Friday, February 12, 2010

Heideggerian authenticity as applied to the U.S.

One of the areas that got Heidegger into trouble later on was that he urged individuals to seek authenticity, not just as individuals – as Germans.  There was, according to Heidegger an authenticity unique to Germans.  If they sought it and found it then they could be the spiritual leaders of Europe.  They would of course need an ubermensch to lead them, but they could then lead the rest of Europe into a new “spiritual” age.  That sounded to many, later on, like the Nazi affection for a Wagnerian sort of barbarianism.   But Heideggerians produced good evidence that this wasn’t what Heidegger meant.  While he didn’t get into specifics he lapsed into a desire for poetry at this point.  Only Holderlin or a poet like him could tell them about this authenticity.

What I found attractive in this is that one need not look for absolutes.  One needn’t insist that there is a given set of values that all people everywhere ought to treasure.  One needn’t seek categorical imperatives that apply to everyone.  We can seek what is best about our particular “tradition,” that is, whatever it is that is “authentic” in our tradition and try to live up to that. 

He did set about trying to make his university live up to this ideal, but that didn’t turn out well.  And of course his attempts at influencing the Nazi Party didn’t turn out well either.  He didn’t oppose specifics.  He just didn’t seem very good at them.

It is only when we try to universalize this authenticity that the idea seems to fall apart.  It works best within a single ethnicity or nation.  What is the French authenticity or the Russian?  There will be differences of opinion, but there will also be some agreement and the French will see that there “authenticity” is different than the Russian’s but they won’t worry about it – at least they ought not worry.  Their concern should be to seek authenticity for France, and they will find it, whatever it is, some place in the French traditions.

Part of what I have been doing is “trying this idea on.”  Granted it seems to fit a U.S. conservative viewpoint better than it does a “liberal” one, if we define Liberal as “Progressive.”  A Progressive, it seems to me, isn’t going to be spending as much time searching his traditions for authenticity as a Conservative is. 

The searching after authenticity may at first seem an awkward fit with the Wilsonian idea that Liberal Democracy should be exported (something we Americans can’t help doing with or without Neoconservatism).   Of course if this (the exportation of Liberal Democracy) is authentic for us, perhaps we can take the view that we are leading the world into a new “Economic paradise” (not quite a “spiritual” one but the Germans couldn’t manage “spiritual” either).  But it isn’t egalitarian in the sense of valuing every nation’s authenticity as much as our own.  We don’t value the Islamist “authenticity” as much as our own.  This isn’t to say they don’t have one.  Perhaps, we would like to think their real authenticity is back before they took a fancy to Sayyid Qutb.  But as it is, we seem to be in direct conflict with it – as much, perhaps, as the Communist authenticity was in conflict with Heidegger’s authenticity. 

This Heideggerian idea of authenticity can keep us from agonizing about a single philosophy or set of ideas that must work equally well for them as it does for us.  We can feel comfortable focusing upon our own authenticity and not worry about theirs – at least not in the sense of trying to reconcile ours to theirs.

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