Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1
Experiences like anxiety and existential guilt are important, according to existentialists, because they reveal basic truths about our own condition as humans. Everyday life is characterized by ‘inauthenticity’, and in our ordinary busy-ness and social conformism we are refusing to take responsibility for our own lives. In throwing ourselves into socially approved activities and roles, we disown ourselves and spin a web of self-deception in trying to avoid facing up to the truth about what we are. This picture of inauthentic existence is contrasted with a vision of a way of living that does not slide into self-loss and self-deception. Such a life is (using the term found in Heidegger and Sartre) ‘authentic’. Authenticity suggests the idea of being true to yourself – of owning up to who you really are. However, it is important to see that authenticity has nothing to do with the romantic ideal of getting in touch with an ‘inner self’ that contains one’s true nature, for existentialists hold that we have no pregiven ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ distinct from what we do in the world.
If authenticity is not a matter of being true to some core of traits definitive of the ‘real me’, what is it? For most existentialists, becoming authentic is first of all a matter of lucidly grasping the seriousness of your own existence as an individual – the raw fact of the ‘I exist’ – and facing up to the task of making something of your own life. Kierkegaard, for example, holds that the only way to succeed in becoming a ‘self’ (understood as an ‘existing individual’) is by living in such a way that you have ‘infinite passion’ in your life. This kind of intensity is possible, he thinks, only through a total, life-defining commitment to something that gives your life an ultimate content and meaning. Nietzsche is also concerned with getting us to take hold of our own lives in a more intense and clear-sighted way. To free people from the attempt to find some overarching meaning for their lives, he proposes the idea of eternal recurrence: the idea that everything that happens in your life has happened before in exactly the same way, and will happen again and again, an endless number of times. If we accept this, Nietzsche suggests, we will be able to embrace our lives as they are, on their own terms, without regrets or dreams about how things could be different. Heidegger suggests that, in the experience of anxiety, one confronts one’s own ‘naked’ existence as ‘individualized, pure and thrown’. As we become aware of our ‘being-towards-death’ in this experience, we will grasp the weightiness of our own finite lives, and we will then be able to seize on our own existence with integrity, steadiness and self-constancy (see INTEGRITY § 5).
Many existentialists agree that owning up to one’s own existence requires a defining commitment that gives one’s life a focus and sense of direction. For Kierkegaard, a religious thinker, self-fulfilment is possible only for the ‘knight of faith’, the person who has a world-defining relation to a particular being which has infinite importance (the eternal being who has existed in time, the God-man). For Heidegger, authenticity requires ‘resoluteness’, a commitment to some specific range of possibilities opened up by one’s historical ‘heritage’. The fact that the ideal of commitment or engagement appears in such widely different existentialist works raises a question about the distinction, first made by Sartre, between ‘religious’ and ‘atheist’ existentialists. Kierkegaard, Marcel and Jaspers are often grouped together as religious existentialists, yet there are profound differences in their views of the nature of religious commitment. Where Kierkegaard emphasizes the importance of relating oneself to a concrete particular, Marcel and Jaspers speak of a relation to the ‘mystery’ or to ‘transcendence’ (respectively). At the same time, so-called ‘atheist’ existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre tend to agree with Kierkegaard’s view that being ‘engaged’ or having a ‘fundamental project’ is necessary to achieving a focused, intense, coherent life. The distinction between atheist and religious existentialists becomes harder to maintain when we realize that what is important for religious thinkers is not so much the factual properties of the object of commitment as the inner condition of faith of the committed individual. Thus, Kierkegaard says that what is crucial to faith is not the ‘objective truth’ about what one believes, but rather the intensity of one’s commitment (the ‘subjective truth’).
The idea that intensity and commitment are central to being authentic is shared by all types of existentialists. Another characteristic attributed to an authentic life by most existentialists is a lucid awareness of one’s own responsibility for one’s choices in shaping one’s life. For Sartre, authenticity involves the awareness that, because we are always free to transform our lives through our decisions, if we maintain a particular identity through time, this is because we are choosing that identity at each moment. Similarly, Kierkegaard and Heidegger talk about the need to sustain our identity at each moment through a ‘repetition’ of our choice of who we are. In recognizing our freedom to determine our own lives, we also come to accept our responsibility for who we are.
The notion of authenticity is supposed to give us a picture of the most fulfilling life possible for us after the ‘death of God’. It calls on us to assume our own identities by embracing our lives and making something of them in our own way. It presupposes lucidity, honesty, courage, intensity, openness to the realities of one’s situation and a firm awareness of one’s own responsibility for one’s life. But it would be wrong to think of authenticity as an ethical ideal as this is normally interpreted. First, becoming authentic does not imply that one adopts any particular moral code or follows any particular path: an authentic individual might be a liberal or a conservative, a duty-bound citizen or a wild-eyed revolutionary. In this respect, authenticity pertains not to what specific kinds of things you do, but how you live – it is a matter of the style of your life rather than of its concrete content. Second, in formulating their different conceptions of authenticity, many existentialists describe the ideal of authenticity in terms that suggest that it can be opposed to ethics as ordinarily understood. Kierkegaard, for example, says that it is possible that the knight of faith might have to ‘transcend the ethical’, and Nietzsche holds that authentic individuals will live ‘beyond good and evil’. Thus, authenticity seems to have more to do with what is called the ‘art of self-cultivation’ than it does with ethics as traditionally understood.
Guignon, Charles B.. Authenticity. Existentialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1/sections/authenticity-1.
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