Pulling the Normative Threads of Heidegger’s ‘Das Man’
Dasein flees in the face of anxiety. This notion of the anxiety of existence and freedom being too much to bear, causing us to neglect our possibilities and shelter ourselves in ‘inauthenticity’, is the key normative mood of existentialist philosophy. In Being and Time era Heidegger, there’s not only the horror of anxiety that has Dasein (the kind of being that fundamentally beings like us are) flee in the face of, there is also a tempting realm towards which Dasein can flee: the average everyday publicness of “Das Man” (The “They”, the “One”). So, Dasein flees from anxiety and falls into the embrace of ‘their’ way of choosing things, doing things, valuing things, thinking things, saying things, and so on, merely because “that’s what ‘one’ chooses, does, values, thinks, says etc.” In modern English we most often translate the German “Das Man” as ‘you’: “you go to college, you get a degree, you get married, you get a job, you have 2.5 kids, you buy a house, you talk about the weather and the local sportsball team: you get by. Now, this is how you add an audio clip to your powerpoint presentation.”
Now, Heidegger thought this was horrible: Das Man offers an opiate in the form of a ‘life package’ and identity (Man-Selbst) to Dasein with which Dasein can numb itself to the anxiety causing void of its infinite possibilities for being. However, there is a weird glitch in the entire structure of Heidegger’s presentation if we take his “Das Man is bad” attitude seriously. It has lead Hubert Dreyfus, and, following him, most of the American Heidegger interpreters, to declare that Heidegger was just wrong in this attitude: he can’t attribute these negative influences to Das Man, at least on the deepest ontological layers. Getting at why this is, and what issues arise for Dreyfus et al from trying to make sense of Heidegger’s argument while simultaneously holding that Heidegger didn’t know what he was talking about, is what I will investigate here.
In the end I recommend that rather than attributing confusion to Heidegger, it may be better to attribute a deep pessimism to him instead. Being and Time may just be a tragedy, not a comedy. As far as I can tell the charges of confusion come from trying to preserve a ‘happy ending’ for Dasein, when in fact, Dasein may be more like Hamlet.
Finding ‘Das Man’
Heidegger’s most focused dealing with the concept of Das Man is in Division I §27 when it is first introduced. Nominally, Das Man is discovered when we go searching for the answer to the question “Who is everyday Dasein?” This question should be distinguished from the ‘where, how, and what is everyday Dasein’ that has made up the text so far (more or less).
We are delivered over to this question following the investigation of Mit-Sein (being-with), as constitutive structure of Dasein’s being-in-the-world (in Div.I §26). Mit-Sein is posited as a fundamental structure owing to the manner in which we encounter the referential totality of equipment. Equipment is not given as some curious set of minerals discovered on the side of a mountain, but rather everywhere and always it is apprehended as something made by someone for the sake of which someone might do something for someone (even if all of these ‘ones’ are the same someone, as in when I use the kitchen to prepare a sandwich for myself). If our concernful dealing with equipment is going to be ontologically basic (as Heidegger argues throughout Div.I §15-§18), then so too will be our apprehension of a shared world of equipment users like ourselves.
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This can be seen on the ontical level in archaeology: should these pieces of chipped flint be taken as tools made by early humans, or as mere natural flaking from rock-slides? In these liminal cases (staring at a piece of chipped flint thinking of the most rudimentary stages of technology) one can encounter an Other through the flint in the mode of being-with, or see in it a mere a rock, present-at-hand. What would be impossible is to see in the flint a piece of equipment, and for this not to solicit an encounter with some kind of other through being-with; that is, to form some community. Paley’s ‘Pocket Watch’ presentation of the teleological argument for the existence of God rests on the necessity of this. Equipment is equipment insofar as it is equipment by, of and for someone.
However, Mit-Sein is still its own distinct structure, it is merely presupposed by and discovered through our everyday dealings with equipment, thus implying it is more fundamental (it creates the possibility of our being able to ‘encounter’ equipment in our concernful dealings at all). When I am manipulating some tool, it is always possible for me to reflect on what am I doing. Heidegger’s wager is in the use of tools my reflection will always deliver me over to some “in-order-to”. I’m wielding the pen in-order-to write a note, I am writing a note in-order-to not forget what I need to do today, in-order-to finish the things I need to do today, in-order-to have time this evening, in-order-to be able to go out and have a drink with a friend. Now the chain terminates there, with the friend, indicating we have moved over to another, more fundamental register: mit-sein. A friend is not just another piece of equipment we use in-order-to do something else; we encounter our friends through the structure of ‘being-with’ (mit-sein), which has its own aims, logic and thematic elements. So, we encounter others as those points that ground the strings of the ‘in-order-to’, what Heidegger refers to as ‘the referential totality’.
But the referential totality of equipment also refers us to others in its just being how it is. In our use of equipment we not only discover others as having made this equipment for us, and those others for whom we use the equipment to make other things, but we also encounter others in our very coming to use the thing. In a hammer, I encounter a hammer-maker, and possibilities for making things for others with it, but I also encounter another figure; the standard wielder of the hammer in the form of ‘this is how ‘one’ (Das Man) holds a hammer. The very shape of the hammer suggests this to me, and it is this that refers me back to the hammer-maker in the mode of some shadowy ‘intention’ of theirs in making the handle ‘just this long’. The hammers handle being just this long as being referred to the ‘standard wielder’ refers me to all of the tasks that this ‘standard wielder’ might put it to, for standard others.
So, Dasein possesses the ontological possibility of encountering others because being-with is part of its fundamental constitution (it makes up one of the necessary structures of Dasein’s being-in-the-world; other people are a fundamental and irreducible component of Dasein’s environment). We encounter these others in their particularity as the terminus of the ‘in-order-to’ of equipment. We encounter these others in generality, as a shadowy and non-descript ‘anyone’ when we use a piece of equipment at all. This ‘anyone’ is given in those phrases of the type “One holds a pen like this” (“So hält man einen Stift”). I ‘understand’ what a pen is and how it works through reference to this ‘anyone’, and I make myself this ‘anyone’ when I wield the pen as anyone should.
Case: Cooking While Writing
We see this most clearly in the form of “instructions”, as in recipes and instruction manuals. To whom are these instructions addressed, and by whom? Traditionally with instructions/recipes, the pronouns are omitted, to create a series of injunctive statements. These statements have their writer, one who is imparting the necessary know-how to use the necessary equipment for some goal, but is concealed by the lack of direct addresses. The addressee is obviously ‘anyone’, and thus the instructions speak in a way over us, to many others who are also coming to manipulate this equipment with this goal in mind (i.e. making this particular dish in the case of a recipe). This ‘anyone’ that is addressed by the recipe is Das Man (“The One”, “The They”).
The character of instructions is averageness, they address everyone and anyone, but not by being absolutely general (i.e. being able to say something universally true of every particular), but by being addressed to a ‘standard’ user with ‘standard’ goals. What is included in instructions? What is the necessary information? Only what this average, standard, user (Das Man) requires. For a recipe, Das Man is the standardly skilled cook, with the standard cooking implements (measuring cups, knives, pots and teaspoons) in a standard kitchen, in a standard cooking situation. Recipes can exist because each of these standards are more or less upheld: kitchens are generally designed in such and such a way, supermarkets stock standardized cooking implements, and importantly, we organize the time in our days in-order-to deliver ourselves over to a standard cooking situation for a given amount of time.
I don’t begrudge this recipe here for not foreseeing that my current cooking situation also includes working on an essay on Heidegger on a laptop occupying bench space I need for the chopping board (it does not advise me “while waiting for the water to boil, flesh out the discussion of Das Man with an example”). No, in my recognition of this being a non-standard cooking situation, I hold myself responsible for how presently difficult this dish is to cook (and perhaps its lackluster outcome), not the recipe and the anonymous other who wrote it for anonymous others of which I am one. “One (Das Man) gives their full attention to cooking when One cooks” is the implicit assumption of the recipe. Insofar as I am also working on a Heidegger essay while I cook, I recognize I’m falling short of the standard ‘One’ the recipe addresses.
This normative pinch (of my being responsible for the results of my non-standard situation insofar as it is non-standard) is important and complex. I’ll tease out and separate three implications of it.
Normative Thread 1: Mere Standard Use
The first is this non-standard cooking situation that I take responsibility for, and its hampering the implementation of the recipe, and possibly negatively affecting its results, can be read in a purely dispassionate ‘standards’ form of normativity. There are just a number of assumed standards in the activity of cooking, and I am breaking one of them, acknowledging myself doing so. Insofar as the recipe was designed with those standards in mind, as well as all of the tools I am using, and even the dish I am creating, this network of ‘standard results’ may not manifest unless I adhere to these standards. If it fails to manifest, it was just that I was choosing not to adhere to it while using standardized tools and techniques that rested on that standard. Of course the tools and techniques won’t work if they are robbed of this support. This does not foreclose the possibility of a book of recipes: “Cooking while writing about Heidegger”, that can include my idiosyncratic situation, and thus allow me to fully use these new standards for their standard effects.
Olafson (1998) sees in this situation nothing too troubling, nor permanent. Though I may learn through a practice or how to use a tool via the ‘One’, once I develop mastery, I can use the tool freely and authentically. Olafson uses the example of learning to drive a car:
“Fortunately, however, although this kind of situation recurs throughout our lives, it is also one that we can and often do move beyond. Thus, once I have learned to drive a car, I am in a position to grasp — to disclose — the reasons for a certain practice that I had accepted simply on someone else’s say-so in others words, in the mode of Das Man.” (Olafson, 1998, p.38)
In the initial period of learning, it is sufficient (and perhaps even most effective) that I just be instructed ‘how one uses a car’, but this does not mean I cannot achieve a level of mastery where I can make decisions in the use of the car that I ground on the seizing of my own possibilities, rather than just it being what ‘one does’. For an experienced chef, the recipe, addressed to the One, is quickly cast aside as the chef explores and experiments with the situation at hand, authentically cooking/creating.
Dreyfus (1995), however, sees the normativity of Das Man (in the sense of ‘standards’) as all extensive. Das Man and its norms of use create the background of intelligibility as such. Remember how I can only understand what a tool is and how it works by understanding that the tool was made for some standard user, for some standard use. If Heidegger is right that equipment, understood in this ‘average’ way, forms a ‘referential totality’ (pens need paper need bleach need alphabets need classrooms need blackboards etc etc) that in a way is the world of everyday Dasein, then we can only ‘understand’ the world of our everyday world by coming to understand the standards of average use of all of the equipment that makes it up.
In the above example of the more experienced chef, Das Man has not receded from the kitchen when the chef discards the recipe to explore new ideas, because although the adaptions and experiments may occur in the absence of the norms put forward by the recipe, they nonetheless do not take place with no reference to any publicly shared norms of use whatsoever. For the chef to even know what they are doing (cooking a meal) and for us to understand this, norms must already be in place for these actions, decisions, and alterations of the recipe, to be intelligible. Insofar as Das Man “Articulates the referential context of significance” (BT, Div. I, §27, H.129), then a true receding of Das Man would also leave all of the kitchen utensils, the kitchen itself, the ingredients, and the aims of ‘cooking a meal’ with no significant context. The situation would ‘fall apart’ into complete unintelligibility. This is the cornerstone of Dreyfus entire reading of Being and Time.
“Norms and the averageness they sustain perform a crucial function. Without them the referential whole could not exist. In the West one eats with a knife and fork; in the Far East one eats with chopsticks. The important thing is that in each culture there are equipmental norms and thus an average way to do things. There must be, for without such averageness there could be no equipmental whole.” (Dreyfus, 1995, p.153)
We will explore some of the run-on implications of Dreyfus’ reading below. Suffice it to say at this point that insofar as Das Man defines the patterns of use for equipment (and even the forms this equipment takes), and this equipment forms a referential totality which is the world, the world itself is irrefutably marked by Das Man. The ‘Covering up’ and ‘Concealing’ that Das Man effects is then a mere ‘naturalizing’ of culture to conceal the mutual relativity of these patterns of use (Dreyfus, 1995, p.157). “One eats three meals day” presents itself as a necessary biological fact concerning rates of hunger and metabolisms and so on, rather than a particular cultural time-table that depends upon kinds of food and portioning practices and work practices and so on, which all depend on the cultural time-table.
Normative Thread 2. The Standard User
From here, Dreyfus goes on to interpret the other large feature of Das Man: that Das Man is the Who of everyday Dasein. This is the second normative thread we can extract from the cooking example where I am responsible for my non-standard cooking situation. These standards, that I dispassionately acknowledge (according to the first thread), can only be broken by me. That is, through learning them in the process of learning how to cook, using cooking implements and organizing my time in general, it is I who recognize that I am at some distance from where I should be in my practice right now. Ideally, I admit, my conduct should, for my aims, be aligned with these standards and the ‘standard’ user to whom the recipe addresses. That is, even though ontologically speaking, there are as many possible cooking situations as there are Daseins who have, are, or will cook, we find ourselves as this ‘standard user’ addressed by the recipe (and all of the equipment utilized by it). In order for the recipe, the tools, and even the aims of cooking, to have any intelligibility, I must identify with ‘the one whom the recipe addresses and for whom these tools were made the way they are’.
This is why Dreyfus insists that ‘the One’, compared to ‘The They’ (of the Macquarrie & Robinson translation), is the better imperfect translation of ‘Das Man’ (neither being perfect). ‘The They’ implies a kind of cynical distance: I use a knife like this because ‘they’ do, they always hold it like this. This cynical manner of thinking of the standards of use embodied in the shape of a knife is a recipe for cutting my fingers off. No, I can only use a knife safely and proficiently if I identify fully with ‘the one for whom the knife is designed and whom uses it in this way’. That is, the knife is designed in its standard way such that it can only be used safely and proficiently by the ‘standard user and ways of use’. When I use a knife safely and proficiently, I am fully the ‘one whom-’ through my proficiency in ‘using a knife as one does’. Thus, everyday Dasein, in its using equipment, and getting along with fellow users of this equipment (i.e. everyone) is not itself, but the “Man-Selbst” (the one-self, the they-self). The knife could be designed to a different standard, and thus the standard uses of the standard user would change, but, however the knife is as it is for some standard user, and I only ‘know how’ to use it insofar as I make myself that standard user. I don’t just learn how ‘one’ uses a tool, but rather in my using this tool I become the ‘one’ who uses this tool. In this way Dasein loses itself within Das Man, and becomes the one-self/they-self (Man-Selbst). This is the answer to the question of the “who” of everyday Dasein: everday Dasein forgets itself and becomes the ‘anyone’ addressed by the tools it uses in its concernful dealings.
So, in Dreyfus’ account, tying these two threads together, Dasein is socialized into the One-self through a process of coming to understand norms of practice. That is, in learning how to use things, I become the one for whom these things were made. The referential totality of equipment is the cultural background upon which I emerge as an enculturated being who can move swiftly and easily across this background. As a Man-Selbst I lose myself within Das Man, and Das Man’s way of doing/ thinking/ speaking/ acting/ using/ valuing etc etc.
So far, with these two considerations, the ‘normative pinch’ of my being responsible for the outcomes of my violating standards is normative not in the ‘good or bad’ sense. It is merely that standards are required for equipment to exist, and my breaking standards will reduce the effectiveness of using this equipment for the uses I am putting it to. Also, me being a Man-Selbst just refers to the fact that there are social norms about how one is to be in order to do such and such, and I understand and conform myself to them in order to get stuff done, as my getting stuff done always involves Others, or other equipment related to the tools I’m using, or both. Either way, I’ll only achieve my aims, given this, if I act in accordance to these norms and standards.
However, there is a third normative thread, which Dreyfus thinks Heidegger is mistaken in pursuing (as an ontological concern). It appears when we survey this whole referential totality and the standards it maintains.
Normative Thread 3: The Standard User as Ideal
So, my example is following a recipe, written to the One, while writing an essay on Heidegger. Insofar as my cooking situation is non-standard, I take upon myself the responsibility for the outcome of the process, that I cannot fully attribute to the ‘One’ who wrote it. In this subtle distance between myself as Man-Selbst (the One-Self), and my present situation, normativity is felt. The first two threads of this normativity referred to ‘necessary standards if this work is to work at all’. However, the third thread concerns the kind of ethical normativity, of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
In my use of a knife that the recipe calls for, in its address to me as the standard reader, there is certainly not the sorts of norms that are good or bad. It is just ‘how one uses a knife’. However, that is not the norm I am breaking in the example. The recipe also addresses a standard reader, a ‘Man-Selbst’, who does not need to be writing an essay on Heidegger while they cook. This was the non-standard dimension the recipe, of course, does not address. This Man-Selbst that I have identified fully with, such that I count myself responsible should I drift away from it (as when if I am playing stupidly with a knife and cut myself), has a free hour to cook a meal undistracted by work or study or other obligations. I don’t. Of course I accept this responsibility, I do not blame the recipe for its making such assumptions that I do have this time. But I need to think: ‘One puts aside the worries of the world and focusses whole heartedly on cooking when one cooks’. This is an ethical injunction that I am failing. I may laugh off the terrible cooking result, but within it is the subtle bitterness of knowing that the One addressed by the recipe always has enough time to cook. The One organizes their time effectively, One knows what they are capable of taking on, One succeeds in managing their obligations and commitments, One has time to cook now because One did not take a nap four days ago instead of writing. How does One achieve this, and why does One do all of these things? The One is silent, yet always right about what it states.
“[The] ways of Being for the “they” [Das Man], constitute what we know as ‘publicness’. Publicness proximally controls every way in which the world and Dasein get interpreted, and it is always right — not because there is some distinctive and primary relationship-of-Being in which it is related to ‘Things’, or because it avails itself of some transparency on the part of Dasein which it has explicitly appropriated, but because it is insensitive to every diﬀerence of level and of genuineness and thus never gets to the ‘heart of the matter’. By publicness everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed oﬀ as something familiar and accessible to everyone.” (Heidegger, BT, Div I, §27, H.127)
Another example may elucidate this shift from ambivalent ‘norm’ to ‘normative injunction’. A shop window display. The window display, being a form of advertising addresses some One. Who? The standard passer-by. The signification we apprehend in the window display is ‘if One likes one of the things in the window, then One enters the store and purchases it’. In the case of ‘liking’ something in the display, and not being able to afford it, there is a difference introduced between the Man-Selbst (One-Self) of Dasein’s everydayness, and Das Man (The One). This is not just some arbitrary cultural norm of use, but a failure to ‘have as much money as One does when one likes certain things’. Whose failure? Yours. This is to say that we are not ambivalent when we are unable to ‘do as one does’, as is implied in Dreyfus’ reading. Doing as ‘one’ does is not just a recommended serving suggestion we should arbitrarily adhere to such that everything just works relative to everything else, but a powerful invective that carries the weight of a presupposed “everyone” (insofar as Das Man is “anyone”).
But there is a key twist here. I have been speaking as though there is a Man-Selbst who follows the norms perfectly, and an “I” that is responsible for failing to follow them. However, this I is not the I of authentic Dasein. This would mean that for every failure to follow a norm, Dasein would find itself in its authentic mode. No, the I is the Man-Selbst, the One-Self, who fails to do as ‘Das Man’ does. This why we should grant Dreyfus’ modification of the Macquarrie and Robinson translation, (Das Man as The One), but not forget the senses we have thus discarded (contained in translating Das Man as “The They”). The I of everyday Dasein, in failing to achieve some norm, is still the addressee of the ‘One does such and such”, but now the structure clarifies: it is “They” who say ‘One does such and such’. This is how we can read Heideggers talk of the “dictatorship of the they” (BT, Div I, §27, H.126). They say what One does, and as I am ‘One’ in my average everydayness, I am beholden to the dictates of this ‘They’.
Understanding the Danger of Das Man
That is, Dasein cares about the distance between itself and Das Man insofar as it is a Man-Selbst. This ‘caring about difference’ (‘Distantiality’, Abständigkeit) is one of the fundamental features of our being-with-others (BT, Div I, §27, H.126). Dreyfus interprets it as a mere unconscious desire to reduce the perceived or felt distance between oneself and the average, which ultimately engenders social norms as averages in the first place. However, he does not seem to consider that this very aspect of Mit-Sein can be related to Das Man itself (rather than with the flesh and blood others sitting around us in conversation), instead seeing it as constitutive of Das Man.
“This ontological sense of Abständigkeit I take to be our essential tendency to minimize the distance between ourselves and others by subtle coercion or co-option, especially when we are not aware of doing so. … Abständigkeit denotes an essential structure of all Dasein’s activity that inconspicuously reduces difference and so performs the ontological function of establishing norms and thus opening up a shared human world.” (Dreyfus, 2017, p.24)
But if Das Man can become a singular ‘counter-pole’ of the structure of Distantiality, then Dasein is in a serious predicament. That is to say, Dasein reduces the ‘distance’, subtly conforms to the behavior and opinions of the others it encounters. But what if Dasein also tries to reduce the distance between itself and the abstract ‘anyone’ of Das Man, who is no one in particular, but inheres always and everywhere in the assumed standards governing the way all of the ‘stuff’ in our world is used? Dreyfus may be entirely correct in seeing in our unconscious bringing of our practices into alignment with the others around us the genetic origins of Das Man, but it could be the case (and is implied heavily in Heidegger’s presentation) that once grasped, Das Man is a single subject, another other, with whom we attempt to align ourselves with. This other is not another Dasein with whom we dwell, but a groundless phantasm. No one is Das Man, yet we all try to conform ourselves to them.
“It can be answerable for everything most easily, because it is not someone who needs to vouch for anything. It ‘was’ always the “they” who did it, and yet it can be said that it has been ‘no one’. In Dasein’s everydayness the agency through which most things come about is one of which we must say that “it was no one”.” (Heidegger, BT, Div I, §27, H.127)
This is how there is a slide from the facts of conformity (Distantiality as a structure of Dasein’s Being-With fellow Dasein) to the evils of conformism (Distantiality as a structure of the Man-Selbst’s Being-With Das Man). Egan, (2012), argues we should see Das Man playing out along a scale from being the kind of neutral repository of shared intelligible practices (à la Dreyfus), to being a normative dictator in the injunctive sense. This finds agreement with Heidegger’s off the cuff remark that the explicitness and compellingness of Das Man may fluctuate throughout historical ages (BT, Div I. §27, H.129). Olafson, who reads this normative danger seriously, in a footnote gives a nice example of a current trend which could be interpreted as a ‘fluctuation’ in the tyrannical character of Das Man. It is worth reproducing at length:
“There has been a strong tendency in the contemporary world to violate the distinction between the private and the public. Sometimes this has been done for its shock effect out of exhibitionistic motives, but more often it has occurred in contexts like that of advertising, where the evident intention is to associate some product with themes from the consumer’s personal and domestic life. When people lend themselves to this kind of exploitation of their private lives, these lives really cease to be private and are instead assimilated to a status of public cliches. This is one aspect of what Jürgen Habermas has called “the colonization of the life-world” by interests that center on money and power; and it is in such ways as these that the style of Das Man seems to me to pervade wide sectors of modern life. “(Olafson, 1998, p.37)
Where I differ from Olafson is in the hopefulness imbued in the turn of phrase “When people lend themselves”, as though it was a simple matter for them not to lend themselves to this (he perhaps intends no such implication). On this point I am with Dreyfus: the realm of Das Man is not a library we can consult when learning a new skill, and quickly surpass through mastery, heading onwards to authentic living. We are as we are insofar as we are already immersed fully in Das Man, as Man-Selbst. Where I differ from Dreyfus is his denial that this third normative thread is an essential issue of Das Man, that is, a primordial predicament that can only be mediated, not resolved.
Possible ‘Dreyfusian’ Solution
Dreyfus may retort that this business with the cooking and writing on Heidegger and ‘failing’ in the strong normative sense, is just a confusion of conditional and constitutive layers. If one wants to cook, then one should cook in such and such away. It is just a standard that goes along with a region of practice and equipment, the norms of which we are aware of in advance insofar as we have been socialized into the use of this equipment.
However, the conditional if-then takes places within the network of the in-order-to and the for-the-sake-of-which. And at base, these always terminate with Dasein’s own concern for its being.
“But the totality of involvements itself goes back ultimately to a “towards-which” in which there is no further involvement: … This primary “towards-which” is not just another “towards-this” as something in which an involvement is possible. The primary ‘towards-which’ is a “for-the-sake-of-which”. But the ‘for-the-sake-of’ always pertains to the Being of Dasein, for which, in its Being, that very Being is essentially an issue. We have thus indicated the interconnection by which the structure of an involvement leads to Dasein’s very Being as the sole authentic “for-the-sake-of-which” — ”” (BT, Div I, §18 H.84)
For example, Dasein needs to eat to survive. One eats at dinner time, One eats three meals a day, One doesn’t eat too much take-out, One has a sandwich for lunch but not for dinner. Sure, these are arbitrary cultural norms well interpreted by Dreyfus, but beyond all this Dasein eats. It must refer itself to the ‘One’ to know how, with all of the equipment and practices being as they are, this may be achieved. Dasein eats, but must learn how ‘One’ eats, and then eats as ‘One does’, and is in a way beholden to this ‘way of eating’. Das Man, then, has an injunction it offers Dasein: “If you are concerned for your Being, just do x and y and z.” Dasein, because it has concern for its own being fundamentally, is hijacked into a ‘way of life’ that may or may not provide more or less degrees of satisfaction for this concern, or resolutions of this issue. It is not free to satisfy its concerns and work out its fundamental issues directly: this ‘work’ is always mediated by the state of culture, which may or may not be ‘good’ for an individual Dasein to a greater or lesser degree.
However, we have not addressed Dreyfus’ motivations for interpreting Das Man in this way in the first place. Perhaps there is more to be lost by granting this dire normative situation then expelling it. Let’s take a look at Dreyfus’ aims, and the implications contained therein.
Fair warning: things start getting pretty technical here on out.
Dreyfus’ Aims — The Possibility of Authenticity
Dreyfus has two problems he is trying to solve, the second deriving from the first. The first is how to give an account of a truly shared world, not merely an inter-subjective one. Olafson argues that Heidegger’s account, in lacking a substantive argument for how multiple Daseins share a single world, is in risk of charges of solipsism. Dreyfus offers Das Man as the argument for a truly shared world.
Das Man has two features that make it desirable for this role. Firstly, Das Man is what articulates the significance of the network of assignments in the field of equipment, it establishes the everyday ‘in-order-tos’ that Heidegger has defined the ‘world’ as. Secondly, Das Man gives to Dasein its self, the “Man-Selbst” which is the ‘who’ of everyday Dasein. In short, Das Man has two jobs advantageous to Dreyfus; articulating the world, and allocating selves. Insofar as the everyday ‘self’ of Dasein depends upon a shared, articulated, public world, Heidegger has provided an account of the ‘glue’ that holds all of the Daseins together in a single, shared, world.
However, the first problem solved in this way, a second problem now emerges: what to make of the other less than desirable roles that Das Man plays in Heidegger’s overall account? The ‘Dictatorship’ of Das Man, and the concealing and covering over? Dreyfus pushes these back and diagnoses a confusion on Heidegger’s part between conformity and conformism, which ultimately stems for Heidegger’s confusion over falling and fleeing. These are significant alterations. Why can’t we just admit Dreyfus’ change of emphasis (the centralizing of Das Man for an account of a shared world) and leave those other roles of Das Man, as well as the relations between falling and fleeing, where they lay? The issue is:
“-if Heidegger derives falling as absorption from falling as fleeing, he makes authenticity impossible. Dasein is structurally absorbed in the world. If Dasein’s absorption is a result of fleeing its unsettledness, Dasein’s structural tendency to fall away is identified with giving in to the temptation to cover up. Falling as an existential structure would then entail that Dasein cannot own up to being the kind of entity it is. That would make Dasein essentially inauthentic.” (Dreyfus, 1995, p.229, my italics)
We end up with a kind of choice matrix. If Olafson is right that we should see the influence of Das Man as a perverted form of Mit-sein then the threat of solipsism looms. If we accept Dreyfus’ centralizing of Das Man as a solution to solipsism, then we must correct Heidegger in his assertion that ‘falling’ is initiated by Dasein’s fleeing. If we fail to make that amendment, then authenticity for Dasein becomes impossible, because fleeing into the arms of Das Man is ‘cooked into’ Dasein at the ontological level (because Dasein has ostensibly already ‘fallen’). Dreyfus’ expansion of Das Man allows him to argue that Dasein begins as fallen, it does not need to flee to lose itself because it is already lost. This means that ‘fleeing’ is a non-act on the ontological level: it just means ‘not leaving the default position’. However, on the ontic, psychological level it can present itself as a positive phenomenon of choice (when faced with anxiety), one can feel as though the choice is to flee or persist in anxiety. However, ontologically, ‘having fled’ (Falling) is the zero level state of everyday Dasein, so Dasein does not choose it per se. Dasein’s choice, at this level, is always a choice for authenticity. If ‘having fled’ is the ontological cause of being ‘fallen’, then Dasein has already ontologically chosen inauthenticity in order to be at all. That is, if “Dasein bars its own way” with Das Man as part of its ontological constitution (as Heidegger says at BT, Div I, §27, p.129), then there is no hope of ‘unbarring’ this way.
The dilemma, then, as Dreyfus presents it is between solipsism or the impossibility of authenticity.
Heidegger’s Answer to the Dilemma
We should take a look at how Heidegger frames Dasein’s possibility for authenticity. It is instructive that the chance for authenticity does not come from a deep study of cultures and epochs that would allow one to assume an inner distance towards their own cultural norms, and uncover how they cover over their arbitrariness (as would be an implied possibility of Dreyfus’ reading). Instead, Dasein’s possibility for authenticity in the face of Das Man is the call of conscience.
“Dasein fails to hear itself, and listens away to the “they”; and this listening-away gets broken by the call if that call, in accordance with its character as such, arouses another kind of hearing, which, in relationship to the hearing that is lost, has a character in every way opposite. If in this lost hearing, one has been fascinated with the ‘hubbub’ of the manifold ambiguity which idle talk possesses in its everyday ‘newness’, then the call must do its calling without any hubbub and unambiguously, leaving no foothold for curiosity. That which, by calling in this manner, gives us to understand, is the conscience.” (BT, Div. II, §55, H.271)
This call that pulls Dasein away from its fascination with Das Man, and the Man-Selbst it offers, needs to be diametrically opposed to the way ‘One calls and talks’. Being a ‘call’ it is discursive, but in being in opposition to Das Man as the repository of everyday intelligibility it cannot ‘say’ anything. Heidegger admits that in any given Man-Selbst, the call may be represented onticly in such and such a way: a voice of God telling one to not steal the wallet, for example. But these particular manifestations can be confused with the injunctions of the One and its normativity. The true call of conscience is identifiable only through its direction of pull:
“Yet what the call discloses is unequivocal, even though it may undergo a diﬀerent interpretation in the individual Dasein in accordance with its own possibilities of understanding. While the content of the call is seemingly indefinite, the direction it takes is a sure one and is not to be overlooked.” (BT, Div. II, §56, H.274)
So, in the ‘stealing a wallet’ example. The individual may envisage some dialoguing interlocutors trading maxims “One respects the property of others”, “One does not scoff at the gifts of fate”, etc etc. All of this is the chatter of the One, and the individual Dasein who uses these maxims to make a choice has in effect not made a true choice at all. However, why are they hesitating? Why this proliferation of maxims for this action? The smooth acting-to-the-norm has been disturbed by the call of conscience, and the individual Dasein is being pulled away from Das Man, that is, they are authentically grappling with a choice. In choosing to turn the decision over to the dialectic of proverbial maxims, Dasein has chosen to flee in the face of this choice, and fall back into Das Man.
Why is this overall account unacceptable to Dreyfus (i.e., why does he think that conscience is not enough to make authenticity possible)? In his extension of Das Man to the condition of intelligibility as such, the call of conscience, as Heidegger agrees, must be ‘silent’ (not intelligibly determinate). But the call of conscience asks of me to make a choice. However, there is no choice I can intelligibly make outside of the condition of intelligibility (Das Man), thus making the ‘authentic’ choice impossible.
Think in the above example of how I would choose to take or not take the wallet now that the silent call of conscience has made me vacillate. Obviously falling back on some public maxim is a kind of ‘fleeing’ in the face of the choice, but so is twenty five minutes of ethical deliberation, weighing up the pros and cons, examining the situation through utilitarian and deontological lenses, and so on. Basically, if I act on the basis of intelligible reasons then I have also chosen inauthenticity. In order to choose the authentic solution, I would need to disengage from the situation, as an intelligible ‘moment’, entirely. The ‘call of conscience’ that landed me in this vacillating situation emerged alongside the wallet itself, my taking it or not is now no longer an everyday manipulating of equipment. It calls me back to anxiety away from everyday intelligibility. Its demand is that I recognize the groundlessness of any decision for or against, but that the decision is ultimately mine, without any appeal to any reason, compulsion, pro, or con. The authentic decision is to choose to approach the decision itself from this way, but approaching the decision from this way, I cannot decide. I am in an authentic yet unintelligible space.
So, in order to save authenticity as a possibility worth having, Dreyfus argues we need to dismiss Heidegger’s claims about the ontological order of events. Dasein doesn’t flee into fallenness, Dasein starts from fallenness. It can achieve a modest authenticity when it makes its choices deliberately (thus un-falls itself), albeit still in light of social norms (referencing Das Man), just not being pulled along unconsciously by these norms. In the above example, since I am now vacillating, any choice I make regarding the wallet is more or less authentic, even if I choose to steal it. The inauthentic choice would be to leave the wallet where it is just because ‘One doesn’t touch what doesn’t belong to one’, or to spontaneously take it because ‘One has to do what they must to get by’. That is, not to make a choice at all, but blindly follow a rule.
Another, Pessimistic, Solution?
However, there is another solution, that does not require us to make substantial interpretive revisions in Heidegger’s presentation.
Authenticity might just not be a possibility worth having for ontic persons. That is, us. Dasein has its possibility of being authentic, conscience calls it to this possibility, but for persons, Man-Selbst fully interpolated into the regime of public intelligibility, authenticity might just represent an unintelligible self-destruction. Some moment of Zen ego-annihilation. Of course any analysis of the beings that we are might, once it penetrates down to the most fundamental ontological layers, discover a primordial world of authentic and inauthentic choices, following the traces of ontic disturbances and inconsistencies, but that gives us no assurance that the beings that we refer to as “I”, “You”, “Her”, “Him”, and so on, are capable of ‘acting’ intelligibly vis-à-vis their fundamental ontological constitution. This is to say that Being & Time may just be an incredibly pessimistic account of the human condition. Note that this alone is not a refutation. There were no assurances that the phenomenological investigation into the question of Being would have a happy, or redemptive, conclusion.
I do not have the space to fully develop this interpretation. I will only provide one additional argument for it: If Heidegger has achieved his aims in Being & Time of providing a comprehensive analytic of the Being of the beings that we ourselves are, the ontology should be varied and robust enough to cover all possible extremities of ‘human’ experience. At the fundamental level of Being, Dasein intimates its own possibility for authenticity. However, if this possibility could be realistically exhausted by the kinds of beings that ‘we’ are (modern, urbanized, computer using, Heidegger readers), then, in a sense the ontology is exhausted by a narrow ‘form of life’. It is not a refutation of Heidegger’s analytic if a certain prevalent, yet narrow, ‘form of life’ appears in an inextricably inauthentic situation, pushing and pulling against a tyrannical Das Man of its own design. In fact, this is a desirable discovery. There is such a multitude of radically other ways to be (including our own when asleep and dreaming) it would be strange if ours, and Heidegger’s, were just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ontological possibility of authenticity.
That is, if the analysis of Dasein, and its possibilities for authenticity, articulate and apply to such radically different ways of being and forms of life as Wall Street stock brokers in the 1980’s, rice farmers in the Tokugawa Shogunate, Roman Legionnaires stationed in Londinium in 47AD, Egyptian priests of Osiris, nomadic Babylonian goat herders, Martian colonists in the 23rd century, and early Homo Sapiens crossing the Bering strait into the Americas, it would just be an astounding coincidence that beggars belief that we had, with our current form of life and ‘cultural package’, and the Man-Selbst we take on as we surf the internet and watch Saturday Night Live, some how achieved a privileged position to seize Dasein’s possibility of authentic being.
It might just not be a possibility worth having.
Christensen, C. (2012). The Problem of Das Man — A Simmelian Solution. Inquiry, 55(3), pp.262–288.
Dreyfus, H. (1995). Being-in-the-world. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Dreyfus, H. and Wrathall, M. (2017). Background practices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Egan, D. (2012). Das Man and Distantiality in Being and Time. Inquiry, 55(3), pp.289–306.
Haugeland, J., & Rouse, J. (2013). Dasein disclosed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J., & Robinson, E. (2008). Being and Time. New York: HarperPerennial/Modern Thought.
Olafson, F. (1998). Heidegger and the ground of ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.