Being One’s Own: Heidegger and the Enlightenment

The notion of authenticity, of being one’s own, is central to Heidegger’s early work. Division II of Being and Time, for instance, is devoted primarily to spelling out what it would be for Dasein to be authentic. Whatever the details of this notion in Heidegger, it seems to have roots in, or at least to bear some similarity with, Judeo-Christian notions of the self. The verbal similarities, at any rate, are clear. It is not an accident, for example, that to be inauthentic, in Being and Time, is to be “fallen.” This tracks the use of “fallenness” in Judaism and Christianity, where to live a “fallen” existence is to live a life of sin. In other words, it is to live a life in which one is not manifesting oneself as one truly is – the creature created to live a godly life. Nor is it an accident that care (Sorge) turns out to be “the meaning of the being of Dasein” in Being and Time, just as curare (to be concerned or to care), is, in Heidegger’s description, “a basic character of life” for Augustine. Heidegger’s treatment of the phenomenological basis for these themes, especially as they are developed in Augustine, begins as early as 1920-21. It is in his lecture course on the Phenomenology of Religious Life from that year, for instance, where you can find his discussion of the uti/frui distinction in Augustine, and the definition of curare. (See pp. 203-206.) The importance of Augustine more generally for Heidegger is explored in interesting detail by Ryan Coyne in his terrific book Heidegger’s Confessions: The Remains of Saint Augustine in “Being and Time” and Beyond. Whatever Heidegger’s notion of authenticity, therefore, it involves an account of the self according to which the most authentic form of existence involves “being one’s own” in something like the Augustinian sense of being true to the basic ontological features of what one is. Heidegger disagrees with Augustine, of course, about what those basic ontological features are. But the notion of being true to them, of being authentic or “being one’s own,” is similar. 

Whatever this account of the self amounts to in detail, it is clearly very different from what one finds in the early modern philosophers of the Enlightenment period. I’m thinking, in particular, of figures like Locke and Kant. I’m trying to find a pithy way to describe this difference, and I’d like to try a version of it here. I won’t say too much more about Heidegger’s account until the end, since I’m mostly interested in what I’m contrasting it with. But I hope you will help me understand whether I am describing accurately the basic impulse of the Enlightenment account of the self. So here goes.

To put the claim in the most provocative way, I would like to say that the Enlightenment understands the self in the context of the market economy. The self, for the thinkers of the Enlightenment, is a form of property over which one has special ownership rights. The difference with Heidegger’s “counter-Enlightenment” account, then, is easy to state. For Heidegger, the self is what aims to “be its own.” For the Enlightenment the self is, instead, “what one owns.”

To see this, let us begin with Kant. The book I am writing is called The Proper Dignity of Human Being. That phrase comes from Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism.” He says in that letter that the history of philosophy from Plato forward is a series of different forms of humanism, which is to say a series of different metaphysical claims about the essence of being human. No humanistic account like this, Heidegger says, could ever capture the “proper dignity of human being.” But that phrase itself must, it seems to me, be a reference to Kant. That’s because Kant introduces the notion of “dignity” that Heidegger seems to be playing on.

Recall the origin of the term. Kant claims in the Groundwork that human beings have a dignity rather than a price. The terminology of the market economy, therefore, is already a part of Kant’s understanding of the human self as what is specially deserving of dignity. (The German word Kant uses here is Würde, the same word that we translate as “dignity” in Heidegger’s letter.) Now, the dignity of the human being, for Kant, stems from our being in essence an “end in itself.” As Kant writes:

That which is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price. That which, without presupposing any need, accords with a certain taste (i.e., with pleasure in the purposeless play of our faculties) has a fancy price. But that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not have mere relative worth (price) but an intrinsic worth (dignity). [G 4.434-435]

From this we see that, for Kant, human beings have an intrinsic, rather than a relative, worth. But this is merely a negative definition. To be a human being, it says, is to have no price, since the price of something is a relative rather than an intrinsic feature of it: the price of something is determined by what other things one could exchange it for. Human beings, by contrast, have intrinsic worth, according to Kant. What this definition doesn’t say, however, is what it is in virtue of which our kind of being has the intrinsic worth it does. Yes, we are the being that is an end in itself. But this is just the same negative definition. It says that we have no instrumental value, we are not good because we are good for this or that purpose; we are good without some other end than ourselves. And that is just another way of saying that we have dignity but no exchange value. In short Kant presupposes, in this definition at least, that the fundamental kind of entity is the one that has a price, that is worth what it is because we may exchange it for something else equal in value. Then, he says that human beings are not like that.

We see from this that in some sense or another the basic kind of thing for Kant – the thing with respect to which human beings, with their intrinsic dignity, are a deviation – is the one that has a market value. At least that’s true in the passage I’ve quoted. This orientation, it seems to me, is characteristic of the Enlightenment. It begins, perhaps, with Locke’s emphasis on the value of and the moral justification for private property. Locke’s discussion of property begins from the idea that our own persons and bodies are owned by us in a special, private way. The Lockean account of the self, in other words, assumes that persons are a kind of property over which we have special ownership rights. This residue of the Lockean account of the self is found in Kant’s negative account of human dignity.

To see this in Locke, recall that he develops his views about private property most famously in chapter 5 of the Second Treatise on Government. There, in 5.27 for instance, he writes:

Though men as a whole own the earth and all inferior creatures, every individual man has a property in his own person [= ‘owns himself’]; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his.

From this account of the self as a kind of property that one owns privately, Locke concludes immediately that the things one produces by one’s labor and with one’s body are also, and thereby, things to which one has certain property rights.

So [since he owns his body and the labor it performs], when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property.

Locke’s claim here is famously controversial. Even if I have rights of personal property ownership over my own body and labor, why should mixing my labor with something give me personal property rights to it? Is it a general truth about ownership that it transfers in this way? If I mix some tomato juice that I own into the sea, do I come thereby to own the sea? Robert Nozick presses questions such as these famously in Anarchy, State, Utopia (Blackwell: Oxford, 1974). See, especially, his discussion at pp. 174ff. But whatever we think of this issue regarding property acquisition, the basic point here is that it is based on a notion of self-ownership according to which we treat the self, the body, and its work all as of a piece with the kind of property over which one can have ownership rights. This, I take it, is something like the origin of the market economical account of the self that one finds in the Enlightenment philosophers.

I highlight this point here primarily to show the contrast between Locke’s account of self-ownership and the one we find in Heidegger. As we saw already at the start, Heidegger agrees that in some sense we “own” ourselves. After all, Dasein “is in each case mine” [BT 67/42]. But this notion of self-ownership does not proceed for Heidegger, as it does for Locke, from the claim that the self is a kind of property. Rather, for Heidegger, Dasein is its possibilities, and our possibilities are not to be understood as any kind of property we can own. “In each case Dasein is its possibility,” Heidegger writes, “and it ‘has’ this possibility, but not just as a property [eigenschaftlich], as something present-at-hand would” [BT 68/42]. (Admittedly, the English word “property” is being used in a somewhat different way here than in Locke. But the two uses are not unrelated.) For Heidegger, self-ownership is a matter of authenticity rather than a form of property rights. To be authentic [eigentlichkeit], on Heidegger’s account, is to be the same as or at one with who one is. (The word eigenlichkeit has the root word eigen in it, which means “one” or “same.”) As Heidegger says, Dasein is “essentially something which can be authentic – that is, something of its own” [BT 68/43]. This notion of being one’s own, of being authentic, pushes us in the direction of a dramatically different account of the self than does Locke’s idea that the self is a kind of property over which one has a special right. In short, to be “of its own” is different from being “what one owns.”

There is much more to be said, of course. In particular, one should say something about the positive account of human dignity that Kant gives. The locus classicus for this, as far as I know, is in the “Autonomy Formulation” of the categorical imperative. There, our dignity seems to arise from our freedom to use pure practical reason autonomously to give ourselves, and hold ourselves to, the moral law. We are, in other words, according to this formulation, universal law givers – we freely choose the law in accordance with which we act, and we give that law to ourselves as a universal constraint on all rational action. This seems to me also to align with the market economical account of the self, since the account of choice and decision that it presupposes is properly understood on the model of choices about buying and selling items of value. But to justify this claim would require a much longer discussion.

So let me stop here instead. In sum, the main point is to contrast Heidegger’s “counter-Enlightenment” notion of the self with the Enlightenment account of the self found in Locke and Kant. And the basic contrast there is between authenticity and market economy. It is the difference between a self being “of one’s own” and a self being “what one owns.” The question I have for you, then, is this:

How much (and in what ways!) have I stretched the interpretation of figures like Locke and Kant to emphasize that their account of the self finds its ground in the market economical analysis?

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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5 Responses to Being One’s Own: Heidegger and the Enlightenment

  1. Charlie says:

    You expressly note that it would take a much longer discussion, but I don’t fully appreciate the market analogy. As universal law givers, the “choice” is real, but not necessarily properly understood as relative value? Perhaps it’s only strained in the context of more colloquial arguments about dignity. For instance, in the current integralist/conservative kerfuffle, where the Enlightenment’s mendacity is the very aspiration to authenticity or individual realization. Still, on a more technical level, it strikes me that any imperative, however volitional and flowing from rational action, is not quite relative? Perhaps authenticity simply can’t be a choice…in the way a decision is a gift. I’m looking forward to you drawing out the case – and hearing other, more detailed answers to your question!

    • dmf says:

      sorry should have noted that if memory serves (less and less) intelligibility was an essential part of object-relations for Kant, apologies if that’s wrong.

  2. Steven Toh says:

    Interesting blog, it reminds me of Martin Heidegger, he said : Unconcealment can occur authentically, without a set of predispositions. Entities are initially manifest but nevertheless concealed in what they most authentically are .
    I tried to write a blog about it, hope you also like https://stenote.blogspot.com/2021/10/an-interview-with-martin.html

  3. dmf says:

    there is Nothing that we can do

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