Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Heidegger and today’s ‘everydayness’

“Everydayness” (“Alltäglichkeit” in German) is a concept associated with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. In the English-speaking world, many “academic philosophers” (or what Arthur Schopenhauer dubbed “bread-thinkers” and Robert Pirsig called “philosophologists” in Lila, the marvellous sequel to his earlier masterpiece Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) never forgave Heidegger for his short-lived flirtation with national socialism in Germany under Hitler, but there have always been those, myself included, who can forgive another fallible human being his or her mistake – we all make them.

Whatever Heidegger’s political mistakes may have been, his philosophical legacy is a powerful one. Although susceptible to criticism, like all philosophy, the secondary literature that it has generated and still gives rise to, is astonishing. His first (some would say still most) important work Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, which appeared in 1927 in German) is a difficult but illuminating work in which Heidegger formulated his “fundamental ontology” of what he called “Dasein” (“being-there”), his term for human being(s), because we just find ourselves to “be there”, in the world, and afterwards try to account for it in religious, metaphysical, psychological or political terms.

Needless to say, it is impossible to summarise the argument (and fine phenomenological analyses) of the book in a blog post, but I want to focus briefly on just one aspect of his phenomenological examination of what it means to be human, namely “everydayness”, because it has struck me how much contemporary ways of living exemplify this condition. To be sure, not only in the present, but in every era people, or Dasein, are subject to what he calls “everydayness” (which would manifest itself in a way that is peculiar to that age). It is just that our media-besotted era displays the features of this commonly prevailing condition, to which we are all subject, very graphically.

Because Heidegger’s philosophical language is quite difficult to decipher, I shall try to stick to accessible English here, and refrain from trying to reconstruct the architectonic of the text as a whole. First, one could say that Heidegger approaches the ontological (being-) structure of humans by pointing out that Dasein is “thrown” (German: “Geworfen”), “project” (“Entwurf”) and is subject to “falling” (“Verfallen”). This means, first, that humans inescapably find themselves (thrown) in the world, without rhyme or reason (which they compensate for, of course, by finding all kinds of explanations for this fact in religion, other ideologies, or in science).

Secondly, Dasein (humans) have the inalienable capacity to find a way of living that is, more or less, satisfying; that is, all of us have the ability to “project” a future for ourselves, although not everyone is equally successful at it. In fact, we are such a “project” (the Afrikaans word, “ontwerp”, corresponds nicely with the German “Entwurf”). But, in the third place, we are all inclined to “fall”; not in the Biblical sense of “the Fall”, although it does resonate with that religious meaning, but in the sense of “falling” back into conventional ways of “being-in-the-world”.

This is where “everydayness” comes into the picture (although I am skipping over large parts of the meticulous analysis in Being and Time). The realm of conventional morality, custom, current affairs, and so on, is what Dasein tends to “fall” back upon, despite the fact that every Dasein is in principle or potentially her or his own “project”. Falling into convention entails being immersed in everydayness, to the “project” that is imposed on one by what Heidegger calls the “they” (in German “das Man”, instead of “der Mann, for “the man”):

“We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man] take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge … we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘They’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness,” according to Heidegger’s Being and Time.

“Everydayness” is recognisable by other conditions: by “idle talk” (“Gerede”), “curiosity” (“Neugier”) and “ambiguity” (Zweideutigkeit”). “Idle talk” (which is marked by “ambiguity” and “curiosity”) is the kind of talk, or conversation, where many possible meanings of events and developments are endlessly discussed, without anyone really becoming any wiser. The present topic of idle talk that probably overshadows every other topic in South Africa is the Oscar Pistorius trial. Wherever you find yourself – in a lift, in a tearoom at work, in a coffee shop – people are fervently discussing everything surrounding the trial. One person observes that “he is as guilty as hell; just think of the fact that witnesses first heard a woman’s voice and a man’s voice engaged in an angry exchange, and then only did you hear the shots – it was a lovers’ quarrel, and that’s that!”

Another counters: “Yeah, but who says they were arguing? Oscar probably suspected that there was an intruder in the apartment – they might have been talking excitedly about that!” A third chips in: “But what do you think of the cricket bat evidence – did he first break down the door or only after the shots had been fired?” And so it carries on – excavating every ambiguity, driven by curiosity, and remaining nothing more than idle talk.

By “curiosity” as something that is woven into the very fabric of everydayness, Heidegger means that in this sphere one is swept along by an endless, unsatisfiable quest for what is new. You know, for example, that Miley Cyrus bared all in her music video for Wrecking Ball, but this very item of information has a built-in “must-know” momentum towards “more” and “still more” novelty, with the result that one never reaches a point where you feel satisfied that you know “everything”, despite which you are impelled by a desire to “know everything”. (Nor is it accompanied by the philosophical acceptance that one cannot, in principle, know “everything” anyway.)

This is intimately connected with “ambiguity” – in the sphere of everydayness people are always exchanging information about what is “must-know”, fashionable, or “newsworthy”, but this is done in such a way that these exchanges never reach a conclusive point. Everything is ambiguous; for example, when one is discussing the latest developments in South African politics, one agrees, at one point in a conversation, that many people are likely to vote for the Economic Freedom Fighters because of their disenchantment with the ANC’s “lack of delivery” to poor people.

And yet, a minute later you also agree with someone else observing that people would continue voting for the ANC because, despite their protests about lack of service delivery, they still, incongruously, see the ANC as the party of liberation, including “economic liberation”.

This applies at every level of what Heidegger calls everydayness. What does seem to me to differentiate between the present and other eras, when everydayness also, unavoidably, prevailed, is the pervasiveness of electronic media-communication today. Unlike past societies, where everydayness manifested itself in ordinary verbal exchanges when people met at restaurants or at home, idle talk is today carried on with heightened volume via cellphone texting, Facebook and Twitter exchanges, emails and every other kind of electronically mediated information-exchange imaginable, driven (as before) by curiosity and marked by ineradicable ambiguity. In the past one depended on personal contact for information-exchange about what caught one’s fancy; today it is everywhere available, visible, accessible, exhorting you to participate in idle talk.

Although Heidegger locates everydayness in the sphere of “inauthentic” existence, this does not mean that any one among us can escape being immersed in it, first and foremost. “Authenticity” is attainable for Dasein, but only from within everydayness, which no one can escape, by becoming aware of a certain “silence”. That is a topic for another post.

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