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Reframing Angst with Heidegger I: Introduction


"What is first glimpsed in anxiety is the authentic self. As the world slips away, we obtrude. I like to think about this in maritime terms. Inauthentic life in the world is completely bound up with things and other people in a kind of "groundless floating" – the phrase is Heidegger's. Everyday life in the world is like being immersed in the sea and drowned by the world's suffocating banality. Anxiety is the experience of the tide going out, the seawater draining away, revealing a self stranded on the strand, as it were.”

This pieces' character may be searching for sanity, but if he cared to stop looking through his narrow scope, he might find the grounds for a more stable source of sanity: an angst inspired will to authenticity. Thank-you Andrew for vivifying these insights.


Meaning-making forms and informs our relations to ourselves, others and the world. It gives us the structure which directs our lives. However, Heidegger identifies a condition (or what he terms a mood), in which we are thrust outside of our familiar structures of what is meaningful [1]. This mood reveals tears in the fabric of our familiar, everyday web of meaning. These tears however are disclosing of what is most meaningful in a human life: a concern with the extent to which our being in the world is authentic.


The pivotal instigating mood which discloses our concern for authenticity is angst. Heidegger declares this as a mood of ‘homelessness’, the comfortable structures which we so heavily relied upon have left us, and the world no longer feel so homely. In angst, we are confronted with the structures that we did not put there ourselves yet have directed our lives. Suddenly, we find ourselves unable to engage with the basic meaning structures we once did. We might find ourselves deeply dissatisfied with who we are, our identities feel fundamentally forced, flawed, and misguided – we have realised our relation to ourselves is inauthentic. It might occur to us that our relations with others are deeply unsatisfying and superficial, ridden with ulterior motives over a veneer of amicability – we find our relations to others are inauthentic. Perhaps we can no longer entertain cultural obsessions with material things that signify power – our relations the contemporary zeitgeist's interpretations of objects are inauthentic. [2]


“The world is a tissue of meanings that are fragile, contingent and subject to reinterpretation. No matter how solid our faith may seem, or how comfortable we may be with our lives, we are exposed to the possibility of anxiety” (78, Polt )[3]

Angst is a debilitating and disorientating mood. As Polt emphasises, we are faced with the fragility and contingency in which the meanings of our lives have been weaved. Such a realisation can express itself in many other ways in which we are all far more familiar with: radical self-doubt; quiet despair in the purpose and direction of our efforts; a raging cynicism towards ourselves and others; a disillusionment with the possibility of a desirable future. In modern colloquial speak, these are the many guises of an existential crisis. Some have identified this coming-apart experience as absurdity (Camus), nausea (Sartre), or despair (Corcein) to name a few. However, I believe Heidegger’s identification is well worth our attention, offering a uniquely empowering understanding of ourselves, others and the world, the structuring of meanings, and the direction of our lives [4].


In this short series, I aim to explore the insights Heidegger’s project in Being and Time (1927) offers in re-framing angst. In the process of this poignant reframing, I hope to demonstrate how Heidegger can alter our understanding of our mode of being, and our existences in relation to ourselves, each other, and the world [5]. Doing so inevitably requires some unpacking of terms, however it is my goal to keep this brief and leave the few finer-details I know of to the footnotes [6]. In part II, I will delve into Heidegger’s notion of human existence (as Dasein), what this entails for our unique existential predicament in relation to openness and possibility. Finally in part III, I will explore Daseins' average everyday constraints of openness and possibility, and how the mood of angst can help to disclose and resolve our existential predicaments, offering us a more authentic mode of existence.

 

DISCLAIMER: Please note that the term of angst Heidegger describes is part of a larger conceptual framework that is not entirely synonymous (although not entirely without relation and considerable overlap) with contemporary clinical psychology’s use of the diagnostic term anxiety. If you have anxiety that goes beyond the overlap discussed here, Heidegger’s ideas should not be expected to substitute for professional clinical help. In the best case however, I hope his ideas offer consolation as a positive re-framing effect, helping to broaden the sense of self required for a more positive outlook on one's place within the world.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Moods are always present, we are always in some mood or another. Realising this is something of a mindfulness exercise. Our various moods from moment to moment mediate our experience, like a filter that “discloses” certain features of our world. Fear is a mood that discloses what is threatening, envy is a mood that discloses what is admirable or desirable, and anxiety is a mood that discloses what is inauthentic. When we dismiss our moods as something random and meaningless, we undermine what our moods can reveal to us.

[2] This tripartite relation between ourselves, others, and objects in the world will be further explored in the next part but for now is a more efficient simplification of Heidegger’s ideas around a human-being’s relatedness within the world.

[3] Polt’s “tissue of meanings” is a profound metaphor for the basis of meanings we live within. Tissue has its etymological root in the verb tisser, “to weave”. This implies meaning is an actionable, intentional process which we are part of and impart in our lives – however as we shall see, we are often not the weavers (rather it is Das Man). Tissue is also an organic-chemical substrate that mediates between cells and organs, in which meaning mediates the raw datum of experience (phenomena) with our sense of self and understanding. This metaphor endows the process of meaning-making with the fluidity, adaptability, contingency and mediating status Heidegger wishes to ascribe it. [4] I acknowledge that Heidegger did not associate himself with existentialism (H.J. Blackham, 1978), however I think his conceptions of Being are undeniably relevant to the basic concerns and ambitions of existentialism. His ideas are undeniably relevant in the pursuit of a meaningful existence, development, and ethical orientation – traditionally pertaining to what we often consider as existentialism. However, his distance from this term may also have more to do with his unique re-conceptualising of our notions of existence, and his reluctance to endorse authenticity over inauthenticity. Hopefully I can successfully justify this disagreement by demonstrating Heidegger’s relevance to more traditional existential concerns and demonstrate his distinctive conception of existence.

[5] This tripartite relational and contextual lens is my own adding to Heidegger’s conceptual understanding of the human as Dasein (roughly translated as 'there-being', or sometimes ‘being-in-the-world’).

[6] Even with that being said, there will be a great deal of bypassing. Due to the large amount of circumnavigating of Heidegger’s terms and how they fit together, I can only state i) my points of interest for my general argument on Heidegger, and ii) pay a respectful nod to scholars who have accomplished a great deal in communicating the insights of Being & Time. i) My interest concern Heidegger’s notions of moods (specifically the mood of angst); Dasein as a new understanding of Being-in-the-World (at a shallow level however, disregarding care-structure and more technical ontological categories based on his hermeneutic phenomenological methods); modes of being (authenticity and inauthenticity); ii) In my opinion, Stephen Mulhall’s Heidegger and Being and Time (1996); Richard Polt’s Heidegger: An Introduction (1999); Simon Critchley’s Guardian short-series more lucidly express Heidegger’s ideas than the man himself. Two more technical companion texts, which I only shallowly explored, were John Richardson’s Heidegger (2012), as well as Simon Critchley and Reiner Schürmann’s On Heidegger’s Being and Time (2016).


Although this will be far from a serious scholarly explication of Being and Time, I hope to meet Heidegger half-way with an authentic and well-(in)formed discussion. Or as M. Inwood of the Oxford’s Very Short Introduction to Heidegger (2000) advises:

"... we should treat Heidegger as he treated Aristotle, Descartes, or Kant, interpreting and disentangling his work, using it as a basis for new thoughts of our own. (Heidegger describes his approach to other philosophers in various ways: as interpretation, as Destruktion—a relative of Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’—as ‘repetition’, and, later, as ‘conversation’.)” (p57)

 

References:

Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (1962)

Stephen Mulhall’s Heidegger and Being and Time (1996)

Richard Polt’s Heidegger: An Introduction (1999)

John Richardson’s Heidegger (2012)

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