The essence of time: identity and authenticity in Heidegger
"The clock marches on forever: it is our own time, however, which is running out." An introduction to the philosopher's ruminations on authentic being and time.
Consider a football game that has no time limits. Would such a game be worth playing? Certainly not. Scoring a goal would not add to any slightest excitement because any goal would then just be like any other. Only the game’s restriction in time makes stadiums roar to any happening on the pitch – from a mere tackle to a yellow card, eventually to a goal. Time is therefore the essential ingredient for a football game to become eventful and exciting. Even more so, the football game itself is its own time, yet at the same time it is more than that. Each part defines the other mutually and makes one whole – a meaningful football game. Without the time allocated to it, there would be no game at all because a game in itself requires having a beginning and an end.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger applies this thinking to the game of life itself. In his major work Being and Time human essence, the identity and meaning of life are ultimately derived from the passage of one’s own time. A hard to imagine idea of his is that human beings don’t live in time, they are time itself. For example, there is no external time outside the football game itself because the only time that matters for it is its allocated 90 minutes. The same goes for human beings – there is no external (clock) time in which we live because we constitute our own time in the end. The clock is just a coordination mechanism, but it is not time. If it were, we wouldn’t be concerned with it because the clock marches on forever: it is our own time however which is running out.
Without its restriction in time, there wouldn’t be such a thing as ‘life’ at all because the meaning of the word life in itself already entails being ‘not death’, just like light can only be light if it is surrounded by darkness. Time is the light that illuminates the stadium during the game at night – nobody notices the light itself but there is no game without it. When we watch the game we are fully immersed in what is happening on the pitch, yet it is the passage of time lurking in the background that gives the whole show a meaning and a purpose.
Heraclitus says: “Immortals are mortal, mortals are immortal: some are living their death, the others dying their life.” Even if there was such as a thing as life without death, it would have no meaning at all. Everything one does in life, from picking the type of bread in the store to choosing careers and partners – one makes a definite choice. And definite is the key word here because time makes it irreversible.
The fact that life is eventually restricted in time means every choice becomes limited and therefore meaningful. The exciting thing about time is that it adds meaning even to those choices that one decides not to make in life, therefore putting pressure to make the best ones. Time is the price tag attached to all our actions and choices by adding an opportunity cost to everything. Only something which is scarce has value – the scarcity of human time.
Only something which is scarce has value – the scarcity of human time.
Time and authenticity
Time makes all the things in our life meaningful but also authentic. The word authentic comes from Ancient Greek afthéntis, which has a morbid meaning of committing suicide or murdering with one’s own hands. The Greeks understood that in order for something to be authentic, one needs to take a stand and make a final, irreversible choice by choosing one thing while killing all the other possibilities. For something to be authentic and meaningful it has to be final, restricted, non-negotiable. For example a sweater knitted by hand by my grandmother is more meaningful than if she had bought it at the store. A concert experienced live is more meaningful than the same one watched on a TV screen.
Time is the ultimate value that makes these things authentic and meaningful – my grandmother invested her own time to knit the sweater instead of just buying it. The band chose to be in my city at that particular time instead of being somewhere else. It is time that makes everything non-negotiable – in my limited life I can only do this instead of that; I can only be here instead of there. If life were endless, I would be able to eventually do everything and be everywhere at some point. Authenticity and time are interlinked. The fact that one’s own life is finite, the most valuable investment one can make for others and oneself is their own time and this is what creates meaning and value.
But authenticity and meaning are lost as soon as time is attached to an exchange value such as the clock, money, technology or anything else. They transform the definite choices we make in time into something negotiable, non-definite and therefore less meaningful and less authentic. They are the instruments that obscure the finitude of time and create an illusion of infinity.
One generally tends to confuse time with the clock, but in fact the clock takes away the authenticity of real time. For example, we are usually slightly offended when we notice someone looking at their watch in our presence. The gesture indicates that the authentic time dedicated to spending it together here and now is potentially being exchanged for someone, something or somewhere else. The clock takes the individual away from being in a specific there and places them on what Heidegger calls ‘world-time’ which belongs to everyone and no one in particular.
Since its invention by Benedictine monks in the 10th-13th centuries, the clock is the first piece of technology that transformed authentic time into an anonymous, inauthentic measurement. But without it any coordination between people would not be possible. The clock is like the language of time we use to communicate amongst our own times. Just like a language has its segmented sentences, words and letters, the clock segments time into hours, minutes and seconds. This language of time through the clock is also the basis of the world economy. The segmentation of time allowed it to be easily bought and sold on the labour and consumer markets which eventually led time to take the form of another anonymous exchange value – money. “Time is money” Benjamin Franklin once famously said. But with money the authenticity of time is also lost. Just like clock time, money belongs to everyone and no one in particular, therefore investing money is not as authentic as investing one’s own time. In fact nothing is, because the value of time precedes anything else.
The Internet and digital technology also follow the spirit of the clock’s inauthentic ‘world time.’ In fact, technology is pervaded with anonymity. Just like the clock on our wrists, the smartphone in our pockets never leaves us to be really there where we really are. We are always with one foot in the non-negotiable, authentic there, yet with the other we are in the anonymous world cyberspace which belongs to everyone and no one. Digital communication is non-personal, anonymous and therefore non-authentic. If we compare today’s social media to a handwritten letter a hundred years ago dedicated to someone specifically, the speed and facility of digital communication is done at the expense of time and authenticity because one posts a status or a picture destined to everybody and nobody. Neither do text messages require a big investment in time.
Digital communication is non-personal, anonymous and therefore non-authentic.
“Every man is born as many men, and dies as a single one” – Martin Heidegger
While holding a human skull in his hand, Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously asks “to be, or not to be, that is the question.” What does he mean by To Be? And why is that even a question? In Being and Time, Heidegger’s whole philosophy was dedicated to answering that single question. While looking at the skull, Hamlet asks what it is to be authentic in the face of death i.e. of time. The fact that it is a question means that authentic Being is not a given. One is not born authentic, one becomes so by a resolute choice. As discussed above, authenticity requires a definite choice by killing all the other options irreversibly in the face of time. The same thinking applies to one’s own authentic identity.
Without realizing it, we are a stream of many identities at once. Behind my name there is a son/daughter, a husband/wife, a cousin, a friend, a neighbour, a doctor, an activist, a member of a community, a citizen of a country etc. Which one(s) of them is/are the real me? It can’t be all of them because each of them is an exchange value in itself and none of them is permanent. Here, personal identity has some similarities with the clock. With clock time we ask “what time is it now?” by which we mean - what form/number figure does time take right now. With human identity one could similarly ask “who time is it now?” In the presence of my friend I am a friend, while at work I am a doctor. Heidegger therefore avoids describing the human being as something definite and calls it simply Dasein, which literally means ‘being there’. Since Dasein is time itself, authentic Being is always a question for it.
If I don’t choose one (or several) of them irreversibly, I will remain an inauthentic exchange value until my time is up. It will mean I don’t have a definite identity and nothing is truly meaningful for that me because I didn’t identify for myself who that is in the first place, whichever there I find myself in now. That is a familiar experience during the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’ phenomenon for example.
In Todd Philips’s recent movie Joker, the question of authentic identity is portrayed in a sinister but brilliant way. Arthur Fleck wants to become a comedian but his life takes tragic turns whereby he loses all of his professional and personal identities one by one. After having been forced to commit murder (afthéntis in literal, sinister terms), Arthur is on an irreversible life path towards discovering his new, definite identity that replaces all of the others, including his own name. He becomes the Joker. Instead of becoming a comedian, he has become a murderous comedian. At the end of the movie the faceless crowd with clown masks hails the Joker – their leader with a strong individual identity which they themselves lack. It is a story showing that all our identities are exchange values until we are forced to take a stand on a definite, authentic one. If we don’t choose it ourselves, time will choose it for us and that might not be a good outcome, neither for the individual nor for society as a whole.
“Every man is born as many men, and dies as a single one” – Martin Heidegger
The age of inauthenticity
The Joker became a huge success partly because it struck a chord given the malaise of our age of mass inauthenticity and identity crises. In the consumer and technological age of the twenty-first century we are surrounded by exchange values everywhere. Ever more areas of our lives are being technologized and marketed, thereby adding infinite anonymity at the expense of authenticity. Making a definite, irreversible choice becomes a challenge when the possibilities expand without limit. Therefore one eventually tends to wait anxiously before making any definite choices as if life itself were unlimited. A massively popular book read these days is called The subtle art of not giving a F. One learns today how to survive without making any choices in an ocean of unlimited choices. But the price to pay is a meaning and an identity crisis which spills over into identity politics, tribalism, nationalism and all other kinds of ‘–isms’. If someone struggles to find their identity within themselves, there are all sorts of groups and movements to provide it for them. Eventually the jokers become more appealing as leaders simply because they have a strong personality.
Eventually the jokers become more appealing as leaders simply because they have a strong personality.
Heidegger reminds us that Time is Being and Being is Time. The pervasiveness of clock time in money and technology today easily makes us confuse time for mere exchange values which bring no actual meaning into our daily lives. Real, authentic time always remains non-negotiable, and that is our finitude.
The reputation of Heidegger himself is forever stained by his joining the Nazi party. Yet, he remains one of the most influential thinkers for our mass, technological age. As if expecting that this would apply to his own life, Heidegger once said of another great thinker: “What was Aristotle’s life? Well, the answer lay in a single sentence: ‘He was born, he thought, he died.’ And all the rest is pure anecdote.”
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