The existential tradition — via Pascal, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre — has it that there is no fundamental essence to human existence: For Pascal, our nature lies in our customs. For Sartre, existence precedes essence. A simple way of interpreting this viewpoint is through the notion that we, as individuals, are radically free and that we define ourselves through our actions. But if this vision of the self is correct then what does it mean for society as a whole? what does it mean for our culture? For an answer to this, we must look to Heidegger. The American philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus interprets Heidegger as saying that each culture defines for itself what it means to be human. This conception of human nature allows them to live as though each culture has a predefined essence, an absolute morality and an objective meaning of life. As history changes, so too does the conception of human nature and all of the philosophical infrastructure built up around it. Looking back on discrete periods of human history such as Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, it is relatively easy to isolate their conceptions of being in the world because those conceptions were fully articulated by particular authors; Homer in the case of the Ancient Greeks and Dante in the case of the Medieval Christians.
One’s attitude to this understanding of the evolution of culture will most likely depend upon the amount of ontological weight one ascribes to Heidegger’s conception of being-in-the-world:
In his book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Julian Jaynes argues that the ancient Greeks had a fundamentally different form of consciousness to contemporary humans. A form of consciousness that made introversion impossible but which allowed desires and ideas to take perceived physical form in the shape of gods. According to Jaynes, Homer’s descriptions of human cognition were literally true at the time. Under this interpretation of Homer, there is a near one-to-one correspondence between the scientific understanding of existence and that of Heidegger: This we can call the Strong Dasein Hypothesis.
The other way of looking at the issue is voiced by Brian Boyd in his On The Origin of Stories – Evolution, Cognition and, Fiction (2009), which states that the difference between Homer and Proust is not that Homer’s mind worked differently to Proust’s but that the folk psychological model that informed Homer’s writing was less advanced than that which informed the rendering of Proust’s characters. So Homer’s failure to discuss the inner psychology of his characters does not reflect his own lack of inner state but rather an incomplete conceptual framework which did not allow for this inner state to be rendered in a fictional form. According to this view, which we can call the Weak Dasein Hypothesis, Heidegger spoke not of being but of world-view and dealt not in actual things but in perceptions.
Regardless of where one stands along a presumed spectrum of attitudes towards Heideggerian ontology, the fact remains that art does reflect upon how we think about ourselves. So how do we represent the modern self? Again, there is a spectrum of viewpoints. The literary critic for The New Yorker James Woods argues in his book How Fiction Works (2008) that the novel effectively reached a state of perfection with the development of the “free indirect style” prevalent in the work of authors such as Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Proust. However, David Shields has argued in his book Reality Hunger – A Manifesto (2010) that many of the techniques and conceits of the modern novel are hopelessly outdated when it comes to describing a culture imbued with radically different values by individuals with very different conceptions of themselves and their place in the world. As an example of works that do capture our epochal Dasein, Shields offers up a list of works mostly drawn from the emerging genre of creative or literary non-fiction. Works such as Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, a collection of themed essays which, as the book’s sub-title assures us, is not a memoir.