Authenticity is a somewhat ambiguous term, and yet many believe it to be very important. People strive for their own authenticity while admiring it in others. In modern times, authenticity tends to mean something like “being who you actually are on the inside” in a way that clears away the corrosion of social expectations to reveal the perfect gem of our authentic selves. But is it really that simple? What does it even mean to find some hidden inner authentic self? Is this even a helpful way of conceptualizing authenticity?
This post was inspired by this Quillette piece by Niamh Jiménez. In that article, Jiménez argues that authenticity is how we decide to live, and so our “authentic self” is always in flux, always becoming, always dynamic and not static. Authenticity is what we do, not what we are. It’s not some inner essence that’s been submerged under and obfuscated by the inauthentic contaminants of culture and social expectations. It’s not something that has to be uncovered through self-indulgence and navel-gazing. Authenticity is the choices we make, our reactions to conditions outside our control, and the exercise of existential freedom. Jiménez says near the end of her article:
One could argue that the contemporary ideal of authenticity is seductive precisely because it offers us a strategy of avoidance against the “ultimate concerns” [death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness] of our lives, while the existential concept is less attractive because it asks that we confront them. While existential authenticity hands us the burden of our own freedom by asking us to take ownership of our self-defining choices, contemporary authenticity shields us from this burden by asking that we simply surrender to a fixed, preordained self. When we accept the latter version, we apply to our living selves a word that is best kept for the world of objects.
We want to believe that authenticity is a final destination: the zenith of self-understanding or the growth fanatic’s nirvana. We want to believe that our true selves are waiting to be found, lurking in some forgotten interior place. We want to believe that the bad times are nothing more than predestined pit stops on the journey to self-fulfilment. And oh how comforting it would be to know that this journey was purposefully designed to be long and tortuous for the sake of supplying us with fortune-cookie life lessons at each hairpin bend. But despite the strength of our longings, it is far more likely that our true selves are in the process of being continually created rather than found.
Based on the distinction Niamh Jiménez makes, in what follows I will be making the distinction between the essentialist and the existential sense of authenticity. The essentialist sense of authenticity says that that our authentic self is some kind of static or eternal inner essence that can be discovered instead of created. The existentialist sense of authenticity says our authentic self is the choices we make and is therefore created rather than discovered.
The article from which the main image above was taken says this about authenticity:
Authenticity generally reflects the extent to which an individual’s core or true self is operative on a day-to-day basis. Psychologists characterize authenticity as multiple interrelated processes that have important implications for psychological functioning and well-being. Specifically, authenticity is expressed in the dynamic operation of four components: awareness (i.e., self-understanding), unbiased processing (i.e., objective self-evaluation), behavior (i.e., actions congruent with core needs, values, preferences), and relational orientation (i.e., sincerity within close relationships). Research findings indicate that each of these components relates to various aspects of healthy psychological and interpersonal adjustment.
I think this is definitely more in line with the essentialist sense of authenticity, though it does bring in components that don’t make the essentialist sense appear so flattened. Yet, because it is essentialist, it does take the position that the authentic self is some inner, inviolable essence that can be uncovered through reflection and self-improvement, the result of which is a more self-actualized version of oneself. But, as Jiménez’s article makes clear, it isn’t so simple as all that.
I think a lot of media feeds us the essentialist sense of authenticity. Narratives in movies, TV shows, and novels are often about people becoming who they are meant to be or discovering who they really are on the inside. The events between the beginning and end of the story are all things that needed to happen in order to peel away those inauthentic contaminants weighing down the protagonist and preventing them from reaching their full potential. In the cliché of romantic comedies, this is almost literal, when the protagonist at the beginning of the movie quits their job or leaves the lover they were about to marry in order to “find themselves” and/or to pursue the person they know they’re meant to be with at the end of the movie (often before they even know anything substantial about the “soul mate” they with to pursue).
We also love redemption arcs for antagonist/antihero characters because it appeals to our own sense that the mistakes and bad choices we make and the misfortunes that befall us hold some larger meaning, that “things happen for a reason” and are therefore not random or meaningless, or worse that it means we are not a good person “on the inside”. We like to see ourselves as protagonists in the great story of our lives, learning lessons and following a narrative arc that always moves us further in the direction of who we are destined to be.
Yet, it’s difficult to say in which direction the causality points. Does media program us into taking on an essentialist conception of authenticity? Or does the media reflect a common (perhaps innate) human sentiment about how individuals (or groups) view their own narrative identity? Or is there some recursive interplay creating a positive feedback loop?
Regardless of where the essentialist sense of authenticity originates, this existentialist/essentialist dichotomy is not the only way to try conceptualizing this slippery notion of authenticity. In what follows I will propose a typology of different kinds of authenticity in hopes of clarifying what people mean (and perhaps give us a better idea of what they should mean) when talking about authenticity. I contend there are six types of authenticity:
- (Self) Discipline
I’ll discuss each in turn.
This is the form of authenticity that, in a Kantian sense, means treating oneself as an end and not just as a means. In the existential sense, it means not living in “bad faith” as Sartre would describe it. Jiménez quotes Sartre on people living in bad faith:
Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as a ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavour to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer. … There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.
And then she says
Existential guilt says that we are falling short of the people whom we might have become. Sole identification with any single facet of our being—even if that facet is one’s highly praised, indefatigable drive to succeed—not only creates the illusion of choicelessness but imparts a narrow view of our potential. Within this context, Heidegger reminds us of the debt (Schuld) we owe to ourselves. Personally, I remained blissfully unaware of this debt until the age of 24, when, having developed an energy-limiting chronic illness, I faced one of the most difficult decisions of my life. Barely able to be out of my bed for more than a couple of hours at a time, I chose to leave a fully funded organic chemistry doctorate at Oxford University.
It was only possible to make this decision by deliberately stepping outside of the role that I had assigned to myself. And having worked frenetically to satisfy its requirements for almost a decade, turning away was no easy task. It was simply absurd to one day discover that I was too weak to lift solvent bottles or to stand long enough to perform purifications of my chemical products. I had no idea who I was outside of my functions as an organic chemist—all those deeply ingrained movements and mystical rituals. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to deny myself the possibility of being anything else.
More pithily she says: “Perhaps the simplest definition of inauthenticity is this: believing that there wasn’t a choice when there was one.“
My own experience with alcoholism is very reminiscent of hers with anorexia: because of my increasingly uncontrollable addiction, I had to drop out of a biochemistry doctoral program at the University of Colorado, Boulder (I had at least completed enough to be given a Masters degree). Yet, for me, I think the decision to drop out was made easier in that I hadn’t truly taken on an identify as a biochemist. The thought of completely devoting my life to that one pursuit didn’t appeal to me and probably would not have happened even if I hadn’t dropped out (it indeed hasn’t happened yet, even though I do have a Masters degree). Certainly I would have ended up getting a job in the field, but to be even an average researcher (much less a great one) means a person has to eat, sleep, and breathe research (and grant proposal writing).
But anyway, the reason I’ve put the deontological and existential together is that Sartre’s concept of “bad faith” is similar to the Kantian notion of treating oneself as a means instead of an end. A person existing in “bad faith” is someone who has reduced themselves to the function they perform. They convince themselves that they could not have done otherwise than engaging in behavior Y, since “X is what I am (it is my essence)” and “someone who is X must perform function Y” so “therefore I must perform function Y.”
The deontological/existential form of authenticity, then, is recognizing one’s own freedom to act, and that who one “is” is not just determined by their choices (nor are their choices “reflective” of some deeper inner self), but one just is their choices. If you are someone who constantly makes decisions that hurt those around you, then you are those decisions (you are someone who hurts those around them, not someone good “on the inside” who only incidentally hurts those around them). Those things you have chosen to do are your authentic self. No argument about “that’s what people born in my situation do” or “I was just following orders” or “I’m an X, and people who are X must do Y” will get you off the hook. In existentialist philosophy, there was always a choice, and the choice you made is who you are.
This sounds grim, especially if you harbor a lot of regret. However, in existentialist philosophy, it is also the case that your authentic self is not completely determined your past decisions. You can always choose to change, to start making different choices. It’s difficult, but that is part of what Sartre means when he says we are condemned to be free: we have nobody to tell us the right things to do and we are ultimately only beholden to ourselves.
A note on freedom: I don’t believe in free will, yet I think it is a useful fiction. Since no individual human, or committee of humans, can ever hope to have all the relevant information to be a sort of Laplace’s demon, the idea of free will is sort of like allowing for error bars on our future predictions. To say that we have free will is just to say that we don’t know what will happen in the future.
I have been using the distinction between existentialist and essentialist authenticity, the former being the processual form advocated by Jiménez and the latter the form used in popular culture, social media, and by self-help gurus. But there is another important distinction to be made when it comes to authenticity: when we say, for example, that some object is authentic, we usually mean that it is typical of its kind, i.e., that it conforms to a standard or is close to a prototype. When we say a person is authentic (in the essentialist sense), we usually mean that they don’t conform to a standard, that they’re unique and move to the beat of their own drum, that they defy convention, that they’re a leader and not a follower.
Yet, in speaking of authenticity, we do sometimes mean this almost opposite to the popular essentialist notion. I call this genuineness because often when we think of something being authentic, we mean that it is genuinely the thing that it purports to be, that it is the genuine article, that “this object X is a genuine, bona fide token of a Y.”
This is often used when talking about objects. If you are buying a Rolex, for instance, you want to know that the watch you are buying is an authentic (genuine) Rolex and not a knockoff. People make fun of vegan hamburgers because they are not authentic (genuine) hamburgers because they fail to satisfy the person’s necessary and sufficient conditions for hamburgerness (i.e., they are not composed of dead animal flesh). People prefer diamonds that are mined from the earth (even if they contain some imperfections) to ones made in a laboratory (even if they are completely flawless) because it feels like there is something more authentic (genuine) about naturally occurring diamonds.
But we often use this version of authenticity when talking about people, too. There is a lot of stock that people put into being, say, authentically black, or being an authentic geek, or being authentically a metalhead, and so on. Interestingly, when we use this form of authenticity, it can contradict the deontological/existential sense of authenticity: “I’m black, so I have to do X, Y, and Z” or “I’m a geek so I have to enjoy this” or “I’m a metalhead so I need to dress like that.”
It’s interesting that there are these two competing senses of authenticity: one where authenticity has to do with uniqueness and failing to slot into a category, and the other that has to do with being typical of its assigned category. This is why I think, especially for the genuineness sense of authenticity, having a different word for it is most helpful in clearing up the ambiguity in the concept of authenticity. This post is unlikely to prompt wide adoption of this linguistic change, but it’s at least something for you to consider when thinking about authenticity.
This is the form of authenticity that says we are who/what we claim to be or portray ourselves to be. In other words, being authentic in the sincere sense means we are not liars or hypocrites, that we don’t put on airs or misrepresent who we are, that we live (or at least strive to live) with minimal contradiction or cognitive dissonance.
This is the sense of authenticity that I think gets closest to the popular essentialist notion of authenticity. Yet, I think sincerity can work with the existentialist sense of authenticity as well. One way would be to not live in Sartre’s “bad faith” but instead be truthful with the fact that we are in control of our own decisions. Another way, though, would be in not misrepresenting ourselves for cynical reasons.
However, things can get a bit tricky when trying to square the sincerity and existentialist forms of authenticity. If being a cynical opportunist who constantly deceives others to gain advantage is who a person authentically is (because that is the choices they make), then are they being insincere when they engage in these behaviors? It’s similar to the issue with saying that something humans do is unnatural when a person could argue “but isn’t doing this thing something humans naturally want or tend to do?” If we are to take the existentialist sense of authenticity, then a person is only what they do, so being a cynical opportunist just is saying or doing whatever one can in order to gain advantage in any situation. There is no “true self” beneath that, the revealing of which could be said to be sincere.
Thus, I might posit a qualification to sincerity, and that would integrity. The dictionary says that integrity means “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” This qualification could lead us down a whole new rabbit hole (especially if we interrogate what is meant by moral uprightness), but if we take the prima facie meaning from the dictionary, then adding the integrity qualification helps exclude from satisfying the sincerity form of authenticity those who are cynical opportunists. In a way this seems a little ad hoc, yet I think most people would agree that sincerity means something more than just “being true to one’s nature, even if that nature is behaving in ways that are unsavory or dishonest.”
There is also a common misconception with sincerity that says our most uninhibited self is our most sincere self. It’s often said, for instance, that a person who is drunk and has their inhibitions lowered is at their most honest, and in a way are freer to be more authentically (sincerely) themselves. But isn’t what we choose to inhibit as much a part of ourselves as what we don’t inhibit? Learning to inhibit our baser instincts is what makes us authentically human, isn’t it? It’s why humanness can in many ways be defined by our possessing a much larger frontal lobe than any other species (relative to our size), where executive functions (such as inhibiting immediate desires in order to pursue long-term goals) are processed.
I like what Jiménez says in the Quillette piece:
As romantic as the idea of uninhibited self-expression can be, the reality is distinctly less attractive. One might even wonder how the benefits of this kind of “authenticity” are not far outweighed by the almost guaranteed social rejection. Infants—still under the spell of their own magical omnipotence—demand what they want without hesitation or self-restraint. They are, some might think, little authenticity machines worth emulating. But reality proves otherwise. While the often inappropriate observations of children are usually met with affection and laughter, my grandmother’s remarks about people’s wonky teeth failed to elicit the same positive response.
And yet, it can feel surprisingly good to believe that we each have inside of us an “inner child” or a “true self” just waiting to be released, not unlike the embryonic xenomorph in Alien’s iconic chest bursting scene. It feels good because it supplies us with a simple, tangible solution to a much more complex existential reality: reverse your own social conditioning (i.e., let your “inner child” out of its box) and you won’t feel cheated any longer. There is however one major problem with this popular formula. What we have rejected as our “inauthenticity” or our “infidelity” to true self or our estrangement from our “inner child” is one of the inescapable conditions of being a social animal.
Freud’s dynamic model of the human mind—flawed though revolutionary for its time—held that this very conflict between the demands of one’s interior and exterior lives is central to the human condition. For the rest of our days, we will be haunted by inner impulses, feelings, and thoughts which we will not, for a multitude of reasons, be in a position to act upon or openly communicate. This feeling of tension speaks not only of stifling social constraints but of our deep human sensitivity to the expectations and requirements of cooperative living. Since this sensitivity is crucial to the functioning of our society, the ensuing discomfort or sense of dissonance cannot and should not be fully eliminated.
Who we sincerely are is just as much about what we inhibit or choose not to do as it is about what we might do while uninhibited (perhaps while under the influence of alcohol). This notion that the authentic (sincere) self is pure Freudian id is rather bizarre. Not only would it be unsustainable and undesirable to have everyone (or even just a significant portion of people) live mostly uninhibited in this way, but it completely ignores an important part about who we are as human beings and as individuals exercising our (authentic) will. Indeed, should we simply allow ourselves to give in to our passing desires and intrusive thoughts, that would literally remove the ability to make choices and control ourselves. I can’t think of anything less authentic than being driven by appetite and immediate whim.
Most people are aware of the double bind that if you are a conformist, then you adhere to common cultural and preferential thoughts and behaviors, but if you are a non-conformist who actively spurns the conventional and the “basic” then you are just as shaped by those things as the conformist. Many subcultures that pride themselves on non-conformity simply replace the prevailing cultural conventions with their own group idiosyncrasies. For example, if you are a metalhead, you might scorn popular fashions and attitudes, but you will likely take up the ones that make a person an “authentic” metalhead (long hair, band shirts, jeans, etc.); those who don’t are posers and “not real (authentic) metalheads”.
The point is, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to be truly free of outside influence. But this is what I mean by independence, that a person is not unduly influenced by passing trends, obsolete traditions, or tedious norms. Somebody who is a trailblazer or innovator is often thought to be authentic. Indeed, this independence form of authenticity is another important aspect in the popular essentialist sense of authenticity: someone is authentic if they buck trends, flout conventions, and only incidentally observe social norms. It’s why, for instance, the notion discussed above, that our authentic self is our inner-child or uninhibited self is prevalent in the common essentialist sense of authenticity: someone driven primarily by their “inner child” will ignore social norms and etiquette the way a toddler does. That’s why, for instance, eccentric characters like the manic pixie dream girl, cloudcuckoolander, or the Wonka are such beloved tropes (especially among those who are overly concerned with authenticity).
Being independent does not necessarily mean going to the extremes of those tropes (indeed, I would say that going to those extremes would require one to be inauthentic just to achieve that level of absurdity). There is a bit of a golden mean to this, wherein a person is authentic in the independence sense if they are not forming beliefs and engaging in behaviors purely based on external pressures (whether adopting those prevailing beliefs and behaviors or rejecting them on the basis that they are popular). If, for instance, someone enjoys scented candles and pumpkin spice lattes because they enjoy the smell and taste of those things, not because “it’s what someone like me is supposed to enjoy” or because “it’s what all my friends are doing and I want to fit in” then that person is still capable of being authentic in the independence sense (likewise for those who don’t like those things for reasons other than because those things are widely considered basic).
Conscientiousness is authenticity in the sense of being in touch with our own inner desires, but also our own inner desire to have certain inner desires. For instance, an alcoholic may desire to drink alcohol, which is authentic in some way, but they may also desire not to have the desire to drink, which is authentic in its own way as well. Being conscientious is then the ability to be in touch with our desires and where they originate, but also our meta-desires, and meta-meta-desires, and so on.
This is the kind of authenticity where things can become navel-gazey, where we want to be in touch with some deeper sense of self-hood, where we seek self-improvement and self-actualization, where we ask questions like “is this what I really want? Or just what I think I want?”
This might seem at odds with the existentialist form of authenticity, but it’s not mutually exclusive. Being able to self-reflect and examine our motives and drives is what can help us overcome our “inner child” notion of authenticity and make more conscious, informed decisions. Someone who is very conscientious of their own biases and shortcomings is someone who can make decisions more in line with what is good for themselves in the long run. Someone who understands where certain desires originate and can then choose to act on those desires or inhibit them (or at least to seek out help in inhibiting them, e.g., the addict) is someone who can make better choices, thereby taking control over the creation of their authentic self.
The conscientious sense of authenticity does not have to be a search for some essence or inner child, as Jiménez warns against. Indeed, I would argue that it takes an authentic sort of conscientiousness to realize that such notions of authenticity are shallow bromides that don’t really get at what authentic authenticity authentically is. It allows us to determine the source of our desires and motivations, to distinguish what’s in our best interests and what is just a passing whim or intrusive thought, and allows us to reflect and learn from past mistakes (and successes). A person who uncritically accepts the uninhibited/inner-child notion of authenticity is being inauthentic because they are not conscious of what they truly desire (or meta-desire, or meta-meta-desire, etc.). This leads right into the next kind of authenticity.
Discipline (and self-discipline) is inexorably tied with conscientiousness, especially the notion of being able to differentiate and separate baser desires from higher-order desires (e.g., the alcoholic wanting to drink and the alcoholic wanting to stop drinking, respectively). This is where our inhibitions come into play insofar as they are a necessary ingredient in authenticity. The inner child is the complete lack of any discipline; having discipline means being able to inhibit ourselves and our immediate desires when we must, to think in the long-term, to be able to accept gradual improvement and not give up after a setback.
Indeed, we often admire those who are disciplined. Those who practice something they’re bad at until they acquire the skills, or those who persevere in the face of adversity in order to overcome obstacles or personal shortcomings, are the kind of people who are the definition of admirable. I would argue that the modern fascination with advertising (virtue signaling) our various handicaps and membership in marginalized groups is, in part, a way of indicating that we are someone who perseveres simply by continuing to exist. In other words, it’s a way of making ourselves appear disciplined without actually having to be disciplined. But, the point is, there is a certain sense of authenticity we perceive when someone is (self) disciplined.
I say self-disciplined because there is still some sense that a person whose motivation comes from within is more authentic than someone who is disciplined simply because something in the external world is pressuring them to do something. The kid who teaches themselves how to play the piano seems more admirable than the child whose parents forced them into it. Clearly, external pressure to do something doesn’t preclude the behavior from being authentic (or admirable), which is why I put “self” in parentheses, since even when there is external pressure there still has to be an internal drive to not just completely give up (the kid being forced to learn piano could just flat our refuse and suffer whatever consequences may follow).
Discipline is also the sense of authenticity that covers responsibility. It means performing our duties and taking responsibility for ourselves and those who depend on us. Someone who shirks duties or passes the buck is inauthentic because these things are a form of deception, both to oneself and to those around them. If anything can be said to be inauthentic, its deception and untruth. As such, discipline, as authenticity, also means acceptance of the truth, even when we don’t like it. The truth about the world and about ourselves. Living in denial, or allowing personal preferences and biases blind us to what is real, is what our inner child, lacking skills in critical thinking, would do. But there is nothing authentic about living by lies.
Duty might seem almost antithetical to authenticity. Isn’t performing a duty doing something simply because it has to be done rather than because it’s something our authentic self would want to do? I think there are certain things commonly thought of as duties that would fit this bill. Something that comes to mind now is what is going on in Iran (as of writing this on October 25, 2022). In Iran it might be a duty for women to cover their hair (by law and even by cultural norm), but I would say that the protesters are being authentic by eschewing this duty.
But there are duties where it is more authentic to carry them out. Think, for instance, of a single mother working two jobs to feed her children: wouldn’t we say there is something very authentic about such a person? This is someone who does the right thing even if it’s not the easy or comfortable thing to do. There is an authenticity to the sort of “working class hero” who does what needs to be done, who doesn’t just quit or give up, who doesn’t give in to the sort of “inner-child” pleasure seeking that those in the upper-classes have the luxury to misconstrue as authenticity.
As usual with these sorts of typologies, there are almost certainly more that could be added, removed, disambiguated, recombined, and so on. This is supposed to be an exercise in getting us thinking critically about the concept of authenticity. Certainly if anyone has suggestions, comments, critiques, or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.
One thing I think we can take away from all this is that there is no tried-and-true formula for what makes someone authentic (or for making ourselves more authentic). The genuine sense of authenticity is completely at odds with the popular essentialist notion of authenticity. But even if we ignore that one, the others still don’t fit neatly into the existentialist/essentialist dichotomy I’ve been using throughout. Being disciplined, for instance, can mean doing things that are antithetical to our uninhibited/inner-child sort of essentialist authenticity, but also may appear at first glance to be acting in bad faith insofar as a person performing a duty is in a sense reducing themselves to their function (e.g., the single mother working two jobs has “reduced” herself to the role of single mother). Conscientiousness, on the other hand, seems like it fits the essentialist form of authenticity like a glove, yet it is not mutually exclusive with the existentialist form (and even complements it in important ways).
Yet, I would argue that the critical search for a meaningful concept of authenticity is a precondition for being authentic. An uncritical acceptance of some flattened version of authenticity will mean adopting a very inauthentic form of oneself. As such, consider this post a propaedeutic to the creation of our authentic self.