This blog first appeared on October 23, 2011.
“In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead. In the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead.”
I was recently asked to address a group of students on this question: what is the single most important issue facing America today? As expected my fellow guests, a philosopher, a sociologist, and a psychologist, seemed to situate themselves around a predictable hub of economic, ecological, and national security issues. Instead I proposed that the greatest threat to America today was the American attitude itself. It is not an external threat, but rather, an internal locus, a sort of pathological way of being that has come to be a hallmark of success. I want to outline what I had to say in that discussion. It centers on the ideas of two thinkers, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, and is nicely articulated by a third, Erich Fromm.
Character and Styles of Being
There is a certain, rather pervasive, personality style that is encountered on a daily basis. This individual can be found in all walks of life, but is mostly encountered in what is called the professions. By professional I mean those areas of practice in which one exercises the role of the expert, or plays the role of the authority on a certain topic or set of issues. These are the learned folks of our culture: the medical, scientific, academic, and business establishment. This is a tribe that often present not as practitioners of a profession, but rather, as the profession itself, not a person who does business as much as a businessperson.
There is a salient feature amongst professionals in a certain way of being. This way of being is a sort of culturally expected personality style that one adopts, through their training, and then lives up to after graduation. This is the physician who plays the role of physician, the businessman who acts as one should act when one is a businessman, and the professor who becomes the expert -presenting herself accordingly. Most often it is observed as affected or contrived. It can be experienced as professionalism, authority, arrogance, or inferiority depending on whom it is that is encountering it.
Jean-Paul Sartre described Heidegger's concept of falleness as bad faith.
There is something unconvincing about this style of being. Typically, those who do it cannot seem to be aware of it, seemingly it is only apparent to those outside of the performance. This performance is described by Jean-Paul Sartre as living in bad faith; when one hides from authenticity and instead chooses the safer position of a cultural role called facticity.
Facticity is like an object. One is not a person who is doctoring, but rather is a doctor. One is not someone who dwells with others in thought, but is a professor. Facticity is the objectification of a role; it is where an action becomes an object, almost like transposing a verb into a noun. One is no longer what one does, but rather, what one is titled. It is when one acts-out that title that we find a life in bad faith.
Erich Fromm described Sartre’s bad faith in five character types. These character types are not diagnosable personality disorders or even inherited personality structures. Fromm’s character types are adaptive ways of being in an evolutionary sense; they are methods of survival within an environment. Over a series of articles I am going to discuss these five character types, which I propose as Fromm’s taxonomy of bad faith. First, though, we must understand the function of personality and its operation in society and culture.
What Makes Human?
We begin from the position that it is society and culture that makes a person who they are and not biology. Although we are biological beings, a function of evolutionary unfolding, we are also transcended beings. Human Being is the activity of dealing with our biological drives in a social way. We are not primarily interested in physical survival, but rather in social survival. We do not strive for our life, but rather for living with others. Although biological drive is a part of being human it is not the dominant force. Homo sapien is influenced less by biological drives and more by cultural forces.
We call this cultural force desire. The social animal is a transcended Being that is not governed by cause-and-effect chains of logic, but rather, by an integrated being-in-the-world in which an individual’s environment is not an objective situation that they are in, but rather, an active interpretation that they are participating in making. We find here a main point in Fromm’s thinking, that we are not confronted with culture, but that we are a vital, shaping agent of culture. This is a sort of feedback-feedforward loop that is experienced as the world we live in. In fact, it is less a world we live in and more a world that lives within us.