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Fr. 625

May 11, 2015

We have devoted considerable time in this space to discussing notions of self and individuality. Despite this, talk has strayed from more everyday notions of the latter into a more philosophically inclined discussion of the ways in which talk of self and individual do and should function in public discourse and political discussion. With that in mind, we will attempt briefly to show in what ways this approach maps onto or interacts with more everyday talk.

Consider, for example, the following post from Big Think on the notions of authenticity and honesty. The writer gets at authenticity in somewhat roundabout fashion, as follows:

There’s a lot of talk in psychology these days, for example, about the importance of “authenticity,” and businesses are frantically striving to build the reality or the illusion of authenticity into their workplaces for fear of losing talented millennials, to whom (surveys and turnover stats show), authenticity is important. It is hopeless perhaps to attempt to define what being authentic really means. For the purposes of psychology, [maybe dig up an instrument here or talk to Maria Konnikova], the subjective feeling of authenticity must suffice. If you feel like you’re basically allowed to be your (mostly) complete self, rather than being contorted into unnatural knots trying to serve some external ideal, it’s all good.

In general, the article distinguishes internal from external ideals and identifies authenticity with a form of correspondence between a person’s thoughts, speech, and deeds and internal ideals. Presumably, these ideals are internal insofar as, broadly speaking, the person holds these up to herself as ideals rather than some external authority. Yet it is simple enough to see how talk of this kind can obscure the provenance of those views and principles which most hold sway over our lives. For few enough of these are wholly or even mainly of our devising, being cut from the cloth of our social word or taken wholesale from some domain or other complete with its own internal goods.

This is not, however, to suggest that internal ideals do not exist. Simply, the article’s portrayal of “internal” as key to authenticity can mislead without further qualification. Perhaps, distinguishing “internalized” from “external” ideals might prove more sound when it comes to sorting one out from the other.

Strikingly, discussion of “internal” as opposed to external highlights another potentially misleading understanding of authenticity with regards to self. When the article speaks of being “allowed to be your complete self”, it trades on a substantive view of self, namely an extant self at the bottom of a person’s thoughts, speech and deeds. In short, a person has a self, which that person should try to incarnate equally in everyday life. This view begs the question when it leaves unanswered (and certainly beyond the scope of the article’s original intentions) why authenticity or correspondence to an underlying self ought to be cultivated.

Certainly, the writer draws attention to the sense of discomfort that accompanies a lack of correspondence between self and life, i.e. between internalized ideals and (outward) thoughts, speech and deeds.

It is really painful to have to pretend against your will to be something you’re not. I imagine strippers, porn actors, and prostitutes (with the possible exception of the rare variety who claim to feel empowered by these professions) experience this kind of dissociative state to an exponentially higher degree than the rest of us, but in every profession and every relationship it’s there to some degree: the question of how much honesty you’re allowed to get away with, and how much dishonesty you’re willing to take.

The affective disorders which this dissociation between self and outward activities suggests are not to be taken lightly or cast aside as mere millenialisms. If this dissociation resists explication in cognitive terms of the sort to which the empirical sciences aspire, the fact remains that it makes itself felt and must be accepted, at least provisionally, at face value, pending further enquiry. That said, it is perhaps more interesting to consider the consequences which follow from this understanding of self and authenticity.

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