Authenticity is a philosophical concept that denotes the genuine, original, true state of human existence. The concept arises from the insights that human beings generally live or exist in an inauthentic way and that the genuine sense of self and its relationship with others (including God and/or other people), have been lost. The authentic life is often described as a life of freedom, joy, meaning, value, and happiness.
Religious traditions generally incorporate such insights into their teachings, which often emphasize the restoration of an authentic self and society. In philosophy, the concept has also been discussed by many thinkers. According to Existentialists, who formally thematized the concept of authenticity, social relationships, cultural values, and norms construct an inauthentic self; the recovery of the authentic self requires a radical reexamination of cultural contexts, habitual lifestyles, and ways of thinking.
If authenticity can only be described in very abstract terms, or as the negative of inauthenticity, what can be said about it directly? All writers generally agree that authenticity is:
- Something to be pursued as a goal intrinsic to “the good life.”
- Intrinsically difficult, due in part to social pressures to live inauthentically, and in part due to a person’s own character.
- A revelatory state, where one perceives oneself, other people, and sometimes even things, in a radically new way.
One might add that many, though not all, writers have agreed that authenticity also:
- Requires self-knowledge.
- Alters radically one’s relationships with others (God and/or people).
- Carries with it its own set of moral obligations.
The notion of authenticity also fits in to utopian ideas, in as much as many believe that a utopia:
- Requires authenticity among its citizens to exist, or
- Would remove physical and economic barriers to pursuing authenticity.
Religious traditions generally contain the concept of authenticity. Based upon the insight that human beings are vulnerable to various temptations, religions offer teachings, practical methodologies, rituals, trainings, institutionalized mechanism, and other ways to allow human beings to recover an authentic self and life. The concept of salvation, for example, is built upon the idea that there is some authentic state of being.
The concept of authenticity can be applied to almost all key concepts in religious teachings. It functions to distinguish religious ideals from secular notions. For example, religious teachings often distinguish genuine happiness, which is built upon spiritual awakening or oneness with the divine or some other spiritual element, from secular happiness built upon material wealth and secular values alone. Genuine joy is also distinguished from hedonistic pleasure in a pejorative sense. Even genuine love is distinguished from a secular notion of love. Authenticity separates and establishes the religious realm or the sacred realm in sharp contrast with the mundane or secular realm. Thus, religious teachings are, in a sense, attempts to present an authentic way of life to the world. Religious teachings challenge people, who would otherwise continue to live as they are, to question the way they live.
The concept of authenticity has been discussed in diverse ways throughout philosophical history. For example, Socrates’s dictums, such as, “Unexamined life is not worth living,” or “Know yourself,” can be seen as his attempts to lead others to the discovery of the authentic self and way of life. Kierkegaard examined the loss of the genuine self in the mass, in society, and tried to present the process of recovering the authentic self within a theistic context. Other existential thinkers such as Nietzsche, Pascal, Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Sartre equally discussed the issue of authenticity and developed various ways to deal with the issue.
The term eigentlich (authentic) in German contains the element of eigen (“one’s own”). Authenticity, thus, includes the element of “one’s own unique self.” Accordingly, recovery of authenticity, at least in German, implies the recovery of one’s own unique identity. When existential thinkers speak of authenticity, they often include this element and contrast the unique self against the concept of mass, in which the individual is no more than just a number.
Existential philosophers build the element of authenticity into their own philosophical thought and configure it according to central themes of their works. Accordingly, the way each philosopher deals with authenticity is different and expositions of their views of authenticity are not straightforward. Only a few are introduced below as examples.
Kierkegaard criticized the philosophical systems that were brought on by philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel before him and the Danish Hegelians, although Kierkegaard respected the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He measured himself against the model of philosophy which he found in Socrates, which aims to draw one’s attention not to explanatory systems, but rather to the issue of how one exists.
One of Kierkegaard’s recurrent themes is the importance of subjectivity, which has to do with the way people relate themselves to (objective) truths. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, he argues that “subjectivity is truth” and “truth is subjectivity.” What he means by this is that most essentially, truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those matters of fact. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity.
For Kierkegaard, true individuality is called selfhood. Becoming aware of true self is the true task and endeavor in life—it is an ethical imperative, as well as preparatory to a true religious understanding. Individuals can exist at a level that is less than true selfhood. One can live, for example, simply in terms of pleasures—the immediate satisfaction of desires, propensities, or distractions. In this way, people glide through life without direction or purpose. To have a direction, one must have a purpose that defines for him the meaning of his lives.
In Sickness Unto Death, specifically, Kierkegaard deals with the self as a product of relations. In this sense, a human results from a relation between the Infinite (Noumena, spirit, eternal) and Finite (Phenomena, body, temporal). This does not create a true self, as a human can live without a “self” as he defines it. Instead, the Self or ability for the self to be created from a relation to the Absolute or God (the Self can only be realized through a relation to God) arises as a relation between the relation of the Finite and Infinite relating back to the human. This would be a positive relation.
An individual person, for Kierkegaard, is a particular that no abstract formula or definition can ever capture. Including the individual in “the public” (or “the crowd” or “the herd”) or subsuming a human being as simply a member of a species is a reduction of the true meaning of life for individuals. What philosophy or politics try to do is to categorize and pigeonhole individuals by group characteristics instead of individual differences. For Kierkegaard, those differences are what make people who they are.
Kierkegaard’s critique of the modern age, therefore, is about the loss of what it means to be an individual. Modern society contributes to this dissolution of what it means to be an individual. Through its production of the false idol of “the public,” it diverts attention away from individuals to a mass public that loses itself in abstractions, communal dreams, and fantasies. It is helped in this task by the media and the mass production of products to keep it distracted. Although Kierkegaard attacked “the public,” he is supportive of communities.
Sartre and others
Secular and religious notions of authenticity have coexisted for centuries under different guises. For these writers, the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces and influences which are very different from itself; authenticity is one way in which the self acts and changes in response to these pressures.
Authenticity is often “at the limits” of language; it is described as the negative space around inauthenticity, with reference to examples of inauthentic living. Sartre’s novels are perhaps the easiest access to this mode of describing authenticity: they often contain characters and anti-heroes who base their actions on external pressures—the pressure to appear to be a certain kind of person, the pressure to adopt a particular mode of living, the pressure to ignore one’s own moral and aesthetic objections in order to have a more comfortable existence. His work also includes characters who do not understand their own reasons for acting, or who ignore crucial facts about their own lives in order to avoid uncomfortable truths; this connects his work with the philosophical tradition.
Sartre is concerned also with the “vertiginous” experience of absolute freedom. Under Sartre’s view, this experience, necessary for the state of authenticity, can be sufficiently unpleasant that it leads people to inauthentic ways of living.
These considerations aside, it is the case that authenticity has been associated with various cultural activities. For Sartre, Jazz music, for example, was a representation of freedom; this may have been in part because Jazz was associated with African-American culture, and was thus in opposition to Western culture generally, which Sartre considered hopelessly inauthentic. Theodor Adorno, however, another writer and philosopher concerned with the notion of authenticity, despised Jazz music because he saw it as a false representation that could give the appearance of authenticity but that was as much bound up in concerns with appearance and audience as many other forms of art. Heidegger, in his later life, associated authenticity with non-technological modes of existence, seeing technology as distorting a more “authentic” relationship with the natural world.
Most writers on inauthenticity in the twentieth century considered the predominant cultural norms to be inauthentic; not only because they were seen as forced on people, but also because, in themselves, they required people to behave inauthentically towards their own desires, obscuring true reasons for acting. Advertising, in as much as it attempted to give people a reason for doing something that they did not already possess, was a “textbook” example of how Western culture distorted the individual for external reasons. Race relations are seen as another limit on authenticity, as they demand that the self engage with others on the basis of external attributes. An early example of the connection between inauthenticity and capitalism was made by Karl Marx, whose notion of “alienation” can be linked to the later discourse on the nature of inauthenticity.
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia