The Vanity of Authenticity


Traditionally, phenomenology has understood the self in light of intentionality and hence the world. However, contemporary French phenomenology—as represented here by Jean-Luc Marion—contends that this view of subjectivity is open to challenge: our mode of existence is not simply one of “being-in the-world.” I develop this claim by examining Marion’s reformulation of the reduction. Here, the phenomenon of vanity is key. I first present Husserl’s and Heidegger’s own formulations of the reduction. Following Marion, I show that the blow of vanity neutralizes both, by undercutting the respective questions to which they respond. For, in response to vanity’s own question—“What’s the use?”—neither the transcendental nor ontological reductions have a reply. Vanity consequently renders the Heideggerian distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity existentially moot. To establish this, I evaluate how existing interpretations of authenticity overlook the phenomenon of vanity. Phenomenology, I urge in conclusion, should shift its attention to the horizons opened by Marion’s erotic reduction.

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  1. 1.

    For informative commentaries on Marion’s work vis-à-vis classical phenomenology, see Christina M. Gschwandtner’s Reading Jean-Luc Marion (2007) and Degrees of Givenness: Saturation in Jean-Luc Marion (2014), as well as “Jean-Luc Marion: the Phenomenology of Givenness” in Phenomenology in France: A Philosophical and Theological Introduction (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2019).

  2. 2.

    Marion, In Excess, 47

  3. 3.

    Marion discusses vanity elsewhere, most notably in The Idol and the Distance. However, I shall confine the discussion of his view of vanity to Le Phénomène érotique as it is there, more than anywhere else, that he addresses vanity’s import for the phenomenological reduction.

  4. 4.

    There is a colossal literature on Husserl’s treatment of the problem of intentionality. For some of the highlights, see Crowell (2001, 2013), Drummond (1990), Sokolowski (1970, 1999), Welton (2002), and Zahavi (1999, 2003, 2005).

  5. 5.

    Husserl, Ideas I, 113. It will be noted that, in some ways, to speak of the reduction in Husserl is somewhat misleading. Throughout his career, Husserl will develop different “ways” to the reduction—the ontological, the Cartesian, and so forth. And there are different kinds of reduction—the eidetic, etc. But the point is that, for us, Husserl’s thinking is always geared toward unveiling a mode of sense (Sinn) that in Marion’s estimation fails to recover a mode of givenness beyond that which is confined to adequation.

  6. 6.

    See Crowell (2001, 2013), Golob (2014), Haugeland (2013), and McManus (2015a, b).

  7. 7.

    For Heidegger’s perhaps most lengthy and lucid discussions of how his own discovery of being-in-the-world was due essentially to a radicalization of the question of intentionality which Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology had already opened, albeit only partially, see his 1925 History of the Concept of Time and 1927 The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. As he says there in 1925 with regard to the relation between his own question of Being and Husserl’s question of intentionality, the two essentially make one: “The task of bringing to light the Dasein’s existential constitution leads first of all to the twofold task, intrinsically one, of interpreting more radically the phenomenon of intentionality and transcendence” (1982, 162.) Heidegger’s Seinsfrage, therefore, is not the abandonment of the ambitions of Husserl’s transcendental philosophy, but instead its corrective consummation. It may nevertheless be objected that this way of characterizing intentionality begs the question against Husserl (or the analytic theorist): Is not being open to the world—in the sense of being-in-the-world—not something prior to intentionality, but is intentionality? For present purposes, it does not affect the point we will highlight. Regardless of how we view the nature of intentionality, the blow of vanity renders us radically indifferent to what it discloses.

  8. 8.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 230. All references to Being and Time are to the standard Macquerrie and Robinson translation.

  9. 9.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 187 and 193, respectively

  10. 10.

    Marion, 101

  11. 11.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 35

  12. 12.

    For the sake of argument, however, I am happy to concede that Heidegger thought explicitly posing the problem of Being as a problem is merely one way of appropriating possibilities, that fundamental ontology is not one’s truest “ownmost” authentic possibility. Even when this is granted, vanity annuls authenticity all the same. Irrespectively of whether or not one privileges fundamental ontology as something special above other worldly possibilities, it is still obliterated in the dark hour of vanity.

  13. 13.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 183

  14. 14.

    Marion, Réduction et donation, 114

  15. 15.

    The “Who” here, of course, is Dasein, the being which Being and Time characterizes as the being uniquely capable of posing the question of the meaning of Being in general. For Heidegger, Dasein is the being in whom that being is at issue—in short, Dasein is the being who, even prior to explicit philosophical reflection, is already working out the question of the meaning of its own being—and the meaning of Being itself in general. Philosophy, when done in the form of fundamental ontology, is therefore itself the explicit formalization of Dasein’s own prephilosophical mode of being. As Heidegger himself writes: “the question of Being is nothing other than the radicalization of an essential tendency-of-Being which belongs to Dasein itself—the pre-ontological understanding of Being” (SZ 35).

  16. 16.

    Marion, Le phénomene érotique: Six meditations, 37–8

  17. 17.

    I will introduce what Marion has shown that one question consists in to come, but for now, the issue before us is simply vanity’s mercilessness.

  18. 18.

    Here “trying” denotes what Heidegger means when he writes of Dasein in Sein und Zeit that Dasein is the being for whom, in that being, that very being is at issue or at stake. For the clearest analysis I know of what this trying consists in, see Steven Crowell’s discussion of it in Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (2013).

  19. 19.

    Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 60

  20. 20.

    Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 82–3

  21. 21.

    Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 95

  22. 22.

    Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 102

  23. 23.

    Marion, In the Self’s Place, 65

  24. 24.

    Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 123

  25. 25.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 331

  26. 26.

    Thomson (2015), “Death and Demise in Being and Time,” 270. For rival understandings of this ontological structure of Dasein, see Guignon (2015), Blattner (2015), McManus (2015a, b), Wrathall (2015), and Crowell (2015).

  27. 27.

    Heidegger, Introduction to Phenomenological Research, 21

  28. 28.

    Coyne, Heidegger’s Confessions: the Remains of Saint Augustine, 96, 88, and 76, respectively

  29. 29.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 189

  30. 30.

    This is a venerable hypothesis investigated by the patristics, then Pascal, and on to Kierkegaard (among others).

  31. 31.

    Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 280

  32. 32.

    Marion, Réduction et donation, 161

  33. 33.

    Marion, Le phénomene érotique, 40

  34. 34.

    Marion, Le phénomene érotique, 13

  35. 35.

    I do not mean to suggest that Marion is the only voice contributing to this undertaking. In this regard, one might immediately call to mind the work of Claude Romano, Emmanuel Falque, Jean-Yves Lacoste, and Jean-Louis Chrétien, who have all (in their own ways) done well to critically engage, and in important respects move beyond, some of the central assumptions of the Heideggerian philosophy.

  36. 36.

    Henry, “The Four Principles of Phenomenology,” 20

  37. 37.

    Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 20

  38. 38.

    Withy, “Owned Emotions: Affective Excellence in Heidegger on Aristotle,” 33; Blattner, “Essential guilt and transcendental conscience,” 131; Dandelet and Dreyfus, “Reordering the Beginning Chapters of Division Two of Being and Time,” 189; and Wrathall, “Autonomy, Authenticity, and the Self,” 213 in McManus (ed.) Heidegger, Authenticity, and Self: Themes from Division Tow of Being and Time.

  39. 39.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 179

  40. 40.

    For a wonderful meditation regarding the phenomenological law that governs the reciprocity between the two, see Jean-Louis Chrétien’s fittingly titled L’appel et la réponse (1992).

  41. 41.

    Marion, Réduction et donation, 289

  42. 42.

    Marion, Réduction et donation, 192

  43. 43.

    McManus, “Anxiety, choice and Responsibility in Heidegger’s Account of Authenticity,” 166–7

  44. 44.


  45. 45.

    McManus, “Anxiety, choice and Responsibility in Heidegger’s Account of Authenticity,” 178 and Crowell, “Responsibility, Autonomy, Affectivity: a Heideggerian Approach,” 238

  46. 46.

    Burch, “Death and Deliberation: Overcoming the Decisionism Critique of Heidegger’s Practical Philosophy,” 220

  47. 47.

    Burch, “Death and Deliberation: Overcoming the Decisionism Critique of Heidegger’s Practical Philosophy,” 222

  48. 48.


  49. 49.

    Burch, “Death and Deliberation: Overcoming the Decisionism Critique of Heidegger’s Practical Philosophy,” 212

  50. 50.

    McManus, “Anxiety, choice and Responsibility in Heidegger’s Account of Authenticity,” 181

  51. 51.


  52. 52.


  53. 53.


  54. 54.

    Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is a seventeenth-century encyclopedia of sorts, at once theological, philosophical, literary, anthropological, biological, and physiological, dedicated to a discussion of the melancholy of vanity. Its author was rumored to have hung himself due to depression. In any case, the text is, in every relevant respect, a very pre-modern work. We are therefore within our rights to conclude that vanity is hardly a new human experience. I owe thanks to Wayne Martin for having drawn my attention to Burton’s curious book, as well as the lore behind it.

  55. 55.

    Käufer, “Jaspers, limit-situations, and the methodological function of anxiety,” 208–9

  56. 56.

    Marion, The Erotic Reduction, 26

  57. 57.

    The claim here would be twofold. First, as Pascal and Kierkegaard have reminded us, the only form of life that overcomes the vanity of a worldly existence is the life that takes love as its measure. Second and correlatively, such a life proves to be one lived coram Deo.

  58. 58.

    Marion, The Erotic Reduction, 39–40

  59. 59.

    Marion, Le phénomene érotique, 118

  60. 60.

    Marion, The Erotic Reduction, 20

  61. 61.

    Marion, The Erotic Reduction, 21

  62. 62.

    Marion, Le phénomene érotique, 122

  63. 63.

    Henry, I am the Truth, 76

  64. 64.

    Marion, Étant donné, 327

  65. 65.

    For the most direct example of such an approach, see that work’s essay, “Dieu connaisable comme amiable.”

  66. 66.

    Lippitt, “Kierkegaard’s virtues? Humility and gratitude as the grounds of contentment, patience and hope in Kierkegaard’s moral psychology,” 147

  67. 67.

    Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 69

  68. 68.

    Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 53


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I owe thanks to Mark Wrathall, Joseph Schear, Crina Gschwandtner, Steven Crowell, Joshua Broggi, Stephen Lewis, Joseph Rivera, John Davenport, Sacha Golob, Matthew Burch, David Egan, Jack Marsh, and an anonymous referee for their feedback. I owe thanks also to audiences at the Post-Kantian Seminar in Oxford and Kings University College, Ontario.

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DeLay, S. The Vanity of Authenticity. SOPHIA (2019).

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  • Heidegger
  • Husserl
  • Love
  • Marion
  • Reduction
  • Vanity