[On Heidegger's notion of the 'inauthentic' man:] The word 'inauthentic' is used by Heidegger to describe the ostrich-like attitude of the man who seeks to escape from his inescapable self-responsibility by becoming an anonymous member of a crowd. This is the normal attitude of nearly everybody. To be 'authentic' a man must be constantly and deliberately aware of his total responsibility for what he is. For example, a judge may disclaim personal responsibility for sentencing people to punishment. He will say that as a judge it is his duty to punish. In other words it is as an anonymous representative of the Judiciary that he punishes, and it is the Judiciary that must take the responsibility. This man is inauthentic. If he wishes to be authentic he must think to himself, whenever he sits on the Bench or draws his salary, 'Why do I punish? Because, as a judge, it is my duty to punish. Why am I a judge? Is it perhaps my duty to be a judge? No. I am a judge because I myself choose to be a judge. I choose to be one who punishes in the name of the Law. Can I, if I really wish, choose not to be a judge? Yes, I am absolutely free at any moment to stop being a judge, if I so choose. If this is so, when a guilty man comes up before me for sentence, do I have any alternative but to punish him? Yes, I can get up, walk out of the courtroom, and resign my job. Then if, instead, I punish him, am I responsible? I am totally responsible.'
You say that you are worried about 'the absolutely dispassionate and purely objective tone' in which I discuss my own probable suicide. I am glad that you are worried about this. In all my correspondence with you both now and earlier I have been hoping to be able to communicate the idea of what Heidegger calls 'authenticity'; and if you have felt a little uneasiness at a practical illustration of what I have been trying to convey that is not a bad sign. 'The very maximum of what one human being can do for another in relation to that wherein each man has to do solely with himself', said Kierkegaard 'is to inspire him with concern and unrest' (CUP, p. 346). And beyond preventing you from falling into complacency I do not think there is very much that anyone else can do for you in this particular department.
But the question of authenticity (which more or less corresponds to the subjectivity-reflexion pair of attitudes discussed earlier) is another matter. If this mode of thinking can be achieved, it is capable of making a great deal of difference to one's life. Once one recognizes that one is totally responsible for all one's decisions and actions, one can no longer hide behind convenient ready-made excuses; and this, though it makes life rather less comfortable by removing one's habitual blinkers, endows one with unexpected self-reliance and resilience in difficult situations.[c] And once it becomes habitual to think in this way the task of living is discovered to be a full-time job and not merely a drudge to be got through by killing time as best one can. In other words, it abolishes boredom.[d] Finally, as I think I mentioned some time ago, it is only in this authentic or responsible attitude that the Buddha's Teaching becomes intelligible.
You say that I am one who thinks not only of other people but also of himself as 'they'. I see what you mean and I will not deny it, but it needs stating differently. Two paragraphs back I pointed out that it is inherently impossible to see oneself (unless one is simply thinking of one's body) as one sees another person (at least, not authentically), so I cannot be 'they' to myself as others are 'they' to me. People, for the most part, live in the objective-immediate mode (discussed earlier). This means that they are totally absorbed in and identified with positive worldly interests and projects, of which there is an unending variety. That is to say, although they differ from one another in their individual natures, the contents of their respective positivities, they are all alike in being positive. Thus, although the fundamental relation between positives is conflict (on account of their individual differences), they apprehend one another as all being in the same boat of positivity, and they think of men generally in terms of human solidarity, and say 'we'.
But the person who lives in the subjective-reflexive mode is absorbed in and identified with, not the positive world, but himself. The world, of course, remains 'there' but he regards it as accidental (Husserl says that he 'puts it in parentheses, between brackets'), and this means that he dismisses whatever positive identification he may have as irrelevant. He is no longer 'a politician' or 'a fisherman', but 'a self'. But what we call a 'self', unless it receives positive identification from outside, remains a void, in other words a negative. A 'self', however, is positive in this respect—it seeks identification. So a person who identifies himself with himself finds that his positivity consists in negativity—not the confident 'I am this' or 'I am that' of the positive, but a puzzled, perplexed, or even anguished, 'What am I?'. (This is where we meet the full force of Kierkegaard's 'concern and unrest'.) Eternal repetition of this eternally unanswerable question is the beginning of wisdom (it is the beginning of philosophy); but the temptation to provide oneself with a definite answer is usually too strong, and one falls into a wrong view of one kind or another. (It takes a Buddha to show the way out of this impossible situation. For the sotāpanna, who has understood the Buddha's essential Teaching, the question still arises, but he sees that it is unanswerable and is not worried; for the arahat the question no longer arises at all, and this is final peace.)
This person, then, who has his centre of gravity in himself instead of in the world (a situation that, though usually found as a congenital feature, can be acquired by practice), far from seeing himself with the clear solid objective definition with which other people can be seen, hardly sees himself as anything definite at all: for himself he is, at best, a 'What, if anything?'. It is precisely this lack of assured self-identity that is the secret strength of his position—for him the question-mark is the essential and his positive identity in the world is accidental, and whatever happens to him in a positive sense the question-mark still remains, which is all he really cares about. He is distressed, certainly, when his familiar world begins to break up, as it inevitably does, but unlike the positive he is able to fall back on himself and avoid total despair. It is also this feature that worries the positives; for they naturally assume that everybody else is a positive and they are accustomed to grasp others by their positive content, and when they happen to meet a negative they find nothing to take hold of.
It quite often happens that a positive attributes to a negative various strange secret motives, supposing that he has failed to understand him (in a positive sense); but what he has failed to understand is that there is actually nothing there to be understood. But a negative, being (as you point out) a rare bird himself, is accustomed to positives, by whom he is surrounded, and he does not mistake them for fellow negatives. He understands (or at least senses) that the common factor of positivity that welds them together in the 'we' of human solidarity does not extend to him, and mankind for him is 'they'. When a negative meets another negative they tend to coalesce with a kind of easy mutual indifference. Unlike two positives, who have the differences in their respective positivities to keep them apart, two negatives have nothing to separate them, and one negative recognizes another by his peculiar transparency—whereas a positive is opaque.
Yes, I had my tongue in my cheek when I suggested mindfulness of death as a subject of meditation for you. But also, though you could hardly know this, I had a perfectly serious purpose at the back of my mind. It happens that, for Heidegger, contemplation of one's death throughout one's life is the key to authenticity. As Sartre has observed, Heidegger has not properly understood the nature of death, regarding it as my possibility, whereas in fact it is always accidental, even in suicide (I cannot kill myself directly, I can only cut my throat and wait for death to come). But death of one's body (which is always seen from outside, like other people's bodies) can be imagined and the implications envisaged. And this is really all that is necessary (though it must be added that there are other ways than contemplation of death of becoming authentic). Here, then, is a summary of Heidegger's views on this matter (from 6ET, pp. 96-7):
Death, then, is the clue to authentic living, the eventual and omnipresent possibility which binds together and stabilizes my existence.... I anticipate death...by living in the presence of death as always immediately possible and as undermining everything. This full-blooded acceptance...of death, lived out, is authentic personal existence. Everything is taken as contingent. Everything is devalued. Personal existence and everything encountered in personal existence is accepted as nothing, as meaningless, fallen under the blow of its possible impossibility. I see all my possibilities as already annihilated in death, as they will be, like those of others in their turn. In face of this capital possibility which devours all the others, there are only two alternatives: acceptance or distraction. Even this choice is a rare privilege, since few are awakened by dread to the recognition of the choice, most remain lost in the illusions of everyday life. To choose acceptance of death as the supreme and normative possibility of my existence is not to reject the world and refuse participation in its daily preoccupations, it is to refuse to be deceived and to refuse to be identified with the preoccupations in which I engage: it is to take them for what they are worth—nothing. From this detachment springs the power, the dignity, the tolerance, of authentic personal existence.