A Ku Indeed!

We, I, You…Who’s Who?

Posted in Existentialism by Chris on February 1, 2008

I’m reading Heidegger. Whether you like Heidegger or not, in my opinion, is immaterial — one thing that does seem to always happen is that he makes you think issues through in different ways, which in my opinion is always a good thing. It’s too easy to get stuck in “how one thinks” (if you get the pun). So in reading him, I’ve been wondering about a very basic question: what comes first, “we” or “I”? Heidegger’s answer seems pretty straightforward (not straightforwardly explained, but the position itself is clear): “we” comes first.

Of course, this runs up against two intuitions.

1. It’s takes a lot of “I”s to make a “we”.

2. My own private thoughts and mind are always primary; belonging to a group is something that “I” do.

(1) and (2) are linked, of course.

Heidegger’s point seems to be that the private “theater” we tend to think of as “you” is a derivative phenomenon. Instead, what comes first — as an a priori condition (that which is first required) is an immersion within a public world of meaning. So imagine a baby. It has no “I” in the sense in which we think of it. Instead, over time, it slowly becomes socialized into a set of rituals and public meanings. As it does, it starts to behave in meaningful ways, given that it begins to “understand” (not in a self-reflective sense) how to navigate the public world it is, from the start, within. This, to Heidegger, is “we” intentionality. The baby/child has a kind of pre-reflective understanding of “what one does” in this or that situation, and that’s the space in which it exists as an entity.

Somewhere down the line from there it encounters “breakdowns”. For one reason or other, something within that world stops working, or stops playing its role. The person “looks at it” in a sense that is distant. In this kind of “distancing” the entity sees it as an object opposed from itself, and the “I” starts to become a conscious entity to be reflected upon. With this, it seems, more intentional “I” related talk comes into existence.

Heidegger’s thoughts here are decisively anti-Cartesian, where the “I” is always seen as the transcendental starting place for all experience or being. For Heidegger, it’s secondary, even if we tend to be more “conscious” of it and thus accord it more weight (with respect to importance) than it is due.

I think there are some clear connections here that can be made to virtue theory and to Confucianism (after all, Ames and Hall’s Thinking Through Confucius, in my opinion, seems to be a working through — in some ways — of Heideggerian thought to the Analects. Well, maybe more Hall than Ames.) In any respect, I’ll refrain, and save it for a post that I have more time to compose. After all, there’s enough going on in this post already!


5 Responses

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  1. Adam said, on February 2, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Oh for pity’s sake… delete the previous comment and leave this one. I can’t seem to keep this login as the primary one for your blog:

    Intriguing post. It seems like Heidegeer could be talking about a number of of things given what you’ve said. The two foremost in my mind are the “I” of one’s “identity” and the “I” of subjectivity (the theater). Heidegger’s claims would certainly make sense about identity given the dependent nature of us as we come into the world. Yet I’m not convinced that “I” is preceded by “we”. The world of public meanings and private expectations seems to co-develop to me. We’re wired to pick up the local language. But we have a certain acquaintance with our wiring. I’m thinking of something like Kant’s categories as being a kind of meaning.

    As for the other claims about the private “theater”, I think there is definitely something about subjectivity that precedes inter-subjectivity by quite a bit. To conceive of oneself as an “I” in the way the child does not requires some sort of meaning, but I think the child can easily be a “bearer” of subjectivity (I guess that would make it a subject) before it conceives of itself as a such a bearer. This subjectivity could even be fairly rich, in a Kantian, intuited, conceptualized manifold sense.

    If I’m right about subjectivity preceding inter-subjectivity, but wrong about our identities as “I” and “we” co-evolving, that’s actually somewhat interesting, since it would mean that the only way we can come to give meaning to our subjective experiences (and what it is to be a subject) is in terms of publicly shared meanings. That might be good for you — it would certainly lead to a very different account of authenticity (if authenticity is even possible) — but I dunno. I’m sticking with at least the co-evolution of “I” and “we”.

  2. Chris said, on February 2, 2008 at 4:33 pm


    He certainly rejects the theater with respect to meaning — you have experiences, but they have no significance until you have become properly inculcated into a public system of meanings.

    I think he would say that to think of yourself as “I” at all is derivative of the “we” sense we have when we’re immersed in public meanings.

    For Heidegger, I take it that your basic comportment towards the world is not conscious intentional states (as understood in the tradition) but rather “activity”, where activity can be guided in a way that is not-conscious but at the same time not arbitrary. But for activity to take place, a world has to be given first for the activity to have meaning, and that can only occur in a publicly constructed world (things like “the world of science” or “the academic world” things like that). He’s not denying that you can have a sense of yourself, but it comes later, not first.

    Authenticity is certainly not the typical understanding of it in H. It’s not a “do it your own way” but rather a “take charge of how you navigate your social world by acting in a resolute manner that reflects an understanding of your own existential nature.”

    There’s a sense of “don’t be conformist” in H, but not in the sense of “don’t do what the crowd does”. It’s rather “make your own decisions, recognizing that the intelligibility for those decisions rests in a public world that itself is without any ground whatsoever.”

  3. Adam said, on February 2, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    It sounds like there’s a sense in which he’s denying that you can have a sense of yourself, though. He doesn’t think the kind of self that I believe in is there to be known. Thus the only thing left (because we obviously do have some notion of “I”) must be derivative of “we”.

    This is pretty tied in to the multiculturalist stuff I’m thinking about right now in political philosophy. There’s definitely a part of me that wants to say that H is just giving up on authenticity. I know his is the next move in the Continental story, but it seems to be moving on too quickly. I think my beef with him does end up being whether publicly situated activity is basic. Some sort of conscious intentional states + action seems basic enough to me.

  4. Adam said, on February 2, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Oh, and who’s on first.

  5. Chris said, on February 2, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    Does meaningful action require conscious intentional states?

    What’s on second?

    And what type of authenticity are you denying?

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