In this essay I will be attempting to critically assess the conclusions Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) reaches on ‘Authentic being towards death’ from his discussion of ‘Das man’ and the ‘They’. Firstly, I will be explaining what Heidegger means by his term Dasein. Then I will be attempting to put forward his Das man and the They, while showing how his view of being departs from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) dualism and solipsism, and also showing how Heidegger’s method is an extension of Edmund Husserl’s (1859-1938) phenomenological Epoché [reduction]. I will then be working to show how Dasein is a being-there in the world, while the Das man is a collective of being-there in the world. This will lead to a discussion of authenticity and inauthenticity, and how Heidegger is using this as a form of bracketing off presuppositions when studying being, and how this leads to the being-towards-death. Then I will be discussing an example of how Das man pushes down Dasein with its everydayness by looking at the example of Chatter, and Das man’s concept of death. I will finally be trying to conclude what Heidegger’s point is in pointing out how we forget our everyday facts of being in order to tranquillise ourselves into a conformed state of mediocrity, and what it means to go against this and find a resoluteness to be ourselves in an authentic manner.
So, to begin: understanding Heidegger’s ontological approach requires an understanding on how he views the phenomenon of being itself. Man is not simply a self inside a body, it is not alone nor solitary. By virtue of being thrown [Geworfen] into this world at birth: we are part of this whole, this universe. Thus, our being is always contextually a part of the whole – our being is always inside and within the whole, as there is no outside of the whole. Heidegger uses the term Dasein [Being-there] to talk about the being in its thrownness [Geworfenheit] state. A good way to describe this Being-there is put forward by William Barrett (1913-1992) when he refers to this Dasein as a field. (1) What he means by this is that Being-there is not simply one’s body, but the whole area around one’s being: including all those beings which that being makes connections with, all the tools it uses and so on. Dasein is every care and concern which that being has, and those cares and concerns are its world. This field is not radiated by the inner self, this field is its entire being – and Heidegger calls this field Dasein. And this Dasein is fundamentally being-in-this-world.
With this understanding of Dasein one can begin to put together what Heidegger was attempting to do, and explain his concept of Das Man, or the ‘They’. It is worth noting that Heidegger is going against Descartes’ dualism, and also using Husserl’s phenomenological method. This will become more apparent as I lay out Heidegger’s philosophy.
The world for Heidegger is everything. There is no dualism within reality, only a collective experience of modes of being. It’s the familiar that eludes us, which is why those things are so important, worth describing, and coming to grips with. Doing things with no real directedness and intentionality is how we usually encounter the world. That is to say that when one’s being in the world and its events have become everyday and thus familiar, one begins to ignore the most important things about life – the everydayness. Thus, Descartes’ concentration on the thinking, conscious, inner being is to ignore the holistic nature of being which we are in more than any other state. This state of lacking directedness and intentionality in Dasein is what Heidegger defines as Das Man, or the They. Macann describes Das Man in this particular way: ‘It is the term used to describe the self in so far as it has effectively lost its selfhood, has ceased to be itself and has become what others want it to be.’ (2)
But we must bear in mind that Das man is a public term. As Heidegger says: ‘The world of Dasein is a with-world [Mitwelt]. Being-in is Being-with Others. Their Being-in-themselves within-the-world is Dasein-with [Mit-dasein].’ (3) It is this publicness [die Öffentlichkeit] of Dasein which is defined as Das man, and offers it an absorption [Aufgehen bei] in the everyday to be safe inside the with-world. (4)
Considering that Dasein is a being-there in the world, and Das man is the being-with in the world, Heidegger termed Das man’s way of being as inauthentic [Uneigentlich], while those who define themselves as authentic [Eigentlich]. He is using Das man as Husserl’s form of bracketing: something which should be removed in our thinking. That is to say to remove the effects of other people on one’s own thinking leads to an authentic autonomous being. But it is worth considering that when we speak of inauthentic and authentic being, we do not mean that one is false and one true, but that one has come to its own conclusions, while the other has merely accepted the conclusions of others. It certainly seems from Heidegger’s own words that there is no such thing as inauthentic or authentic in a literal good or bad sense.
‘By ‘Others’ we do not mean everyone else but me—those over against whom the “I” stands out. They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself—those among whom one is too.’ (5)
What he seems to be suggesting is that when one comes out of the ‘They’, when one is forced out of the Das Man by virtue of some event or will of their own: to remove Das Man from one’s thinking is to remove the presuppositions which result in assumptions which allows only shallow study. (6) By removing this we get to the heart of being and what it means to be – living next to death, and being towards death. This being-towards-death [Sein zum Tode] is the most essential part of Heidegger’s thinking when considering being and his authentic being.
Bracketing off Das Man and directing our attention towards our ultimate horizon of mortality is a fundamental refinement of Husserl’s Epoch method. As expressed by Inwood’s Introduction to Heidegger:
‘In so far as I refuse or fail to consider certain options for the reasons that ‘they’, ‘one’, or ‘we’ do not do such things, my condition is one of ‘inauthenticity’ rather than ‘authenticity’, and I have ceded my decision to ‘others’ or rather to the anonymous ‘they’.’ (7)
An example of one of the things Heidegger wishes to bracket off is called chatter, or idle-talk [Gerede], and this is an example of what he calls the veil: it is what we use (intentionally or unintentionally) to blind ourselves to our own mortality. So long as we don’t lift it we don’t become terrified of death, because in reality death is always in our faces. But by doing this, we prove we are terrified of death so much that we cover ourselves with anything, whatever trivial thing can blind us to reality, to stop us being ourselves and showing what is deep down in us: and deep down that being is a being-towards-nihil, a being-towards-death. (8) We live to be negated. We posture to hide our fears and weaknesses. When what should be done is bearing ourselves to each other to show what we actually are, and saying “Yes, I shall be negated! But, for now I am not – so here I am!” (9) This “here I am” is defined as resoluteness, and is put concisely by Flynn’s talk of authenticity in his book about Existentialism:
‘For Heidegger, it is the resolute acceptance of one’s being-unto-death that funnels our otherwise scattered concerns into the realization of what it means to be. This is another way of experiencing our contingency. Once we realize that at some point in time we will no longer be, we gain some insight into what it means to exist.’ (10)
This is also stated very clearly by William Barrett: ‘Though terrifying, the taking of death into ourselves is also liberating: It frees us from servitude to the petty cares that threaten to engulf our daily life and thereby open us to the essential projects by which we can make our lives personally and significantly our own. Heidegger calls this the condition of “freedom-toward-death” or “resoluteness.”‘ (11)
While Heidegger himself is saying that our current being and modern age is authentic only if we don’t go backwards to past ways of being which are now inauthentic because they are no longer relevant, as well as being suspicious of this publicness and its ability to absorb us, and everything else into an unthinking state of acceptance and intellectual laziness – working off assumptions and presuppositions. This absorption in the with-world can result in a form of alienation – ‘The alienation closes off from Dasein its authenticity and possibility.’ (12) While an alienation from Das Man can keep our authenticity and possibilities in view. (13)
‘Dread withdraws me from my preoccupations, encloses me in a solitude, where I am forced to choose whether I will be myself or not. In this moment my personal reality is revealed to me and henceforward I have chosen what I will be.’ (14)
So, it seems Heidegger is warning us. Warning us about such things as being absorbed by others to a degree that negates us. He also seems to be warning us of new cults based on neoisms of old religions, as well as making new systems and ways our Gods: money, fame, or even Science could be used as our modern version of such things. Being, and concentrating on our being-towards-death is the authentic way to live. To have some form of separation or indifference to trivia matters, and to concentrate on the bigger picture: that I am a being-towards-nihil, I am born to be negated – but I am only to be negated by death, not life. Those things that absorb my attention but are not important, and those things that make me forget I shall die are fundamentally deceptive of my very being. To be negated by anything but death, makes me inauthentic. Das man (Whether intentionally or unintentionally) works towards levelling down [Einebnung] Dasein into the They, and thus a downward plunge [Absturz] towards conformity of opinions and being is begun. This results in a falling [Verfallen] into itself, becoming entangled [Verfängt] within the with-world [Mitwelt], rather than the being-there-world.
Our being is to be lived, understood and examined in the shadow of our impending death. The problem with Das Man’s conception of death is that it accepts it as every day and inevitable. While this is true of death, it also makes one’s conception of death somewhat unreal. In the manner that one will imagine their own funeral as if they are there. As if they will get some closure about their own death, as if their life will be finished and viewable in a “Well, that’s my life over” sort of way. Which takes something authentic about death away, and reduces it to this empty concept. An event to be shrugged off. (15) Death will never have that closure for the one who suffers it, which is why we are so prone to the tempting [Versucherisch] of Das man’s conception of death, and thus enjoy its tranquilizing [beruhigend] effect.
‘The ‘They’ has already stowed away [gesichert] an interpretation for this event. It talks of it in a ‘fugitive’ manner, either expressly or else in a way which is mostly inhibited, as if to say, “One of these days one will die too, in the end; but right now, it has nothing to do with us.’ (16) Heidegger’s essential point is that people – especially in the West – act as if they will never die, they push death away and say not today: keeping death at a distance. When in reality that death may be at any moment. And by ignoring that we ignore reality, what it means to live, and fundamentally devalue our own lives by doing so. Or as Heidegger himself says:
‘Death is deferred to ‘sometime later’, and this is done by invoking the so-called ‘general opinion’ [“allgemeine Ermessen”]. Thus the “they” covers up what is peculiar in death’s certainty—that it is possible at any moment. Along with the certainty of death goes the indefiniteness of its “when.”‘ (17)
So, to conclude: in this essay I have attempted to show how Heidegger’s conception of being leads one to a nuanced difference between two forms of public being. On one hand we have Dasein, this is every being that is within the world and caught up in being and time. And then we have Das man, which is a collection of Daseins which by virtue of being a collection of public beings has formed conceptions of how to view the world and death. These views, according to Heidegger are not inauthentic because they are incorrect, but because one must come to one’s own conclusions by questioning such things for oneself, rather than working off and basing one’s life on these assumptions, which fundamentally prevents one from making, and owning one’s life. So, Das man acts as a form of blinkered glasses for those not willing, or unable to step out of groups to see the world. I think it is important to bear in mind that Heidegger is not saying that Das man’s opinion is anything to be ignored, or even a form of being which isn’t worth living. But he is indeed making a distinction, no matter how nuanced that distinction is, between those who make their own lives truly theirs, and those who live while not questioning traditions and expected customs. In this way Das man is a view and being which ought to be bracketed off by the individual so one can truly own their own lives and views. Thus, one can become a being who also owns their own death in an intimate and real sense, so one may come to appreciate what being means while not ignoring, nor forgetting the nature of being a being-towards-death.
1. William Barrett, Irrational man – A study in Existential Philosophy. III: The Existentialists. 9: Heidegger.
2. Phenomenology and human existence. (An Anchor book published by Doubleday, 1958.) Pages 217-224. 2. Christopher Macann, Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Chapter 2 – Martin Heidegger. Division one: Preparatory Fundamental Analysis of Dasein. (Routledge, 1993) Page 84.
3. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Part one: The interpretation of Dasein in terms of temporality, and the explication of time as the transcendental horizon for the question of being. Division one: Preparatory fundamental analysis of Dasein. IV. Being-in-the-world as being-with and being-one’s-self. The ‘They’. 26. The Dasein-with of others and everyday being-with. (Blackwell publishing, 2015 reprint of the 1962 edition) Page 155.
4. ‘Just as one can free oneself from this or that preoccupation but not from preoccupation of some sort, so one can free oneself from dependence upon this or that person but not from social relations altogether. Indeed, escape from servitude to other persons may deliver one more completely into the hands of the ubiquitous dictator of everyday human affairs, the impersonal one, das Man.’ – H. J. Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers. V, Martin Heidegger. (Routledge, 1994 reprint of the 1961 first printing.) Page 91.
5. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Part one: The interpretation of Dasein in terms of temporality, and the explication of time as the transcendental horizon for the question of being. Division one: Preparatory fundamental analysis of Dasein. IV. Being-in-the-world as being-with and being-one’s-self. The ‘They’. 26. The Dasein-with of others and everyday being-with. (Blackwell publishing, 2015 reprint of the 1962 edition) Page 154.
6. ‘(H)is descriptions offer a marvellously acute and perceptive investigation of the way in which humans beings cease to be themselves, lose themselves, get absorbed into a social sphere which levels them down and neutralizes whatever might be distinctive about them.’ – Christopher Macann, Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Chapter 2 – Martin Heidegger. Division one: Preparatory Fundamental Analysis of Dasein. (Routledge, 1993) Page 85.
7. Michael Inwood, A very short introduction: Heidegger. Chapter 4 – Dasein. Inauthenticity and the ‘They’. (Oxford university press, 2000.) Page 26.
8. ‘The point is that I may die at any moment, and therefore death is my possibility now. It is like a precipice at my feet. It is also the most extreme and absolute of my possibilities: extreme, because it is the possibility of not being and hence cuts off all other possibilities; absolute, because man can surmount all other heartbreaks, even the death of those he loves, but his own death puts an end to him. Hence, death is the most personal and intimate of possibilities, since it is what I must suffer for myself: nobody else can die for me.’ – William Barrett, Irrational man – A study in Existential Philosophy. III: The Existentialists.
9: Heidegger. 3. Death, Anxiety, Finitude. (An Anchor book published by Doubleday, 1958.) Page 225. 9. ‘Becoming oneself means giving up the tranquil familiarity of a world in which one is integrated as just one among others. It means coming to terms with the fact that, in a real sense, I am the only one, the only one who can determine what it is for me to be a self and how it is that I am to become what I have it in me to be.’ – Christopher Macann, Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Chapter 2 – Martin Heidegger. Division one: Preparatory Fundamental Analysis of Dasein. (Routledge, 1993) Page 93.
10. Thomas R. Flynn, A very short introduction: Existentialism. Chapter 4 – Authenticity. Existing authentically. (Oxford university press, 2006) Page 75.
11. William Barrett, Irrational man – A study in Existential Philosophy. III: The Existentialists. 9: Heidegger. 3. Death, Anxiety, Finitude. (An Anchor book published by Doubleday, 1958.) Pages 225-226.
12. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Part one: The interpretation of Dasein in terms of temporality, and the explication of time as the transcendental horizon for the question of being. Division one: Preparatory fundamental analysis of Dasein. V. Being-in as such. 38. Falling and Thrownness. (Blackwell publishing, 2015 reprint of the 1962 edition) Page 222.
13. ‘What dread reveals to me is that I am cast into the world in order to die there. This is the truth of our situation which is hidden from us by our daily preoccupations and by the authority of the impersonal mode of social existence upheld by common sense.’ – H. J. Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers. V, Martin Heidegger. (Routledge, 1994 reprint of the 1961 first printing.) Page 96.
14. H. J. Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers. V, Martin Heidegger. (Routledge, 1994 reprint of the 1961 first printing.) Page 94.
15. “Not only do I not experience my own death (still less that review of my life which is made possible by a view from beyond the grave) but only the death of others; I am congenially disposed to suppose that it is in every instance others who die, not myself. Thus I deliberately avoid considering my own death and, in so doing, act as if I had all eternity to become what I have it in me to be. But death, as Heidegger puts it, has to be analysed in terms of three characteristics: it is an ownmost possibility (as my possibility of not existing), it is non-relational (no one else can die for me) and it is unavoidable.” – Christopher Macann, Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Chapter 2 – Martin Heidegger. Division two: Time. (Routledge, 1993) Page 97.
16. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Part one: The interpretation of Dasein in terms of temporality, and the explication of time as the transcendental horizon for the question of being. Division two: Dasein and temporality. I. Dasein’s possibility of Being-a-whole, and Being-towards-death. 51. Being-towards-death and the Everydayness of Dasein. (Blackwell publishing, 2015 reprint of the 1962 edition) Page 297.
17. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Part one: The interpretation of Dasein in terms of temporality, and the explication of time as the transcendental horizon for the question of being. Division two: Dasein and temporality. I. Dasein’s possibility of Being-a-whole, and Being-towards-death. 52. Everyday Being-towards-the-end, and the full existential conception of death. (Blackwell publishing, 2015 reprint of the 1962 edition) Page 302.
– Barrett, William. Irrational man – A study in Existential Philosophy. (An Anchor book published by Doubleday, 1958.)
– Blackham, H. J.. Six Existentialist Thinkers. (Routledge, 1994 reprint of the 1961 first printing.) – Flynn, Thomas R. A very short introduction: Existentialism. (Oxford university press, 2006.)
– Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. (Blackwell publishing, 2015 reprint of the 1962 edition)
– Inwood, Michael. A very short introduction: Heidegger. (Oxford university press, 2000.)
– Macann, Christopher. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. (Routledge, 1993.)