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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Your Last Word on Authenticity

Your Last Word on Authenticity

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Here are some questions prompted by our discussion that might inspire you to do some careful thinking. Feel free to write your own, however. A paragraph is a good length, but the key to keeping our attention is stay in touch with the initial "feeling" of your answer:  write a scene, not a play;-).

Their order corresponds roughly to the flow of our conversation, so if their total bulk is imposing, try skipping to your favorite part.

• I saw a man on the street wearing an outfit incongruous with his physical appearance–white man, 40-ish, crew cut, medium height, stocky build, Ray Bans, red Eddie Bauer fleece, ...and a red kilt (but long, well past the knees).  He struck me as "lacking authenticity," which I attributed to his looking quite conventional–except for this one odd (albeit color-matched) article of clothing.  In what analogous situations have you had this feeling?  How do you feel about it now?
• Is a person who is unaware of the impression they make on others necessarily authentic?  Think of babies, who I dare say are rarely, if ever, accused of inauthenticity.  If that's a bad counterexample, say why.
• Is it necessary to be conscious of falsehood/incongruity/whatever in order to be inauthentic?  Can't people be merely, honestly confused?
• Is the possibility of authenticity simply suspended in cases where the self is "under construction"?  Teenagers, and students in general, may conform or rebel (or rebel in order to conform, or vice versa).  The period of "identity experimentation" could be extended, perhaps indefinitely, or may be revisited.  Is it so easy to elude the burden of authenticity?
• Rather than try to pin down an all-encompassing definition of authenticity, we wisely chose to pursue individual senses of the word.  But we had trouble naming the ones we found, with the result that–still–nobody quite agreed on what any one sense meant.  What practical advice can you offer for discriminating senses of a concept effectively and efficiently in a group setting?  Apply it to authenticity, and a past theme or two (to really make your point).
• How useful are definitions, whether of "concepts" or "senses" thereof?  We didn't ask this, but it occurs to me now because a definition per se does not suggest a philosophical question, only procedural ones!  To take a short one as an example:  authenticity involves (a) comparing someone to others, or (b) comparing someone to their own self.  How did we use this distinction?  If we did, how could we have increased its benefits?
• One sense of being inauthentic might involve conformity to expectations/conventions/norms.  Try refining this idea, without bringing in any internal/psychological state.  How could one escape being inauthentic in this sense, practically speaking?
• Another sense of inauthenticity focuses on beliefs, making it a kind of lying.  Try making the connection to dishonesty more explicit.  How could one be sure of someone else's authenticity?  Of their own?
• Socrates made it a speciality to "lie in good faith" as a way to make people think more carefully.  Discuss examples of people who might be considered "authentically inauthentic" in this way.  What about the converse:  "inauthentic authenticity"?
• Yet another way of separating the senses of authenticity was "coherence vs. character."  Coherence might involve clothing (as in first question), whereas character was aptly embodied in the concern that someone was "lukewarm" or "not 100% (reliable)."  A creative approach to understanding a term is to find a perspective that makes two senses coincide, even if it seems nonintuitive or even counterintuitive.  What do coherence and character have in common?
• We learned of a study that correlated power and authenticity.  I forget the details, but the results corroborated the notion that people who don't have to kowtow to others feel more "authentic."  A key element was that the subjects had an induced feeling of empowerment that, intellectually, they knew to be arbitrary, ungrounded in facts (so not unlike SSRI therapy).  Again, we came up with two interpretations:  this reflected either increased internal "consistency," or an elevated "courage" to be oneself.  Are these closer than the other pairs, or do they just seem more compatible because the experiment created a psychological state directly?
• Comment on the senses of the word "true" in connection with authenticity.  A good approach might be to make your own Top Ten List of senses (or disparate examples) of "trueness" as we apply it to entities around us.
• Try the experiment recounted during the meeting, of walking around while imagining a shiny metal sphere hovering at chest height just in front of you.  Report on how it feels.  What questions does it make you ask?  What questions no longer seem to need an answer?
• Perhaps assertiveness is not so much a character trait, as it is derived from the situation (e.g., your boss is a jerk (mostly) because he can be.)  That makes other people an important part of our "situation."  What would this mean for the nature of the "self" to which we are or are not authentic?
• One problem people may have with a purely behavioral view of social situations is that it makes it hard to determine who is (for example, and pejoratively) inauthentic.  In what ways might they "smuggle in ethics"?  How might this view be modified to satisfy those people without yoking it to a morality?  Why should it, or should not be, modified?
• Children seem to be more–as well as less–authentic than adults.  This aberration in the "scale" of authenticity suggests that there is more than one sense of the word involved.  Identify the senses that would produce this apparent contradiction.
• Think of children's musical theater, or even children lying boldly (that is, if they're not your children).  When children "front"–act inauthentically for prestige–it strikes us as "cute" and "natural."  Granting that children are not held to the same standards as adults, it seems we get vicarious pleasure from these exploits.  Discuss examples, children and adult.  How might recognition of these help inform or improve our notion of authenticity?
• Could we view the "authenticity gap" between adults and children as a continuum instead?  Is development of "authenticity" a product of maturation, experience, or what?  If we must adapt our parenting to account for this, then why not have flexible standards for others as well?
• In Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, the central character, Mrs. Ramsay, presides over a dinner party that seems all-too-familiar:  the guests all despise "small talk" and resent the imposed necessity to be sociable.  (Chapter 17:  read it and smile tears of joyful recognition.)  She despairs of its ever becoming a fond memory for any of them–until the lights are dimmed, and the candlelight creates a "campfire effect" that suddenly bonds the guests.  Discuss ways you've witnessed that people are influenced to subdue their ever-present sense of self and enjoy the company of others.
• Authenticity is not "free":  probably all of us feel it as a burden.  So who benefits from maintenance of authenticity?  Is a group-level evolutionary adaptation?  Or is it merely a by-product of other instincts?
• At the individual level, falseness appears to be necessary to get along with our peers, particularly at work, but families and romantic relationships, too, invite "white lies."  Apply our discussion to everyday social challenges (doesn't have to be personal).  Make philosophy useful, for a change! ;-)
• We encountered two rather differing examples of being forced to say something one doesn't mean:  the legal disclaimer that one winks at, and the declaration of affection in words that are not one's own.  What exactly is at stake in these situations, that makes us distance ourselves from our actions?  Are there structural similarities that could enlighten us philosophically?
• If authenticity is a matter of conformance to what is external to the individual, then it seems to follow that consistency is nigh impossible, given that outsiders impose contradictory requirements–isn't it?  Another way of putting this is that we have various roles in society that conflict.  Is it really our job to make these cohere?

• In reading the preface to Eric G. Wilson's Against Happiness, a sentence jumped out at me:  "I further am wary in the face of this possibility:  to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations."  Discuss.
• The story of how a bus incident inspired the theme of authenticity was most-recently suggested is recounted just above here­.  Has authenticity become an excuse to impose ourselves on others?  If so, doesn't it seem rare, from an historical perspective?
• If nothing else, we established that there is interesting complexity in authenticity:  interplay of opposites, questions of perspective, and real-world complications.  Perhaps other classes of impressions we make on people behave in a similar way.  Discuss another socially-framed characteristic that resembles authenticity.
• Look at the Last Words on [url=Hypocrisy, Identity, or another theme­[/url] to craft your own question.
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 149
This was an essay question in the class I'm taking, and I think the topic (as I addressed it) fits the Authenticity theme. Also it gives a detailed look at the dinner party scene in To The Lighthouse that was one of our focal points.
Freud wrote that art was a “palliative measure” that helped people cope with suffering. Discuss his view and how it compares with the views of art or aesthetics of one of the following authors: Baudelaire, Darwin, Nietzsche. Woolf.

Our study of Enlightenment thinkers has emphasized the stresses individuals face in an increasingly complex social structure. But none of them–not philosophers Kant, Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche, nor "naturalists" Darwin and Freud, not even fictionists Flaubert and Baudelaire–have constructively addressed the question of how to actually reduce the stress of social living, at the level of the individual. Freud would seem to have come closest, culminating the trend of particularizing the problem with a model of the psyche itself, and a therapy to fix it. Ultimately, though, he disappoints because he is focused on the mind of just one person (the patient) which restricts Freud to mechanistic explanations. The challenge of how to hold society together is at last addressed by a woman–an artist whose subject is the "mind's eye" itself.

Already in the second paragraph of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf calls our attention to the "private code" and "secret language" of children. The focus on inner speech does more than compact the dialogue, however: it makes perception the true theme of the novel. A painter can make vision itself an object by distorting veridicality, but in an accessible way; Woolf objectifies thinking by corrupting language, but in a familiar way, making it resemble our "inner speech." Unlike most stream-of-consciousness narratives, though, this one exposes the minds of all its characters: we want to observe how they link together–even if briefly–to become a well-adjusted model society.

The dinner party is that brief interval, but it begins badly. Mrs. Ramsay has augmented her family with a social circle of antisocial types–a credible miniaturization of society. "They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it." Her "astonishing beauty" gives her a running start, though, "because it [is] almost impossible to dislike anyone if one looks at them." Woolf thus gives us a root cause for the power of aesthetics, not simply the "narcotic effect"* Freud attributes to art, but a synchronizing effect on individuals.

Her beauty only gets them to the table, however. The moment of their merging is presaged when she notices that "Augustus too feasted his eyes on the same plate of fruit"–the stereotypical artistic subject. One admires it, the other eats it. No matter: "That was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them."

Then it happens. "Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table." To be a group, we must look like a group, perceive ourselves as somehow united. "Some change at once went through them all, ... and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against all that fluidity out there," beyond the ghostly candlelit windows. Speculation on the evolutionary legacy of paleolithic campfires aside, altered perception performs a miracle beyond the reach of etiquette or even practical necessity. Freud, having buried the magic of perception in the mysterious id, is of no help here.

"Of such moments, ...the thing is made that endures." But it doesn't come for free! The rest of the dinner consists of a series of ego-driven challenges to the newfound solidarity: Tansley, whose ego is rawest, is first, but Mr. Ramsay is not far behind. Speech is our medium, so dissonance takes the form of contradiction. Our response must be acceptance, as refutation would bring incoherence. "Minta Doyle, whose instinct was fine, said bluffly, absurdly, that she did not believe that anyone really enjoyed reading Shakespeare," coordinating with Bankes to deflect Mr. Ramsay from obsessing on his legacy. Their collective action becomes a model for the others.

This utility of the absurd, the contradictory, jibes with Freud: "Laughter is in fact the product of an automatic process"–perception–"which is only made possible by our conscious attention being kept away from it."** But the best way to not attend to something is for it to be remembered by someone else! "When I make the other person laugh by telling him a joke, I am actually making use of him to arouse my own laughter," contagiously.** Other people permit us to forget–to enjoy–by sharing the burdens of memory...and accomplishment.

In her final scene, Mrs. Ramsay tests whether her actions have socialized her husband. Having finished his book, doubts are resurfacing, but he no longer gives a "damn who reached Z (if thought ran like an alphabet from A to Z). Somebody would reach it–if not he, then another." She resists his plea for verbal reassurance, as a mother might painfully refuse a clingy child: "She had not said it: yet he knew."

After she dies, it falls to Lily, the artist, to "make life stand still."  ...Doesn't it seem that art has taken on the job of comfort today?

*Freud, "Creative Writers and Daydreaming" (1908)
**Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905)

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