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You can be inauthentic, but can you be authentic?

I’ve always had a problem with the concept of authenticity.

Authenticity is usually taken to mean that you are being who you truly are. But that “truly” implies that you have something like an essence, and that essence is somehow apart from how you behave, particularly in public.

In ordinary parlance, that essence seems to be some set of personality traits: you act nice but you’re really not, so you’re inauthentic.

In philosophy, that essence tends to be more universal, even if it’s self-abnegating. For example, for Heidegger to be authentic is to accept that one is thrown into a world not of one’s making, that we are going to die, that we are groundless, etc. For Sartre, our essence is to be free to choose, and to be authentic is to choose with full commitment while recognizing that that choice is baseless.

However you slice it, being authentic rests upon beliefs about what’s “really real” about us. We often conceptualize this as being true to our inner self. But our selves are fully social. Our private selves are temporary deprivations of our social selves. Even when we’re alone, the rest of the world is still with us as that which we will return to, and that which brought us to where we are.

In any case. authenticity isn’t something we can try for. “’Be authentic’ is not helpful advice.”“Be authentic” is not helpful advice. “Be sincere” can be helpful because we do have thoughts and opinions that we can keep private. We have at least some control over whether we lie, flatter, fib, prevaricate, or shade the truth. Sincerity applies to acts of speaking. Authenticity applies to our selves, to our being. I don’t find it to be a helpful concept, term, or piece of advice.

But, even if authenticity isn’t a useful concept, the concept of inauthenticity has lots of uses. It captures something we’ve all observed in others, although I’m not sure we can observe it in ourselves. I’ve met people I’d probably call inauthentic. They seem to be pretending to be brave or caring. If through drugs or therapy they were to change, I might notice it and even come to trust it. I might even say, “S/he seems more authentic these days.” But what I really mean is, “S/he isn’t as inauthentic as she used to be.”

For the rest of the people I know, I wouldn’t know what I meant if I called them authentic. For inauthenticity is our natural state: a measure of distance from our actions, thoughts, and even feelings. We are not creatures of pure reflex. That wedge keeps us from being who we “really” are, because that distance is who we are.

One Response to “You can be inauthentic, but can you be authentic?”

  1. Oscar Wilde apparently wrote (in “The Importance of Being Earnest”):

    To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.


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