In Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, we find an extensive and serious discussion of a structural account of falling and the phenomena of which it is constituted. Heidegger begins this account with the phenomenon he calls idle talk. Idle talk is characterized as the perversion of the act of disclosing as it is in communication and the subsequent uprooting of Dasein’s understanding of the world. This characterization of idle talk is followed by an analysis of the phenomenon that is Dasein’s motivation towards such an act of disclosing. This motivating phenomenon which Heidegger lays out as a tendency towards finding truth in a mere beholding of the world is called curiosity.
Lastly, Heidegger characterizes the resulting intelligibility of the one as ambiguous since everything is made intelligible to everyone. Such ambiguity is also described as the leveling of intelligibility. These distinct phenomena are wound together to form a coherent existential analytic of the everyday being of Dasein and how the relationship between one’s own authentic self and the ‘ they-self’ operates in the disclosure of significance to Dasein. My goal in this paper will be to thoroughly explicate the meaning of Heidegger’s theory of idle talk while clarifying the role it plays in the structure of falling and the existential role it plays in the disclosure of Dasein and entities in the world. Heidegger characterizes idle talk as a mode of falling, which is one of the four fundamental structures of being-in (the other three being discourse, attunement and understanding).
Idle talk can be sometimes confused as a constituent part of discourse because of the everyday use of the terms. Discourse can make itself manifest through language in speech and writing thus disclosing some given interpretation of some entity through discernable communication. In this way, discourse is very similar to idle talk but where the two depart from one another in structure is in the source of disclosure. Discourse makes manifest the already existing articulation of the referential whole of the ready-to-hand.
Idle talk discloses no such articulated structure, but instead discloses entities as present-at-hand while in some cases glossing over the articulated structure or even making it up entirely in the most extreme cases. Whereas discourse suffers the inherent present-at-hand nature of language, it makes the most of what is available in order to disclose entities in the world given this barrier. Idle talk makes no such effort because genuine disclosure of these entities is not its foremost goal. Ordinarily, we can understand the terms Heidegger uses, like “ idle”, without referring to analytically refined conceptions or esoteric jargon.
This is not by accident, as crucial to Heidegger’s hermeneutic approach is that he incorporate meanings of words as they are encountered in non-theoretical, every day coping. Indeed, the term “ idle” is meant to evoke our intuitive notions of rest and the lack of activity. However while Heidegger’s philosophical approach is geared toward a primordial understanding of our being-in-the-world, his ideas are so radical and original that they play a decisive role in how any reader of Being and Time, upon reading the book, goes on to experience and understand the world. This is particularly evident with the term “ idle”, because the contrast between rest and activity has heavy implications on how Heidegger characterizes the fundamental modes of Dasein’s Being; presence-at-hand and ready-to-hand. When one is partaking in the circumspective involvement of concerned activity a level of understanding is attained that could be not be attained in any other way.
We can see here how the type of understanding that is yielded in any other fashion (absent of active involvement) would parallel such a term as idle talk. But as we will later see, the leveled understanding that is offered up in idle talk is constantly perpetuated in the act of falling through curiosity. As such the active involvement in the case of falling becomes one that is geared towards closing off genuine understanding rather than disclosing it any truly useful fashion. Heidegger not only believes that presence-at-hand and ready-to-hand are the two fundamental modes of Dasein’s Being, but also that these separate modes of being are derived expressions of what can be more primordially characterized as different states of action.
Ready-to-hand is the mode of being disclosed to Dasein when its way of being is active, absorbed coping in the performance in a task that in some way matters, or is for its sake. Conversely, beings disclose themselves as present-at-hand when Dasein takes a pause in its coping to observe, ponder, trouble-shoot, behold, or reflect. What this amounts to is that Heidegger’s usage of “ idle” is meant to evoke the being of Dasein that is aware of present-at-hand entities. In general, Heidegger criticizes the present-at-hand mode of being as disclosing itself as ‘ all there is’ to the world and to reality, thus closing Dasein off from the disclosure of beings ready-to-hand.
While he does believe the isclosure of the ready-to-hand to be a more primary mode of Dasein’s involvement with the world, it is the tendency of the present-at-hand to suppress the ready-to-hand, rather than any inherent flaw in the present-at-hand mode of being, that he finds obstructive of Dasein coming to a genuine understanding of its own possibilities. Heidegger’s general criticisms against idleness and the present-at-hand are realized in his more particular discussion of idle talk and falling into the ‘ they-self’. The negative role of idle talk is to suppress primordial, genuine understanding and facilitate superficial understanding. Genuine understanding would come about through active involvement with the world, while idle talk, made manifest through lack of involvement, produces an understanding that Heidegger claims to be “ groundless” .
But just as the disclosure of entities present-at-hand is not in itself negative, neither is this ‘ groundless’ understanding. Rather, its negative role is its propensity to pass itself off as genuine and to replicate itself so as to be indistinguishable by Dasein from genuine understanding. It is in this sense that Heidegger claims that idle talk “ understands everything” . Of course, he means this ironically, and is really saying that idle talk, despite its true nature of “ gossiping and passing the word along,” discloses itself as legitimate and authoritative knowledge. In this way, idle talk innocuously veils the tentativeness and superficiality of that which it communicates and engenders in Dasein the illusion that there is no need for a more primordial acquaintanceship with the world.
Idle talk is veiled in ambiguity, keeping itself indiscernible from genuine understanding, and the disclosure of Dasein and entities in the world. This ambiguity makes everyone a potential expert on anything, albeit an expert in the self-proclaimed sense. As Heidegger puts it, “ When, in our everyday Being-with-one-another, we encounter the sort of thing which is accessible to everyone, and about which anyone can say anything, it soon becomes impossible to decide what is disclosed in a genuine understanding, and what is not. This ambiguity forces Dasein to become entrenched and entangled in this disclosure of the world. It is by way of this phenomenon that the ‘ they-self’ is able to draw Dasein further and further away from its authentic mode of being.
Heidegger characterizes the superficial understanding propagated through idle talk as average understanding belonging to the anonymous ‘ they-self’. The ‘ they-self’ is that towards which Dasein acts in its distinct way of Being-with [others]. Inclusive in the ’they-self’ is how Dasein perceives others with whom it shares its world to understand and attune themselves toward this shared world, which in turn shapes how Dasein itself understands and attunes itself to the world. In the case of idle talk, it is precisely our perceiving the ubiquity and acceptance of average understanding that allows us to succumb to it. In succumbing to average understanding, we commit ourselves to a public and ambiguous for-the-sake-of-which that does not direct our active involvement with the world in such a way as to secure a more genuine understanding.
It is in this sense that Heidegger claims that in the ‘ they-self’, it is more the case that Dasein is being alongside the world than being in the world. By contrast, a genuine understanding of the world and authenticity of Dasein is gained by Dasein’s being toward its own possibilities and for-the-sake-of-which. Due to the innocuous and ambiguous nature with which the average understanding parades itself, Dasein is not able to voluntarily discern it from genuine understanding. It is due to this involuntary, uncontrollable being lost in the ‘ they-self’ that Heidegger characterizes being closed off from one’s authenticity as a ‘ falling’ or ‘ being thrown’. While he holds that idle talk is a specific detail demonstrative of the general characteristic of falling, and that only the significance of the ‘ they-self’ discloses itself to fallen Dasein, one should not overlook the possibility for idle talk to secure Dasein a grasp on its own authentic possibilities and significance. The primary difference between authentic Dasein and the ‘ they-self’ is the disclosure of significance.
Authentic Dasein has a familiar grasp on what is significant, and as such persists in a state of active coping toward the particular for-the-sake-of-which that is disclosed. Conversely, what is disclosed as significant to the ‘ they-self’ is the way of being of the ‘ they’. In other words, with the average understanding of the ‘ they’ having usurped the possibility for genuine understanding, one conflates the pursuit f one’s own possibilities with the possibilities, or in the present case, the thoughts and actions, of the ‘ they’. And now, as such, Dasein’s attention and comportment is fixated upon the ‘ they’ as itself the source of significance.
So the contrast between Dasein’s own significance and public conceptions of significance is the basis on which Heidegger separates authentic Dasein from the inauthenticity of the ‘ they-self’. The positive aspect of idle talk shows itself when considering falleness as a possibility of being rather than a negation of authentic being. The negative connotations of the terms used to describe Dasein’s fallen way of being can easily be misconstrued to imply that this fallen way of being is merely an accident that can be fixed or pushed aside. In order to avoid this mistaken conception of the phenomenon and make this positive aspect clear we must distinguish the way Dasein is constituted in such a manner of being.
We see that this sort of structuring of Dasein’s disclosedness is just as dynamic as an authentic structure could be. We can see through each aspect of falling how such a dynamic structure is made possible. Dasein’s curiosity discloses truth as being attainable in its purest form through sensory perception. Such a structuring tempts Dasein to the structures of idle talk and ambiguity. Just as idle talk discloses entities as being deeply understood on a very superficial level, ambiguity allows anyone to be in possession of such understanding and curiosity encourages this.
This analysis of idle talk and the structure of falling in general do not leave us with a terribly great outlook on Dasein’s current condition. It seems that Dasein is left helpless in a constant state of living alongside the world without any ground upon which to start a path to authentic being. One is born into this condition unable to appreciate its undifferentiated being so early on in life. By the time Dasein becomes aware of this condition and the affect that it has had on the disclosure of itself and the world around it, it is already too late to make a change strong enough to achieve a life of authentic being.
So, we find that it is left to the enlightened Dasein to raise its children with such ideas in mind.