To thine own self be

Daniel Little leads double-life as one of the world’s most prolific philosophers of social science and author of one of the snazziest blogs on my browser start-up menu. Recently, he wrote a very interesting post on the subject of authenticity and personhood.

In that post, Little argues that the very idea of authenticity is grounded in the idea of a ‘real self’. “When we talk about authenticity, we are presupposing that a person has a real, though unobservable, inner nature, and we are asserting that he/she acts authentically when actions derive from or reflect that inner nature.” For Little, without the assumption that people have “real selves” (i.e., a set of deep characteristics that are part of a person’s inner constitution), “the idea of authenticity doesn’t have traction”. In other words: Little is saying that if we have authentic actions, then those actions must issue from our real selves.

However, Little does not think that the real self is the source of the person’s actions. “…it is plausible that an actor’s choices derive both from features of the self and the situation of action and the interplay of the actions of others. So script, response, and self all seem to come into the situation of action.”

So, by modus tollens, Little must not think there is any such thing as authentic actions.

But —- gaaah! That can’t be right! It sure looks like there is a difference between authentic and inauthentic actions. When a homophobic evangelical turns out to be a repressed homosexual, we are right to say that their homophobia was inauthentic. When someone pretends to be an expert on something they know nothing about, they are not being authentic. When a bad actor is just playing their part, Goffman-style: not authentic.

So one of the premises has to go. For my part, I would like to take issue with Little’s assertion that the idea of authenticity “has no traction” if there is no real self. I’d like to make a strong claim: I’d like to agree that the idea of a ‘real self’ is an absurdity, a non-starter, but that all the same, there is a difference between authentic and inauthentic actions. Authenticity isn’t grounded in a ‘real (psychological) self’ — instead, it’s grounded in a core self, which is both social and psychological.

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If you ever have a chance to wander into the Philosophy section at your local bookstore you’ll find no shortage of books that make claims about the Real Self. A whole subgenre of the philosophy of the ‘true self’ is influenced by the psychodynamic tradition in psychology, tracing back to the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott.

For the Freudians, the psyche is structured by the libido (id), which generates the self-centred ego and the sociable superego. When reading some of the works that were inspired by this tradition, I occasionally get the impression that the ‘real self’ is supposed to be a secret inner beast that lies within you, waiting to surface when the right moment comes. That ‘real self’ could be either the id, or the ego.

On one simplistic reading of Freud, the id was that inner monstrosity, and the ego was akin to the ‘false self’.* On many readings, Freud would like to reduce us all to a constellation of repressed urges. Needless to say (I hope), this reductionism is batty. You have to be cursed with a comically retrograde orientation to social life to think that people are ultimately just little Oedipal machines.

Other theorists (more plausibly) seem to want to say that the ego is hidden beneath the superego — as if the conscience were a polite mask, and the ego were your horrible true face. But I doubt that the ego counts as your ‘real self’, understood in that way. I don’t think that the selfish instincts operate in a quasi-autonomous way from the social ones, and I don’t think we have enough reason to think that the selfish instincts are developmentally prior to the selfish ones. Recent research done by Michael Tomasello has suggested that our pro-social instincts are just as basic and natural as the selfish ones. If that is right, then we can’t say that the ego is the ‘real self’, and the superego is the facade.

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All the same, we ought to think that there is such a thing as an ‘authentic self’. After all, it looks as though we all have fixed characteristics that are relatively stable over time, and that these characteristics reliably ground our actions in a predictable way. I think it can be useful, and commonsensical, to understand some of these personality traits as authentic parts of a person’s character.

On an intuitive level, there seem to be two criteria for authenticity which distinguish it from inauthentic action. First, drawing on work by Harry Frankfurt, we expect that authenticity should involve wholeheartedness — which is a sense of complacency with certain kinds of actions, beliefs, and orientation towards states of affairs. Second, those traits should be presented honestly, and in line with the actual beliefs that the actor has about the traits and where they come from. And notice that both of these ideas, wholeheartedness and honesty, make little or no allusion to Freudian psychology, or to a mysterious inner nature.

So the very idea of authenticity is both a social thing and a psychological thing, not either one in isolation. It makes no sense to talk about authentic real self, hidden in the miasma of the psyche. The idea is that being authentic involves doing justice to the way you’re putting yourself forward in social presentation as much as it involves introspective meditation on what you want and what you like.

By assuming that the authentic self is robustly non-social (e.g., something set apart from “responses” to others), we actually lose a grip on the very idea of authenticity. The fact is, you can’t even try to show good faith in putting things forward at face value unless you first assume that there is somebody else around to see it. Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, cannot act ‘authentically’ or ‘inauthentically’. He can only act, period.

So when Little says that “script, response, and self all seem to come into the situation of action”, I think he is saying something true, but which does not bear on the question of whether or not some action is authentic. To act authentically is to engage in a kind of social cognition. Authenticity is a social gambit, an ongoing project of putting yourself forward as a truth-teller, which is both responsive to others and grounded in projects that are central to your concern.

In this sense, even scripted actions can be authentic. “I love you” is a trope, but it’s not necessarily pretence to say it. [This possibility is mentioned at the closing of Little’s essay, of course. I would like to say, though: it’s more than just possible, it’s how things really are.]

* This sentence was substantially altered after posting. Commenter JMRC, below, pointed out that it is probably not so easy to portray Freud in caricature.

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