Read About: Authenticity

Read About: Authenticity


Authenticity has become a buzzword, especially in popular psychology and leadership realms. Usually authenticity is understood as ‘being yourself’.  But what does it mean to ‘be yourself’? Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection talks about authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” But how do we know who we are?  How will we recognize our authentic self if and when we find them? These philosophy books have helped me to explore this confusing, ephemeral entanglement of ideas about what it means to be authentic.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949)

The Second Sex isn’t explicitly a book about authenticity, but it is an analysis of (mostly women’s) inauthentic attitudes and paths towards authenticity. Becoming authentic, for Simone de Beauvoir, isn’t the narcissistic endeavor of finding one’s true self.  Rather, authenticity is a quest to become the creator of your own life. Authenticity means standing up boldly in front of the world, “unique and sovereign,” facing the risk and anguish of creating ourselves and our situations, being independent and autonomously active. Authenticity is therefore not a discovery; it’s a creative practice.

Questioning assumptions about how we should live is critical for an authentic existence. But authenticity isn’t something you can do on your own because we exist in situations. We create ourselves through our interactions, engagements, relationships, and in context with people and our environment. In Beauvoir’s view, authenticity calls for acknowledging other’s subjectivity, meaning engaging with others as peers and equals, being generous, and enriching the world. Beauvoir writes, “there is only one way of accomplishing [freedom] authentically: it is to project it by a positive action into human society.”

The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor (1991)

Charles Taylor argues that authenticity can be “very worthwhile” because it richens our existence.  He draws primarily on Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to build the case that authenticity should be taken seriously as a “moral ideal”.  The moral ideal of authenticity means being true to ourselves, accepting self-responsibility, and being connected to the whole.

However, Taylor notes, the ideal of authenticity is degraded and trivialized in many ways.  For example, the understanding of self-fulfillment as self-indulgence distracts us from larger social, political, and environmental concerns. Modern society is heavy with malaise because our emphasis on individualism and instrumentalism has brought economic growth at the cost of the unequal distribution of wealth and a toxic environment.  Serious moral, social and environmental dilemmas—such as climate change—threaten “our dignity as citizens,” fragment our societies, alienate us from public and political spheres, and allow “soft” despotism to flourish. 

Being true to ourselves in defining our own identities is something we can only do in dialogue with other people and amidst situations and things that matter—otherwise we lose the background and contexts that make our lives significant.  So how do we encourage the moral type of authenticity? Taylor’s modest but hopeful answer is that, “Through social action, political change, and winning hearts and minds, the better forms [of authenticity] can gain ground, at least for a while.” 

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1927)

The go-to philosopher of authenticity is usually Martin Heidegger and his seminal work Being and Time. At the risk of oversimplifying an extremely complex and hard-to-read tome, what I understand Heidegger to be saying is that authenticity is about understanding ourselves in terms of choosing possibilities for our being.  I’m authentic when I choose my possibilities; I’m inauthentic when possibilities for my being are chosen for me. When I allow possibilities to be chosen for me, I fall away from authenticity. I’m authentic when my being owns itself, or in Heidegger’s words, the authentic self is “the self which has explicitly grasped itself.”

Grasping my being isn’t an exercise in detachment, but rather involves comprehending the world around me. A key factor of Heidegger’s understanding of authenticity is acknowledging that existence can only be understood as disclosing itself in the world; Heidegger refers to this dimension as “being-in-the-world.” Understanding my existence and my context are fundamentally intertwined: “In understanding the world, being-in is always also understood. Understanding of existence as such is always an understanding of world.”

The Ego and Its Own by Max Stirner (1844)

Heidegger wasn’t the first philosopher to discuss authenticity. In The Ego and Its Own, Max Stirner refers to Eigenheit, which is translated as ‘ownness’ or self-ownership, since eigen means ‘own’. Along with Stirner’s advocacy of egoism, translation is perhaps one of the reasons why Stirner is overlooked as an early philosopher of authenticity. 

‘Ownness’ as Stirner conceives it, is ownership of one’s ideas, objects and body; it is about being self-determining and self-creating, ensuring one chooses for one’s own sake and on one’s own terms and not because one thinks one should or is coerced into it. It involves shaking free from the cobwebs that entrap and the pressures that push and pull one in different directions.

Stirner’s interpretation of authenticity ends in radical individualism, but is incomplete because it neglects our interconnectedness. Philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, and Charles Taylor have attempted—successfully, in my view—to rescue authenticity from egoism and nihilistic anarchism by acknowledging how situations, contexts, and relationships matter. But Stirner’s work remains important in understanding the philosophical roots and risks of authenticity.

When Things of the Spirit Come First by Simone de Beauvoir (1979)

All the books I’ve mentioned so far are philosophical non-fiction works.  But one of the most valuable ways to think about authenticity is through fiction because it gives us access to nuances, contexts, emotions, and tensions in ways that non-fiction can’t always do.

Simone de Beauvoir’s When Things of the Spirit Come First is an excellent example. Beauvoir first wrote the collection of interwoven short stories, her first attempt at fiction, in her late twenties. At the time, publishers dismissed the compilation as too heavy and tedious. Luckily for those interested in authentic living, the collection was finally published forty years later, in 1979. 

The book presents five fictionalized case studies—based on Beauvoir and women she knew—who struggle with becoming authentic. The characters in Beauvoir’s collection are overwhelmed with pressures—such as from families, society, and repressive upbringings—that hold them back from creating themselves as they choose.

For example, the character Marcelle dreams of surrendering herself to great love. She is obsessed with being a dutiful and supportive wife. Her husband Denis treats her terribly, but she sees her tolerance and passivity as virtues. Marcelle is inauthentic because, in being so heavily dependent on Denis to justify her existence and refusing to be an agent of her own life, she loses herself. But Denis is inauthentic too because he denies his freedom and responsibility to become the creator of his life. He believes that his choices don’t matter. Although he makes commitments, such as marrying Marcelle, his vows mean nothing to him.   

Through these stories, Beauvoir teaches us that a person striving for authenticity exercises their freedom to make active decisions about their lives, accepts responsibility for their choices, acknowledges their interconnectedness with others, and respects that other people’s lives are as real and vibrant as their own. 

Read About: Authenticity
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Skye Cleary

SKYE C. CLEARY, PhD MBA is a philosopher and writer. Her latest book is "How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment". She is also the author of "Existentialism and Romantic Love" and co-editor of "How to Live a Good Life". Skye’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Aeon/Psyche Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, TED-Ed, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other outlets.

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