Authenticity

Standard

In the NYT article titled “The Gospel According to Me” (Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster)

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/29/the-gospel-according-to-me/?_r=0

the authors bring our attention to the currently popular notion of “authenticity”, the idea that one ought to “be oneself”. Realizing “who I truly am” is seen as a value, as something I ought to pursue in an effort to transcend the pressures of work, family, relationships, the world in general. 

“The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!”

The authors conclude that “at the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others.”

Here is the account of Authenticity as encountered in existential philosophy:

Authenticity 

(From the article “Existentialism” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

By what standard are we to think our efforts “to be,” our manner of being a self? If such standards traditionally derive from the essence that a particular thing instantiates—this hammer is a good one if it instantiates what a hammer is supposed to be—and if there is nothing that a human being is, by its essence, supposed to be, can the meaning of existence at all be thought? Existentialism arises with the collapse of the idea that philosophy can provide substantive norms for existing, ones that specify particular ways of life. Nevertheless, there remains the distinction between what I do “as” myself and as “anyone,” so in this sense existing is something at which I can succeed or fail. Authenticity—in German, Eigentlichkeit—names that attitude in which I engage in my projects as my own (eigen).

What this means can perhaps be brought out by considering moral evaluations. In keeping my promise I act in accord with duty; and if I keep it because it is my duty, I also act morally (according to Kant) because I am acting for the sake of duty. But existentially there is still a further evaluation to be made. My moral act is inauthentic if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, I do so because that is what “one” does (what “moral people” do). But I can do the same thing authentically if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, acting this way is something I choose as my own, something to which, apart from its social sanction, I commit myself. Similarly, doing the right thing from a fixed and stable character—which virtue ethics considers a condition of the good—is not beyond the reach of existential evaluation: such character may simply be a product of my tendency to “do what one does,” including feeling “the right way” about things and betaking myself in appropriate ways as one is expected to do. But such character might also be a reflection of my choice of myself, acommitment I make to be a person of this sort. In both cases I have succeeded in being good; only in the latter case, however, have I succeeded in being myself.

Thus the norm of authenticity refers to a kind of “transparency” with regard to my situation, a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am. In choosing in light of this norm I can be said to recover myself from alienation, from my absorption in the anonymous “one-self” that characterizes me in my everyday engagement in the world. Authenticity thus indicates a certain kind of integrity—not that of a pre-given whole, an identity waiting to be discovered, but that of a project to which I can either commit myself (and thus “become” what it entails) or else simply occupy for a time, inauthentically drifting in and out of various affairs. Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative, that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual (Nehamas 1998; Ricoeur 1992). In contrast, the inauthentic life would be one without such integrity, one in which I allow my life-story to be dictated by the world. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard’s version of the legend. Even interpreted narratively, then, the norm of authenticity remains a formal one. As with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives. 

Thus the norm of authenticity refers to a kind of “transparency” with regard to my situation, a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am. In choosing in light of this norm I can be said to recover myself from alienation, from my absorption in the anonymous “one-self” that characterizes me in my everyday engagement in the world. Authenticity thus indicates a certain kind of integrity—not that of a pre-given whole, an identity waiting to be discovered, but that of a project to which I can either commit myself (and thus “become” what it entails) or else simply occupy for a time, inauthentically drifting in and out of various affairs. Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative, that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual (Nehamas 1998; Ricoeur 1992). In contrast, the inauthentic life would be one without such integrity, one in which I allow my life-story to be dictated by the world. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard’s version of the legend. Even interpreted narratively, then, the norm of authenticity remains a formal one. As with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives. 

Authenticity defines a condition on self-making: do I succeed in making myself, or will who I am merely be a function of the roles I find myself in? Thus to be authentic can also be thought as a way of being autonomous. In choosing “resolutely”—that is, in commiting myself to a certain course of action, a certain way of being in the world—I have given myself the rule that belongs to the role I come to adopt. The inauthentic person, in contrast, merely occupies such a role, and may do so “irresolutely,” without commitment. Being a father authentically does not necessarily make me a better father, but what it means to be a father has become explicitly my concern. It is here that existentialism locates the singularity of existence and identifies what is irreducible in the first-person stance. At the same time, authenticity does not hold out some specific way of life as a norm; that is, it does not distinguish between the projects that I might choose. Instead, it governs the manner in which I am engaged in such projects—either as “my own” or as “what one does,” transparently or opaquely.

Thus existentialism’s focus on authenticity leads to a distinctive stance toward ethics and value-theory generally. The possibility of authenticity is a mark of my freedom, and it is through freedom that existentialism approaches questions of value, leading to many of its most recognizable doctrines.