Very much like Daoism itself, there are many voices within existentialism , and not all of them ever in fact identified as existentialist. The best known strain has its point of departure in phenomenology, beginning with Husserl, preceding through Heidegger and Sartre. If I have not already turned you off, let me say here that my understanding of phenomenology is very simplistic and I have no intention of attempting to go beyond that.  For me, phenomenology simple means the study of experience as it manifests without the imposition of preconceived ideas. It describes rather than explains. Our engagement with that experience is thus immediate and existential. We ask how we might best respond rather than how we can make sense of it.

A good example of how this works can be seen in our self-experience. Taken as actually experienced, no concrete entity, the “self”, can be identified. It’s all very fleeting and tentative. Zhuangzi explores this experience and attempts to align his actual living with it. Our more default response, on the other hand, is to posit some form of reified self, a soul or true self that relieves us of our fear of ambiguity and doubt and our own possible non-being.

This is where authenticity comes in. Which of these responses best reflects actual experience? Which one best enables us to live life as it actually manifests whatever difficulties that might result?

Zhuangzi’s description of the actual human condition is phenomenological. “Worn and exhausted to the point of collapse, never knowing what it all amounts to—how can you not lament this” (2:11; Ziporyn)? He sees this as somewhat unavoidable, but he also sees the artificial imposition of redemptive formulae as only adding more suffering. “If you regard what you have received as fully formed once and for all, unable to forget it, all the time it survives is just a vigil spent waiting for its end.” Deeming our self as a real and concrete entity only serves to exacerbate our suffering. All Zhuangzi’s philosophy is an attempt to avoid such idealistic fantasies in favor of harmonizing with our actual experience.

Authenticity, though it has its own special challenges, is preferable to inauthenticity in that it accommodates to life as it actually manifests and that leads to a happier experience. All this is predicated on the exercise of a critical self-awareness, however. Where that does not exist, as it presumably does not among non-human species, there is no need for it to be otherwise.

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