Collected Writings

Social being, whoness, freedom — A sketch(1)

Michael Eldred

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Version 2.0 March 2005
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    Table of contents

    1. Preliminaries 

    2. Social being

     3. Whoness 

      4. Freedom 

    1. Preliminaries 

    The two previous papers I have presented to the North Texas Heidegger Symposium(2)  have engaged with Heidegger's texts in a movement toward and beyond the horizon of questions he had explicitly in view. The aim was to indicate what lies beyond the horizon as questions and tasks of phenomenology still calling for thought. This time I want to briefly sketch in the time available how, against a Heideggerian backdrop that is now left standing in the background, the question of social being can be approached. This approach requires the unfolding of an alternative metaphysics which specifically allows the social dimension to come to its concept. Experience has shown me that the importance of a phenomenology of whoness has yet to be appreciated. If Heidegger's thinking can be regarded as the call for a "step back",(3)  the approach proposed here could be characterized as a complementary 'side-step', resulting thus in a 'two-step'. 

    2. Social being 

    The name for social being in Heidegger's thinking is Mitsein or Mitdasein. Dasein is the name and concept for human being. (.) Human beings do not just share a world ontically in sharing space on the planet Earth, but they share a world ontologically. What does this mean? It means that to be human is to be exposed to the clearing of being's disclosure, to which human being is open in a twofold way. Human being is characterized as openness to the clearing by way i) of gathering the being of beings into the outline of an understanding in which they come to stand and ii) of being attuned to the nothingness of being as a whole in moodedness. Human beings take in a world that opens up in both moodedness and understanding. 

    To understand beings means that being itself shapes up for human being as a world. Beings come to stand and present themselves in the outlines of understanding as beings. Metaphysics was born as the investigation of this apophantic As through which beings as such show up, disclose themselves and stand in human history as what they are. Western metaphysics has been the investigation of the whatness of beings. The basic outlines of beings as such shape an historical world that is understood in a shared way by those human beings living in that historical epoch. Historical understandings of being are not a dime a dozen, but are rare, being co-cast out into the future by singular thinkers who, in their receptivity to the never-ending questioning of being, think out ahead of their time. We who share a world necessarily share a basic understanding of that world in its being. This understanding of beings in their being is ineluctable and also taken for granted, and any recasting of the being of beings is a momentous historical event in which thinkers have an indispensable task as translators and co-casters. (.) 

    But human being is also exposure and receptivity to the resonances with being in moodedness. Human being is attuned. As human beings we share the resonant mood of a situation and the mood of a time. There is no escaping it. Our moods are either uplifting or downcasting or neutral, indifferent, flat. No matter how they are, we are cast into them one way or the other. (.) 

    On the basis of the fundamental openness to being that comes to stand in understanding and to resonate in attunements, human being is also active. We act, we are involved in practices, mostly the practices of everyday life. These acts are in large part interactions. (.) Even when we simply act in using the useful things around us, our personal property, we indirectly interact with others who remain anonymous. These anonymous others are the ones who made, or made available, the things we use. Many of the practices in which we are involved are usages. They are embedded in a tradition with a certain meaning and continuity. They have become habitual and are thus ethical in the original sense of the word. We understand each other in our interactions with each other partially through reference to the ethical usages we habitually practise. Even the way we greet or do not greet each other is an ethical, traditional usage embedded in a shared, customary understanding of an historical world and borne by the mood of a shared ritual. For instance, when someone we know fails to greet us, this privation of a shared ritual is understood and associated with a definite mood. The absence of the greeting is present in a felt dissonance, in a more or less downcasting mood. 

    3. Whoness 

    This last example leads us to the phenomenon of whoness. Already in thinking human being as Dasein, that is, as ek-sistent twofold exposure of human being to the clearing of being, it is plain that human beings are not simply somethings. The traditional categories of metaphysics, the predicaments in which things find themselves, have been thought to think through the phenomenon of whatness. Whatness means essence, quidditas. Metaphysics has been concerned with thinking the essence of beings as somewhats. This continues to apply even today when science, both natural and social, regards itself as having overcome and as being beyond metaphysics. More than ever today, even human being itself is thought as a complex kind of thingliness

    But we have already noted that human beings share a world. They share its disclosive truth in basic ontological ways of understanding and in the fundamental moods of an epoch. And they practically interact with one another in daily life within this shared understanding and moodedness. These observations do not go far enough, however, for human beings are also selves, and selfhood characterizes human being. Human beings are aware of themselves in all they undertake in the world, and all they undertake is reflected back into the self. Their world-understanding is at the same time self-understanding of their place in the world. Whatever they undertake in the world, this is a casting of the self toward possibilities that each self sees for itself in the world. As human beings we have a future into which we cast ourselves. These possibilities of self-casting do not rise up from some kind of interiority, but are possibilities either grasped or missed as they offer themselves in our standing out into the world. To be human means to be confronted with the challenge of being a self, and being a self calls for self-reflectively casting and moulding one's self out of the possibilities held open by a world. 

    These possibilities, in the first place, are not factual, but possibilities of self-understanding which are mirrored to me not merely from an impersonal world, but above all from other human beings, who mirror who I am either affirmatively or disparagingly, either showing up possibilities for my self-casting through approval or hindering other possibilities through disapproval, in both insignificant and momentous ways. My self-shaping of who I am as a self takes place above all through a mirroring from others. My self is not an essential what and has no immanent substance with a standing presence within, but is itself relative, namely, relative to others. This makes it clear that we are also not subjects and that casting human being as subjectivity in the modern age has been an historical misrecognition of the phenomenon of being human. My self emerges and is cast in a mirroring interplay with others who mirror to me my possibilities of existing, just as I mirror to them their possibilities of existing. All practical interaction in the everyday world has subliminally this double agenda. (.) The minimal kind of recognition we practise in everyday life, the greeting, is instructive because it shows that some kind of recognition of the presence of each other as somewho or other is necessary for all social interaction. Even a lack of greeting is telling in revealing the who-status of who we are in interplay with each other. 

    Whoness itself has to be regarded as a fundamental phenomenon sui generis whose existential concept conceives human being itself in contradistinction to the categories of whatness that apply to things. Analogously to how thingly beings show themselves as what they are, human beings show themselves off as who they are, and this showing-off in ongoing interplay is necessary to human selfhood, for the self must reflect itself in the world and even constitute itself in this reflection. All self-comportment as showing-off is a looking at one's self in the mirror of the world of others. Whoness as a fold of being into which human being is cast is fundamentally social, that is, it is only in the social interplay between and among human beings. (.) Even in refusing to recognize each other, even in ignoring or snubbing each other or passing each other by in cold indifference, we are recognizing each other in a deficient way. Hostility, enmity and murderous hatred, too, are negative modes of recognition in which the other is seen and understood as somewho. Whoness is the all-encompassing ontological dimension in which all these kinds of recognition are located. It is the fold of being within which a self is constituted through reflection in ongoing mirroring interplay with the world of others. 

    Said positively, our very stand and status as somewho in the world is only possible through affirmative recognition by others of who we are. (.) We attain our selves in genuine selfhood only in grasping our identity out of the many reflections, and erecting and shaping it in an independent stand as the manifold of masks of self-comportment that belong to us and in which we recognize our selves. The movement of self-becoming is one from an interplay of entanglement to a disentanglement that enables relations between self-standing selves. As social beings we are caught in the interplay between dependence, in which we hang on others, and independence, in which we stand firmly in our ownmost selves, belonging to the possibilities that we have grasped as our very own and to which we belong in learning to be our selves. Personal identity is nothing other than the complex of existential possibilities to which we belong and which are thus our ownmost possibilities. These existential possibilities are above all our abilities, that is to say, our powers to perform acts valued and estimated by others and also by ourselves. We come to a self-stand in having our abilities reflected and acknowledged by others, including even the refusal of the world to recognize our abilities. A lack of resonance with the world is still one way, a deficient way, in which the others reflect who we are. (.) 

    It is no accident that at the beginnings of philosophy, with Plato and Aristotle, we find that the daily goods of life regarded as self-evident for Greek experience of the world comprise both material goods and equally well the good of timh/. Timh/ has a whole range of meanings: esteem, honour, public office, recognition, dignity, magistracy, reward, estimation, value. The basic trait of timh/ is valuation, of being esteemed or recognized as having a value. Both material goods and persons can have timh/ which is thus a concept hinging whatness with whoness. This means nothing other than that they are both valued as goods of living( ). To live well means to enjoy the goods of living, and these goods consist just as much in valuing others and being valued by others as it does in acquiring the things that are valuable because their use enhances living. 

    One could even say that the valuing of material goods is ultimately equivalent to estimating the labours and abilities of those who have provided the services of making the goods and of making them available. All the things with which and the people with whom we engage in the world are values. There is no value-neutral attitude toward the world. Both things and people are valuable in being-good-for. A thing is good for some application or other, some use or other. An individual is good for some service or other, some job or other, some achievement or other. Such being-good-for includes also the deficient modes of being-no-good-for or being good for nothing or even being mediocre at everything. In our relations with the world we are therefore inextricably involved in continually estimating both things and people, including ourselves. The interplay with the world is a value-play, a game of estimation and esteem. To be somewho means to come to stand in the estimation of others in having achieved something in casting and shaping one's own existence. This is structurally isomorphic with the practice of exchange in which goods are mutually valued. (.) 

    The practice of exchange has a different ontological structure from that of production. It is not a foreknowing acting upon a passive material to bring about a foreseen change, but rather an interaction between people that brings about an interchange. The peculiarity in the ontological structure of exchange is that there must be at least two starting-points, whereas in the case of production, there is a single starting-point, namely, the know-how embodied in a knowing, skilful, perhaps collective(4) producer for bringing about a foreseen change in the passive material worked upon. This is the productionist conception of power. In one case, the end result is a produced, useful product; in the other, the result is the interchanged goods and money, assuming that exchange is mediated by money, that is, by buying and selling. Goods are valued, and so money is paid for them in acknowledging their value, and this payment enables an interchange of ownership. (.) 

    4. Freedom

    In considering economic exchange as a specific, mundane kind of social interchange, we strike upon the phenomenon of social freedom. How so? Because those involved in an exchange transaction are free to enter into such a transaction and freely come to an agreement to interchange goods. (.) Otherwise the transaction would be robbery, theft, fraud, extortion, coercion or suchlike. 

    The movement of social living is always some kind of interchange. Interchange is the metabolism of social life. As a social movement, interchange always requires a reciprocal intermeshing of the actions of free persons who are the starting-points for their own actions. (.) Such a starting-point cannot be traced back further to another starting-point that has pre-determined it. Otherwise the action would not be free, but only a re-action. A practical action can have a motive that motivates it, but this motive must be considered, weighed and evaluated by the individual actor. A decision has to be made which de-cides whether or not to act on a given motive. A decision cuts off one possibility from another. To be a free starting-point for one's own actions means to deliberate and de-cide in cutting off one possibility from another. 

    In the case of actions with things, a free human action consists simply in deciding to do something or other and being at liberty to carry out the decision. This presupposes that what is acted upon, the matter at hand, is passively subject to my will. (.) The relation between superior and subordinate, by contrast, no matter how it comes about, is a specific kind of social relation, in which the subordinate's will is subordinate to the superior's will, which remains the free starting-point. (.) Within such hierarchical relations, the one free starting-point is suppressed and subordinated and becomes merely the object of the superior's will that has the power to issue directives. Such a relation between people is a social power relation, as distinct from a productive power relation. The will of one human is subordinated to the other's will, who thus has power of command. The execution of commands by a subordinate is a change brought about in the subordinate's actions and is thus a manifestation of power emanating from the superior. The great question and dilemma of social being is how individual human freedom can be reconciled at all with social power relations.(5)

    The social relation of exchange is not a social power relation insofar as it involves ontologically two free starting-points for the transaction. An exchange takes place by reciprocal agreement. Two free starting-points intermesh in reciprocity. (.) Such intermeshing reciprocity is the hallmark of a free social relation in which the two human poles maintain their status as starting-points for a decision, namely, the mutual decision to exchange or not. The free interplay of exchange is thus a four-pole social relation comprising the two free human starting-points for the transaction and the two goods exchanged. (.) 

    The four-pole ontological structure of the simple exchange relation makes plain the ontological structure of free social interchanges in general, for any social relation that is not a social power relation is an interplay between humans considered as the free starting-points of their actions and is therefore incalculable. () As we have seen, a free social interchange always involves some kind of mutual esteem, including deficient or neutral modes of esteem. This may be as banal as esteeming and estimating what the other has and therefore being prepared to offer something for it in exchange. Or it may consist in esteeming who the other is and therefore being prepared to acknowledge the other's value in some way by, say, honouring the other, or electing the other to public office, or simply in hiring the other's services and abilities. 

    It is not possible to understand the ontology of social relations at all if the phenomenon of whoness is not kept clearly in view as the way in which human beings come to stand and show themselves off in a world of interchange with one another. Social relations then reveal themselves to be ontologically an interplay of esteem and estimation. Free social relations presuppose an interplay between free starting points. Hierarchical social relations, by contrast, are asymmetrical relations of recognition. The superior is esteemed to hold a position of superior social power. Such recognition of a superior power may be voluntary and free, in which case the social power relation itself is recognized as legitimate. Or the recognition of the superior power may be involuntary and coerced, in which case it is motivated by wanting to avoid possible injury in some way or other and is therefore unfree(.). 

    In any given society there is a multiplicity of people and thus a multiplicity of free starting-points for individual action. Countless social interchanges therefore take place which make up the interwoven texture of daily life. (.) For most mundane social interchanges, only the formal acknowledgement of each other as persons is necessary. Personhood is the abstract, universal form of whoness that enables dignified intercourse in civil society. (.) But there is also a competition between relations of interchange. Estimation can be higher in one relation than in another. Goods are offered on the market to the highest bidder. (.) There is competition also among those supplying goods to the market. Since all goods can be regarded as () the result of the exercise of individual abilities, ultimately it is individual abilities that are estimated in competitive everyday interchanges. 

    In general, individuals may be estimated differently as who they are in different circles. All kinds of everyday social interchanges are multifaceted interplays of recognition in which the social actors are estimated more or less highly. (.) The everyday form of esteem is the reputation that one enjoys. Reputation reflects for the most part the social recognition of one's abilities. (.) 

    Earning a livelihood means offering one's services, whatever they may be, on the market and having them estimated in the price that a purchaser is willing to pay for them(.). In this way, one's abilities, powers, achievements are acknowledged in money, the universal, reified representative of value, in competition with others offering the same kind of abilities. The freedom of a market economy in which the individual freedom to enter into exchange relations is given rein goes hand in hand with competition, sometimes bruising, among all those offering their abilities for hire. 

    (.) Civil society regarded as the free interplay of exchange relations among free individuals amounts to the competitive struggle for the estimation of individual human abilities that are rewarded mostly by remuneration. These are the bare bones of freedom in a form of society based on money as the reified social nexus par excellence, whose degrees of freedom allow for many different configurations for how people can shape their own lives. Civil society guarantees the freedom of self-interested particularity which leaves room in its crevices also for the unsettling freedom of singularity. (.) (.) 

    To be human in such a society means to be cast into the competitive social interplay of estimation that decides as who we are to be esteemed in the ranking of who-status. For a free social being, the ups and downs of life correlate roughly with the vicissitudes of how we fare in the competition of daily living, not only in acquiring what is good for living but also and especially in achieving recognition of our abilities. Our abilities are always particular, and they may be even singular, which makes individual freedom into a hazardous venture. (.) 

    Apart from social power relations — which may be hierarchical bonds of tradition, or the proscriptions of state — that have yet to be ontologically superimposed, as human beings we are individually free to strive for the goods of living in social interchanges. (.) All human freedom is ultimately individual (jemeinig), and individual freedom consists first and foremost in the freedom of social interplay. Such freedom of individuals by no means excludes commitment, but is the very basis for the commitment of free, independent selves to each other. Despite today's well-established ideology of social justice, without individual freedom, which is often difficult and uncomfortable, there is no human freedom at all. This philosophical insight is at the foundation of modernity. Any social freedom, such as a so-called freedom from want, is a sham insofar as it is 'bought' by suppressing individual freedom and undermining individual self-reliance in the name of a so-called common good or universal right. The free interplay of recognition of individual abilities as the core of freedom in civil society must not be confused with security and stability, for these are social goods that are in a perennial tension with individual freedom. (.) (.) 

    No doubt, the interchanges among human beings in social living can be not just rough and tough, but distorted, maiming and ugly. All sorts of opportunities exist to take advantage of the other in interchanges and there are countless occasions for strife to arise over everyday interchanges. One need only consider, for instance, as Hobbes puts it, that "nothing is more easily broken than a mans word".[6]  This implies that the competitive interplay of social living must have rules of play that require also an umpire. These rules of play must amount to fair play, fairness being that felicitous concept grown in an Anglo-Saxon world-context in which trade was all-important. Such fairness, which could be regarded as the beauty of human interchange, must be at the core of any conception of justice in a free society. 

    There remains a lot to be said to fill in this sketch. But then it would no longer be a sketch. 

      1. Paper as presented to the 24th North Texas Heidegger Symposium Erde—Welt—Umwelt 8-9 April 2005 at The University of Dallas, Irving, Texas. The thoughts here are distilled from my Social Ontology. Back 

      3. 'Casting within Enpropriation and the Leap from Standing Presence' presented to the 21st Heidegger Symposium Interpreting the Beiträge 18-20 April, 2001 University of North Texas Denton, TX, USA. and 'Heidegger's Apolitical Conception of the Political' presented to the 22nd. Heidegger Symposium History, Historicity and Mystery in Heidegger 30 October-02 November, 2002 University of North Texas, postponed from 18-20 April, 2002. Back 

      5. "If however we at first leave unclarified how the more original [dimension] is to be understood, and that means, how it is not to be understood, it nevertheless remains the case that thinking — both in the lecture itself and in the entirety of Heidegger's path — has the character of a.regression. That is the step back." (Wenn wir aber auch zunächst unausgemacht lassen, wie das Ursprünglichere zu verstehen, und das heißt, nicht zu verstehen ist, bleibt es dennoch bestehen, daß das Denken — und zwar sowohl in dem Vortrag selbst als auch im Ganzen des Weges von Heidegger — den Charakter eines Rückgangs hat. Das ist der Schritt zurück. 'Protokoll zu einem Seminar über den Vortrag >Zeit und Sein<' in Zur Sache des Denkens Niemeyer, Tübingen, 1969 S. 30. Back

      7. The phenomena of collective action, of voluntary concerted action, of organized action and organization require their own analyses. Back 

      9. "Being-together in a genuine relationship of existence is only possible if each co-existing human being can be and is properly him or herself. This freedom of being together with one another, however, presupposes first of all the possibility of self-determination of a being of the character of Dasein, and it is a problem how Dasein as essentially free can exist in the freedom of factically bound being-together-with-one-another." (Das Mitsein als eigentliches Existenzverhältnis ist nur so möglich, daß jeder Mitexistierende je eigentlich er selbst sein kann und ist. Diese Freiheit des Miteinander aber setzt die Möglichkeit der Selbstbestimmung eines Seienden vom Charakter des Daseins überhaupt voraus, und es ist ein Problem, wie das Dasein als wesenhaft freies in der Freiheit des faktisch gebundenen Miteinanderseins existieren kann, Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Logik im Ausgang von Leibniz Summer Semester 1928 GA26:175, my emphasis) Back 

      11. Thomas Hobbes Leviathan eds. Richard E. Flathman and David Johnston, Norton, New York/London, Ch. XXXII p. 65. Page reference to the Head edition of 1651. Back 


      Copyright (c) 2005 by Michael Eldred, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

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