The other day at work I was lectured that my caffeine intake is dangerously high, after casually mentioning, during a conversation about everyone being tired, that I was tired even though I had had three cups of coffee and a red bull for breakfast – what they do not realize is that caffeine is necessary for being-in-the-world, as Heidegger would say.
Heidegger on Being in the World, the “They-Self”, and Anxiety
In his magnum opus, Being and Time, Martin Heidegger seeks to answer the question of what it is to be. This leads him to observe Dasein, a term which he uses to avoid speaking of a metaphysical thing such as a soul or consciousness. To understand what Heidegger means by Dasein, consider a human being, whose human way of being can be reduced to “being-there”, such that Dasein means “being-there”. This reveals that for Dasein to have “being-there” it must be in the world. Thus, our most basic experience is that there is a world in which we live, such that that we are in a world is an “essential state” for the Being of Dasein. Given that “being-in-the-world” is an essential state for Dasein, in order to understand Dasein we must observe Dasein’s Being-in-the-world.
Heidegger is looking for the simplest ways to approach an understanding of Being, so he explores how we use tools. He posits that the simplest way that we encounter the Other is by using things in the world that were created by an Other or for an Other, such that these objects indicate that other Dasein must exist in what Heidegger calls the “Being-of of Others”. Heidegger thinks that classic philosophical arguments that differentiate the I from the Other are unrealistic, and posits that as we use tools in the world in the same ways as the Other, we do not distinguish ourselves from the Other, but rather, the Other are “those among whom one is too”. Thus, we do not differentiate our own Dasein from the Other because in our everyday non-reflective lives we use the same things in the same way as the Other.
This answers the question of how Dasein acts in everydayness but Heidegger is interested in who Dasein is in everydayness, and he is close to the answer. He postulates that if in everydayness Dasein does not distinguish itself from the Other because of the same way they use tools, then in its everydayness, Dasein is part of the Other, or the “They”. Thus, Heidegger says that in its day to day actions Dasein is the “They” and is not itself.
This is a extraordinary claim but Heidegger is driving at the idea that when we commit mundane actions we do not think about how strange it is that we have consciousness and the strangeness that what we are using that consciousness for is to watch television. To constantly reflect on the strangeness of customs, habits and language would be debilitating for Dasein’s ability to do commonplace actions, so Dasein develops an ability to ignore the strangeness of everydayness in order to function in society. In its everydayness Dasein does not reflect on the strangeness of these things because it is in the world with Others and unreflectively knows that Others use their televisions and tools in the same way. Dasein does not think it strange because he uses his television like “they” do. Thus, because Dasein uses his television like “they” do he does not distinguish himself from the “they” in his everyday activities, and this is what Heidegger calls a “they-self”. As such, Dasein in everydayness is a “they-self” that does not distinguish itself from Others in how it uses tools, such that those actions are not strange. Therefore, the “they-self” is a mode of Dasein in which it ignores the strangeness of everyday activities because “they” do the same, and as such, this mode of Dasein allows Dasein to function in society.
Heidegger posits that Dasein resorts to its “they-self” not only to perform well in society, but also to be disburdened of responsibility for its actions. Dasein in its “they-self” mode does not take responsibility for its choice to watch television because it merely acts as “they” do, such that it is not the individual Dasein that watches television, but the “they” that watch television. But as Heidegger observes, “it ‘was’ always the ‘they’ who did it, and yet it can be said that it has been ‘no one’” (Being and Time, 165). By this Heidegger is noting that because Dasein does not distinguish itself from the indeterminate “they” the “they” is no one in particular, such that no individual Dasein stands out from the “they” to be responsible. Therefore, because in its everyday actions Dasein does not distinguish itself from the “they” it is not responsible for those actions due to its absorption into the indefinite mass of the “they”.
Though Dasein flees from the strangeness of the tools, habits and customs of society by not distinguishing itself from the “they”, Dasein cannot avoid moments of estrangement which Heidegger calls anxiety. Heidegger thinks that colloquial language is right to say that while fear is of something determinate, anxiety is directed at no thing, that is, anxiety is of the indeterminate. As Heidegger holds that the world is not a thing but the grounding for experiences he observes that anxiety is of the world, such that we have anxiety because we are in the world. As such, because Dasein is in the world as an essential state of Dasein, moments of anxiety are unavoidable.
Though in its everydayness Dasein is its “they-self” in order to avoid the strangeness of things in the world in order to be at home, in moments of anxiety Dasein feels its world to be strange. The habits and customs of a society are strange to Dasein because it recognizes that by its existence it has been thrown into a world in which these things are decided for it. As seen above, Dasein develops a “they-self” in order to feel at home in these otherwise strange social phenomena. In this way, Dasein flees the strangeness of being in the world by using tools and following customs as any person in society would, such that Dasein loses the feeling of strangeness by conforming to societal norms.
Yet, because anxiety is caused by being in the world, in moments of anxiety Dasein is confronted by the strangeness of being in the world with the result that tools and customs of the world seem strange and unfamiliar. Heidegger calls this “uncanniness”, and characterizes it as a feeling of not being at home in the world, such that the tools and customs of the world are familiar yet at the same time strange. Hubert Dreyfus provides the example of a moment of anxiety being one in which a telephone is familiar to Dasein as being a means to communicate with people and yet Dasein is unfamiliar with why it should call anyone. Dreyfus uses this example to draw out Heidegger’s thinking that in our “they-self” mode norms and tools have significance because of how “they” use them, such that in anxiety Dasein does not see the significance of such norms and tools. In uncanniness these tools and norms are familiar enough that Dasein recognizes them for what they are, but unfamiliar in that Dasein cannot recognize why it uses those tools and follows those norms. In anxiety the tools and norms of society have become foreign to Dasein, such that it is an outsider and it not at home. Thus, in anxiety Dasein cannot see the significance of the tools and norms that it uses and follows every day because it realizes that it was not it that decided that those tools and norms were significant to it. In order to be rid of the strangeness of being in the world Dasein takes refuge in the “they” so that norms and tools have significance as what “they” do.
Caffeine is necessary to being in the world because it is necessary for being in the world with others in the “they-self” mode. It is not
that I consume caffeine because everyone else does it; I consume caffeine to stay in my “they-self” mode and ward off moments of existential anxiety. Caffeine is a miraculous drug that makes things exciting, and when the meaningless practices of society are exciting they do not feel strange. If you’ve ever had a moment of existential anxiety, and I’m sure you have, more likely than not it has been late at night – when the caffeine is no longer in your system. Caffeine staves off anxiety, and as anxiety is a necessary result of living in the world, caffeine just is a necessary part of living in the world. So, despite what my colleagues say, I do not consume an unhealthy amount of caffeine, I consume a necessary amount of caffeine.
The funny comics about Being & Time are from this website: http://www.beingandtim.com/
Check it out, there is a lot of funny stuff there. If my attempt at humor here wasn’t to your liking, perhaps there will be something for you there.