Authenticity Adios

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir with Boris and Michelle Vian at the Cafe Procope, 1952.

The philosopher who first brought “authenticity” to public notice was, I believe, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). According to a recent book, Tyranny and Revolution by Waller Newell, Heidegger’s notion went like this: you and I are to be grasped as localizations of Being – hence Heidegger’s term for us, Dasein – being there. In case you expected that so vast a foundation would give us depth and stability, think again! Being itself is shot through and through with temporality (time’s passage).  

To get to the point about authenticity: it’s only reached when our very fleetingness is faced square on, along with awareness that we’re headed toward the end of ourselves (Being-Toward-Death).

So what’s inauthentic, for Heidegger? It would be any assumption that we live in an environment that’s stable and solid. Gossip relies on such an assumption. So do conventional opinions. Ordinary obituaries and condolences carry that implication. They convert the uncanniness at the bottom of human existence into “news” – something seeming familiar and commonplace.

All this sounds pretty deep, does it not? Many people take it that way. Whether or not they like him, Heidegger is widely conceded to be gifted, original and – in his own special way – authentic.

The fact that he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 – telling all the students in his class who were Jewish to get out, sending a termination of status notice to Edmund Husserl (his former teacher who’d got him the professorship at Freiburg) and backing Nazi policies that would have got Husserl murdered together with Hannah Arendt, Heidegger’s former student and lover (if the first had not died and the second escaped) – did not strike him as deleting anything from his authenticity.

I recall mentioning some of these awkward details during a seminar I taught on existentialism and being scolded by a student for my “judgmentalism.” Judgmentalism? Since I’d never slept with any student, nor with my professors, nor tried to get any murdered, this student had a point. Don’t judge someone if you haven’t walked a mile in his moccasins. Or his lederhosen.

Be that as it may, we still have to reckon with the notion of authenticity. Ideas travel. This one crosses into France, where Jean-Paul Sartre makes it his own. Sartre puts more emphasis on its contrary: bad faith (mauvaise foi). Though each of us has recognizable traits of character and style, for Sartre these depend entirely on our own free choice, which we can change at any time. So the waiter who brings our coffee, at our usual hangout on St. Germain des Pres, is in bad faith insofar as he believes he really is – the waiter – at which he plays.

Likewise, in another example from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, the appealing young woman who has joined someone like Sartre at his café table – he having meanwhile placed his hand on hers – will be in bad faith if she pretends to ignore this little transaction rather than frankly admit her own lusts.

Hmm. I’ve never waited tables but the other incident is as recognizable as it is embarrassing. I can tell you that her main concern will focus on how to slide her hand out from under the hand of a celebrated French intellectual without showing up in a book about bad faith.

Wait a minute! Anecdotes like these can’t possibly add up to all there is to say about authenticity, can they?

Lionel Trilling, one of the leading opinion-shapers of the twentieth century, wrote a book called Sincerity and Authenticity. In it he describes authenticity as a power to resist the opinions of others and instead steer one’s own singular course in life. Citing Sartre’s play, No Exit (Huis Clos), in which a character says, “Hell is other people,” Trilling finds “the infernal outcome of modern social existence” to lie in the fact that “the sentiment of individual being depends upon other people.”

Hey, get real! Without other people, we can’t learn to walk on two legs, we can’t acquire language, we’ll fail to acquire the use of the prehensile thumb and … need I go on? At some point along the road of adulthood, we might well find that our integrity requires us to go against the grain of other peoples’ opinions. We’d prefer to do it quietly and not have to pay too much for it. It’s not fun or enviable to have to do it. Inevitably, it’s a choice between greater and lesser evils. 

Back to “authenticity.” In my experience, it doesn’t wear well. At one time, the counter-culture descended on the little town in Maine where my parents had a summer home. It was the era of authenticity. The young men worked on their great, abstract, metal sculptures; the young women taught school to pay for the raw materials. One time, visiting one of these rather beautiful young couples, I asked, feeling thirsty, “Do you have running water?”

“Charge you a nickel if I run,” came the wry response, which to me had the very sound – alike dashing and earthy – of authenticity!

A few decades later, I ran into the same couple at a summer art fair. His pony tail had turned grey, the art was no better, and they were looking remarkably like the bourgeois types that long ago they had so attractively repudiated.

I can’t remember ever wanting to be authentic. I just wanted to find out what belonged to me to do in life, 

whether or not

it resembled

what other people did.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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