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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20 Comments.

  1. Seems to me like philosophy is still trying to catch up with 20th century psychology and hasn’t quite got a grasp of 21st century neuroscience.

    The indications from some camps are that the human brain consists of many fairly autonomous subsystems that take inputs from the body, and through the senses from the wider world, and that these subsystems interact. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the boundaries between these subsystems are clear or permanent, but that at any one time when a brain presents its owner to the world through behaviour there may be any of several ‘part-selves’ contributing. And just to be clear, these part-selves aren’t in themselves conscious selves, homunculi, but simply partly autonomous subsystems that all contribute to or inhibit behaviour in the whole organism.

    The result is that what seems to emerge, to others when observing a person, or even to the conscious self-aware introspective perspective of the person himself, is a variable multi-faceted persona that sometimes behaves consistently with itself and its environment and sometimes behaves inconsistently. Some people seem to present the same overall self to the world most of the time, and they might be conveniently labelled authentic. Others seem dissatisfied with themselves, invent a new self, often with a new life in a new place, disassociating themselves with their old life, until eventually the new self, which started out as inauthentic becomes authentic: the brain has changed in a very real physical way. And yes, there are homophobic evangelical homosexuals, there are people who present as confident people at work but who may be just managing to keep that inauthentic surface going above an insecure inner self.

    So yes, in vivid extremes there can appear to be authentic and inauthentic personas; but this is seeing the person only in terms of this philosophical dichotomous abstraction that has been constructed by philosophers and psychologists.

    The psychology becomes interesting when trying to figure out why such lives might be lived. It’s more complex. Messy. And that’s when the simplistic authentic-inauthentic concept has to be built into a more complex abstract and hopeless theory.

    In a way I find much philosophy to be like religion. One starts out with a simple idea, like some notional being, God. And then this idea is expanded to provide more and more explanatory power. But because it is all speculative imaginative pure reason it isn’t grounded in anything. And as more empirical observations about the world come along and challenge these explanations, more have to be constructed, they have to become more obtuse, vague, woolly, imaginative, speculative. And so we have theologians telling us vast amounts of detail about a God that has had to become ineffable because this detail can’t be backed up or demonstrated and often conflicts with direct experience. In the end you end up with many religions with very different theologies; and even vast variation within even one sect – just look at all the Christianities; what on earth are they grounded on?

    Much philosophy seems to be constructed just like this. And, just like the theologian, the philosopher sometimes seems to pick and choose empirical support to suit the philosophical theory, rather than letting the philosophical theory be informed by empirical evidence.

    Existentialism seems more like theology than philosophy. And existentialism seems to have informed psychology to a great extent – or they have evolved mutually. I can understand the early 20th century psychologists clutching at straws. Psychology has been a black box science, struggling to make sense of a complex inner system, the brain, from the observed contrary external behaviour of the person, and has gone down a few dark alleys, and in this case has been mugged by some dodgy philosophy.

  2. At the risk of being labeled “theological”, here is Sartre’s take on authenticity.

    Authenticity involves being conscious of how far
    we are the product of our situation (our society, the zeitgeist, our social class, our education, etc.) and our facticity (our genes, physical accidents, etc.) and of how we chose to live our situation and our facticity.

    That means assuming responsibility for our choices, including our choice of how we live our situation and facticity and not evading our responsibility by blaming others or the world for the choices we make.

    For example, my parents educated me in a certain way and that is part of my situation, but I am responsible for how I live out that parental upbringing.

    I realize that this is not scientific, but it’s a formula that helps people order their lives and it may be a valid alternative lifeplan to pontificating on how unscientific the views of everyone else are 7 times a day.

  3. Ron, you’re right that philosophy is a bit behind the curve on some things. We’re well ahead of psychodynamics, but for some reason are stuck in 1980s cognitive science.

    (e.g., you allude to modularity. But the modularity thesis is only a thesis that makes sense if you first answer, “What system are we talking about?” If the visual system, then yes. If concept acquisition, then no. If the id/ego/superego, then almost certainly not.)

    Anyway, I doubt that any of this makes any difference to my post. I’m trying to draw you away from the idea that authenticity is merely cognitive. Authentic actions are also normative, intentionally giving other people reasons to risk the assumption that they are on the same page. If that is right, then many people are behind the curve, potentially including people working in cognitive science.

    One feature of the account you offer that I would flag as especially worrisome is the idea that authentic selves are just ‘personas’ or masks. That’s a kind of postmodern view, and it makes no sense of either the generativity or consistency of the self.

  4. SWally, thanks for that. I’d like to say that the view you attributed to Sartre there is what I would think of as “substantive autonomy”. To be authentic is not necessarily to be free from delusion, though it does involve being free from the awareness that you are delusional.

  5. Freud’s model; (id/ego/super-ego), it’s not meant to be a hard model of the physiology of the brain. I’ve had the discussion with a neuroscientist before; “I have examined the brain, and found no sign of an id, an ego, or super-ego”. It’s a model – it’s not really to reflect a neurological reality, more the reality of our desires and behaviours.

    Descartes stops at the I (the ego). Freud goes further. The I (the ego) is being driven by the pure voiceless wants of the thing (the ID – das ding – it’s unconscious, it just wants), the super-ego then rules the ego – it’s the authority with the rules. Descartes ego/I stops at “I think therefore I am”, but he’s stumped at a simple question like “why would your I want to think, or want anything?”. Here you could have a religious explanation. But Freud of course was an atheist and a materialist – there must be a mechanism.

    To give an example of how Freud’s model works. The Id demands pleasure. The ego hears this voiceless request. The ego sees a woman, the immediate thought is “why don’t I grab her and put my penis in her, that would be pleasurable”. The super-ego now speaks “No, you cannot just grab her and have sex with her – this is not allowed”. Here, in this particular ego/super-ego dialogue can result in neurotic sexual repression. In Hitchock’s psycho, Norman Bates’ mother is on occasion the super-ego injunction against sex with the woman in the motel. To resolve the crisis Norman kills the woman. Freud’s model is as much about malfunction as function.

    The 21st century neuroscientific never gives this kind of explanation of personhood. And Freud’s model is not in conflict with neuroscience either. It’s an extension of the Cartesian Cogito – but it’s in territory that does not necessarily have a hard existence – it’s not locations in Euclidean space.

    Personas. This is Jung’s idea. It’s the idea that when we present ourselves to the public we wear a mask, we pretend to be someone else. And it follows, according to Jung, if we do not wear this mask, or if we identify with our public presentation as being our real selves, then we are psychotic.

    I have a big problem with Jung’s idea. I believe Jung is a psychotic justifying his own psychotic behaviour, and the social behaviour he sees around him. There is no reason psychotic behaviour cannot be on a social scale, and it often is. Jung believes to be “normal”, you must present yourself as slightly inauthentic (shallow, fake, a bullshitter) – you must have a distance. And for other people to be “normal” they must present this inauthenticity too.

    Someone asks you insincerely “How are you?”, and you should reply with equal insincerity “Oh I am very well, thank you very much, and how are you?” – it’s not a genuine request for an interchange of information. The person who replies with sincere information is in the eyes of Jung a psychotic – in reality Jung is the psychotic – The person (who you could accuse of social idiocy) through their sincerity has removed the gap (a comfortable distance) Jung has put between the person and himself. This is traumatic for Jung. But since Jung cannot be neurotic and psychotic, it must be the social idiot.

    Jung’s behaviour is psychotic and neurotic.

    Societies as a whole, are riddled with all kinds of psychotic behaviours. For many individuals it is simply too traumatic to genuinely interact with other beings (the closeness horrifies them) – they have a deep need for social inauthenticity – even within their own families.

    For other individuals in society who do not have this specific psychosis, they are aware that there are social rules they must follow – be insincere and distant. This protects them from the wrath of the psychotic. When the psychotic asks insincerely “How are you?”, they know to give an insincere response – if they do not, the psychotic will be traumatised and look on them as being insane.

    And this is a reason people with autism (even if they are high functioning) get into scrapes and trouble. They’re blind to subtle cues – they respond with sincere information – they unintentionally traumatise. And this is how they get fired from jobs and beaten up by strangers.

    Someone who is compulsively insincere is a psychotic – someone who is intentionally insincere is a social survivor – a navigator of an ocean full psychotics. 21st century neuroscience could not make such a statement – the concept of psychosis in neuroscience is different it’s bio-chemical malfunction, not some kind of deeply internalised philosophical crisis.

  6. Ben:

    Let me see if I understand your basic idea.

    Take the example of the homophobic closet homosexual.

    There are two aspects of his self in conflict:
    his sexual desires and his moralism.

    Now, you say that authenticity is a normative concept and I agree with you. You also say that the idea of a true self is a social gambit, based on a social project: I agree with that too.

    Ok, so in the Middle Ages, society would see one’s moralism as being truer or realer (or closer to God, the realest Entity) than mere sexual desire and thus, in the Middle Ages, one’s moralistic homophobia would be one’s true self and one’s homosexual desires would be a false self.

    However, in contemporary liberal society, at least in the circles I (and most probably you) move in, one is at least partially defined by one’s sexual preferences or at least by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” tolerance to sexual preferences and thus, homophobic moralism becomes a false self and one’s homosexual desires are at least an aspect of one’s true self.

    Is that what you’re saying?

    If so, that makes a lot of sense to me.

  7. JM, interesting stuff.

    Your main point, however, is going in different directions. It’s clear that Freud was not offering a theory about the physiology of the brain. He was offering a theory of the mind, or psyche. And it’s just no good to say that he was actually offering a model, and not a theory of the mind. His model was embedded in a theory, and the theory was used both to explain and intervene in the subject’s life.

    Freud’s theory of mind has the high potential to be in dramatic conflict with the work I mentioned in the article by Tomasello. In his work, Tomasello observes that human infants will almost certainly engage in helping behavior. e.g., if you drop a pencil, they’ll pick it up. Does this sound like the superego to you, e.g., an inner voice that says “You are not permitted to do nothing”, or is it just babies being helpful because they want to? I’m inclined to think the latter.

    SWally, I should emphasize that I don’t believe in a ‘real self’. There’s only authentic action that issues from a core self. So a culture’s beliefs about their ‘real selves’ are not relevant. It doesn’t matter if a person thinks that their core self is ‘real’, as in some deep creature lurking in the psyche (Norman Bates excepted). Every culture which talks about ‘real selves’ in that sense is in error.

    A repressed evangelical living in the Middle Ages could not be either wholehearted or forthcoming, so it is hard to see them as qualifying as authentic actors. One of the nice things about liberal democratic societies (during boom years, anyway) is that they provide more opportunities for both wholeheartedness and candor. But liberal democracies aren’t perfect. e.g., if you grow up under a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, your opportunity to act authentically is being quashed, because the regime has judged that tolerance is more important than candor.

  8. Ben:

    I wasn’t around in the Middle Ages, so maybe my example of the repressed Medieval homosexual is not the best one.

    It does seem that there is a complex feedback mechanism between one and society and that through that feedback mechanism certain aspects of what you call “the core self” get valued and others not, depending on the society in question.

    What I feel honestly and wholeheartedly has biological elements, but it also has an important social component: while I cannot honestly and wholeheartedly deny my sexuality or my need to sleep or eat or to go to the bathroom, I may honestly or wholeheartedly learn not to want to, say, kiss other males in a friendly way or in another society, learn honestly and wholeheartedly that kissing other males in a friendly is a normal approach to socializing.

    Thus, in society A being authentic may involve kissing other males as an aspect of friendship, while in society B being authentic may not.

    For people from society A, those from society B may seem phoney and vice versa.

    In fact, one of my experiences of living in different cultures is how easily one sees customs which feel authentic to members of other cultures as phoney, just as they probably see me as phoney too.

  9. Swally, that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought of it.

    Admittedly, I have some trouble with the idea that a person can ‘wholeheartedly’ have a certain preference in one context, and then suddenly switch preferences in another context. When someone does this, it seems like they’re being inauthentic.

    But I agree with you that it is possible to have a thoroughly cosmopolitan orientation to the world. Perhaps some people can authentically and enthusiastically endorse whatever the local customs are, so long as those customs facilitate trust and pose no threat to one’s own self-trust. Like you, I don’t see any reason to believe that these people lack wholeheartedness just because they’re sensitive to the context.

  10. BLS Nelson,

    “It’s clear that Freud was not offering a theory about the physiology of the brain. He was offering a theory of the mind, or psyche.”

    He was actually trying to do both. He’s a pain to read and he’s misunderstood since day one – this is partly his own fault. The libidinal drives are not the “love” drives, there are the life drives. The erotic drive is not simply a drive for sex, and the death drive is not an urge to die.

    His more complex theories are not that sound but the underlying model could actually be how the brain functions to make us desire and do things.

    “Tomasello observes that human infants will almost certainly engage in helping behavior. e.g., if you drop a pencil, they’ll pick it up.”

    This is consistent with Freud. The action of helping, picking up the pencil, engaging, is excretory. It gives pleasure, it’s rewarding. Freud does make the connection with shitting – like his joke “All art is shit”. The desire to communicate for it’s own sake – which babies do, they babble without language for the pleasure of communicating.

    “Does this sound like the superego to you, e.g., an inner voice that says “You are not permitted to do nothing”,”

    No, this is a misunderstanding of the Super-ego. The injunctions are not simply prohibitions. They are also injunctions to perform an activity.

    “or is it just babies being helpful because they want to?”

    Yes, but, why do they want to be helpful in the first place? And this is where Freud comes in, and a neuroscientist wouldn’t really have an answer without reformulating Freud’s model.

    With every development in psychology and psychiatry the boosters of the latest theories like to dismiss previous ideas as superseded and irrelevant. In reality they can still be consistent. In clinical settings they tend to use everything, as no one knows what absolutely works.

    “One of the nice things about liberal democratic societies (during boom years, anyway) is that they provide more opportunities for both wholeheartedness and candor.”

    Damn right. In the bust years there are fewer people you can afford to offend, with your wholeheartedness and candor. You may have an authentic human uniqueness and eccentricity, but when neurotic conservatives are controlling the purse strings, can you afford not to be an inauthentic conformist.

  11. JM, I’m unfamiliar with Freud’s work on neuroanatomy, or applications of the Freudian hydraulic model to the structures of the brain. I’ll take your word for it.

    I don’t want to do much exegesis on Freud’s views of the mind, in part because the monster of psychodynamic theory has grown into something much larger than him, and in part because it’s hard to keep track of which absurdities that are most relevant to this conversation. e.g., neither ‘Eros’ or ‘Thanatos’ strike me as plausible mental mechanisms (they are better understood as interpretive categories, better suited for a class in film or literature than psychology), but I’m not interested in digressing on that point.

    So, keeping it narrow. In the OP, the only statement I make about Freud directly is that he was wrong for implying that the ego is a ‘false self’ (ostensibly implying that the id is the true self). The other statements were qualified: so, e.g., I said that “On most readings, Freud would like to reduce us all to a constellation of repressed urges” (emphasis added).

    No, this is a misunderstanding of the Super-ego. The injunctions are not simply prohibitions. They are also injunctions to perform an activity.

    Of course, the command-like or authoritative structure of the superego does not just mean prohibitions. But you’re making too much of an example. The point is that there’s nothing authoritative about a child wanting to help. It doesn’t appear to be sublimated by the reality principle, or anything like the pursuit of perfection.

    Anyway, if this characterization of the id and ego as pro-social is consistent with some reconstructed version of Freud who does not rely upon silly drive reductions — e.g., to the psychosexual stages, fear of castration, etc. — then I am fine with that. Just no Oedipal robots, please.

    (I hasten to add that my interpretation of the consequences of Tomasello’s work is not necessarily what Tomasello thinks about his own work. So if you read “Why We Cooperate”, you will find no mention of Freud. Tomasello is out to explain what’s going on, not to compete.)

  12. Ben:

    There’s a very human tendency to see people from other cultures as phoney.

    That’s the source of all those Hollywood films about good, natural, authentic Americans abroad among phoney or artificial French or Japanese or now Chinese, whose very smiles and laughter are phoney.

    Yet, judging from my experience, having lived slightly less than half my life in the U.S. and the rest in Latin America, people from other cultures often see Americans, yes, even their very smiles and laughter, as phoney or artificial.

  13. BLS Nelson,

    I had a longer reply, computer crashed, I’m not typing it again. I’ll keep it short.

    “So, keeping it narrow. In the OP, the only statement I make about Freud directly is that he was wrong for implying that the ego is a ‘false self’ (ostensibly implying that the id is the true self).”

    There’s often a confusion in the translation from German. Cut’n’paste from Wiki: Freud himself wrote of “das Es,” “das Ich,” and “das Über-Ich”—respectively, “the It”, “the I”, and the “Over-I” (or “I above”);

    The ID, or the It. Is not a self, it has no personality – it just demands – it’s a thing. Freud’s self is actually the Ego, das Ich, the I.

    So much can get messed up in translation. For a long time in the English speaking world schizophrenia, a German word, was interpreted to mean a split personality – this led to all kinds of fruity interpretations. A schizophrenic being split from their true selves, etc. It’s just a bad translation – the word simply means broken minded. But the idea of split personalities sticks in the culture.

    Karl Jung is really responsible for ideas of shadow selves, masks.

    Contemporary psychology really is the fruits of Jung and Freud. There was no year zero where everything began from scratch again.

  14. Thanks for keeping it straight, JM. I’ve tracked down some citations, and am not longer convinced that I had it right the first time. I’ve since altered the offending passage, with a hat-tip to you added.

    That said, these added qualifications don’t help make a case for psychodynamic approaches in the vein you’re suggesting. After all, much of the essay above rejects the idea that the ego is the self, too.

  15. I must say that you seem to be on the right track with the exception of one big thing you said:

    “…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.”

    H. Jackson Brown Jr. said, “Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.” In your example of Robinson Crusoe, you claim that he can only ACT as if to say that he had no choice in the matter. On the contrary, he had the ultimate choice to make- “Do I live, or do I die.” He chose to live and adapt to his surroundings and not let his new abrasive environment consume him. In accepting his new surroundings as being real, his true, or authentic, self surfaced and he overcame adversity. Granted, he didn’t do it all alone, but, had he given up in the very beginning, he would have forfeited everything he was on a fundamental level.

    According to your argument, as a whole, it seems to me that you are making the assertion that the our actions in public define us more than anything we do in private. Also, it has been my experience that people tend to act one way in public and another at home. For example, children often exhibit one behavior at school and another at home where they tend to feel most comfortable. The behavior at home is their authentic self. The other behavior is their unauthentic self. Hopefully, they grow out of that behavior as they mature and they then conduct themselves in the same way everywhere they are. Also, look at people who are suicidal or have depression. Many times, they don’t exhibit many, if any, signs at all of feeling the way that they do. In the case of those who commit suicide or commit mass murder, many times they are only described as seeming outwardly happy, or keeping to themselves. What it sounds like you are saying is that, if people only act one way and there is no unauthentic self, then, we can infer that all people that are happy or that keep to themselves are very likely to commit suicide or mass murder. In reality, many people are very outgoing and happy and never commit such atrocities. On the other end of the spectrum, many people are perfectly content with keeping to themselves, and, they lead their own version of a happy life.

    I sometimes feel I miss other’s points when discussing things like this. So, if I have misunderstood you, please point out my mistake.

  16. Matthew Little:

    I tend to act “myself” when alone, but when alone, there are always imagined ideal others, others who accept me as I am and permit me to be “myself”, while, say, in the bank or supermarket I certainly do not act “myself”, but follow very rigid social roles in what I do and say.

    However, my “self” seems to be constituted by those imagined ideal others. When I talk to my
    “self”, I am in dialogue with those others, since my “self” cannot exist without those others.

    So being authentic (for me) always involves an other, although not necessarily the other who is physically presence.

    Those ideal others are imagined, but not wholly imaginary, since they are my mental representation of those others who matter to me.

  17. BLS Nelson,

    “That said, these added qualifications don’t help make a case for psychodynamic approaches in the vein you’re suggesting.”

    I had a really good reply; Freud, Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard. But the internet ate it, and I’m not typing it again. It’s my exegesis on Freud and existentialism. Don’t worry I’ll do it again sometime – just in no mood for a re-type now.

    I cannot offer any reading recommendations on Freud, I certainly would not recommend reading him. The clearest thing I have read is a biography, by ‘I can’t remember who’, but otherwise you’re really lost. Ignoring his forays into highly experimental therapy where he was literally inventing psychoanalysis as he went, and getting at the core ideas is where the meat is. The dreams stuff – ignore…..We all have cheese dreams, and they are without meaning.

  18. Hey Matthew,

    That’s a good quote, and certainly a potential challenge. There does seem to be something worthwhile to the idea that our character is best expressed in private moments. Certainly, there are more opportunities for the person to behave unpretentiously when they think they’re not being watched.

    That said, I can’t get on board with the idea that authenticity is essentially private or strictly psychological.

    If you have qualms about the Robinson Cruesoe example, it may be because we are imagining that Cruesoe is still haunted by ghosts of his past, is speaking in an inner narrative that makes reference to his former social environment, and so on. So there’s a funny or perverse sense in which we might recognize that he feels obliged to be candid, even though he’s alone. To the extent that we imagine Cruesoe to be thinking in this way, the example becomes consistent with the point I’d like to make, instead of illustrating an alternative view which I reject.

    So if I’m to be clear about the view I’m rejecting, I should offer a better example. Suppose we encounter a feral child in the wild. Does the feral child have a ‘true self’? That sounds strange. After all, we do not say that non-human animals are people, that they have ‘true selves’, or whatever (though they may have personalities). Similarly, I feel no inclination to say that a feral child is in touch with their ‘true self’. Without ever having been forced to behave pretentiously, the very idea of a ‘true self’ has no traction.

    But what does this example tell us? We have to look at how Winnicott characterized the “true self” (according to Adam Phillips, p.135). The true self covers what is “distinctive” about each person. It is a primitive concept that cannot be defined, except as a contrary to the “false self”. The true self is associated with “spontaneous gestures”, or intentions-in-action. Only the True Self can feel real, only the True Self can be creative. The True Self is “bound up with bodily aliveness”, the “body as creative”, not reactive to external stimuli.

    Now we should ask: are these characteristics that fit the feral child? To my ear, they all do. The feral child is all bodily aliveness, and potentially engages in creative activity (e.g., to outwit predators). But it strikes me as absurd to say the feral child is a full expression of a ‘true self’. Since the feral child is a pure illustration of his characterization of the true self, and since it is absurd to say that the feral child has a true self, we should conclude that there is no true self which conforms to Winnicott’s characterization.

    And I think that this absurd consequence arises from a deep but crucial mistake. He characterizes the ‘true self’ in terms of the psychological, if Phillips has it right. And he characterizes the ‘false self’ as a social front: either as a kind of simulacrum of the true self, or guardian of the true self, or scout, or diplomat. But so long as the distinction is characterized in this way, I say there is no internally valid distinction for us to find.

    In contrast, I do think there is a distinction between an authentic self and an inauthentic one. So I would agree, without reservation, that some of the roles that people play are completely at odds with their authentic selves. We’ve all had awful jobs or relationships where we have to pretend to be something we’re not. But here’s how I make the distinction. The authentic self has wholehearted preferences, and expresses those preferences when faced with the opportunity.

    Notice that there are two necessary components to authentic action: one psychological (wholeheartedness), one social (candor). If you exclude either of these notions from your description of a situation, you lose the idea of authenticity, too. It is not anything like, “authentic action is psychological, pretense is social”. Authenticity is both social and psychological — it is not just a creative body, like the feral child.

  19. BLS Nelson,

    The idea of a “true self” is variously interpreted.

    Say an individual in a family (or even a conservative/conformist society – some societies are more ridged than others). That individual may be under great pressure to produce a performance that is not them. They could be homosexual – but the family forces them to perform as heterosexual. The person is conscious, that their presentation is false. They are not allowed to live authentically – in Sartre’s sense they are living for others.

    Now for something completely different. The homosexual whose sexuality is completely hidden from them. Their sexual preference is not traumatic for them – but the fact that they are homosexual is deeply traumatic (cultural, all kinds of reasons). They can live as a heterosexual for years, convinced that they are heterosexual even marry. Then something can happen – and I have seen this happen. The person comes down with mysterious flu like illness – but the doctors can’t find anything wrong with them. A psychotherapist is brought in. With a little therapy, the repressed sexuality is unrepressed, and the flue magically vanishes.

    Then you can have the pastor, who is deliciously psychotic. They bash the pulpit condemning homosexuals. In private, they wish there was something they could do to save these young men from the fires of hell. They call a male prostitute, with the intention of saving them – a good deed. To win the prostitutes trust, he smokes a little meth, and then has a little sex. This literally can go on for months and years.

    If you’re lucky, you neither have to present a false identity to the world, or psychotically hide your true identity from yourself.

  20. JM,

    The first case is consistent with the distinction I make between authentic and inauthentic selves. I have no doubt that people can have secret wholehearted preferences and be self-aware about those preferences, but be constrained in how they express themselves. Many people are socially repressed, and forced to live an inauthentic life. But in these cases, the actor counterfactually knows, and is able to imagine, a possible world where they really could express themselves candidly. That is enough to satisfy the social criterion.

    The second case is more difficult. Suppose a person has wholehearted preferences that are habituated in a certain direction (bigoted evangelicism), and that person cannot imagine what it would be like to endorse the contrary preferences in any serious way (tabooed homosexuality). Also suppose that, as a matter of fact, the person has drives that will one day inevitably lead to a change in preferences. If so, then when the time comes for a change in preferences, I think the natural thing a lot of us would say that the person’s identity has been altered. And I think that’s the right thing to say.

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