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The Limits of Authenticity

Ben G. Yacobi asks if it is possible to live authentically.

We are told: “To thine own self be true!” But what do we mean if we say that somebody is an authentic person, or a very genuine person? Personal authenticity is often defined as being true and honest with oneself and others, having a credibility in one’s words and behavior, and an absence of pretence. Its meaning is then often clarified by contrasting it to inauthenticity, like comparing light to darkness. But in the absence of any clear criteria for judging authenticity, the boundaries between being authentic and being inauthentic are amorphous and uncertain, and often porous.

The quest for authenticity is in part related to achieving some measure of autonomy and freedom – to the desire to be the architect of one’s own life. Striving for personal authenticity provides an antidote to outside conditioning, and to some extent is a reaction to the inauthenticity prevalent in culture, religion, politics, and everyday life. A desire for authenticity is also essential for the discovery of the truth, and for finding fulfillment in life, making it more meaningful and comprehensible. In general, a state of inauthenticity can be a source of profound dissonance, prompting people to try to become more authentic, in harmony in their inner and outer lives.

Becoming authentic is an individual mission, since each person has their own way of being human, and consequently what is authentic will be different for each individual. Furthermore, personal authenticity is highly contextual, and depends on various social, political, religious and cultural characteristics. But the unique nature of each individual is best seen not in who he is, but in who he becomes, and becoming authentic is a continuous process, not an event. It involves not just knowing oneself, but also recognizing others and the mutual influence between individuals. If the quest for personal authenticity is just for self-fulfillment, then it is individualistic and ego-based; but if it is accompanied with the awareness of others and the wider world, then it can be a worthwhile goal.

Philosophies of Authenticity

The concept of authenticity has been explored throughout history by many writers, from ancient Greek philosophers to Enlightenment authors, to existentialists and contemporary social theorists. The social barrier to achieving authenticity (or self-realization) was emphasized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), who argued that personal authenticity is diminished by the need for the esteem of others in societies characterized by hierarchy, inequality, and interdependence. According to Rousseau, authenticity is derived from the natural self, whereas inauthenticity is a result of external influences.

The existential philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) said that authenticity is choosing the nature of one’s existence and identity. He also linked authenticity to an awareness of mortality, since only by keeping in mind one’s inevitable death can one lead a truly authentic life. His project of realizing one’s identity in the context of an external world with its influences, implies a complex relationship between authenticity and inauthenticity which means that they should be viewed not as mutually exclusive concepts, but as complementary and interdependent. Heidegger argued that both authenticity and inauthenticity are basic forms of being in the world, and they cannot be separated.

Another existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), argued that there is no unchanging essence to the self, but we have a free will that allows us complete freedom to determine our lives from the choices available. According to Sartre, existence precedes essence: in other words, the human being first comes into existence and then continually defines oneself, rather than coming into being with an already given nature. So for Sartre, authenticity requires taking full responsibility for our life, choices and actions. Therefore the anxiety or ‘angst’ which results from our realisation of our own inescapable freedom is an integral part of authentic living. However, it should be emphasized that the individual’s freedom is constrained by nature and society, as well as by their own limitations – what Sartre called their ‘facticity’.

Albert Camus (1913-60) claimed that the awareness that we inhabit a universe which doesn’t care about us and offers us no salvation compels the individual to recognize that the only path to freedom is authentic self-realization. To be authentic, one must be aware of the absurdity of a world with no objective morality and purpose, and create meaning in life through rebellion against the absurdity. Such personal authenticity emerges from a disregard for any (non-existent) external consolation, and implies that the individual exists in a permanent exile, alienated from their own life, society and the universe.

Nevertheless the world has no specific inclination for either good or evil: it is what it is. No value judgements can be attached to it, even if life does not make sense from a human perspective.

These philosophical views on personal authenticity vary, but there is a common theme of personal authenticity as a dynamic process of endless becoming in a changing society and world, rather than a fixed state of being. And authenticity and inauthenticity should not be considered as mutually exclusive states, but rather as mutually dependent concepts.

Some Basic Qualifications

The concept of ‘authenticity’ is a human construct, and as such it has no reality independent of minds. But is authenticity possible, or even desirable? The question is possibly misleading as it implies an absolute yes or no answer, and does not allude to any possibility of ‘partial authenticity’. This steers us toward an interpretation of the concept of authenticity as an absolute, but in general the search for absolutes is fruitless. So let’s consider some things that can limit absolute authenticity.

Some argue that authenticity is impossible to achieve as an ongoing state of being, since any real authenticity is transient and impossible to maintain indefinitely. And like identity, authenticity cannot be adequately defined or measured, since many characteristics of an individual are in constant change, with no fixed reference points. Individuals undergo changes throughout life with the deluge of observations and interpretations, so human identity is multidimensional and dynamic; it is a work in progress rather than a fixed state. Therefore, attaining some measure of personal authenticity is a lifelong project that may never be fully accomplished. Personal authenticity involves principles and ideals which are continually revaluated through self-examination and social interaction, so who is to judge if someone else is being authentic or not? The key question is, how can we distinguish between true authenticity and a mere display of authenticity? If one’s ‘authenticity’ is being promoted, highlighted, or exhibited, then it is not true authenticity. Authenticity cannot be declared, publicized, instructed, marketed, or exchanged as some sort of commodity. It must be understated and unpretentious.

Being true and honest to oneself and others is relational, and connected to the outside world as well as to one’s inner life. However, to avoid aggravating others, one must observe the need to limit the expression of one’s authenticity in specific situations. One may thus distinguish between ‘internal authenticity’ and ‘external authenticity’. To avoid burdening others with our personal issues, we may often be inclined to hide our true feelings. True authenticity isn’t about expressing one’s inner self with its full range of shifting emotions in all situations. Unbiased self-awareness in the present moment is of great importance, as it can enhance the clarity of one’s inner dialogue and diminish the reach of the ego.

But being true and honest is not enough. There are certain attributes without which the concept of ‘personal authenticity’ would remain an empty shell, ambiguously defined and poorly understood, and without which the quest for authenticity may in fact become detrimental for interpersonal relationships and for society. These characteristics necessary for authenticity include capacities for unbiased self-examination and accurate self-knowledge; reflective judgment; personal responsibility; humility; empathy for and understanding of the other [person], as well as a willingness to listen to feedback from others. Achieving personal authenticity is complicated by the presence of illusions and biases, including self-deception, wishful thinking, and the tendency to behave differently while under observation.

Paradoxes of Authenticity

It’s a paradox that one can discover some measure of personal authenticity not by avoiding the outside world, only by immersing oneself in it; and yet authenticity is achieved by resisting outside influences in one’s self-realization. Furthermore, since human lives operate with uncertainties, authenticity can only be discovered in uncertainty. Thus, another paradox is that the authentic can only be attained through an immersion in uncertainty, but uncertainty hinders the discovery of the true self, without which knowledge authenticity cannot be achieved. In addition, any objective discovery of the self is only possible without preconceptions and biases – but we all have preconceptions and biases. Therefore no self-examination, however long and detailed, can ever fully reveal one’s true identity, and thus what being authentic would truly involve. And difficult circumstances can also lead to self-doubt and insecurity; true self-knowledge must make allowance for this.

The question is, how do you really know whether you are being authentic or not? One does not consciously consider whether one is being authentic throughout daily life. But on the other hand, complete self-knowledge is impossible: one cannot possibly explore the entire labyrinth of human consciousness. And to a large extent, cognitive processes, such as perception and reasoning and much of the content of memory, are inaccessible to conscious awareness. The tendency is to fill the gaps between the known and the unknown with the known facts and thoughts about oneself, in order to provide a coherent portrayal. As a result, self-examination may lead to an inaccurate self-depiction. The ability of the human mind to examine great amounts of information or multiple aspects of a given topic is limited, further leading to an incomplete understanding or an erroneous representation of what is observed or experienced. Human knowledge always remains incomplete and provisional, yet without full awareness, no complete authenticity is attainable, so at any given moment, authenticity can be only partial.

In addition, there will coexist in one individual multiple identities dependant on the roles the individual holds in society, including personal, occupational, cultural, ethnic, national, political, and religious identities. The dynamics of identity changes can be as complex and unpredictable as changes in society, economics and politics. These factors make any unambiguous discovery of personal identity a difficult challenge, especially as the analysis is usually simplified, and the intricate interdependence of the various elements is typically overlooked. This can result in the illusion of understanding personal identity, and thus an illusory ideal of authenticity.

Human judgments and attitudes are based on the interpretation of perceptions of reality rather than on the interpretation of reality itself. The limits of human perception, thought and self-knowledge, are some of the main hurdles to personal authenticity. One may never arrive at full self-knowledge, which is constantly being defined and refined on the basis of new understandings against the background of the world and its demands.

Another limitation in the quest for authenticity is related to the language used, which is open to misinterpretation, and words and language are inadequate for expressing the full spectrum of one’s thoughts and feelings. Allegories, connotations, and metaphors are the major sources of misunderstandings. In addition, words and sentences are often ambiguous, having more than one possible meaning. A completely clear language with a direct and evident correspondence between experiences and words does not exist. And the individual’s shifting thoughts and perceptions about themselves may not always be comprehensible, so the expression of them through language may not be consistent. Also the language to describe authenticity can itself be arbitrary and unclear, often using ambiguous words such as ‘true’, ‘genuine’, ‘original’, ‘real’, ‘self’, or ‘natural’.

Authentic communication depends on the capacity of individuals to recognize what is true for themselves, and on the adequacy of language to express their thoughts, so the limits to language, interpretation, and expression impede their authentic relationships with each other. In such communications it is not always apparent whether the authenticity or inauthenticity of interactions is due to the circumstances, or the language, or the subject matter, or the participants and their perceptions and interpretations.

Another dilemma with personal authenticity is related to the fact that most personal attributes change with time, yet personal authenticity is expected to demonstrate some measure of consistency. This apparent contradiction involves a requirement for both change and constancy. In other words, if an individual’s identity is continually evolving, how can one recognize or discover the meaning of personal authenticity over a lifetime? Perhaps the value of authenticity is not in its constancy, but rather in its consistent evolution throughout the lifetime of the individual.

Further Limitations on Authenticity

Other factors that may hinder the development of personal authenticity include a lack of understanding of authenticity, one’s prior programming, the fear of rejection and failure, and social pressures to conform (and thus live inauthentically). In the latter cases, individuals typically try to show their best faces and express what is expected of them so that they will be perceived in a good light. In many situations, the need for collaboration with others may demand some adaptation, that is, some inauthentic compromise.

Being under constant observation and scrutiny at best inhibits authenticity, and at worst makes it nearly impossible. Thus, politicians cannot be authentic, since they always have to appear confident and nearly flawless rather than show any honest doubt or vulnerability. The politicians are on the stage of the theatre of life, where they must perform their art of convincing and pleasing groups of people with different values, aspirations, beliefs, dreams, and needs. So in politics, authenticity is at least difficult to sustain, although a politician may have a well-developed capacity of self-reflection and the desire to ensure consistency between their actions and values, and so may be able to achieve authenticity in some situations. Nonetheless, the public expects politicians to deliver on their promises, and the bottom line is always prosperity, jobs, and security, so in this context, authenticity takes second place to other concerns.

The attempt to achieve personal authenticity is also exacerbated by ever-advancing technologies that inundate an individual’s perception of reality with illusions, such as television. Another such technology is virtual reality. The pervasive use of virtual reality may eventually result in difficulties distinguishing between virtual and real experiences, exacerbating the endless human propensity for self-deception and self-delusion. Generally, the future of human experience is related to emerging enhancement technologies, including memory and cognitive enhancement techniques. The merging of human and machine may necessitate new definitions of what a human being is, and generate new problems related to human nature and identity, the nature of society, and the meanings of existence and human authenticity.

If life is an art, as in any art form, one can approach perfection, but one can never arrive. As for personal authenticity, some never bother with it, some discover it in certain actions, some strive to approach it in both life and art, but very few ever arrive.

© Dr Ben G. Yacobi 2012

Ben G. Yacobi has a PhD in physics. He held research positions at Imperial College, London, and Harvard University, as well as teaching positions in universities in the United States and Canada. He is the author or co-author of many papers and five books on physics.

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