PHILOSOPHY

April 23, 2010

Being and Time (Part 2)

Anxiety of “Being-in-the-world”

Heidegger’s Significance in Our Time

On rare occasions and without forewarning, and seldom without conscious awareness, we may involuntarily suffer from an uncanny mood that can be characterized as ambiguous, apprehensive, indecisive, and uncertain—a suspicious mood that resists being clearly articulated. Once we are affected by this obscure mood, it sets in like nightfall. The deeper we sink in it, the darker and more inaccessible our world becomes while we become alienated from ourselves, others, and everyday routines. Under such condition, according to German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), we do not feel at “home” in the world. At such confusing moments, we often ignore this mood by returning to our “everydayness”, i.e., our nonreflective modes of existing, such as being absorbed in our everyday routines, occupations, recreational activities, and so on. We often fill up our lives with busyness in order to flee from this mood. In fact, Heidegger suggests that our everydayness might be at times a subterranean or subconscious way of escape and taking refuge from this disorienting mood. If you seek a psychiatrist to rid you of this particular mood, she or he may conventionally prescribe you some pills to numb your alertness to this crisis, which perhaps can be metaphorically qualified as an alarm clock. But, what does this alarm clock alarm you about?

Heidegger is renowned for his ontological phenomenology (a specific way of “showing”) of this tabooic mood, which he refers to as “Angst”, translated in English as “anxiety”. Of course, as you may have suspected, this anxiety is not your common type of anxiety. Heidegger interpreted this anxiety as a dimension or structure of an existing human, whom he refers to as “Dasein”, meaning “Being-there” or, alternatively, “Being-in-the-world”. (Heidegger, repudiating to think of us as mere things, depicts us as “Being-there” or “Being-in-the-world” instead of “humans”. The latter term, human, is readily indicative of a thing or entity while the former is expressive of an activity that signifies a qualitative mode of existing.)

By the time we wake up every morning, we find ourselves already here. From the womb of time, we were helplessly born sometime, some place, some gender, some race, and into some social class. Heidegger characterizes this phenomenon as us having been “thrown into the world”. When we become acutely conscious that we exist, we catch ourselves already in the world—the world in which we are, if you will, condemned to be and there is no escape until death removes us from the world. Accordingly, since we catch ourselves thrown into the world, we are, unlike an inert object such as a stone, never moodless. In fact, Heidegger posits that our “thrownness” or moods (some more than others) can disclose to us our Being-in-the-world and can transform our being into a life-long “project”. And, if we remove our moods, we may remove ourselves from the world. Heidegger suggests that we should not bar our moods altogether, but to find the appropriate moods to cultivate. He insists that moods are not only our ways of finding ourselves in the world, but also they “attune” us to the world.

Generally speaking, in the contemporary American society, we often readily dismiss our moods, especially the unsettling ones, as insignificant, random, or passing phases. There is a sense in which we assume, perhaps with a degree of shame, that moods divorce us from reality and who we are. On the contrary, Heidegger construes moods as a key to self-knowledge or self-interpretation and as a context within which our world (its meanings, significances, and values) is shaped. We are often admonished “don’t cry” when we are sad, or we are told “smile” when our pictures are being taken. Or, our employers command us “leave your worries and personal problems at home when you come to work”, which is practicable, but unrealistic. Consequently, we are conditioned to become fake, which is highly common and, in fact, encouraged. We are good at faking or simulating moods. One can think of a typical retail clerk or waiter who greets customers with a fake smile, simulating the act of being hospitable and caring. According to Heidegger, this is an inauthentic attempt to evade our “thrownness” and “facticity”—senselessly ignoring what he views as the threefold structure of Being-in-the-world: our past (how and who we were), our present (how and who we are), and our future (how and who we will become).

After all said and done, how does Heidegger attempt to demystify the mood of anxiety? In the course of his phenomenological investigation of this mood, Heidegger indicates how disturbing it is for us to truly “exist” (from Latin ex-sistere, “to stand out”) and face up to our agonizing situation, which may account for why the everyday view treats anxiety as a taboo or dismisses it as an instance of meaningless confusion, and promotes shallow and superficial interpretations of ourselves and the world. We are readily inclined to ward off such anguishing disturbances and to preoccupy ourselves with what Heidegger calls “everydayness”, activities that tuck the anxiety, as it were, under the rug of our being.

Heidegger asks how we would narrate the stories of our lives. Would they be stories worth telling? Would they be meaningful stories (like that of Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi, or Albert Einstein)? Here, the word “meaning” is expressive of how genuinely we can relate to our own Being, to our past, present, and future possibilities. According to Heidegger, anxiety can unconceal a significant meaning of our life stories. For him, this anxiety is not a symptom of a mental disorder or some kind of chemical imbalance. It is rather a “structure” of Being-in-the-world. This anxiety is not some thing that a psychiatrist can relieve us of it – because this anxiety is us, Being-in-the-world. To ask to be rid of our fundamental anxiety is to ask to eradicate whatever has remained of what we call our selves!

When we are in the grip of this anxiety, we often abandoned ourselves to what Heidegger calls Das Man (“the they”) or the crowd. It is easy to get lost in the crowd when we are face to face with the anxiety. Often, when a person is in denial of this rudimentary anxiety, it is the crowd that chooses the person’s life projects, and “they” – not the person – will narrate the person’s fragmented life-story and define the meaning of the person’s life. In this context, our anxiety can reveal our past as something that we could not help, our present as an escape from our selves, and our future as an impossibility of our potentials. This is a life story of being “inauthentic” (cf. Karl Marx’s concept of “alienation”: https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/10/modernity/).

Comparatively speaking, while the object of fear is something definite and specific, such as a spider or getting fired from a job, the object of anxiety is not any thing explicit and specific. Heidegger describes anxiety as a generalized mood that is about our Being-in-the-world as a whole. This mood may affect us at any time, as it were, when it slips out from beneath the rug. It can happen when, for instance, we are enjoying our favorite activities or when we are down on our luck. Once our being is totally eclipsed by anxiety, our activities are abruptly rendered empty, meaningless, and pointless; security of our everyday existence slips away; and we find ourselves “falling”, as it were, in an abyss. While certain aspects of life may still interest us, life as a whole becomes purposeless and otiose, a wasteland.

Although anxiety is potently alienating, it does not separate us from the world. Rather, it reconnects us to the world in such a way that we do not feel at “home” anymore. In other words, anxiety presents the world to us as an urgent problem, in which our nexus – to having been rooted in a past smeared into our present which faces a future – comes to the center of our being. Here, Heidegger’s attempt is to portray how the three dimensions of Being-in-the-world (i.e., past, present, and future) fit together into a single constitution which he refers to as Sarge, translated in English as “care”. Heidegger employs the term “care” in a peculiar manner to mean interconnectedness or interrelatedness of beings. In this sense, hence, we experience anxiety because our own being, being of others, and being of the world “matter” to us – because we “care”. We are all entangled in the world. In terms of meaning and significance, according to Heidegger, our Being is dependent on the world as much as the world is dependent on our Being. This is not difficult to imagine if we anthropomorphize the game of chess: the chess pieces (representing us), their relation to one another, and their functions would be obsolete if they were deprived of the chessboard (representing the world). And, conversely, the chessboard would be of no significance and value without the chess pieces.

Anxiety, as a particular way of Being-in-the-world, is abject homelessness, and no one has immunity to its possibility (cf. Kierkegaard’s concept of “anxiety”: https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/11/the-sickness-unto-death/). In fact, this possibility distinguishes us from other animals. For instance, unlike a human being, a dog’s being does not seem to be an issue for it. A dog does not need to ask: Who am I? Where am I? Why am I? What is the meaning of my life? What should I do with my life? Animals’ needs and goals are fixed for them by nature. They are fettered to their “home” in a way that we have never been. Animals cannot help being “what” they are. In sharp contrast, we can choose our ways of being; we are capable to choose a “home” of our own making.

Employing quasi-Heideggerian terms, I interpret Heidegger’s concept of anxiety as follows: The mortification of anxiety is a confused state of being that unwittingly makes a judgment about some “thing” it does not understand that is no thing: namely, the nothingness of human existence. Here, the “thing” – that is no thing – is us. And, the fateful “judgment” is a predication of “us”: we are merely things amid other things. In his Repetition, Søren Kierkegaard, who had great influence on thoughts of Heidegger, wrote:

“I stick my finger into existence – it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? . . . Why was I not consulted, . . . throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? . . . And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? . . . Is there no director?” (Italics added.)

The nothingness of human existence does not necessarily set the stage for pessimism, but for a new opportunity or horizon, in the sense that our existence can be construed as a blank canvas that is receptive to our paintbrush and paint – if we can authentically reach the blank canvas of our Being.

At this point, at least for now, we should not be concerned whether the judgment – that we are things amid other things – is correct or incorrect, true or false, or cogent or not cogent – but we should be concerned with how this judgment actually has enriched or impoverished our conception of ourselves and the world – including our past, present, and future possibilities. Of course, a common reply is the cliché, “I know we are not things, we are ‘spirits’.” And, Heidegger may coldly and calculatedly reply:

“Nonsense! – Like a parrot, you’re merely mimicking what ‘they’ [Das Man] say, not understanding what you’re hysterically uttering. Your ‘spirit’ is an outdated custom, habit, poor imitation, distorted idea, tattered piece of clothing that doesn’t even fit your body anymore! Your ‘spirit’ is a decaying tapestry that can be held against the wall only by being cemented to it. Your ‘spirit’ is your lack of spirit. Your ‘spirit’ is impoverishment of your being.”

And, we should keep in mind that, from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, while we may subconsciously behold the nothingness of our existence (especially in the view of our eventual death), we may nevertheless consciously deny it as ludicrous.

In his book Heidegger, philosopher Richard Polt expounds:

“Anxiety is a moment of meaningless confusion, as the everyday perspective has it – but it is ‘meaningless’ not in the sense that it is trivial, but in the sense that it [anxiety] involves a deep crisis of meaning. . . . [I]n anxiety the meanings and functions that are so familiar in everyday dwelling do not simply disappear. In fact, by becoming a problem, they strike one with unusual force. By putting the familiar in an unfamiliar light, anxiety gives one the opportunity to come to grips with one’s life, to dwell in the world clear-sightedly and resolutely.”

In an ethical sense, using non-Heideggerian terms, anxiety can be construed as a purely human phenomenon that entails a crisis of values that misrelates and alienates us from ourselves, each other, and the world. We keep looking for a “thing” to give us identity, purpose, meaning, worth, and worthwhile experience of being, but we find “nothing” – which we construe as bad and reprehensible, not understanding that this “nothing” is something that is no thing. Figuratively speaking, this is akin to a man trying to catch a rainbow! As psychoanalyst Eric Fromm eloquently puts it in an interview: “Are you what you have? What if you lose what you have?” In other words, thus far and for the most part, we have treated our Being-in-the-world as being in a shopping mall – looking for things. We have been blind to other possibilities of Being-in-the-world. Perhaps, a point, relevant to our time, that Heidegger is trying to get across is that: there is an immaterial, yet intelligible, dimension to our lives (co-evolved along side what we call the material dimension) that if we discount it, the consequences can be quite devastating. Perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisis (which had its origin in the U.S. with the subprime mortgage phenomenon) is such a consequence, caused by our subprime ways of thinking. In my attempt to interpret Heidegger’s interpretation of Being-in-the-world, I ask: Is it perhaps the case that our existence is not primarily about having or possessing objects, but about an ontological interest: a way of being or an experience of being?

According to Heidegger, the mood of anxiety can be revelatory when our own existence becomes an issue for us. In the mornings, upon awaking and opening our eyes to the world, we are faced with the task of being what we have already been and becoming, if at all, what we can possibly become. We strive to become someone, and the way we contend with the possibilities open to us will settle who we become. As Heidegger insists, Dasein “is always only that which it has chosen itself to be.” If we are responsive and attentive enough, anxiety can serve us by communicating to us our states of being in a fundamental and critical way – in fact so fundamental and critical that it can open up new possibilities in life if we have the courage and endurance not to dismiss the anxiety as random, unimportant, and inconsequential. Many of us, of course, may faint under such burden and continue to “fall”, as Heidegger says. A stone thrown into a pond will helplessly fall and sink, yet a Being-in-the-world can catch itself after having been thrown into the world! Inasmuch as anxiety can reveal the task of choosing who we are and who we will become, it can inhale a new life in us – moving us to turn this crisis into a turning point and to stop being thrown around like a stone. Alternatively, we may simply choose to remain who we already are, but in a way that we truly choose this identity, instead of just letting it being thrown at us. Heidegger does not merely construe us as having been thrown into the world – but we can overthrow our thrown-condition by acknowledging our past, actively seizing our present, and “projecting” (from Latin projecte, “to throw forth”) ourselves toward future possibilities of Being-in-the-world. He maintains that this “projection” is not an abstract concept locked in a philosopher’s mind, but an “authentic” and “concrete” activity that can be externalized out in the world.

We live in a culture that may be too superficial for Heidegger’s account of the anxiety of Being-in-the-world. In the contemporary American culture, our conceptions of being and time are distorted by our crisis of imagination, whereby for us being is tantamount to having and time is indistinguishable from what is immediate. A culture that is obliviously obsessed with the present – i.e., a culture that is absorbed in accumulation and manipulation of entities (material objects) which conclusively define its spirit, orientation, values, and aspirations – is one that should alarm us. A people that are preoccupied with their superficial appearances, with weight loss, staying young, being wrinkle-free, and looking upon elderly with indignity – are a people in denial. Is it worth it to narrate a life story of such vanity? Tragically enough, we see and hear such narrations on television screens almost everyday: “I was fat and depressed, but now I am skinny and happy!” This is the poverty of spirit of this depressed culture. The culture that should alarm us is one in which anxiety of death has no significance for our projects and life stories. Per Heidegger, we should choose our life projects in full awareness that Being is always “Being-towards-death”. And, this awareness does not cripple our daily activities, but will authenticate them. According to Heidegger, this recognition and acceptance of our fundamental anxiety free us from the crowd and free us for our life projects. He insists that an authentic life is one in which one does not flee from one’s destiny, but one shapes it as far as possible. He writes:

“Anxiety makes manifest in Dasein its Being towards its ownmost potentiality-for-Being – 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 (propensio in . . .) the authenticity of its Being, and for this authenticity as a possibility which it always is. But at the same time, this is the Being to which Dasein as Being-in-the-world has been delivered over.”

It is characteristically true that, unlike science, philosophy cannot be tested; however, for Heidegger philosophy is not some thing to be had and tested in a laboratory – but philosophy is to be lived out in the world. Heidegger’s thoughts in respect to anxiety of Being-in-the-world are meritorious of earnest consideration. His thinking is no medieval speculation on how many angels can dance on the pointy tip of a needle.

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April 11, 2010

The Sickness unto Death

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

A Contemporary Interpretation of The Sickness unto Death

In his book The Sickness unto Death, existential thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) addresses an issue that is alarmingly relevant to the contemporary American society. He chillingly insists that, we all suffer from “despair”. (The word is etymologically derived from Latin word dēspērāre, meaning “without hope”, and the root word spērāre, “hope”, is etymologically related to Latin word spīritus, meaning “breath” or “spirit”. With reference to this, “despair” is expressive of “lack of spirit”.) Kierkegaard warns us,

“. . . [T]here is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself, . . . a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”

Stipulating that despair is lack of spirit, then what is “spirit”? According to Kierkegaard, the human “self” (possibly derived from Sanskrit word sva, meaning “one’s own”) is a synthesis of the “infinite” and the “finite”. What does that mean? Simply put, the self is a tension between “possibility” and “necessity”; the self is a relation between our desire for “freedom” and our recognition of the brutal “necessity” of our everyday existence which negates our ambitions. The self is this tensive relation “relating itself to itself”. Kierkegaard writes:

“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self.” (Bolds added for emphasis.)

“Still not a self” because the relation is still antithetical or is not achieved yet. This living and breathing contradiction or “misrelation” of the self that is not yet a self creates a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death”—which is “despair”. Kierkegaard states that despair, as the sickness of the self, takes three forms: (1) “in [unconscious] despair not to be conscious of having a self”, (2) “in [conscious] despair not to will to be a self”, and (3) “in [conscious] despair to will to be oneself”. In the book, Kierkegaard seems to suggest that the second form of despair is the most common. However, in our age, the first form of despair is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous, i.e., the despair that is unaware of being despair. Indeed, the book can be a rude awakening to those who think are immune to despair. In any case, it is important to recognize that for Kierkegaard despair is not something that a psychologist can cure us of it, for, in a strict sense, it is neither a mood, nor a psychological state. A psychologist cannot cure us of it because this despair constitutes the self; the self is this despairing relation; despair is our way of being; we are it!

Kierkegaard insists that in a particular sense the sickness unto death is not biological death. Conversely, the agony of this despair is specifically the “inability to die”. This despair is the hopelessness of not being able to die—even when we wish it! Suicide will not help this type of despair. Kierkegaard writes:

“Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger [i.e., despair as sickness of the spirit], we hope for death. When the danger [i.e., the despair] is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.”

When life becomes a bitter drink, then death begins to appear as a sweet medicine! What can one do when existing becomes unbearable within the framework of the second type of despair (i.e., “in [conscious] despair not to will to be a self”)? When the thorns of one’s soul rip through one’s flesh and skin at nights while asleep, what can one do? How does one kill oneself? The thought itself is utterly horrifying: the agonizing decision, the quivering squeeze, the excruciating pain, the nauseous blood, the cold silence, and the devastating news that invades the ears of those who care. An initial problem seems to be that one who wishes to kill oneself becomes more afraid, after premeditating on death and dying, of the physical pain that may precede death than the death itself, not to mention the psychological pain of abandonment of one’s ethical responsibilities toward others, in addition to one’s memories of the loved ones that may linger during the death-struggle that might be infinitesimally short or significantly long. It is unsettling when the anxiety of death itself becomes pregnant with an image of itself, reflecting on itself and, hence, engendering more pains and uncertainties. One would hope that suicide would put an end to additional possibilities of pain and uncertainty before departure. On the contrary, an eccentric facet of suicide is that it adds to the burden of already established pains and uncertainties that have pushed one to the edge. Kierkegaard writes, “. . . [D]eath is indeed the expression for the state of deepest spiritual wretchedness, and yet the cure is simply to die, to die to the world.” It is not suicide that kills one’s spirit, but self-pity, lack of courage, and loss of self-worth.

Nowadays, our consciousness is extensively shaped and framed by the tele-cyber-communication and the powerful images thrown at us by the mass media. In this highly televised, commercialized, and commodified culture in the United States, these images serve to psychologically condition us into particular ways of emoting, thinking, and behaving. The everyday, simulated images have become more real than what the images actually imitate. The late president Ronald Regan serves as an example in point. He was more of an image rather than an actual person. He was magnificent as an icon, and that was his public persona. What was important about him was his iconic significance. To the citizens, his televised image was more real than real. The same principle also applies to celebrities such as Madonna who has sold us not music per se, but an image. We have become accustomed to to be an image rather than an actual person. Adopting an image for oneself has become of more value than cultivating character. In our society, images are more valuable than real persons; images have gained higher realities than the things they simulate.

These images are extremely fashionable in a society where self-identity has become a matter of fashion. Under the current social malady, one is compelled to need something other than oneself in order to be oneself. If one lacks self-identity, he can buy one, for example, at a shopping mall. This is the despair that Kierkegaard refers to. Our identities are prepackaged and given to us by the commercial system that keeps spreading the same disease around the globe. Our contemporary mass culture is based on unreflected sensations, spectacles, images that are socially employed to mold us.

In this totally commercialized and commodified culture, it is not easy to know whether one has adopted a fashion or one has actually developed as an authentic person. Consider the all-too-common phenomenon whereby a person one day becomes an avid follower of Christ, then next day of Buddha, followed by becoming a member of a Kabbalah cult; and then at the end of the line, still feeling empty and unfulfilled, the person whimsically decides to make a visit to a local department store in order to purchase luxuries that render the person even more oblivious of her or his self-deficiencies. A person who is impulsively driven to this extreme to find a meaning in life, her or his condition is “sickness unto death”. To be in the situation wherein we are unable to die is no more or less than the cycle of our boring daily lives which are devoid of projects other than pleasing our employers, shopping, counting calories, losing weight, watching TV, and the like.

“Is despair”, Kierkegaard asks, “an excellence or a defect?” He replies, “Purely dialectically, it is both.” In a sense, for him, despair itself is not the problem, for it is, as it were, a structure of the self, built into the self. However, not overcoming the despair is the problem. Ironically, it is not healthy never to suffer the sickness of despair, and it is unhealthy not to overcome it. Kierkegaard writes, “The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal, and this superiority distinguishes him in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit.” Kierkegaard advises that to overcome despair and to become a self is a project, a difficult task that takes “passion” and commitment in the self reflecting on its own relation to itself.

“The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself. . . . To become oneself is to become concrete. But to become concrete is neither to become finite nor to become infinite, for that which is to become concrete is indeed a synthesis. Consequently, the progress of the becoming must be an infinite moving away from itself in the infinitizing of the self, and an infinite coming back to itself in the finitizing process. But if the self does not become itself, it is in despair, whether it knows that or not. Yet every moment that a self exists, it is in a process of becoming, for the self Κατα δυναμιν [in potentiality] does not actually exist, is simply that which ought to come into existence. Insofar, then, as the self does not become itself, it is not itself; but not to be itself is precisely despair.”

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