Working for das Man: Heidegger’s Theory of Existence by Nick Holt

Heidegger’s primary objective in Being and Time (1927) is to reopen the investigation into the question of Being. For Heidegger, advances in this investigation lay dormant due to the complexity, presupposed universality, “indefinability”, and the seemingly self-evident nature of the question. Although Heidegger acknowledged the difficulty in defining what is meant by Being, he regards this project as one of vital importance and develops a unique ontology to elucidate the definition. The central tenet of Heidegger’s ontology is that the existence of  the human being, for which he introduces the term Dasein, cannot be considered except as in the context of a participant in a world of other phenomena with which he has relationships. Dasein literally means “being there”. The world and its constituents are therefore integral, inseparable components of the constitution of Dasein. One of the most significant entities that shapes Dasein’s interaction with the world is a primordial phenomenon Heidegger refers to as They or das Man. An explanation will be provided in this essay of what is meant by They and why it is considered by Heidegger to belong to the positive constitution of Dasein. In addition, the nature of the relationship between They and Dasein will be critically examined with a view to understanding its role in Dasein being able to fulfil its goal of understanding Being. 

Dasein, unlike all other entities, has the unique ability and main purpose to focus on and understand its Being. Heidegger proposed that this understanding comes from its interactions within the world. Dasein is conceived in a pre-existing world that already has an understanding of itself – in a sense, it is taken care of. This is to say that certain things already exist. An example of this might the religious structure one is born into; or the moral and ethical principals of a society. We must also consider language and mathematics as more complex examples of our world being ‘taken care of’.

Heidegger asserts that, through interaction with the world, the existence of Dasein is moulded by the They. This phenomenon is the dominion of the everydayness of human existence. In order to understand what Heidegger means by the They, we must first unpack the notion of Dasein (existence) and the world with which it shares an inseparable bond. In presenting Dasein as Being, Heidegger challenges earlier theories of Cartesian Dualism and Hursserlian phenomenology by arguing that existence is a unitary phenomenon and can only be understood within the context of the world in which it exists (Horrigan-Kelly et al, 2016, p3). This is to say that all corporeal and incorporeal phenomena pertaining to human existence is inextricable and grounded in the state of Being he calls “Being-in-the-world” . The literal translation of Dasein is “Being-there”, and we can now understand that “there” is the world. Heidegger states, “Being-in is thus the formal existential expression for the Being of Dasein, which has its Being-in-the-world as its essential state” (Heidegger, 80, 1927).

The relationship between Dasein and the world is always a contextual one. For example, the scientific understanding we have of our universe today is remarkably different to that of ancient civilisations and hence provides different contexts.  Today, for example, there is a preexisting understanding of the physics of the sun for anyone born now. We understand its source of energy, photosphere, corona, and solar flares. The Ancients did not have this knowledge. For anyone born into such an ancient society, the sun had the context of esoteric and metaphysical meaning. Another example is the political systems in which different people are born into. If one were born into North Korea, their contextual relationship to the world would be greatly different to anyone who was born elsewhere. Another example of this might be anyone born during the Presidency of Donald Trump. Within several years, when their minds mature, these people will not be able to conceive of a world in which Donald Trump was not the President of the United States.

What makes Dasein peculiar is its ability to consciously analyse and question the notion of its own Being. In a sense, it is aware of its freedom and the perpetual possibilities and potentialities bestowed upon it. However, as we will discuss later, this freedom is not always available to the fullest extent because it is often distanced from itself by the They. Heidegger states, “Dasein always understands itself in terms of its own existence – in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself, or not itself” (Heidegger, 12, 1927).

As a Being-in-the-world, Dasein is forced to interact with the world in its everydayness. It is within this mundanity that Dasein interacts with Others, and in turn becomes a Being-with-others. When Heidegger uses the term “Others”, he is not suggesting that Dasein is unparalleled, as there are of course many Dasein; rather, he is framing the Others as a primordial phenomenon he calls The They, or das Man. Das Man is the impersonal encapsulation of all worldly presuppositions. It is the yardstick for all of our prescribed values, norms, and societal expectations. Das Man is the news media we consume and the prevailing culture we engage in; it is the transport systems, educational facilities, and political institutions that dominate Dasein and squash any notion of its unfettered freedom. It is the averageness of the collective mass, created by and for Das Man. Heidegger writes, “in this averageness with which it prescribed what can and may be ventured, it keeps watch over everything exceptional that thrusts itself to the fore…overnight everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well known” (Heidegger, pp 412-413, 2001). Heidegger argues that this averageness creates a kind of tension for Dasein – a “levelling down of all possibilities of Being” (Heidegger, 413, 2001). The inherent nature of Das Man curtails the exceptionalness of Dasein, and in turn, pins it down to a limited set of possibilities. We might consider these possibilities as the career path they choose, the Man or Woman they marry, the art they hang in their bedroom, and the discipline structure they apply to their children. In other words, “They prescribe the kind of Being of everydayness” (Heidegger, 412, 2001).

If They is allowed to totally shape and dominate the self of Dasein, it creates a passive role for Dasein in the world. Dasein would accept everything that They accept. She would enjoy what They enjoy and be sad about things They are sad about; she would be appalled by what appalls They, and so on (Heidegger, 412, 2001). However, things that are unique to the particular Dasein can never be explained by the They, in particular his Being. For example, a big issue that concerns each Dasein is his own death (Heidegger, 284, 1927). He wishes to understand what it means as part of his Being. It is clear that his death is unique to him. No other Dasein can experience his death; The They cannot provide any sense of meaning for something that only he can experience (Oaklander, 1995, p180).

Within the everydayness of They – bound by the constitution we have described – one’s Self may move away from the real or authentic Dasein self towards the They self. Heidegger argues that das Man has the potential to “disburden” Dasein of its Being (Heidegger, 413, 2001) and create an inauthentic existence. By adopting a  passive role in society, and through ignorance of its own existence, das Man camouflages the issue of Being which perpetually plagues Dasein. However, this inauthentic existence ultimately distances Dasein from his true Self. Let us take the following example of “Jack’s” life as a realisation of this inauthenticity. As a young boy, Jack had a number of potential career options his wished: police man, fireman, rockstar, veterinarian, or a fisherman . As Jack grew older his teachers and parents told him that none of these were viable career options and that he must abandon these dreams and focus on more stable well-paying profession(for ex). This created angst within Jack, but overtime he slowly acquiesced to the predefined structure of society and forgot about his potentiality to be what he wanted to be. When he finished high school, Jack took a job at the local bank. He is now 50 years old and is the ‘assistant to the branch manager’. He spends his spare time reading the paper, watching reality TV with his wife, and on the weekends he trudges down to the oval to watch the local football team with his friends and neighbours. For Heidegger, Jack has “fallen” into an inauthentic existence – he chose to deny his potential and instead conformed “unquestioningly to societal norms and values, thus losing his selfhood” (Horrigan-Kelly et al, 2016, 3). Jack has been entangled by They. While in this state of ‘ambiguity’ – this is to say that the truth of world has become ambiguous –  Jack is not able to explore his real purpose or essence, which is to investigate and understand his own Being; instead, he has become a “Being-lost in the publicness of the ‘they’ ” (Heidegger, pp38-220, 1927).

While it may seem like Jack’s flight away from Dasein towards They is a unique tale of unrealised potentiality – ‘The boy who fell prey to das Man’ – this kind of inauthentic existence is a trap that is by no means unique. Heidegger says, “The more openly the ‘They’ behaves, the harder it is to grasp, and the slier it is, but the less it is nothing at all”, (Heidegger, 414, 2001). Over time, as the bait becomes more enticing, the trap claims more and more victims. Eventually, the trapped begin to dominate and reveal themselves as the “realest subject of everydayness” (Heidegger, 414, 2001). The They is tempting and Dasein can easily fall prey.

Heidegger proposes that the alternative to the They self is the ‘authentic existence’, which can be realised through the revelation of Dasein’s authentic self. This, however, can also prove to be problematic. Let us consider the story of “Jill” and her authentic existence. In this scenario, Jill has consciously tried to avoid falling pray to das Man. She continues to focus on and question her own existence, and she is aware of her potentiality. Jill catches the train to work each morning at 7am. She is an Asset Manager at a big bank. Although Jill is exceptional at her job, she has never enjoyed it. Each morning she looks around the train and observes all the other commuters on their way to work engaging in ‘Idle chat’ driven by curiosity about the weekend’s sporting results, a politician’s affair, or where they ate dinner last night. Heidegger writes, “Idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without previously making the thing one’s own (Heidegger, 170, 1927). This lack of sincerity and authenticity causes angst within Jill, and, as Jill flounders between the present and the ‘elsewhere’, she, too, fails to exist authentically.

Jill is a competent painter, musician, and writer and these are the things she has always wanted to be; however, she battles against the flight towards the They, Jill fails to invest herself wholly into any of these endeavours. She always thinks of herself in relation to the They. Jill is unable to convert any of these hobbies into something that provides genuine meaning. She is constantly torn between these possibilities and cannot decide which one to pursue. Soon enough she becomes riddled with existential angst. Jill is at least considering the essence of her Being, which would not be possible if she were living an inauthentic existence, entrapped by They; however, as we can see, she is also not being true to her Self.

The scenarios involving Jack and Jill represent the authentic and inauthentic Being, but for Heiddeger, one can never preference the other. They are equally valid parts of being in the world.

Heidegger makes it clear that the “inauthenticity” and “fallenness” are not mistakes or sinful options of being in the world (Steiner, 1978, 3). They are essential parts of existence. He believes that the “fallenness” is a positive, in the sense that there must be inauthenticity for Dasein to become aware of its loss of true self and strive for a return to its authentic being. They are “essential prerequisites towards repossession of self” (Steiner 1978, 3).

Heidegger introduces the concept of Angst which is used to show that They is not necessarily an adversary of Dasein, but rather a positive, complimentary force designed to assist Dasein in its search for meaning. Angst is not anxiety in the way we would define it today, but rather a kind of existential anxiety that pushes the They self away by creating some kind of uncertainty or turmoil. It can lead to a flight away from the They and open up the possibility of considering many more different potentialities. It is the key to untangling oneself from the They. Hence, the combination of They and Angst can be considered to be a positive catalyst in assisting Dasein to at least temporarily lead an authentic existence that can allow his real question of Being to be addressed. Because They is an existentiale and is a primordial phenomenon, it can be considered a positive component of the constitution of Dasein (Heidegger, 415, 2001).

Through being in the world, Dasein has the ability to adopt one of two modes of self. The first is its real individual (authentic) self and the second is the (inauthentic) They self. The latter conceals the ability of Dasein to discover knowledge about the Being of Dasein, but is a prerequisite for doing so. Hence, it it a positive factor in the search for understanding. Without first falling into the They self, Dasein does not have the realisation of the need to escape the entanglement. It is able to do so through the assistance of a concept known as Angst. The nature of the entrapment of Dasein by das Man, through the enticing characteristics of its offerings, can disburden Dasein from its issue of Being. Das man is intrinsic to Dasein’s existence, and therefore is an integral part of its positive constitution.

The relationship between Das Man (the They) is inseparable from Dasein, and therefore must be beneficial to our existence. While Das Man reflects the habitual and unremarkable aspects of human nature, it also provides a predictable framework in which our relationships may thrive. Our health services, employment opportunities, and moral structures are also embedded in Das Man, and it is in these areas that we seek comfort in its unsurprising consistency. It has been shown that Dasein can have one of two modes of existence at any time, namely authentic and inauthentic, depending where he or she is in relation to being engaged with They as opposed to a genuine engagement with Others based on their real self. However, is only through the real self that Dasein can approach an understanding of his Being.

Works Cited

Heidegger, M. (1927). Being and Time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Solomon, R. C. (2001). From Rationalism to Existentialism: The Existentialist and Their Nineteenth Century Bacgrounds, Harper & Row, New York.

Horrigan-Kelly, M. (2015). Exploring the views and experiences of teenage parents as service users of universal child and family health care services. Unpublished thesis. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10379/5105

Steiner, G. (1978), Heidegger, The Harvester Press Limited, Sussex.

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