Many of us have undoubtably heard of the term “authentic” or “authenticity”. From designer brands to historical artifacts, from food labels to precious gems, many things can be labelled as authentic. In these contexts, authenticity describes something that is genuine, that is real, and that which is not a mere imitation.
When speaking of art, fashion, and cuisine it is perhaps obvious why we should care about the authenticity of the objects and how their authenticity affects their value. However, when talking about authenticity as it relates to philosophy it isn’t always so clear. Why does authenticity matter: should we care, and, if we do care, how do we be authentic?
In the context of philosophy, authenticity relates to the Self and how we as human beings can be genuine selves in a world surrounded by Others; that is to say, how can we be distinct individuals.
In simple terms, being authentic is the act of being yourself. But is being authentic this simple?
A Guide to Being Authentic
There are many different theories of authenticity, from Aristotle to Kant, Augustine to Nietzsche. Here though, I wish to introduce Heidegger’s account of authenticity to best highlight the tensions within authenticity.
For Heidegger, authenticity revolves around our ability to accept our mortality and finitude – or plainly, our inevitable death.
There are, according to Heidegger, two key ways in which we encounter the issue of authenticity according to our mortality. Firstly, we are confronted with a range of demands made of us by others or by societal expectations. Secondly, because of these demands and expectations we must then decide which ones will be met or left aside. So, for example, one may have to face the demands of being a parent, a woman, a man, a sibling, a role model, and so on; and one must then decide which demands to meet (if any) and which to let down.
However, Heidegger says that most people don’t engage in this decision-making process. Rather we engage in a ‘dream of indeterminacy’, of always putting the choice off until later. We live in a fantasy of an infinite tomorrow and thereby give ourselves permission to live inauthentically since there is always a tomorrow when we can make the decision. The inauthentic person acts as though they will never die and therefore lives as though there is always time to be different whilst never actually being different. Heidegger encapsulated this problem as ‘living in oblivion’.
Being authentic, then, involves actively making difficult decisions which have the benefit of creating a life which is distinctly our own. No longer is life a passive avoidance of decision making but a possession of our own finitude and mortality; living actively, spurred on by the motivation of our death, and taking responsibility and ownership of the life we have whilst we have it.
Simple stuff, right? Well, perhaps not.
If we lean into this idea more deeply, we can see there is a large, and potentially problematic assumption being made: that being authentic is possible for everyone.
On the surface, it seems fair to say that theoretically each of us has the capacity to simply do as we wish. However, we don’t all face the same obstacles when this theory is put into practice.
By focussing on the individual, Heidegger’s account overlooks the role and significance of others on our ability to be our authentic selves.
Politics of Authenticity
Humans are, by nature, social animals. We survive and thrive due to this quality; our lives are organised and delineated in terms of social groups from the family unit up to international states. Whilst it may be true that when viewed as separate from our social groups, we have the capacity to be authentic selves, the same cannot necessarily be said when we give the social sphere its due consideration.
When we recognise that our lives are largely dependent on living alongside others, being authentic becomes a much more complex affair. What if my authentic self is violent? What if my authentic self is an open-mouth chewer? Or, in the case of Heidegger himself, what if my authentic self is someone who believes in the righteousness of the persecution of minorities?
Acting only in accordance with our interests and values, pushing aside the opinions of others, can create scenarios which seem to allow for crime, questionable eating habits, and institutionalised persecution.
Being authentic, then, must also have a moral value. We cannot simply act as we wish but must take due consideration of those around us and society at large.
On the other side of this coin, we face another quandary. What about people whose authentic self is moral and yet is deemed socially unacceptable? Are such people hindered from being themselves?
The struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community drive this reality home.
In the last year alone, we have seen the above scenario play out. From the increasing Hungarian assault on LGBT+ rights to Russia, where hate crimes against LGBT+ individuals have once again risen between 2018 and 2020. Even domestically, in the United Kingdom, the number of reported hate crimes against LGBT+ persons has trebled from 6,655 in 2014-15 (the year same sex marriage became legal in England) to 18,465 in 2019-20.
From this snapshot we can see that for many, being authentic can mean having to face violence, incarceration, and, in some cases, death. Where a moral authenticity is penalised heavily by the social fabric, we cannot continue the pretence that authenticity is an individual process.
In Heidegger’s account, the role of others and the significance of the political paradigms in which we find ourselves is minimised. This oversight not only oversimplifies the activity of authenticity but fundamentally misunderstands the significance and vitality of Others and our social spheres. Whilst it’s true that theoretically we all have the capacity to be authentic, it is not true that all the decisions therein are of equal threat or difficulty, and by extension they cannot be painted with the same brush of mere authenticity or inauthenticity.
The Sociability of Authenticity
For all of us, the act of being is a political act. By existing in spaces occupied by others our actions have an inherently political nature. Given the plurality and otherness intrinsic to human existence authenticity cannot be an individual act or lone process.
Knowing this, and knowing that acting authentically isn’t a simple act but one which requires bravery, a willingness to take risks, and accepting the vulnerability of our Selves and our dependency on others, the changes required towards minimising the risk of being authentic is not with the individual but with the conditions in which they find themselves.
In seeking such change, it’s important to not understate the complexity of navigating social change. A “quick-fix” is likely an implausible solution here. Shifting the values of even the smallest social group is a difficult task; shifting the values of a society harder still.
Heidegger was correct in stating that we should embrace each day as though it were our last and act according to this judgement. But he was wrong to assume that being authentic is merely individual in nature. Leaving the pretence of an infinite tomorrow opens us to the possibility of real change now; of real change which can permit the authenticity and individual flourishing of those whose authentic selves are impeded upon. To be authentic selves, we must consider others.
About the Author
Clarissa Muller is undertaking a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick (UK) and has an LLM in International Law and BA in Philosophy from the University of Kent (UK). Her doctoral studies focus on Existential Politics, specifically on the inherent violence of Othering and its effects on personal and social identity.