“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

16 December 2014

How Heidegger shows us the meaning of society


What is society?

It isn’t a thing or an object like other things or objects are. In that sense, Margaret Thatcher was broadly right in saying: “There is no such thing as society”. But we do use the word widely to refer to an ‘it’ – society – so though we cannot pin it down in the physical real world, society undoubtedly has a reality in consciousness, for us. We might for example think of it as a ‘subjective object’, albeit something which is not so much thought as felt.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger never wrote directly about society as far as I am aware, but his reflections on the nature of ‘being’ – of human beings and other beings, including the inanimate objects of our world – show how we are each connected into the world of other people and objects. As such he sketches out how what we might call the architecture or internal wiring of society works, and thereby provides us with a powerful way of conceiving what it is that makes ‘us’ us.

One of the few examples Heidegger gave in his writings on the being of objects is the hammer. The hammer’s ‘being’ is wrapped up not so much in its attributes like size, weight and the materials used in its manufacture, but in its being a hammer which we use for hammering – in this sense it is ‘ready-to-hand’ for us to hammer with.

A hammer, for hammering

But if I was a small child or came from a completely different culture and had never come across a hammer before, I’d be clueless about it. I wouldn’t know its name, what it was for or how it came into existence. Links of familiarity, significance, common language and customs give objects like hammers their meaning in our social world – this is what their being is all about in our everyday lives.

Taylor Carman, in his introduction to Heidegger’s Being and Time, says:

“Being is entities making sense (to us) as entities – even if only tacitly, dimly, unconsciously. Unlike entities themselves, then, being in a sense depends on us; it is not “out there” like some alien or occult phenomenon but resides entirely in the most mundane human experience.”

This mundane example of the hammer shows us something that we share with other people – an instant appreciation of what the object is, how to use it, and what to use it for. This is integrated into our own being as well as into the hammer’s being. What’s more, it is social, in that others share the same sort of relationship to a hammer. The hammer is therefore not primarily a separate object in terms of its being; it is physically separate yet at the same time bound up with the world of human beings who buy and sell it, use it and store it. It is part of us and us a part of it.

We would be justified in describing this way of looking at the world that Heidegger explores as a different dimension – an existential dimension of being that is radically different to the traditional dimensions that mainstream philosophy and everyday language uses. Those conventional dimensions of height, width, length and time for example are simple and familiar to us once we understand them. This existential dimension of being which Heidegger sketches out meanwhile carries human meaning and significance. In this dimension objects are defined (defined as what they are) always in relation to people, dependent on rather than abstracted from the understandings of those people. There is no validity or right and wrong here except as relations to particular understandings and interpretations. The hammer may be a hammer to me and you, but other people may understand and use it in a completely different way.

While the hammer’s being as a hammer unites those who are familiar with it in that way, it excludes those who are unfamiliar. This is nothing to do with exclusion by conscious thought and will; it rather follows automatically from what we might call ‘living in another world’ – either the world of a child who has not yet been socialised or of someone else who is not part of the same ‘society’ and would need to become attuned to the various understandings, familiarities and significances (like hammers being for hammering) to be a part of it.

Obviously this is almost always a question of degrees, not of being absolutely ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ a whole world of shared understandings, but this is the meaning of society which Heidegger’s insights point towards. It is an ethereal dimension in which the 'we', or 'us', is constituted.

Society is what we share

In this way, we might say that society is what we share. We can find it in the connections, understandings and familiarities that link us to objects in our world and to each other. A shared understanding and familiarity of what to do when we meet someone (shake hands? A hug? a kiss on the cheek? a kiss on both cheeks? ‘How Are You?’ ‘Fine’) – to do the appropriate thing – is a basic constituent of society. It is perhaps noteworthy that the English and those who share England as a space are often unsure what to do in this situation, which we might see as an element of how English society is not as strong, integrated and confident as some other cultures.

You can be a member of a society with people you have never met and will never meet. Likewise some people you know quite well might seem to be – and feel themselves to be – part of a different society, possessing different meanings and practices and using different reference points (for example watching television from their former home countries). In our globalising world, we can feel multiple overlapping familiarities and detachments with people and entities from all over, an indication of how we are getting even further from any idea of ‘society’ as a collection of people simply sharing space, like within the borders of a nation-state for example.

The ‘we’ or ‘us’ that we use in conversation is therefore open to many more interpretations and confusions. I might say: “We should question ourselves more,” but who am I talking about or talking to? It is far from clear, and is therefore a less rigorous statement than it might have been in earlier times. Indeed it is more like talking to the air, which is what an awful lot of political activity entails nowadays. As a writer for example you are speaking to a certain restricted audience while perhaps seeking to address a different, or wider, one. The most successful writers tend to address the audience they are speaking to, but often find themselves in silos by doing so, telling folks what they want to hear and not affecting many others or changing many minds.

Society and democratic politics

This increasing inability to conceive of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ readily is problematic for democratic politics, for it is more difficult to build up unified social and political movements based on shared goals and understandings when shared goals and understandings have dissipated. Indeed, our political parties find themselves determinedly dividing and demarcating voters into groups, making assumptions about them and targeting specific messages and policies at them as discrete, separate social units – effectively as micro-societies based on certain criteria (gender, ethnicity, age, occupation, and religion for example).

As they put us into boxes and treat us as part of grids like this, so they reduce our individuality; but they also take us away from any idea of a greater, wider society.

What Heidegger’s account of ‘being’ offers us is a distinctive way of looking at society – as not so much who we are as what we share with each other. (So, to provide one example it is less about what we look like, and more about what we do with what we look like – how we dress, do our hair, apply makeup etc.) On one level sharing refers to our basic understandings, familiarities and practices. But on another level is the more active meaning of sharing, as a deliberate act. (Again, this drawing in of others from the outside to the inside is something that those of us who share English or British culture tend to be rather weak at.)

When what we share gets stronger or weaker, so society as a meaningful ‘thing’ does also. Yet this ‘thing’ of society appears as what we might call an existential or metaphysical object, not a physical one. We can feel the strength and comfort it gives, and can also feel it ebbing away when we find ourselves in situations where we don’t share much with those around us. But we cannot reach out and touch it, nor can we see, hear or define it – because the dimension on which sharing exists is not physical but relational.

There is perhaps a lesson for political parties in this, my thoughts being on the Labour Party, of which I’m a member.

There is a tendency for all organisations and institutions to become increasingly mono-cultural over time as shared understandings, significances and practices get promoted within them and become more established. But by doing this they lose their wider affiliations and links into a wider society.

There is no getting around insider-outsider distinctions, and indeed those distinctions are part of the essence of democratic competition. But nevertheless it would be a good idea for Labour and other institutions to promote shared understandings and practices that come from a deeper place (the meaning of the institution itself for example) rather giving free rein to dominant groups to impose their particular ways across the board. Doing the latter can make the institution seem strong and united, but only on a limited basis with limited scope. If it is seeking widespread and even national legitimacy, it needs ways of reaching way beyond these groups and bringing in others.

This is one of the big challenges for democratic parties in the diverse world in which they find themselves: they need to actually build society themselves, on a wider basis than their existing tribal groupings, or else face further loss of legitimacy.


For more on similar topics, see Philosophy, thought and literature page.

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