structure of Dasein itself…”, isn’t a “night view” because it isn’t a negative property of Dasein, however, it is an inauthentic mode of being, and one which undermines our typically positive, or at least neutral, understanding of ourselves. Authenticity, if it comes at all, is only an existentiell modification of an original, inescapable inauthenticity.

Sartre: Bad Faith

French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, in his hugely influential 1943 text, Being and Nothingness, discovered the next ‘dark side’ of human existence we are going to look at; bad faith. Before we unpack this term, however, we will need to do a little due diligence regarding Sartre’s philosophy. For Sartre, human reality is both transcendence and facticity. We are a transcendence, not because we are immortal, non-physical souls, but because consciousness, by its very nature, is never purely and simply what it is; instead, it always transcends whatever it is at any one moment. This makes sense if, rather than thinking of consciousness in substantialist terms, as a thing (even a non-physical thing), we think of it as a perspective, a light shining on various parts of the world. The light is not some thing in and of itself, another object we would have to add to the furniture of the universe; rather, it is a ‘bringing-forth’ of objects, it is quite literally nothing more than the ‘appearing’ of objects. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that Sartre calls consciousness a nothingness. Being nothing; that is, no-thing, any content we detect in consciousness, what consciousness is, can only come from whatever it focuses upon. This is Sartre’s interpretation of Husserl’s intentionality. Consciousness, considered in itself, is empty, a spotlight of awareness; rather than being an object itself, it is the revelation of objects. As no fixed thing, as a nothingness which transcends – that is, stands outside of – all things, consciousness is therefore free to ‘become’ any thing. This is a blessing and a curse. We are free, but condemned to be so, destined to never attain the solidity and certitude of identity, being one thing through and through.

We aren’t only pure transcendences though. In addition to this aspect of ourselves, there are also things about us which are fixed and unchangeable. This is what Sartre calls our facticity. A good example of facticity is the past. Your past is what it is and cannot be changed. It makes up a part of your life, your existence, but it’s a part which is beyond your (transcendent) freedom to influence. Another example Sartre gives of facticity is my ‘environment,’ which refers to the “instrumental-things which surround me, including their particular coefficients of adversity and utility.” But surely my environment is neither fixed not unchangeable? Furthermore, the “instrumental-things” around me only get their “coefficients of adversity and utility” from my free decisions and projects (the keyboard in front of me is useful if I am writing an article, but a hindrance if I want to use that space for reading, for example). All true. However, these kinds of changes are superficial. I can change this or that thing in my environment, I can even relocate to a completely different environment effectively changing all the things, but what I can’t change is the fact that I am always in an environment. Environment (as composed of instrument-things) is facticity; the specific instrument-things themselves are not.

So, human existence involves two aspects; a radically free transcendence (consciousness) and a fixed, unchangeable facticity (which actually always comes back to the fact that we are embodied). Bad faith is simply a conflation of these two aspects. Specifically, it is holding my transcendence to be facticity and/or my facticity to be transcendence; in other words, treating some freely chosen aspect of my life as if it were fixed (as we discussed, we are always totally free to determine ourselves in any way we choose) or treating some fixed fact about us (e.g. a past act) as if it were something we were free to deny or disregard as irrelevant or insignificant.

A couple of examples should help to clarify this. Imagine a waiter. His movements are crisp and efficient. He deftly balances a tray of empty cups and plates in one hand while the other rearranges café furniture as he expertly negotiates his way back to the counter. His mannerisms and expressions when taking orders and serving drinks are precise and professional – a greeting, a smile, a listing of the specials, a polite inquiry about milk or sugar, then the obligatory “Enjoy your drink” or “Have a great day” to conclude the transaction. We get the impression we are in the presence, not of a real-life human being whose behaviours, attitudes, and words we cannot predict, but of an absolute waiter, a waiter par excellence; in short, a waiter-thing. But, if we look closer, we notice something strange; the professionalism, the exactitude of the acts, the immediateness of the responses – they are a little too professional, too exact, too immediate. The waiter is trying, working at, being a waiter, but his efforts are forced; he’s trying too hard. We suddenly realise that he is trying so hard to be a waiter precisely because he isn’t one. The effort he is expending is an attempt to cover over the fact that he is a free transcendence, to convince (us and/or himself) that he is actually a waiter-thing. He is, in short, attempting to deny his transcendence, and make of it a fixed thing. It is this that puts the waiter in bad faith.

An example of bad faith from the other direction would be Sartre’s homosexual man. He has engaged in ‘liaisons’ with other homosexual men, but, for whatever reason (his faith maybe, or the culture he was raised in), he doesn’t want to acknowledge that his sexual indiscretions mean he is actually homosexual. You might think the bad faith here would come from denying who he is, his ‘true nature,’ as it were. However, as we’ve seen, his ‘true nature’ is actually to be a free transcendence, never this or that thing. For Sartre, the notion that we have an ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ we must ‘be true to’ doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Bad faith arises only when the man denies that his past sexual acts reflect anything about his sexual identity; in other words, when he adopts a position of transcendence concerning his past, believing that he can interpret it any way he chooses, in effect, treating his facticity (past) as if it were a transcendence.

If we can be in bad faith, you might imagine its opposite, good faith – that is, believing in something because, even though the evidence is non-persuasive, it genuinely seems to be true – would be the remedy. Unfortunately, good faith is itself in bad faith. Good faith, like bad faith, is a belief, and we can never believe anything through and through. The fact that we are a transcendent nothingness means that we are never capable of ‘merging,’ or fully identifying, with our belief to truly be it; instead, we are always removed from it, looking down on it from an external (transcendent) position that neither believes nor doesn’t believe. We saw exactly the same thing with the waiter, who could never be a waiter through and through, and so was forced to always play at being a waiter, to pretend that he was a waiter.

Thus, bad faith doesn’t attach to us or our actions like our other traits. I might have a short temper, but this is something I can remedy by taking anger management classes. I might be prone to lying or even self-deception, but these are things I can work at purging from my character. Bad faith, precisely because it turns on the double aspect of human being – transcendence and facticity – can never be eliminated. To be a human being is to be in bad faith. The reason for this is that the two aspects of human being are polar opposites. All human beings are both conscious and embodied. The former makes us an absolutely free transcendence, while the latter makes us a fixed and immutable facticity. We can’t embrace our nature as one of these things without denying the other, but we can’t see ourselves as dual because the two aspects contradict each other. We are like a pinball, condemned to forever bounce between our transcendence and our facticity without ever being able to come to a rest in either.

———-          ———-          ———-

In the third (and last) article of this series, we will head to the East to see what Watsuji Tetsuro can add to our discussion, and then attempt to bring everything together with some concluding remarks.

3 thoughts on “Existential Reflections: The Shadow Side of Human Existence (2)

    • Thanks. To be honest, the more philosophy I read, the less I find myself drawn to Nietzsche. The phenomenological existentialists have pretty much come to dominate my thinking, but if the opportunity presents itself, I’ll definitely try to slot Nietzsche in somewhere.

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      • I too am losing interest in Nietzsche. I feel compelled towards logicians and mathematical philosophers these days.
        Nietzsche in my view is certainly the haughtiest philosopher ever. His critique of Kant in beyond good and Evil was very mean(if we consider Kant to be the greatest philosopher ever).

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