Philosophy: Authenticity, some musings

Philosophy: Authenticity, some musings February 7, 2006

So… Another topic I’m somewhat ill-equipped to tackle, but no less than the next guy I suppose. Let me introduce three thinkers: Immanuel Kant (already a frequent visitor here), Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre (likely to become a regular in due course). I want to discuss how each of them did (or might have) discussed authenticity, and then give my own feeble views. To understand authenticity, I think a few conditions need to be discussed; first: how does one identify it (1st or 3rd person), second: what is its value (personally/socially), and third: how does one attain it?

Kant and holiness:

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) did not address the question of authenticity, but he had a concept I think will work in its place (if not as a somewhat more demanding ideal): holiness. In fact, Kant is at times admits that actualized holiness is impossible, but we should strive for it nonetheless and count on a good God to ensure things work out in the afterlife. But – a non-theistic account of holiness (mine at least) could simply admit the rare possibility of achieved holiness-in-this-life (equal to the Buddhist arahat) and the likelihood or possibility of a better (if not in a Christian heaven) rebirth for those who fall short…. In any case, Kant’s concept of holiness was of a person who acted always and automatically in accordance with the moral law; as opposed to in accordance to sexual/money mongering/flattery/ etc interests. Within the moral law, all people are of absolute and equal worth. It is attained through you setting it as your ideal and then working through your non-moral interests, seeing others as equals, trying to see the world through other’s viewpoints, and improving one’s own consistency of motivation.

Heidegger and authenticity:
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is the philosopher of authenticity. Sadly, I am not nearly so familiar with him as I am with Kant. My understanding is that first, we must realize that we are thrown into the world: into a socio-historical situation not of our making, but which in fact makes us. Our unique socio-historical situation, our surroundings, give us a mood, and as such we come into being with a certain moodedness. It is only through our mood that we can experience the world, we never have any purely rational or objective experience. But our mood (which I think maybe usefully rendered world-view) is never adequate to our reality, our experiences: things break down (like the child who is told that Santa Claus is not real). This gives rise to angst, or anxiety, and the realization that we are beings-unto-death; that is, we are finite in the face of the infinite. If we do not crumble under this immense realization (as I suppose some do), then we consciously come to terms with who we are, a product of our particular socio-historical situation, and move forward within that.

Jean-Paul Sartre and the ego shift
(1905-1980) I’m not sure if this is the right place to go with Sartre (I’m 2 weeks into a Sartre course, we start “Being and Nothingness” on Wednesday), but I’ll give it a go. For Sartre, the great mistake in philosophy has been trying to set up a pre-experience self, that is, a self that exists prior to experience in the world. The self only comes into being as a result of experience. Take a child playing, for the child there is no ‘self’, simply immersion in the world of play. Then suppose a stranger passes by, giving the child a dirty look. Suppose this happens repeatedly. At first the child simply recoils: something in the child’s world is unpleasant. But at some point the child has the realization, “that man is giving me a dirty look.” Suddenly there is reflection, and with it an additional object of consciousness, the ‘ego’ (me), is born. The problem we have with the rest of our lives is that this happens to us time and again: our experiences cause us not just to realize ourselves, but to label ourselves as this way and that (Jon thinks I am smart, Mary thinks I am weird). The ‘ego’ becomes heavy with labels that come back to us in the world: I see Mary and act uncomfortable or Jon and smile with confidence. We then think that the ‘ego’ is somehow who we really, essentially, are. But this is the huge mistake. We need to come to realize that our ego has been generated by past experience, we need to take it (the ‘ego’) as an object of reflection (that is the ‘shift’ from ego as ‘who we are’ to ego as ‘for-us’), disentangle it, dissolve it, and return to that spontaneity and playfulness of the child in the world, only now with the ‘ego’ that the child lacked.

Ok, I think that’s enough for now. Any one of these thinkers could be profitably taken up as a separate post… Perhaps some charts and graphs would help 🙂

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