To be what one is: Discourses on Authentic Existence
Visual by Karen Coelho
"If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear. I will choose Freewill.”
- Freewill, a song by Rush.
There has been a long debate on how one must exist. Different religions have answered this by arguing in favor of a complete surrender to God. However, with the emergence of the enlightenment era and thought, human beings became the centre of their own existence. Now, their choices determined the course of their life. With this change, questions on the right kind of existence had to be answered in the light of this new context and this is what several philosophers attempted. There was an inward turn, where self-introspection, exercising choice, taking responsibility for it and being ‘authentic’ to one’s self became important for a meaningful life. The intricate details of the same will be discussed hereafter.
Kierkegaard on Imparting Meaning to Our Life Course:
Kierkegaard argued that many people have come to function as merely place holders in a society that constantly levels down possibilities to the lowest common denominator. In a way, he argued that modern society led to inauthenticity. Living in a society characterized by massification, it led to despair, spiritlessness, denial and defiance. Kierkegaard highlights the importance of unfolding what we find ourselves with and imparting meaning and identity to our own life course. This involves, in Kierkegaard’s view, “becoming what one is” and evading despair and hollowness by a passionate commitment and care to something outside of us that gives our life meaning. This is what authentic existence would mean for Kierkegaard.
Heidegger’s Call of Conscience:
Heidegger’s Dassein is a relation of being. This means a relation between what one is at any moment and what one can and will be as the temporally extended unfolding of life into a realm of possibilities. Over the course of our lives, our identities are always in question: we are always projections into the future, incessantly taking a stand on who we are. The word authenticity as a neologism was used by Heidegger, which means owning what one is and what one does. He argues that one must discover the call of their conscience. The conscience tells us to live with resoluteness and full engagement. In this engagement with the true self and owning up to and taking responsibility for one's deed, one acts as an agent in this world. This involves choosing to act out of one’s innermost and authentic Self. Here, what Heidegger terms as “call of conscience” is a response to one’s own authenticity and particularity and would lead to an authentic existence.
Sartre on Choice, Freedom and Authentic Existence:
Sartre argues that human beings have certain concrete characteristics that make up their “facticity” or what they are “in themselves” (en soi). This involves a givenness we must work with. However, Sartre further states that a human being is not just an “in itself” but also “for itself” (pour soi). This is known as transcendence, where one surpasses their brute being and is free to interpret their reality from a range of possibilities and has a choice of self-definition. Here, humans choose how things are going to matter in their life. As, each human is endowed with unlimited freedom. This means, despite the circumstances one is faced i.e. their facticity, one has the freedom to transcend the facticity and make an authentic choice. This choice involves a proper coordination of facticity and transcendence. Our freedom interacts with our facticity and exhibits a responsibility to make a proper choice and thereby lead to an authentic existence.
De Beauvoir on Freedom for all:
While De Beauvoir agrees to Sartre’s conception of engaged freedom where each individual finds a reason for their being, in concrete realizations of freedom. She adds that willing one’s own freedom involves willing the freedom for all humans as well. As freedom must also mean, she writes, “an open future, by seeking to extend itself by means of freedom of others.” De Beauvoir also highlights how women are oppressed and ‘othered’ by men but they are also complicit in their own oppression. This is because they escape from freedom and authenticity towards their socio-cultural ties and this leads to lack of self-realization and authentic existence in their lives.
One can conclude from these arguments that the inwardness of humans led to inevitability of conscious choice, responsibility for it and an in turn an authentic existence. Even, not making a choice is a choice in the era of freewill! Finally, I would like to conclude that only our authentic existence, i.e. to be what one is, makes us actively engage with our reality and thereby, makes us live with purpose and lead a meaningful life.
1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.