Heidegger On Authenticity, the They, and Everydayness

Heidegger On Being Authentic in an Inauthentic World

Heidegger on “everydayness”, the anonymous “They”, and how we can cultivate authenticity in a world that is constantly trying to make us something else.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  April 2024

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For 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger, one of the major challenges we face as humans is being ourselves in a world that is constantly trying to make us something else.

Like other philosophers labeled ‘existentialist’, Heidegger championed the value of authenticity: of forging our own paths through life and living according to principles and values that we ourselves affirm.

However, being an absolutely nonconformist, authentic person all the time might seem rather unrealistic, and Heidegger would agree.

In his 1927 work Being and Time, Heidegger argues that given how we are ‘thrown’ into a world of shared cultural contexts and meanings, it is absolutely inevitable that we end up conforming to the values of public life and become complacent about how we live our lives.

After all, playing a particular role might make a certain situation easier, and conforming to certain values or conventions might be necessary for living without trouble in certain cultures and societies.

However, despite such convenience, we must be careful we do not lose ourselves to what Heidegger calls the anonymous “They”, where “everyone is the other, and no one is himself.”

“Everydayness” and the “They”

“We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure,” Heidegger writes. “We read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge… we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking”:

The ‘They’… prescribes the kind of being of everydayness.

Wresting ourselves from “everydayness” and the “They” is not easy, but opportunities present themselves during moments of anxiety, uncertainty, grief, despair, alienation, or when we hear a ‘call’ of conscience.

Such moments break a link in the chain of shared cultural meanings and values, and we ‘notice’ this chain as if for the first time.

Though such moments aren’t necessarily enjoyable — it might be losing a job, experiencing the end of a relationship, or even reaching a certain age — they signal opportunities to stop and evaluate our situation, consider the networks of meaning we are part of, and liberate ourselves from any patterns of inauthenticity.

For Heidegger, then, authenticity requires “anticipation” of the breakdowns or emergencies or crises of life, which grant us opportunities to cultivate…

an impassioned freedom towards death — a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the ‘They’.

In moments of clarity — like when we truly face up to our own mortality — we take stock, create space to forge the most authentic path forward, and free ourselves from anonymous conformity.

What does being authentic really mean?

While we translate it as ‘authenticity’, the word Heidegger offers in Being and Time is Eigentlichkeit, a neologism based on the ordinary term eigentlich, the stem of which — eigen — means ‘own’ or ‘proper’. So, a more literal translation of Heidegger’s neologism might be ‘ownedness’ or ‘being owned’.

This perhaps grants more insight into what Heidegger actually means by authenticity.

It is not so much getting in touch with our pre-given feelings or desires, nor some static inner self.

It is more taking responsibility for and owning the person we are ever-becoming: it is making a perpetual effort, as we move forward in time, to cohere with our chosen way of being.

Not absent-mindedly conforming or ‘falling’ through life via the path of least resistance; but identifying, affirming, and exhibiting the values we wish to live by.

For Heidegger, then, being authentic doesn’t necessarily mean showing off our most unrepressed selves: it’s not simply a case of being selfish or uncompromising.

Rather, it means forging our path through life according to values that we perpetually dissect and affirm — cultivating a sense of steadfastness, integrity, and ongoing responsibility, of intentionally owning what we do.

Of course, the great irony that perhaps overshadows Heidegger's work on authenticity is his affiliation with the Nazi party in 1930s Germany — he was drawn into the dominant “They” of the time. While he later described his affiliation as the greatest stupidity of his life, he never apologized, leaving a permanent stain on his philosophical life and career.

What do you make of Heidegger’s analysis?

  • To what extent do we adopt our lifestyles unthinkingly?
  • Do you agree with the idea that authenticity requires “anticipation” of life’s emergencies?
  • Have you experienced a moment of crisis that led to a fundamentally altered approach to life?
  • What does being authentic mean to you? Does it mean getting in touch with some inner self? Or do you agree with Heidegger that it’s more about cultivating an ongoing sense of ownership?

Learn more about existentialist philosophy

If you’re interested in learning more about existentialist philosophy, consider checking out my brief introduction to existentialism as both a movement and philosophy. You might also like my reading list of existentialism’s best books, as well as the following related reads:

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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
Philosophy Break

Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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