Further thoughts about "authenticity"

The following paragraphs and notes were omitted from the published version of my essay about philosophy and Parkinson's disease. They were judged too difficult and distracting for the overall movement of the essay. But since they do provide further context for understanding my notion of "authentic" living with Parkinson's, I have posted them as a separate document that some might find useful.

I have been trying to investigate the space and time of a Parkinson’s world, asking how I can respond authentically within them, by finding a richer meaning to the slogan that we should live each moment to the fullest. While full living certainly should include as intense sensory perceptions as I can manage, it should also include the context, history, and horizons that make the sensory perception meaningful. Plus discerning possibilities in our world, seizing them and responding to them creatively. The point is to enrich the density and authenticity of life for someone with Parkinson’s.

Most of the “treatments” recommended for Parkinson’s, especially physical exercise, imply facing degeneration and taking active steps to slow it down, if possible. It’s not just quaffing pills and enjoying the present sights and sounds, relationships and tastes, but rather seeing them within a horizon that emphasizes their fragility, makes them valuable, and spurs us to efforts to keep them, and this in turn can call us to find or create tasks and meanings larger than our own physical condition.

Earlier I spoke of how my movements in space take their meaning from histories and projects that go beyond them and link them to a horizon and world of other activities. Moments in time too get their meaning from those cross-temporal relations. To be in the present moment fully includes its retentions of the past and its projections of the future and of its world, a general sense and import for the whole.

But then truly to live with Parkinson’s in the present moment means keeping connections both to my lost flexibility and to my future of degeneration. To leave those out would be precisely not to be in the present moment as it is. How do I live with that. But don’t we all? Our fuller moments are all shadowed by decline and death.

Perhaps I should ignore that shadow and just go on living projects and episodes as interesting, ongoing, absorbing or boring activities, each one stretched out in time, but with no particular thought about the inevitable ending that will suddenly strike from outside and cut off all these activities. I could flit from one enjoyment to another, one intense event to a dull event to a new interest to…. This is similar to what Kierkegaard called the “aesthetic” lifestyle, Don Juan moving from one conquest to another, always beginning again. Or I could busy myself with worthwhile projects, one after another.

I suppose it might be possible for me to live that way with Parkinson’s but if I tried I would have to constantly avoid looking at the full reality of Parkinson’s twisted space and time. My world is on a downward trend even at this moment. If I ignore this I will be forcibly reminded.

Heidegger would tell me not to live my disease “inauthentically.” That would be to have “fallen” from my true nature. I should not be so fascinated by the myriad beings and projects around me that I see myself as just one more event or thing. I should not forget that my stretched-out temporal existence, blending and bringing together past-present-future though projects of action in a spatial world over time, allows things to have meaning and significance. Things interact with one another through cause and effect, but all that would be in the dark, as it were, until our cooperation makes a lived space and time in which they can be revealed and significant. But, he would say, I must remember that our cooperation is limited. It is limited because we are thrown into projecting our lives amid a particular set of defined meanings and social roles already ongoing before we arrive. I live within a space of meaning and action that is of this time and not that. I cannot choose to be an ancient Roman, or to think like a medieval Christian. And, most urgently, my lived time and space that helps reveal the world is limited because it will soon end. We each face a sure future of no future.

Is Heidegger saying that the fact that my life will end is what should motivate me to become authentic? Not quite, for even if technological advances allowed people to live on and on, and even if they could be prevented from dying in accidents of one sort or another, biological or mechanical or cosmological, even then, no matter how long or short, their lives could still be inauthentic or authentic. It’s not the length or shortness of life that is crucial, but how we take it up.⁠ --- see note 1, below

What the finitude of our thrown existence and its inevitable end does is make it more possible to take up our life as a whole. But the motivation for doing so is not the finitude itself. It is our need to be who and what we are as completely as we can. It is our need to “seize the day” fully as it really is.⁠--- see note 2

Inauthentic and authentic living contrast a life that is lived with ongoing meanings and roles that are simply accepted as “what one does” without ever being aware of more than how we have been defined by “the they.” Without feeling individually responsible, because we never quite feel like individuals. But, as Heidegger says, I die alone; no one can do it for me. This should make me realize that no one can live my life for me, though it happens all the time.

I could be jarred out of this inauthentic living. Boredom or anxiety or strong experiences of love or action or art — or an illness such as Parkinson’s — can call me to “take up” my life “authentically.” I can seize the day, with its past and its possibilities, not just its immediate sensory content.

I can shape my life, discerning in the thrown past and present new creative possibilities and tasks that call me toward a future of renewed action. I can embrace the limitations of my life and situation by “resolutely” answering the call of past and future in my time. I unify my time, not letting it fritter away in one excitement or project followed by another. Authenticity means creatively embracing my existence in time, with unified purposes that affect life as a whole, given urgency by the awareness of my limited time and our finite meaning.⁠--- see note 3

Talk of authenticity may appear to urge me to be a solitary self that stands resolutely apart from the inauthentic crowd. This solitary figure might be a lonely Nietzschean thinker, a disenchanted artist, a Dostoyevskian rebel. Such goals have a romantic allure, but in the end their self-magnification turns into self-reduction. The true solitary thinkers and artists do not set out to be lonely rebels. Rather they take up a cause or a thought or an artistic project whose relation to current opinions ad practices forces a lonely role role upon them. The romanic self-image is not their goal.

Another kind of self-assertion can lead one to claim the privileged position for oneself precisely because of one’s illness. Parkinson’s, it is true, will not allow you to disdain help from others, since that help becomes more and more necessary. But there is a way to accept help without mutuality, like the popular image of Howard Hughes as a rich sick man taking and never giving, regarding others as tools to be used.

Both the grasping patient and the romantic rebel do not take up their lives in full. The world into which we are thrown is held together by ties of mutual involvement, social and personal connections calling for care and compassion. To deny this would be to turn away from what we are.

This all sounds inspiring, but is it really useful for me or for anyone with Parkinson’s? The disease reduces my ability to act forcefully in the world, whereas rhetoric about authentic living is often full of words like courage and resolution that imply forceful striving forward. That’s one thing Parkinson’s won’t let you do, either literally or figuratively.

Heidegger gives a heroic and dramatic tone to his discussion of authentic living. If authenticity involves taking up our whole lives, and if our lives are woven into and cooperate in revealing a world of ongoing projects and activities, then to be authentic we need to take up that world, and face its calls for action in a creative way. Heidegger hopes we will resolutely take up “the tasks of our generation.”

Heidegger’s own skill at discerning the tasks of his generation were severely tested in the 1930s rise of the Nazi party, and he failed the test. I think that one reason he went astray was because he saw authenticity as demanding participation in historical drama, and that predisposed him for large political and civilizational changes. In his later writings he retreated from this drama — into his garden, in a way — but he still identified authentic living (though he no longer called it that) with being prepared for world-altering changes in fundamental attitudes and meanings. His later doctrine of “releasement” (Gelassenheit) retains a world-historical tone. We are to wait patiently for the deep changes that will reconfigure our whole attitude to technology and modern life. We cannot bring those changes about on our own, but we are to keep ourselves ready as the Da-sein, the place that cooperates with the unpredictable event of new fundamental meanings for the revelation of beings and world.

It doesn’t sound like authenticity in this mode would be easy for one with a chronic disease. To me, Heidegger’s notion of authenticity lacks criteria for real discernment, demands too much unity, and lacks that compassion that feels for the striving of every little thing, no matter how trivial.⁠--- see note 4

Also, Heidegger does not think deeply enough about a different model of authenticity. Kierkegaard says that his version of the fully authentic self, the “knight of faith,” could be living a life that to the outside observer is indistinguishable from a bourgeois baker or bureaucrat with a stifling and boring routine. Kierkegaard’s authenticity depends on inward faith and movements of opening and acceptance despite nonsense and paradox. Is it possible to take up a routine, anonymous project and make it authentic, without appearing any different to the outward observer? Could the Parkinson’s sufferer doing daily little tasks and “just getting along” be living authentically?

The emphasis on deep world-changing projects in Heidegger’s doctrine of authenticity comes in part from his idea that all our actions are tied into projects which link to one another in a “world” of interlocking meetings and actions. That horizon, that totality, the world, is one single whole. It would make little sense to speak of there being two utterly distinct such contexts of action. At least that’s what Heidegger thinks. So to be authentic is to change one’s relation to that whole world. Of course the relation moves through specific projects, but the network they exist within is a unified whole.

I want to pursue further this theme of life and world as a whole, because it will prove relevant to my life with Parkinson’s.

Is it really true that my world is so unified? It’s clear that there may be groups in the community living in different cultural worlds. Embodying different narratives and expected possibilities. Those people and other people may share certain events and certainly share the infrastructure and physical objects around. But those objects may take their place in very different life narratives and cultural schemes. We should distinguish between shared infrastructure such as railroads, airplanes, products in a store, from concrete projects of action involving these common objects but which use or evaluate them in very different ways. We may both buy the same loaf of bread, or see the same Civil War memorial, or eat at the same ethnic restaurant, but with different cultural or familial meanings within different projects in largely distinct cultural worlds.⁠--- see note 5

So on one hand we have the elaborate cultural detail and historical memory of the worlds of the Italian couple down the block or the Indian family on the next street, and on the other hand the more abstract, much less detailed and historically simplified culture found in social roles which both these families may share at times, such as supermarket shopper, airplane passenger, or driver obeying traffic rules. With this distinction in hand we can look at the single world that Heidegger speaks of and see how it is articulated in complex ways that allow great divergence in detail, so much so that two different groups could be said to be inhabiting both the same and different worlds. In this sense, then, I could authentically pick up and creatively respond to my “situation” in a particular life world without thereby picking up a creatively responding to “the world as a whole” because as a whole the world is composed of cultural islands and also more abstract shared roles ands cultures.⁠--- see note 6 We can take up authentically what we find ourselves among without that having to be a response to the “tasks of our generation.” Such wide historical projects are possible but not required.

If our worlds are articulated more complexly, and therefore if we can take up our existing as a whole without having to take up the task of our generation as a whole, then we might say that someone working on a limited task for a local community, or a Parkinson’s support group, or even someone whose activities can extend only as far as stringing beads in a nursing home, might still, after the fashion of Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, be living a resolutely authentic life, involving much more than self care or mere endurance.

Parkinson’s patients often dedicate themselves to tasks defined by the disease, becoming activists searching for a cure, crusading for public acceptance and funding, creating groups to help fellow sufferers. But a Parkinson artist or writer or scientist or politician may take up tasks in art or writing or politics or science that have nothing to do with the disease.

The challenge remains to create something that orients one’s time and space away from just coping with one’s own daily twists, blockages and disruptions.

My local world will shrink as Parkinson’s goes on, but the larger background world does not, though it may become difficult to keep that horizon in view. The authentic self is one that takes responsibility for its projects creatively, with awareness of its responsibility to bring and receive meaning in that world. There is no magic formula. The best we can do is look for open responses, creativity and compassion.

Forced Exercise

For authenticity, then, I need more than self-care. I need to take up my existence as a whole, and that involves more than the present set of symptoms and perceptions. My world, my existence, extends out into (and as) a spatial and temporal world, no matter how twisted those might be.

Recall the physical therapist who said that “with Parkinson’s, motion is life and lack of motion is death.” He was talking about the importance of exercise and the importance of refusing to let Parkinson’s keep you always in low gear. Push your limits; keep moving even if your spatial world gets twisted and filled with new distances and obstacles.

I now ask: might there be a temporal equivalent of that spatial advice? Is there a way in which motion in time is life for Parkinson’s and lack of motion is death?

I think so. To focus on the present moment as an instantaneous sensation or a flitting perception is to deny temporal motion, to freeze time and cut its complex unity. To see the present moment in its connections and context, in its rising from a past and opening up a future, keeps it mobile: fluid life, not the repetitive freezing of instantaneous moments divorced from one another.

Research has indicated that “forced” physical exercise is even better for us. Exercise where the Parkinson’s patient is forced to a higher level of performance, greater speed, more effort than is normal, whether it be on a tandem bicycle, or on a treadmill or other device, has more effect in quieting Parkinson’s symptoms. Getting out of the comfort zone encourages the formation of new neurons and general brain health. What is the temporal equivalent to spatial forced exercise? Perhaps, pushing ourselves to a deeper view in a wider horizon with more commitments.

This is to have larger contexts and to see the Parkinson’s, yes, within the horizon of our being towards death, but also in the horizon of tasks and projects, dramatic or not, and these keep us from simply identifying ourselves with the restrictions and slowdowns of the disease. This attitude accepts the full reality of the disease, with degeneration but also with calls to possibilities and meaningful tasks.


1 It is likely, though, that if technology granted us a very long life, it would be authentic or not in stretches, since no one project would occupy it all. Could there be, though, a general project whose content varies over time? The Buddhist bodhisattva’s vow provides an example stretching over huge lengths of time. A committed political reformer or dedicated scientist could provide other examples. These suggest a form/content distinction such as I mention in a later note, so that one could take up one’s life authentically but the content would vary.

2 Heidegger describes who and what we are in his inimitable German as Sich-vorweg-sein…im-schon-sein-in…als Sein-bei…. (BT §41). Joan Stambaugh and Dennis Schmidt translate this as “being ahead of itself in already being in a world”. William Richardson fills it out as “an anticipatory drive toward being, thrown down as still to be achieved in the world, and fallen among the beings it encounters within the world” (HBT 74). A human self is not a fully self-present unity that then stretches itself into time and space; it exists only as strung out in time and space. The way the present moment exists extended and joining past and future, the way beings around us show themselves as already involved, as are we, in ongoing projects, that is the way we exist.

3 Reading Heidegger might make you think the Stoics are authentic while the the Epicureans are inauthentic. As to the inauthenticity of the Epicureans; it’s important to notice that their pursuing pleasure comes from taking account of the being and nature of the world as a whole. It is more than falling into fascination with individual beings and pleasures.

On the other hand while the Stoics would fit with Heidegger’s description of looking for the task of one’s generation and unifying one’s life with a view toward death, their picture of the being of beings suffers from what he would call ontotheological metaphysics. Namely it ascribes the revelation and meaning of the beings in this world to a greatest being. The active spirit of the Stoics is not a theistic creator God; it is a rational craftsman working within matter, but it still provides purpose and meaning. So the Stoics would be not up to Heidegger’s full understanding of our role in the constitution of meaning in the world. On the other hand he cannot say that it is required to give up all metaphysics in order to be authentic. Otherwise there could be no authentic Christian lives, and from his treatment of the medievals it is clear that he views that as a fact.

4 Compassion is largely missing from Heidegger’s descriptions of authentic living. He does talk about authentic being with other people, but his tendency to divide people into those who know and respond authentically, and those who do not, leads him to a notion of a higher priesthood. He doesn’t fully intend that and he does talk about how even the authentic person is riven with error and finitude, but his conservative Catholic background gives him an aristocratic mentality. Here Hegel, the great proponent of the role of the world-historical individual in history, rare though such individuals may be, has more useful things to say, especially in his philosophy of art, about the role of education and maturity in giving ordinary people insight into the importance of everyday life in its small details, and contentment with smaller roles within larger processes.

5 I want to insist on the complex unity of the world is to be able to make a distinction of form and content in terms of taking up our existence as a whole. This avoids the grandiosity of Heidegger’s rhetoric of authenticity and the tasks of our generation or the waiting for huge changes in the meaning of being. It’s true that a form/content distinction is something Heidegger would deeply reject. And here that I would like to use some notions from Hegel to say that a form/content distinction can be handled in this context with a more sophisticated notion of form and a more dialectical notion of wholes.

6 Heidegger might reply that to put things the way I did is to miss the way we are related to the happening of the world as a whole and therefore to the shared meaning of being in that world. My response would be to say that with the distinction between the more abstract and concrete shared projects we can see that Heidegger’s world-as-a-whole need not have one single meaning of being. Heidegger might respond that this already buys into the technological world picture. To which I would respond that it is Heidegger who is missing levels of articulation and distinctions that allow for full authenticity without the grandiose connection to massive historical changes in “our” world.