thinHKers Series 貼地哲學

What We Can Learn from Heidegger about Identity and Authenticity

by Kate

As immigrants from Hong Kong, we must face difficult questions about our identity and how we should reason about our place in the world as we flee from our home and move to a more politically stable country such as Canada. Do we have a responsibility to continue to fight for Hong Kong’s freedom, even though we are thousands of miles away, in order to honour those who have sacrificed their freedoms for ours? How should we take into consideration our personal and collective history when making decisions in the present and when contemplating the future? In this issue of the ThinHKers series, we will examine the problems of identity and authenticity through an existentialist lens, particularly through 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s philosophy.

Philosophers have long grappled with the question of what it is to be a human being. While many philosophers before Heidegger studied the question through an objective, analytical perspective, e.g. asking the question “what is a human being?”, Heidegger thinks that philosophers have largely been mistaken in forgetting to ask the question, “what is it like to be a human being?”. In order to answer that question, Heidegger first prompts us to think about what is unique about our situation as human beings – what is it about being a human being that is different from any other types of being? According to Heidegger, what is unique about our situation as human beings is that, first, we take our own being as an issue – we ask questions about our own existence; and second, we constantly engage in tasks and activities we care about. Heidegger uses the word ‘care’ very broadly here – we may say that we don’t care about our jobs, but we still care enough that we constantly engage with it. Central to Heidegger’s discussion of the ‘care’ structure of the human being are three fundamental terms: facticity (past), existentiality (future), and fallenness (present), which we will explore below.

Facticity is a part of what Heidegger calls ‘thrownness’. We are all ‘thrown’ into the world without prior consultation – arbitrarily born into a given family, within a given culture, within a given socioeconomic class, at a given moment in human history, etc. These ‘givens’ are facticities which limit our human possibilities. As a result, the tasks we decide to be engaged in and care about often have very little to do with us; they are in a sense decided for us by the particular facticity that we were born into, which we have no control over. For example, we didn’t choose to be born in a place called Hong Kong. But because of the facticity that we were born in Hong Kong during this particular period in history, the things that matter to us are very different from what would hypothetically matter to us if we were, say, born in Ancient Greece in 400 BC. In this sense, our facticity determines the things we care about far more than we are often aware of.

While facticity refers to our past, existentiality refers to our future – the possibilities which we have at our disposal. While our facticity limits our human possibilities, there still is the freedom to transform. In other words, although we are all thrown into a set of circumstances without consent, our freedom lies in choosing to embrace our possibilities within our thrownness. This duality exists at each and every moment of our existence and bears upon our potential for being authentic. For example, even though many of us were born into Chinese culture and learned to adopt Chinese values growing up, we have the freedom to reflect on those values we grew up with and choose to accept some and reject others.

However, as human beings, we have the inevitable tendency to fall into an everyday mode of existence, and be absorbed into the common world of experience that is most readily at-hand. Heidegger calls this ‘fallenness,’ which is characterized by the failure to note our facticity and existentiality. This everyday mode of being Heidegger names ‘the they’ (das Man). In this everyday mode of existence, we forget to note our facticity and existentiality; hence, ‘the they’ is everyone and no one in particular. This everyday mode of being is the common world of experience made up of trends, activities, and beliefs in which we automatically participate and take for granted.

The way in which society in general is structured often gives rise to trends and activities in which we automatically participate. For example, on social media, we often simply consume content without reflecting on it. We often see news about injustices happening in the world, post about it on social media, then move onto the next trending story, without deeper reflection on the previous one: What do I truly think about this issue, taking into account how my facticities have given rise to the biases I have? What can I do to help, besides simply posting about it on social media?… The self which each of us is, is often derived from the common understandings and possibilities which ‘the they’ define for us – the activities and tasks in which we engage, the common expressions we utilize, the beliefs we hold about current issues…

Thus, for the most part, we as human beings unknowingly surrender our unique individuality to commonly defined styles of living and thinking, and define ourselves by ‘the they’. It is not we ourselves, as individuals, who have constructed these, but rather ‘das Man’ (the they). Heidegger contrasts this inauthentic das Man with the authentic Dasein, or ‘owned self’. Heidegger describes our average everydayness as bringing us ‘tranquility,’ and suggests that in some way it provides the illusion that all is well and everything is in order, when in actuality, something is amiss.

In this everyday mode defined by ‘the they,’ we are not our authentic selves – we are inauthentic. However, the designation ‘inauthentic’ is not intended as a moral judgment by Heidegger, but rather as a description of an existential fact. Heidegger does not suggest that we eliminate our inauthentic fallenness – as all of the three attributes, i.e. facticity, fallenness, and existentiality are what make up our human existence. However, if we are constantly trapped in this everyday mode of being all the time and fail to reflect on our facticity and existentiality, there is a clear sense in which we are missing a large part of our human existence and are leading an inauthentic life.

Having learned about Heidegger’s ideas of facticity, existentiality, and fallenness, we may use these ideas to examine our situation as Hong Kongers overseas. What we as Hong Kongers all have in common in our facticities is that we all grew up in a place we call home, Hong Kong, in an era in which it is constantly and increasingly subjected to political repression. As a result of our facticities, we share a lot of what we believe, our culture, collective memories, values, goals, and convictions.

While some of us have had the privilege to move to a more politically stable country such as Canada amidst the political turmoil as Beijing begins the crackdown on Hong Kong, many have also sacrificed their freedoms for ours. As we move to another country and get exposed to many different cultures and values, now is a good time to ask ourselves: why do we hold the beliefs, values, and convictions we have? Was it all because of the influence surrounding us growing up, from family, friends, and the media, or do I genuinely hold them after a period of serious and long-winded reflection, taking into account our facticity and existentialism?

In a relatively peaceful country such as Canada, it is easy for us to fall into an everyday mode of being – going to work/school, hanging out with friends chatting about mundane things, enjoying life… While there is absolutely nothing wrong with these activities, we must ask ourselves – why is it that after relocating to a politically stable country that we have forgotten about all our struggles in Hong Kong and stopped fighting for it? Did we genuinely believe in our common cause, or did we fight for it simply because everyone else around us was also doing it? In order to live authentically, we must be aware of both our facticity and existentiality. While our past cannot be changed, we have the freedom and responsibility to transform and to decide our own future.

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