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The Gift of Becoming Stranded
Amee LaTour argues we should sometimes welcome being run aground by life.
What do you want out of life? Happiness? Comfort? Security? Like many philosophers associated with existentialism, Martin Heidegger emphasizes the potential fruitfulness of varieties of experience quite contrary to these states, such as the discomfort and insecurity of becoming stranded. When we’re stranded, we’re stuck. We can’t just move on. We’re in a tough spot. Heidegger didn’t explicitly advocate seeking the experience. Having no interest in moralizing, he instead explained why he thinks we're usually not stranded, and what happens in the rare moments when we are; but it lends itself to ethical reflection.
Being and Time, Heidegger’s seminal work, is, among many things, a book of social analysis. In it Heidegger describes what he sees as the ‘everyday’ way we usually exist and speak, which is as highly influenced by those around us – by ‘ das Man’, which is Heidegger’s phrase for the phenomenon of social influence. For Heidegger, the vast majority of what we think, do, say, and feel is delineated by das Man, commonly translated as either ‘the they’ or ‘the One’. But both translations lend themselves to misunderstanding, since the concept means neither a group of people nor a particular person. ‘The they’ isn’t people at all: it’s something that happens within us, a way of orienting our thinking, a phenomenon that arises out of human sociality. To understand what das Man means for Heidegger, and what its alternative looks like, it’s necessary to first get a grasp on a few other key concepts from Being and Time: understanding, attunement, and discourse.
Understanding, Attunement & Discourse
For Heidegger, human beings are different from other beings because we see the world in terms of possibilities. Rather than our behavior and thinking being determined by instinct we have options, because we have understanding. For Heidegger, understanding is a kind of ‘sight’ through which human beings see the world, themselves, and other beings within it in terms of possibilities. As a kind of sight that opens the world and human being itself up to possibilities, understanding is therefore ‘disclosive’ – it uncovers, reveals.
Because we are beings with understanding, Heidegger says we ‘project’ ourselves into the future, and in this way the future is incorporated in our present realities. If you think about it, almost everything we do has some future component to it. I get up so that I can go to a different room to do something, to pursue a possibility; or I type this so that you may read it later. Our current actions are so driven by considerations of the future that it doesn’t seem quite right to think about the future solely in terms of it being something up ahead that hasn’t happened yet, but rather, also as part of our present experience.
Another key disclosive element of human being for Heidegger is attunement. Attunement makes investment and engagement in the world and in life possible for us. For Heidegger our attunement is responsible for the fact that the world and our existence matter to us. It is a type of mood we have about the world and our being in it, in which a sense of meaning and purpose is disclosed to us. In rare moments our attunement also discloses to us the fact that we did not initially project ourselves into existence – we were, rather, thrown into the world, into existence, as the kind of being that projects itself into the future. The moods that most explicitly disclose our thrownness are unsettling ones such as anxiety or alienation; they remind us that we’re not quite at home in the world – that we’re projecting ourselves ahead, but we can’t quite ‘get back behind ourselves’ to provide a stable foundation for our choices.
People also engage in discourse which is a third important mode of disclosure people participate in, according to Heidegger. Discourse occurs when we share aspects of our existence – for instance, possibilities and moods – with others, generally through language. This sharing consists both of understanding and attunement, and helps to shape our understanding and attunement in turn. We share the contents of our understanding and attunement, and the specific possibilities and moods we share opens one another up to them.
The They: Hijacked Disclosures
As beings that project into the future and are thrown into the world Heidegger sees human beings as susceptible to falling prey to das Man, but also capable of an alternative way of being, which he calls authentic existence. First, let’s look at what Heidegger thinks is happening with our disclosive capacities – our understanding and attunement – when we’re guided by ‘the they’.
In the throes of they-hood, the possibilities an individual grasps in understanding and the moods she experiences are largely in sync with those around her: she is prone to identify not primarily as an individual with unique possibilities and a unique personal emotive engagement with the world, but rather as one of a group who pursues the possibilities that ‘one’ pursues, and who feels as ‘one’ feels.
Heidegger thinks das Man disincentivizes resisting its influence for most people in a number of ways. Perhaps most importantly our social environment gives us a sense that we’re at home, secure, in ourselves, in our paths, our judgments, etc., just because there seems to be strength, and validity, in numbers. We think we know what we know just because it’s what others know; we think we’re doing what we ought to just because others are doing it, too. Thinking in terms of das Man thus creates the sense of groundedness that a thrown being craves. Without it, we would have to face a tremendous personal responsibility to take up matters for ourselves, potentially alone. ‘The they’ offers comfort.
There is a special place in Being and Time for the everyday discourse influenced by das Man which hijacks our ways of disclosing the world, ourselves and others. Heidegger calls this everyday type of discourse ‘idle talk’. When we communicate in this idle way, we fail to engage our own understanding and attunement toward what is being discussed; we simply ‘pass the word along.’ I interpret Heidegger to mean that when we engage in idle talk we don’t think critically, but simply take on board what a group of people or some aspect of our culture says, believes, desires and judges, and we follow suit. Idle talk steers our choices, Heidegger claims, by dictating what is worth seeing and doing. He describes everyday life as a shallow sort of existence, drifting along with the current of ‘the they’, assimilating with others and failing to get in touch with our own capacities for understanding and attunement. Because discourse plays a key role in shaping our understanding and attunement, discourse driven by the they actually serves to cover up the authentic possibilities that could be grasped through understanding and attunement.
The image of a human being as a ‘thrown project’ is highly useful in working out what it means to become stranded. A metaphor may help. Imagine yourself as a little boat that has been thrown into a fast but shallow stream – the stream is ‘the they’. The rudder by which you steer is disengaged; however, the stream alone is not propelling boat-you; your engine is pushing you along as well. You’re both projecting yourself and being carried along by the current. But in order to be truly in control of your course (that is, your possibilities), something needs to turn you toward your steering system.
Becoming stranded is the opportunity to engage your own steering system. When boat-you runs ashore – in other words, when something interrupts your ‘just going with the flow’ – suddenly, nothing is directing you. In the absence of outside direction, you can then become aware of the fact that you can steer your own thinking: that you have the ability to reflect, think and judge for yourself, see what possibilities actually lie before you, and tap into your unique emotional engagement with the world and others.
So how does one become stranded? Heidegger often discusses the disengagement from ‘the they’ as a spontaneous, fleeting occurrence that strikes out of the blue. We are assailed by some mood, such as profound boredom or anxiety, in which we realize that the security and comfort offered by ‘the they’ are false. In such moods we realize that we’re only really grounded if we ground ourselves, as individuals, taking back our understanding and attunement, orienting ourselves toward our discourse, seeing possibilities beyond the status quo, engaging with our emotional investment in life and the world in a more personal way.
There are two approaches boat-you can take at this point of realization. You can plunge your rudder into the water and navigate your own way out of your stranded situation, returning to the world of things and people with a newfound sense of individual agency over your trajectory. This approach requires a lot of energy, responsibility, and, ultimately, struggling with the big questions. Or you could rush back to the current of ‘the they’ with its directive force, casting off the trials and tribulations involved in steering your boat-self, and opting instead for the more passive and comfortable approach to life. Just flowing downstream is the easier option; but steering your own thought is more authentic, because you actually are an individual with your own disclosive capacities.
Although Heidegger was conservative concerning the number of opportunities for becoming stranded, and skeptical of the lasting power of authentic being, I’m a bit more hopeful: I think that the stranded moments Heidegger attributed to special, rare moods, crop up constantly. For instance, we become stranded when a long-held belief is shaken or refuted. Or we become stranded when we ask where our long-held beliefs came from, or when someone else asks us this same question. We become stranded when we start to question why we’re doing what we’re doing. Of course, something has to disrupt our inertia – in keeping with the above analogy, has to run us aground – but this could be a book, an inspiring story, the death of a loved one, even a conversation. I don’t believe that these disrupters are in short supply. We just have to be willing to become stranded long enough to hear ourselves, and brave enough to to engage our steering systems when we do.
© Amée LaTour 2018
Amée LaTour has a degree in philosophy from Marlboro College in Vermont, and works as a writer.