The first few chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s excellent At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails dip into German phenomenology as context for her history of the existentialist philosophers. Phenomenology was an early 20th century German and French school of philosophy that sought to describe our subjective experience of the world – what is it like to be conscious, phenomenologists asked, once our assumptions and everyday habits of thought are stripped away? Phenomenology’s ambiguous superstar, Martin Heidegger, is someone I knew of largely because of his reputation as a Nazi supporter on the one hand, and a densely inaccessible writer on the other.
A key part of Heidegger’s description of human existence is his concept of das Man. This “man” is not the man of English, but variously translated as “one” in the sense of “one eats dinner in the evening”; “you” as in “you live, you learn”; or “they” as in “they say it will rain tomorrow.” None of these translations have quite the same flavour as das Man. “One,” although the most literal equivalent, is stilted and can read as a passive-aggressive command. “You” has the right tone of diffuse neutrality in some contexts, but the general “you” has other uses and The You feels entirely too direct and personal when the entire point of das Man is its impersonal and invisible nature. “They” implies distance and a subtle critique – The They might well be the title of some dystopian novel (cf. Zamyatin’s We) in which sinister conformity plays the villain.
What is das Man actually, if it isn’t quite one, you, or they?
- What everyone else is doing, and what we think we should probably also be doing.
- In Bakewell’s words, “an impersonal entity that robs us of the freedom to think for ourselves.”
- On the other hand, a “neutral repository of shared intelligible practices.”
- The totality of our unconscious, learned knowledge of the social and practical world, projected by our minds outwards such that it appears embodied in the world external to us.
As such, das Man is the shared standards that allow us to navigate the world, the bedrock of our connectedness to the rest of humanity, and indeed also that sinister perceived collective from which we struggle to distinguish ourselves as individuals. What happens when those shared standards change? Think of human rights, animal rights, the environment, and matters of social justice: how quickly has #MeToo changed public attitudes to behaviours once accepted as, if not good per se, at least unalterable and probably harmless? A gap opens up between those who believe one acts in such-and-such a way, and those who believe one acts in some other way. From across this gap, the actions of other people appear unintelligible, incomprehensible – like those of Heidegger himself to a modern reader.