After Authenticity: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Lure of the Ordinary

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Review of David Egan, The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

The first thing that struck me during my initial reading of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was his claim, in the preface, that the three most important philosophers of the 20th Century were Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey. That claim seemed so outrageous I concluded that, in some sense, it had to be true. One of my minor philosophical obsessions over the years was to determine why that might be so.

There are many commentaries that have also attempted to do this, but David Egan’s book The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday is the most successful that I have encountered yet. The book’s axis is the claim that the single most important and innovative feature that Heidegger and Wittgenstein share is a quest to make philosophy an authentic human endeavor after the collapse of its traditional forms. While this is an explicit part of Heidegger’s program, Egan argues that it is implicit in Wittgenstein, and in fact more successful, since Wittgenstein shed some vestiges of the grand philosophical tradition that Heidegger unwittingly retained, despite his ambitions at overcoming them.


Egan’s book commences with a famous quote from Heraclitus: “one cannot step twice into the same river” (quoted in Plato, Cratylus 402a). Heidegger had much to say about the pre-Socratics in general and Heraclitus in particular, but it is Wittgenstein who best articulates what is problematic in this aphorism: ‘The man who said one cannot step into the same river twice was wrong; one can step into the same river twice’ (Big Typescript, p. 304). The reason why this is so has nothing to do with empirical evidence. Wittgenstein clearly understands that Heraclitus (or whoever was the actual author of the phrase quoted by Plato) is not denying, for example, that one can put one’s feet into the river, take them out, and then put them back in. Heraclitus is not making an empirical report: he is making a conceptual claim that our ordinary way of talking about rivers and steps does not catch the deep reality of the situation, that everything is in flux — that everything is flux — and that our conviction that the natural world has a measure of stability is an illusion. Heraclitus is a metaphysician. Which, for Wittgenstein, is the locus of the problem:

When philosophers use a word — ‘knowledge’, ‘being’, ‘object’, ‘I’, ‘proposition/ sentence’, ‘name’ — and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language in which it is at home? (Philosophical Investigations § 116)

Wittgenstein’s problem with metaphysics is not that it is conceptual discourse rather than empirical or factual discourse. In fact he conceives of philosophy, properly understood, precisely as a matter of conceptual, or “grammatical”, clarification. It is not a “science”: it does not advance theories about facts of the matter concerning laws of nature or its elements. But unlike Wittgenstein, metaphysical philosophers make a wider claim. They do not restrict themselves to a clarification of concepts of language-in-use, but to be constructing the true theory of being-as-such, an “extraordinary” take on reality to which our ordinary talk about reality is at best inadequate and at worst positively deceptive. Metaphysicians philosophize inauthentically. Wittgenstein’s program is thus radically anti-metaphysical:

What we [i.e., Wittgensteinian philosophers] do is bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use. (Philosophical Investigations § 116)

The “everydayness” to which Wittgenstein refers also looms large in Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, as articulated in Being and Time Division 1. For Egan, Heidegger and Wittgenstein are catching more or less the same worries: the tendency of the Western philosophical traditions to assume the necessity of a disengaged, theoretical point of view that will ground our practices in a general, timeless, and necessary metaphysical or epistemological account of being, knowledge, or our meaningful representations.

Egan introduces a metaphor from John McDowell’s Mind and World that clarifies what both Heidegger and Wittgenstein oppose: the notion of a “sideways-on” view of the relation between mind and world, subject and object, representations and what is represented. McDowell’s project in Mind and World was geared toward rejecting the entire realist/ anti-realist or idealist dichotomy that the “sideways-on”, god’s-eye-view agenda fosters, without lapsing into the sort of “frictionless coherentism” that seems to be its only alternative, but which actually assumes that a “view from nowhere” is intelligible. In their different ways, Wittgenstein and Heidegger not only attack a “sideways-on” perspective as both impossible and incoherent, but also deny that it is even necessary to assure contact with a world that is not just constructed or conjured-up by mind.

Heidegger approaches this conundrum phenomenologically: by a description of how the phenomenon “shows itself from itself as itself” without the kind of metaphysical assumptions about being-as-presence that lead the philosopher astray. The starting point for this is that of Dasein, or the being of existing humans in the world, in its “average everydayness.” Several features emerge in Heidegger’s description of the Dasein-phenomenon. First, Dasein is not firstly and mostly (Zunächst und Zumeist) a subject squaring off against objects in a relation of justified true belief or knowledge. It is a being-in-the-world, inseparable from the world and its involvement with it. This involvement is not one of explicit knowledge, but one of skilled, engaged practical coping with beings-ready-to-hand or available. It is only on the basis of this prior engagement in and with a world as a totality of significances, and the implicit pre-understanding of this everyday involvement in and with the world, that we can theorize and contemplate beings as they show themselves to be present-at-hand or occurrent. Theoretical knowing-that rests on a pre-theoretical, practical knowing-how to navigate a world we are always already in, a relationship where Dasein and world are gleichursprünglich or equally primordial. The kind of mind/world or subject/object dichotomy that is taken as a given by the Western philosophical tradition, especially since Descartes, and only in terms of which any metaphysical, “sideways-on” approach to philosophy makes sense, is a non-starter for Heidegger. It is not consistent with the phenomena of human existence; it is not how being shows up for us in the first place.

It may be hard to notice it given their major stylistic differences, but Wittgenstein makes remarkably similar moves in the Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein starts not by re-describing the ways in which self and world show themselves as phenomena, but by a critical account of Augustine’s view of language-learning in his Confessions. While Wittgenstein’s exegesis of Augustine is open to question, his motivation is clear: to put in question the representationalist, name-and-object theory of language that serves as the background of Russell’s theory of descriptions and Wittgenstein’s own linguistic ontology in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein proceeds by asking whether Augustine’s (or Russell’s, or that of the Tractatus) is a complete and accurate description of language in full. He does not doubt that sometimes learning a language is like that, but gets his readers to question whether all language is like that, whether it captures the pure essence of language. And he leads his readers to realize (rather than explicitly tell them) that language-as-such neither has nor needs a singular essence. It is embedded in diverse language-games (sound linguistic practices like “asking, thinking, praying, etc.) which in turn are part of our myriad forms-of-life).

This has led many commentators, according to Egan, to misunderstand Wittgenstein as a kind of linguistic idealist (e.g., Bernard Williams, Michael Dummett). But Wittgenstein is neither realist nor idealist/antirealist because he views this conundrum as an attempt to speak apart from sound, ordinary linguistic practice — an attempt at a “sideways-on” view, which is not simply impossible but unintelligible.

Egan also demonstrates the gross misunderstanding animating Saul Kripke’s reading of Wittgenstein as a skeptic about rule-following who adopts a skeptical, quasi-Humean solution to the rule-paradox. In Philosophical Investigations §143 ff., Wittgenstein spins a tale of a hypothetical student who, after correctly continuing the arithmetic operation “add 2” to integers up to 1000, then continues the sequence as “1000, 1004, 1008.” When his tutors correct the “wayward student” they run up against the student’s counter-claim “But I thought I did understand the rule properly!”, and they are confronted with a problem: what justifies the tutors in saying that the correct continuation of the rule “add 2” is “1000, 1002, 1003”? How would the student know what was meant by the word “plus”, without recourse to the kind of Platonic essentialism that Wittgenstein explicitly rejects in his “language-games” approach to meaning? The dilemma that follows, for Kripke, is that either no one can know what “plus” (or anything else) means because the rule is indeterminate as regards truth-conditions for its correct application, or the resulting skepticism about meaning is mitigated by replacing truth-conditions with assertion or justification conditions licensed by “the collective behavior of a community.” But this misses the point that Wittgenstein’s exercise is designed to eliminate both Platonic realism and skeptical antirealism and conventionalism. What licenses the tutors’ claim that the wayward student was mistaken is the kind of attunement in judgments and discernment that are built into the practice of doing arithmetic, and also of certain general facts about how human beings “conventionally” (or, as an alternative, “naturally”) respond. Kripke desires a logical or epistemic foundation for practices like doing arithmetic: his own essentialism, deriving from his causal theory of reference, is an attempt at providing this. Not seeing anything like this in Wittgenstein, he assumes that pure, conventional agreement among mathematicians provides the foundation for the practice of “add 2.” But this misses Wittgenstein’s point about the pointlessness of both Platonic realism and skeptical antirealism: given the need for human attunement, or “agreements in judgment or forms-of-life” involved in practice, the practices themselves stand firm without foundations. Practices do not need foundations; they are themselves the foundation. To think otherwise is to think outside language-games and forms-of-life, which is to think inauthentically.

However Wittgenstein does not simply dismiss skeptical worries, as Richard Rorty and others do, as silly. They are not: realizing that our sound linguistic practices are groundless grounds for our meanings, understandings, and knowing is a source of concern and anxiety. Here, the confluence with Heidegger’s musings on anxiety is obvious. In Being and Time ⁋ 40, Heidegger describes anxiety as Dasein’s discernment of its “Being-in-the-World as such”, its realization that there is nothing under its Being-in-the-world that certifies the moves we make in it or licenses our judgments about it. In what is perhaps overly dramatic language, Heidegger describes Dasein, when in the thrall of anxiety, as “The null basis of a nullity.” Authentic Dasein accepts this and moves on resolutely, while inauthentic Dasein retreats into fallenness, into the “one” or “they-self”, better left untranslated as das Man.

Egan sees this, correctly, as a problem for Heidegger. On the one hand, in Division 1 of Being and Time, Dasein is rooted in everydayness (Alltaglichkeit), immersion in the World of beings-ready-to-hand, constrained and constituted by practices which are shared by others. Dasein is not just being for itself, it is fundamentally a being-with others. But in Division 2 a distinction is drawn between the inauthentic and the authentic Dasein, the former submitting to “what one does” in a state of automatic conformity to norms and expectations, the latter recognizing that to do so is to remain in a state of denial about the groundlessness, the “nullity” of Dasein’s being-in-the-world. Heidegger takes pains to disclaim that there is any moral superiority of authenticity to inauthenticity, but it is nearly impossible to take this seriously: there is clearly something better about being authentic. Is Division 2 at odds, then, with Division 1, which seems to champion ordinary, everyday existence over the lofty and misguided attempts of metaphysicians to ground mundane practices in something “sublime”, as Wittgenstein might put it?

Not necessarily. Egan reads Division 2 not as a manifesto against everydayness; rather, it is a critique of average everydayness. Inauthentic Dasein manages the ordinary by assuming it is well-founded in something beyond or prior-to it: providence, salvation history, the world of Platonic Form or Aristotelian essences, the Categories or Geist or whatever. It hides from the nullity and avoids the anxiety that flows from and through it. Authentic Dasein grasps this nullity and moves onward. Heideggerian “resoluteness” is an acknowledgement that the practices that inform our everyday lives are not grounded: they are themselves the only grounds we can possibly have. Thus “average everydayness” is transformed into an exceptional everydayness, an authentic embrace of the ordinary. Authentic Dasein gets its world back, but transfigured in its very ordinariness. Wittgenstein echoed these sentiments when he asserted that “Philosophy leaves everything as it is.” It is an attempt not at holding the World up, Atlas-like, but laying it bare in its everyday appearances. The acknowledgement of the ordinary and everyday is the mark of authentic philosophizing.

However, Egan views Heidegger’s attempt at rehabilitating “the ordinary” as something less than a complete success. In distinguishing the ontic (beings, entities) from the ontological (Being per se), Heidegger paints himself into a kind of methodological corner. Ordinary, average everydayness does exhibit Seinsvergessenheit, a “forgetfulness of Being” and a submerging into the ontic, that Fundament Ontology is supposed to address and potentially cure. Being and Time strives to indicate, to think the ontological difference between beings and Being, without a false transformation of Being, that “event” (es gibt) that brings beings into the light of intelligibility, into just another being. It thus makes assertion possible: letting beings show up for us in their Being. But Being-talk is itself assertoric: it tries to pinpoint Being, and the difference between the ontic and the ontological, by making claims that Fundamental Ontology is not supposed to be able to make. Heidegger, throughout Being and Time, evangelizes for the overriding importance of the ontological over the ontic — the extraordinary over the ordinary. He wishes to hold on to an aspect of the metaphysical tradition that given his phenomenological method he has no right to cling to. There is something exalted about philosophy for Heidegger, even philosophy humbled by phenomena in general and the phenomenon of Dasein in particular. Heidegger’s defenders resort to his pre-Being and Time notion of “formal indication” to rescue this aspect of his project: “formal indications” look like assertions of the un-assertable, but they do not so much say as show what Being is. While this strategy works to a point, it is ultimately unsatisfactory. Formal indications remain “formal” — that is to say, empty in themselves. And here, Egan argues, Wittgenstein has an advantage over Heidegger. His version of authentic philosophy is purely therapeutic: he assembles alternative examples, “reminders for a particular purpose”, to disabuse his reader from overgeneralization and an unduly restrictive diet of examples or paradigm cases. Heidegger tries to phenomenologically “leave everything as it is” but fails because he wishes to say Being. Wittgenstein, in contrast, is only interested in curing his readership of philosophizing beyond the point where it worthwhile. For Wittgenstein, the best — the only — form of authentic philosophy “is the one that enables me to break off philosophizing when I want to” (Philosophical Investigations §133).

For all their similarities, Wittgenstein and Heidegger had very different commitments to the philosophical ideal. Heidegger was a brilliant phenomenologist, told an interesting story later in his career about “the History of Being” which cleaned-up some of the messiness of his “formal indications” phase, and had some acute observations about technological imperialism. But he desired, above all, to be a prophet. He was, like most academic philosophers, a very bad prophet. While I think that one can get a lot of mileage out of Heidegger, one must do so while aware of his radical nationalism, which led to his embrace of Nazism, and its connection to his rhetoric or “jargon of authenticity”, as Adorno put it. His later work can be a sign that he might have put this prophecy aside: the Nazis were not calling the German Volk to resolute authenticity, but just another bunch of technological power-freaks who did not heed the call of Being. This may be true, as far as it goes, but it does not go all that far. The “call of Being” was the least that mattered about the Third Reich. Heidegger was always a bit contemptuous of the “merely ontic”, but the true crime of Nazism, the Holocaust, is ontic to a fault, ontic the way flesh and blood human beings are. Heidegger’s own evasion of the ontic and ontic dimensions of evil does have roots in his thought, even if those tendrils can be cut away from it. But this evasion was part and parcel of his desire to prophesy. This is a vocation philosophers should resolutely avoid.

Wittgenstein’s philosophical commitments were monk-like. He wanted to use his form of philosophical therapy to stop his readers from the inauthentic overgeneralization that would be the occupational hazard of philosophers were it not their occupation. (Quip courtesy J.L. Austin) Philosophy, properly done, returns you to the world. But then what? You exhibit a monk-like purity, and your tendency to use thought to leap above your finitude is refined away. But how do you continue to act in world with others? What next? The monastics of yore managed to remove themselves from “others”, but only because others were willing to support their withdrawal from the saeculum, the average, everyday, ordinary sphere of temporal existence. Wittgenstein may have sought a similar kind of cloistered existence apart from the claustrophobic shallowness of Cambridge academia, but what of the rest of us? Put bluntly: how does this help us secular folk ethically, or politically?

It’s here where I think Rorty’s invocation of the pragmatists, and John Dewey in particular, makes itself felt. Peirce, James, and Dewey were just as anti-foundationalist and anti-representationalist as Heidegger and Wittgenstein: they too caught the same worries. But they, and especially Dewey, sought to reorient philosophy from contemplating timeless problems to tackling timely ones. You cannot get a serious, substantive politics out of Wittgenstein. You can get one out of early Heidegger, but it is a vicious and ugly politics, and the later Heidegger was conscientiously anti­-political, on my reading. With Dewey, you can derive an authentic ethics and politics.

Whatever Dewey’s failures were as a philosopher — and compared to Wittgenstein and Heidegger, his lack of rigor is apparent — he cannot be dismissed as void of practical moral and political insight. The American Pragmatic tradition charts a different course from Heidegger’s neo-prophecy and Wittgenstein’s neo-monasticism. In a world of resurgent nationalism, racism, authoritarianism, environmental collapse, and vast inequalities of wealth and power, it has the advantage of focusing on the timely rather than the timeless, and shows its worth by revealing how alarmingly un-ordinary the present age ordinarily is.

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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