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Is Authenticity Coherent?

By Neil Levy

Authenticity is a widely espoused ideal; often under that name but also under other labels. People take pride in being individuals, set apart from the crowd, in not following the herd, in thinking for themselves. To be accused of conformism stings. 

But let’s think about a very standard example of inauthenticity: the suburban accountant. He (it’s almost always a ‘he’ in these examples) works in a 9-5 job he commutes to, he drives a mid-range car and once a year he takes a vacation to Disneyland with his wife and 2 children. Carl Elliot has influentially argued that any enhancement that reconciled a person to that life would leave the person worse off overall than if they were unhappy. But why is this the most common exemplar of inauthenticity?

It might be defended, on the grounds that the suburban accountant role is sufficiently common that were someone simply mindlessly to conform, they might drift into it. But “accountant” is far from the most common job. Accountants are vastly outnumbered by truck drivers and construction workers. But truck drivers and construction workers are conspicuously absent from examples of inauthenticity- so “drift” doesn’t do the explanatory work here. 

Perhaps, instead, the idea is that being an accountant is boring. Prima facie, that’s a little odd, because after all, few of us who deride accountancy have much experience of it. Worse, we have no grounds on which to compare it to other jobs that escape condemnation as inauthentic. Is accountant really less interesting than truck driver? Some people enjoy driving, but day after day of highways doesn’t sound exciting to me. 

Even if accountancy is especially boring, it’s still odd to think that accountants can’t be authentic. Why shouldn’t the suburban accountant be authentic? Why think that people have essences conforming to which makes lumberjack, artist or (as in the Monty Python sketched linked to above) lion tamer  the right profession for them? Perhaps accountancy isn’t particularly interesting, but most people are no more interesting than average, after all. There should be many people for whom accountancy is the authentic life.

The real reason why accountant is the exemplar of inauthenticity while truck driver is not, I strongly suspect, is simply that it’s a cultural stereotype: an idea that circulates widely in our societies. In accepting it, we conform to ideas prevalent in our culture. Conversely, in accepting that writer and artist and lion tamer are especially authentic roles, we conform to another cluster of ideas. 

Our very conception of authenticity, I suggest, is a deeply cultural one. It’s not merely cultural in the same way that all concepts are: acquired through socialization. It’s more deeply cultural in that in applying it, we are guided by further ideas circulating in our culture. But the concept of authenticity is an individualist concept: we become authentic by becoming who we each, individually, are – not in conforming. If the attempt to be authentic must consist in conforming to a cultural stereotype of what it amounts to, then it’s incoherent. We individualize ourselves by doing what the crowd thinks we should do to individualize ourselves.

We might think of authenticity in a more formal way: an authentic life is whatever life accords with what we find within, when we take our own measure (as Charles Taylor puts it). That would allow for the possibility of the authentic accountant: deep down, perhaps that is who I really am. That seems less self-defeating than a conception of authenticity that has us individualizing ourselves in a conformist way. There’s nothing incoherent in thinking that individualization is important, even if we only think that due to socialization.

But the fact that our notions of the ways in which we might be authentic are so deeply cultural should give us pause. What we take individualization to consist in, the content of an authentic way of being, is culturally shaped. We’re not individuals all on our own: we’re individuals only in a social context. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. But it does suggest that being authentic is not a way of escaping some sort of conformism, but another way of conforming.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. That was my take-away from the scene in Life of Brian where the audience choruses “Yes, we are all individuals” and then one guy pipes up “I’m not”.

  2. There is an interesting study in semantics here, seems to me. So many new terms and usages show up now, it is a chore to keep up with them. A good friend and associate has dubbed this ‘word salad’. Many dressings are available. If I recall correctly, the initial term was identity. It was important to have one and an implication was if you were to declare identity, there was some obligation to present yourself as being ethical, having integrity, and so on. Identity is still declared by many, I think. Along came authenticity. The term fairly oozes with honesty, integrity and ethical behavior, even more so than identity or transparency, both of which can be ambiguous. So, authenticity is ‘woody’ not ‘tinny’. The question is: is it coherent? I would suggest as much, if, and only if, it is an accurate representation of an expected reality. Word salad, indeed. Those who declare authenticity wish to be regarded as above reproach, having ethical and moral integrity. All good. They had better be willing to ‘put up or shut up’. Otherwise, it is best to stick with oil and vinegar.

  3. I think the example of “accountant” is tailored for a philosophical audience who can easily picture a path from their present station in life, and through being beaten down by economic reality, ending up in the role of accountant. The path from philosophy to truck driving is harder to picture and may even have some positives: Truck drivers deliver food and medicine to cities, and philosophers do nothing that’s analogously good. So it’s not a sure thing that truck driving is a downgrade in meaning from philosophy. But accountancy? Like philosophy, accountancy may have big positive effects downstream, but the relationship between the activity and the good outcomes is very fuzzy and indirect. This is a fun game to play: “A left philosophy to join profession P.” “Oh wow, really? Good for her!” Now what is the profession P for which you can’t imagine a psychologically healthy A for whom the transition would be an upgrade in meaning/authenticity? A very philosophically talented friend from grad school left to be a park ranger, and it made sense to me. If he left to be a call center worker, that would be a weird one, but no philosopher will use that example, because that’s a job in which you picture struggling people, and you don’t want to get near the suggestion that struggling-people jobs make the employee inauthentic. But even here, I can imagine this story:

    “You know, in my philosophy courses, nobody really had questions for me, except to humor me. My students simply didn’t feel like they had important philosophical problems with which they needed my help. I always tried to talk them into thinking they had problems they didn’t think they had! But now, people from all over the world call me in genuine, spontaneous distress, because their corporate network switch keeps power cycling, and often I can help them. I stay on the line as they implement and confirm the fix, and I hear the relief in their voices as they hang up grateful! And seconds later, I’m answering another person’s question, and it just goes on like that eight hours a day! You just don’t get that in philosophy!”

    Because philosophers generally don’t know many details about the finer points of accountancy, no analogous story comes easily to mind. And insulting accountants doesn’t seem politically costly, because we see them as choosing to become money-tainted. The many jobs that are more repetitive and meaningless and boring are either female-associated or financial-struggle-associated, and disparaging such jobs is socially unwise. And yet, accountancy is an old profession, so you don’t run the risk of seeming to suggest that inauthentic jobs only became available recently. So it’s a pretty good example to use when you realize the full range of constraints on example-choosing.

  4. I think the choice of accountancy comes from prejudices developed during undergrad years. Some people go to university to get good qualifications and a solid job. Others go to university to find themselves, as the phrase used to be. The former look down on the latter for their self-indulgence and pomposity. The latter look down on the former for their conformity, etc.

  5. A good observation and assessment from Mr. Frame. It is not, perhaps, novel, but it is true. In my opinion and experience. As someone interested in language usage and having some knowledge of that aspect of philosophy, I think of explanations I have read from past thinkers. Sellars said philosophy is an attempt to see how things ‘hang together’. I suppose this is some part of the intention of asking if authenticity is coherent. Frame’s comment on accountancy and the two types of student mentioned fits glove-like here. Depending upon attitude and expectation, one might say authenticity is coherent for one group of students, while not so much for the other. And so, depending on the desired meaning, we could have as easily asked :
    Is authenticity cohesive? Does it hang together? Another fresh bowl of word salad, re-dressed and re-tossed.

  6. A few questions which arise when not limiting considerations within a good or bad conceptual base, whilst understanding the words authentic, coherence and individual as expressing common factual concepts. Some of these repeat questions raised by the article and are presented here again to set the scene:
    What breadth of meaning do you apply to an individual when understanding them to be authentic?
    What breadth of meaning would any authentic person themselves apply?
    Is it deemed more important that an individual be authentically individual or that a social group be wholly authentic?
    When a socially focused individual authentically represents a completely authentic social group what outcomes arise?
    What brings any paradox to coherence and authenticity?
    What can resolve any paradox and how do any answers become perceived?
    What exists of a coherent paradox once it is considered to be fully resolved?
    Do full resolutions ordinarily remove all coherence?
    Do resolutions forever stop the situational coherence of a paradox?
    If not, why not and how may that be recognized?

  7. The question,

    “Is Authenticity Coherent?”

    Only permits the answer “Not Applicable” or “Na”. In effect it’s like asking if division by zero can be quantified in a practical rather than conceptual way.

    Authenticity : is a judgment made against a “Personal Point of view”(PPoV) based on the observers aquired and changing societal norms and knowledge.

    Coherence : is defined as “a measure of fit” it is an intrinsic property of an object in relationship to an environment independent of observation.

    So coherence is not based on a PPoV, if it was science would have no measurands and thus no validity. It is when you get down to the basics a primary method of differentiation by defined measurment, that is repeatable by all.

    Sometimes it is hard to understand the differentiation of what is actually an intrinsic property of an object or one of perception under a PPoV for a specific type of observation.

    To see why lets carry out an informal simplified thought experiment,

    The colour of the lense in your glasses may or may not effect your “Apple v. Orange” perception as an observer. But it does not in any real way effect what is observed if the test is “low hanging fruit” or not.

    Yes you could say “gravity is colour blind” but that is entirely missing the point.

    Because it gets worse, a lot worse. When you are asking,

    “Is Authenticity Coherent?”

    You realy need to see there are a multiplicity of responses none of which is actually correct[1],

    1, Does the accountant feel they are authentic?
    2, Does their family feel they are authentic?
    3, Does their employer feel they are authentic?
    4, …

    And so on, the same if you change “are authentic” to “fit”. Each set of answers is going to be different and changing on each asking.

    Thus the question of “Why?” arises

    Every single observer has a different PPoV on the accountant and they all change with time, knowledge and circumstances, and yes even the colour of the lenses in their glasses 😉

    As stated,

    “Is Authenticity Coherent?”

    And applied to the accountant each answer is actually near meaningless[1].

    However the answers from the observers can reveal information about the observers and their PPoV.

    Which brings up another issue which is,

    What is the unstated or hidden intent of the questioner of the observer?

    And further,

    Does the observer actually colour their response with this in mind?

    Which in turn gives rise to,

    Would the observer be honest about their intent?

    Which gets you down to,

    Can the observer actually be honest?

    To which the answer is in almost certainly “no” due to the issues with “self awareness”.

    You can take it further but at this point it can be seen that at some point you arive at two basic barriers,

    The first where noise exceeds the signal, and the signal is beyond recovery by any measurment method we currently have[2].

    The second barrier is non determinism, an observer can not see into a black box, only what comes out and rarely also what goes in[3] (which is why the cryptography we all use mostly unknowingly –on every press of the enter key or click of the mouse– works).

    There are fundemental limits not just on what we can know, but what we can do and these barriers are quite real and we now bump into them all the time every day. But outside of a very small segment of humanity few know or realise or care.

    [1] Fundemental rule of evidence,

    For any observed event by N observers, there are atleast N+1 “truths” as none of the N observers can see the whole event. Thus the actual truth can not be known only infered.

    [2] This brings up the thorny issue of lie detectors, especially the more recent developments in “Fast MRI” and the notion of “AI Systems”. Both of which are so suseptable to “hidden hand” bias[3]. The only excuse for such systems being used is to distance moral responsability thus culpability by “The machine says” argument.

    [3] See American philosopher John Searle’s 1980 “Chinese Room Argument” for more details on this issue. Then think how it applies to AI systems such as ChatGPT and also what happened to Microsoft’s Tay, and their hidden behind the curtain real human “philosophical homunculi”.

  8. Yes, Searle famously wrote of direction-of-fit: world to mind or mind to world. I wonder if the answer to the question is one of those legal profession nebuli we have heard:’ it depends’. This was an ‘out’ taken by attorney friends during a career in paralegal paradise. When asked to answer a thorny question concerning a point of law during the course of a specific litigation, an attorney might answer in this noncommittal fashion. Fact patterns are different for different cases and tipping points, particularly under the low bar standard of proof, “by a preponderance of the evidence”, are less rigorous. Administrative law judgments fall into this category. The proverbial feather’s weight is far less demanding than guilt (or innocence) “beyond a reasonable doubt”. And so, it depends. Law can be a hair-splitting proposition and as someone once said, context is everything. The context of the question, is authenticity coherent?, is vague. A more specific rendering, more answerable in an affirmative way, would be something like: is authenticity coherent, under x circumstance(s)? But that is not the question g here. Therefore any answer is less robust and more enigmatic., seems to me.

  9. I had to re-read CR’s comments, to find what I had been waiting for someone to say and which I addressed indirectly this morning. The question is incomplete, because coherency can only occur with sufficient explanation/elaboration. A three word inquiry is seldom enough information, unless it is something simple like: are you hungry?

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