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Authenticity (philosophy)

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Johnny Hodges

Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre viewed jazz as a representation of freedom and authenticity. (Pictured is Johnny Hodges)

Authenticity is a technical term in existentialist philosophy, and is also used in the philosophy of art and psychology. In philosophy, the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. Authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, despite these pressures. Different types of Existentialist philosophers see this process in different ways.


It is difficult to determine the origin of the contemporary notion of authenticity. Writers on the subject of authenticity have often attempted to ground their views in work from a wide variety of historical periods. Secular and religious notions of authenticity have coexisted for centuries under different guises; perhaps the earliest account of authenticity that remains popular is Socrates' admonition that "the unexamined life is not worth living". In philosophy of art, "authenticity" describes the perception of art as faithful to the artist's self, rather than conforming to external values such as historical tradition, or commercial worth. A common definition of "Authenticity" in psychology refers to the attempt to live one's life according to the needs of one's inner being, rather than the demands of society or one's early conditioning. [1][2][3] In the twentieth century, Anglo-American discussions of authenticity often center around the writers of a few key figures associated with existentialist philosophy, where the term originated; because most of these writers wrote in languages other than English, the process of translating and anthologizing has had a strong impact on the debate. Walter Kaufmann might be credited with creating a "canon" of existentialist writers which include Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. 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.

Sartre and Existentialism

However, one of the greatest problems facing such abstract approaches is that the drives people call the "needs of one's inner being" are diffuse, subjective and often culture bound. For this reason among others, 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. In all writers, authenticity is seen as a very general concept, not attached to any particular political or aesthetic ideology. This is a necessary aspect of authenticity: because it concerns a person's relation with the world, it can not be arrived at by simply repeating a set of actions or taking up a set of positions. In this manner, authenticity is connected with creativity: the impetus to action must arise from the person in question, and not be externally imposed. Heidegger takes this notion to the extreme, by speaking in very abstract terms about modes of living; his terminology was adopted and simplified by Sartre in his philosophical works. Kierkegaard's work (such as the "Panegyric Upon Abraham" from his Fear and Trembling) often focuses on biblical stories which are (naturally) not directly imitatable. Sartre, as has been noted above, focused on inauthentic existence as a way to avoid the paradoxical problem of appearing to provide prescriptions for a mode of living that rejects external dictates.[4]

Cultural activities

These considerations aside, it is the case that authenticity has been associated with various human activities. For Sartre, Jazz music 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.

Hence those concerned with living authentically have often led unusual lives that opposed cultural norms; the rise of the counter-culture in the 1960s in Europe and America was seen by many as a new opportunity to live an authentic existence. Many, however, have pointed out that just because one lives unusually, one is not necessarily in an authentic state of being. The connection of the violation of cultural norms to authenticity, however, is strong and real, and continues today: among artists who explicitly violate the conventions of their profession, for example. The connection of inauthenticity to capitalism is contained in the notion of "selling out," used to describe an artist whose work has become inauthentic after achieving commercial success and thus becoming to an extent integrated into an inauthentic system.

The concept of authenticity is often raised in the punk rock and heavy metal musical subcultures, in which people or bands are criticized for their purported lack of authenticity by being labeled with the epithet "poseur"[5]. In the metal and hardcore punk subcultures, a band that began from a working class mileu that later signs to a major record label for a lucrative recording contract may be deemed to have "sold out" and lost their authenticity.

Erich Fromm

However, a very different definition of authenticity was proposed by Erich Fromm in the mid-1900s. He considered behaviour of any kind, even that wholly in accord with societal mores, to be authentic if it results from personal understanding and approval of its drives and origins, rather than merely from conformity with the received wisdom of the society. Thus a Frommean authentic may behave consistently in a manner that accords with cultural norms, but for the reason that those norms appear on consideration to be appropriate, rather than blindly, simply because they happen to be the current norms. Fromm thus considers authenticity to be a positive outcome of enlightened and informed motivation rather than a negative outcome of rejection of the expectations of others. He described the latter condition - the drive to primarily escape external restraints typified by the "absolute freedom" of Sartre - as "the illusion of individuality", as opposed to the genuine individuality that results from authentic living.

Writers tend to agree that authenticity is something to be pursued as a goal intrinsic to "the good life." And yet it is often described as an intrinsically difficult state to achieve, due in part to social pressures to live inauthentically, and in part due to a person's own character. It is also described as a revelatory state, where one perceives oneself, other people, and sometimes even things, in a radically new way. Some writers argue that authenticity also requires self-knowledge, and that it alters a person's relationships with other people. Authenticity also carries with it its own set of moral obligations, which often exist regardless of race, gender and class. The notion of authenticity also fits into utopian ideology, which requires authenticity among its citizens to exist, or which claims that such a condition would remove physical and economic barriers to pursuing authenticity.

Other perspectives

British philosophy has seen authenticity as part of the continuation of the Continental dualist position stated by Descartes. He held that reality consists of two kinds of things, mental and physical substances, which are fundamentally different from each other. Authenticity is based on a clear distinction between self and the other, non-self, or world. American philosophy has eagerly pursued the authenticity ideal, seeing it as central to the values of individuality and independence prevalent in American society.

Those who advocate social reform value the study of authenticity since it can provide a radical manifesto and an overview of the shortcomings of social structures. Michael Kernis and Brian Goldman defined authenticity as "the unimpeded operation of one's true or core self in one's daily enterprise." [1]


Authenticity has its paradoxical components. Sartre illustrated these in his extensive writings, pointing to the conflict between seeing the self as unique and different from the world, but the self is embedded in a world which clearly contains other such beings. Stated as a doctrine authenticity can be thought to be self-defeating. This is because it is thereby classified and becomes part of the non-self, an object of perhaps methodical study among others. This is opposed to the notion of the individual self which seeks its own solution independently of competing external ideologies. Another criticism is that the solution to Sartre's difficulties involves some compromise to allow unique individuals to co-exist in a way which is acceptable to all of them. Therefore public ethics or morality may be a limit on authenticity. Because authenticity is such a slippery concept, and because it can never be rigorously defined, it can be seen as a threat to rationality or to Enlightenment ideas about the transparency of laws.


  1. Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., Joseph, S. The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization, and the development of the Authenticity Scale.Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 385-399.
  2. Athabasca University
  4. Baird, Forrest E.; Walter Kaufmann (2008). From Plato to Derrida. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-158591-6. 
  5. Homeward Bound. Towards a Post-Gendered Pop Music: Television Personalities’ My Dark Places April 10th, 2006 by Godfre Leung Television Personalities My Dark Places (Domino, 2006)

Further reading

External links

Template:Kierkegaardru:Конгруэнтность (психология) sr:Аутентичност fi:Autenttisuus (filosofia)

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