“As an idea, authenticity is superficially simple yet definitively elusive” (p 66)

Authenticity is an assumed life value in Western societies. We’re told to ‘be ourselves,’ ‘stay true to who we are,’ and ‘live authentically.’ It sounds simple enough, but beneath these catchy slogans lies a web of complexity. What does it truly mean to be authentic, and how do we find, express and live a so-called authentic life?

In The History and Ethics of Authenticity: Meaning, Freedom, and Modernity by Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth asks:

Fostered within an individualistic culture, it seems intuitive that one has one’s own particular mode of being; however, one confronts difficulty in attempting to articulate exactly what it means to be authentic. (p 66)

While it seems simple and straightforward on the surface, authenticity is a complex and multifaceted idea.

Drawing from a range of ideas found in various modern, existentialist and contemporary philosophers, Shuttleworth’s book delves into a philosophical and critical exploration of authenticity. He dissects and grapples with the intricacies that emerge from a historical understanding of the concept. Through this critique, he strives to ground authenticity beyond pure “inwardness” and formulate the pursuit of authenticity in terms of agency and choice within a a shared horizon of intelligibility, others and even responsibility.

Authenticity, as presented in the book, is not a fixed state but a dynamic process. It involves the notion that individuals define themselves through their choices, actions, and even story-telling. Authenticity involves making choices that resonate with one’s (discovered) true self while considering one’s capabilities and the social and historical context. It requires ongoing self-awareness, dialogue with others, and an understanding of one’s place within broader narratives–both self-created and those already-there from our culture and society.

Moreover, in emphasizing the importance of recognizing one’s identity within the context of a broader social and historical heritage, the book is critiquing what might be termed “monological consciousness” and highlights the role of intersubjective consciousness in formulating a meaningful personal identity. As individuals, we develop through dialogues with others (especially our significant others), who contribute to and shape shared horizon of significance. Others are also critical in their role of seeing and recognizing us too.

In the context of AI and what it means to be authentic when using these kinds of tools, I’m in the process of both researching and writing about what is authenticity.

Here are my book notes and a few of my takeaways and lessons from a great book diving into this topic.

Book Notes, Quotes and Key Takeaways for “The History and Ethics of Authenticity: Meaning, Freedom, and Modernity” by Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth

[Emphasis is mine]

  • “We are, rather, as I argue, dialogical beings who owe our identity to the many cultural contexts and communities to which we belong.” (p 5)
  • For Walter Benjamin, authenticity of something encompasses its entire history. To Benjamin: “[E]ven the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”; continues “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (1999: 124, 125) (quoted on p 7)
  • “This pursuit of authenticity in response to mass society has led to a progressive counterculture which seeks to impede the corrosive effects of globalization by reviving traditional practices.” (p 10)
  • “One can thus conceive of one’s true self as constituted by one’s own-most values, abilities and interests.” (p 13)
  • “In short, we like to think that our authentic self is constructed by actualizing those abilities which are uniquely our own.” (p 13)
  • Various theories of authenticity attempt to articulate this state of existence. At one extreme, some suggest that individuals possess an individual “essence” that is discovered through introspection, while others argue that authenticity is self-determined through self-creation.
  • Authenticity is “self-determined” (p 13)
  • Contrasts with “generic existence”
  • Q: How can one distinguish an authentic existence from aestheticism and egotistical self-indulgence?
  • “Post-Metaphysical Society”
  • Need for “a formal account of authenticity” that “avoids the presuppositions of an underlying metaphysical approach”
  • Question: “To what extent can authenticity provide a compelling resolution to the problems of freedom and meaning which pervade modern existence?” (p 14)
  • All philosophical thought stems from Plato: Alfred North Whitehead’s famous exclamation, ‘the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’ (1978: 39).
  • Tension/Problem: “the loss of meaning brought about by the pursuit of freedom”
  • Core Argument: “meaning is necessary to living a fulfilled existence” (p 16) because “the drive for meaning is an intrinsic aspect of healthy psychological development” (p 17)
  • Alternative ethical ideals: sincerity, integrity and autonomy.
  • Charles Taylor’s “six dimensions to the socio-existential approach to authenticity: choice, commitment, maturity, becoming what one is, intersubjective consciousness and heritage.”(p 19)
  • Two problems: 1. nihilism (Friedrich Nietzsche) that life is fundamentally meaningless; and 2. disenchantment (Max Weber) which was a consequence of increased rationalization, which decreased the individual’s ability to actualize their freedom”
  • Increased ‘rationalization’ of the natural world, that is, the demystification of nature, and how one ought to understand it (Weber 2005: 30). (Quoted on p 28)
  • Nietzsche: “man is something that shall be overcome”; “what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end” (1996b: 12–15) (Quoted on p 43)
  • “Disenchantment refers to the event which Occidental culture has undergone, whilst nihilism is the consequence of that process. Nietzsche and Weber therefore offer two independent, but compatible, accounts of the consequences of rationality, which the Enlightenment advocated.” (p 50)
  • “modernity has decreased freedom and led to a loss of meaning” (p 65)
  • Søren Kierkegaard: “to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die’ (2015: §A75, quoted on p 67)
  • “individuality as an idea emerged alongside the breakdown of traditional social hierarchies.” (p. 70)
  • “Although authenticity is distinct from autonomy, it is nevertheless dependent upon a conception of autonomy. Namely, in order to live authentically one must be able to freely reflect upon and enact one’s desires and values. Authenticity thus requires one to be free from manipulation and self-distorting influences, in order to be able to reflect and choose, and act from desires that are in some sense one’s own.” (p 75)
  • Romanticism: “What we thus find with Rousseau, Herder and Hölderlin is the attempt to discover an essential self through the process of looking inwards. The romantic approach to authenticity thus insinuates that each of us possesses an inner essence which is to be discovered through introspection.” (p 81)
  • Sartre’s distinction between being-in-itself (en-soi) and being-for-itself (pour-soi). For example, a chair only possess being-in-itself while “each human being, on the other hand, must determine its being-for-itself…it is up to each individual to choose their fundamental projects, that which defines them and the telos of their life for themselves.” (p 83)
  • Sartre’s example of a Parisian waiter who identifies solely with his social role. As Sartre put it, “a waiter cannot be a waiter in the same way as an inkwell is an inkwell” (2007: 59–60).
  • Sartre “man is nothing other than his own project. He exists only to the extent that he realizes himself, therefore he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life” (2007: 37, quoted on p 105)
  • Guignon: There are “innumerable ways we might constitute ourselves in imparting a narrative shape to our lives and there are neither inner nor outer criteria that tell us whether our life story is truly worth living’ (2004: 142, quoted on p 113)
  • Guignon: “If any story can be mine, then no story is really mine. When we recognize the multiplicity of stories we can tell and the ultimate arbitrariness of every choice of storyline, we can begin to sense the utter groundlessness of any attempt at self-formation’ (2004: 143, quoted on p 114)
  • “With regard to commitment, our project must be that which we are committed to achieving. As for maturity, we must be physically and mentally capable of achieving our goal. By becoming what one is, we are then capable of avoiding arbitrary choice. Intersubjective consciousness prevents us from forming a project which is ethically undesirable. Through heritage our choices are historically bound.” (p 283)
  • ‘Performative model’ of authenticity
  • “whilst we may feel motivated to live authentically on the internet, the more we reveal about our true selves, the greater the opportunity for companies to generate profit.” (p 302)

My Quick Take Book Review of “The History and Ethics of Authenticity: Meaning, Freedom, and Modernity” by Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth

Shuttleworth’s book is rather long and, while the language is clear, it felt too heavy and academic at certain points.

  • I rated this book a 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.
  • Would I recommend it? I wouldn’t recommend it to casual readers but I would recommend it to philosophically-minded readers since it covers a lot of ideas in a succinct yet critical voice.
  • Would I read it again? Probably not, though I might pick and choose passages for further exploration.

What I got out of this book?

Three ideas particularly resonated with me in this.

Dual Problems: Nihilism and Disenchantment

According to Shuttleworth, our modern pursuit of authenticity is tied to two problems that come out of Scientific Revolution, Modernism and Enlightenment, namely:

  1. Nihilism (Friedrich Nietzsche) - Life is fundamentally meaningless. It’s the sense that in a universe stripped of divine guidance and absolute truths, individuals may find themselves adrift in a sea of existential uncertainty. The search for authenticity, in this context, takes on a profound significance. It becomes a response to the void left by traditional belief systems, a way for individuals to construct their own meaning and purpose in an ostensibly indifferent world.
  2. Disenchantment (Max Weber) - In the era of modernity, society has become based on rationalization and intellectualization. As societies became more organized and efficient, they also became less mystical or enigmatic. This process can lead to a sense of disenchantment, where the world appears stripped of its wonder and magic, and individual freedom seems curtailed by the mechanistic forces of rationality.

These two problems (nihilism and disenchantment) provide a backdrop against which the pursuit of authenticity gains significance and importance for individuals and societies. Authenticity can be seen as a response to these challenges, offering a way for individuals to find purpose and agency in a world that can often appear devoid of inherent meaning and enchantment.

Your Authentic Self: An essence discovered through introspection or construction self-determined through self-creation?

As I hinted at in the intro, it is commonly advocated or assumed that we should find or “discover” our authentic self through introspection. Specifically it is believe that we merely need to look inwards to find who we truly are. Expressions like “Be yourself” don’t actually offer any framework for finding such a self nor criteria to decide if and when you’ve found authenticity either.

This leaves us wondering, as Shuttleworth pointedly asks:

Am I a teacher who dabbles in music or a musician trying to make ends meet by teaching?

Put another way, assuming you lead two lives and possibly many others, how do you determine which is your true or authentic self?

Numerous theories attempt to help us define the nature of authenticity and aim at illuminating the elusive state on which to claim as our genuine existence.

At one extreme, it is posited that individuals possess a unique “essence,” “substantial self” or our true “inwardness.” For the philosophical position known as “Essentialism,” the existence of an innate “essence” is how we should define our true self or authentic personal identity. Several prominent philosophers, like Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, all theorized a worldview and philosophy based on permanent essences or “forms.” These positions advocate and/or assume we simply have a substantial or essential self somewhere “in” us. Accordingly, in order to live an authentic and meaningful life, we merely need to “discover” our authentic self through forms of introspection.

Many philosophers have grappled with the fundamental question of “how can we know?” when it comes to identifying and validating these alleged essential properties. While traces of essentialist thinking can still be discerned in certain domains, such as Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar and certain discussions regarding human nature, the lack of concrete and verifiable evidence supporting the existence of such essences has cast doubt on the validity of essentialist claims. Contemporary philosophy has largely abandoned essentialism due to its inability to withstand empirical scrutiny and come to favor a more empirical position to base what is a self.

There are several opposing viewpoints to essentialism and a wide range of positions that attempt to define what is human nature. There are some (like post-modernists) who reject the very idea of a human nature. At the extreme opposite of essentialism or the belief in an innate essence is the idea that we are a “blank slate” and we become who we are though our experiences alone. Figures like John Locke argued that our minds and human nature develop through empirical means alone. We are who are through nurture alone.

One formulation of this position can be found in the theory of social construction. Social construction theory is a sociological and philosophical perspective that posits that many of the fundamental aspects of reality, including concepts of identity, knowledge, and social institutions, are not objective or naturally occurring but rather socially created and shaped by human interactions and cultural contexts. Several influential figures are associated with social construction like Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Erving Goffman.

According to this theory, individuals and societies collectively construct meaning and assign significance to ideas, categories, and behaviors. It emphasizes the role of language, communication, and shared beliefs in shaping our understanding of the world. Social construction theory challenges the notion that certain categories, such as gender, race, or mental illness, have inherent, fixed characteristics, highlighting instead their fluid and contingent nature. Additionally due to the fluid nature of these categories, several figures emphasize how power dynamics and history have influenced and lead to the the creation and maintenance of social constructs too in language and society.

There are several critiques of social construction theory.

  • Relativism: One of the primary criticisms is relativism. Critics argue that the emphasis on the role of language and discourse can sometimes lead to a situation where all perspectives and beliefs can be seen as equally valid, regardless of their factual accuracy or ethical implications. Even if there are concerns related to relativism, it is notable that social constructionists are often engaging in critical analysis towards uncovering social hierarchies and how the institutional power can lead to marginalization and disenfranchisement.
  • Role of Biology and Material Conditions?: Critics also argue that social constructionism overly emphasizes the role of language and discourse in defining who and what we are. As such they fail to recognize biology and material conditions. In simple terms it could be argued that they fail to recognize “nature” in the nature vs. nurture debate.

When it comes to questions of authenticity, I don’t believe we are entirely defined or definable by our self-creation of culture and identity nor can we claim a human nature determined by one’s conscious choices and actions alone. I resonate with the idea that we have agency and role to play in define our social order, our art and our meaning. But biological components seem irrefutable. Evolutionary and cognitive psychologists like Steven Pinker have largely debunked such the extreme idea that human nature is merely a blank slate as well.

Personally I believe that we are a hybrid – our homo sapiens nature defined by biology while our cultural self/agent/subject defined by localized, languaged cultural history. Biology might define the base of our experience and existence but our human nature is primarily cultural, unbounded and open-ended. We are, to borrow a phrase, a problematic species. Our nature is a hybrid one of biology and culture.

At the heart of this dichotomy lies a profound philosophical question: Is authenticity an inherent quality, an unchanging core that defines an individual from birth? Or is it a dynamic, evolving construct, shaped and reshaped by the individual’s experiences, decisions, and interactions with the world? Or perhaps a third alternative?

However, despite the decline of essentialism as a dominant philosophical stance, the idea of possessing an essential or true self remains a compelling and popular concept in contemporary discourse. This enduring appeal may be attributed to the intrinsic human desire for self-discovery and self-realization. Individuals often seek a deeper understanding of their identities, exploring the notion that there is a core essence within them that represents their true nature.

Charles Taylor’s Six Dimensions of Socio-existential Authenticity

“To what extent can authenticity provide a compelling resolution to the problems of freedom and meaning which pervade modern existence?” (p 14)

Throughout his book, Shuttleworth advocates for “a formal account of authenticity” that “avoids the presuppositions of an underlying metaphysical approach.” He rejects both essentialism and extreme social constructionism associated with post-modernist, i.e. nihilism and that meaning is relative. Instead, like Charles Taylor, Shuttleworth believes that we can ground authenticity and the self in a way that preserves freedom, choice and agency while maintaining horizon of meaning, others and social responsibility.

It could be argued that Shuttleworth’s book is meant to be a continuation and supplement to Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity. Shuttleworth notes that while Taylor develops an ethic of authenticity, Taylor doesn’t provide a clear account in his own writing of what an authentic existence looks like or how to cultivate one’s authentic self. Through historical and philosophical analysis, Shuttleworth comes to define what he calls Charles Taylor’s Six Dimensions of Socio-existential Authenticity, namely “choice, commitment, maturity, becoming what one is, intersubjective consciousness and heritage.” Let’s look at these one by one.

  1. Choice: For Taylor, the first step toward authenticity is the act of making choices. Rejecting essentialism, Taylor positions choice and agency in spirit of French philosopher Jean-Paul Satre’s form of existentialism, specifically that we are free agents and that our freedom to choice defines our existence. To be authentic we need to make our own choices (as opposed to socially imposed ones).
  2. Commitment: Merely making choices isn’t enough since it neglects the socio-ethical dimension, would imply all choices as equal, and fall into relativism and nihilism. For one’s choices and projects to be meaningful, we need to make a commitment. If you are not committed to a choice, then your choice seems arbitrary or meaningless and, as such, cannot be deemed to be authentic, according to Taylor. Taylor calls this being “capable of taking a stand.”
  3. Maturity: In order to avoid choosing and committing to projects that we might be incapable of realizing and ones that are unethical or inauthentic, Taylor proposes the idea of maturity. Maturity implies understanding our capabilities and limitations, which helps us make more realistic choices. Maturity hints at us gaining a deeper understanding of context, heritage, (ethical) others and intersubjective consciousness too. Maturity also admits that our positions and decisions can and perhaps should evolve over time too. Certain choices and commitments we made in the past may no longer be congruent with our authentic self now.
  4. “Becoming what one is” is a phrase and idea borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche and centers on the process of self-realization and self-actualization. For Nietzsche, individuals should reject conformity to societal norms and values, because they suppress or distort one’s genuine self. Instead, individuals are challenged to strive to fully realize their own unique potential and embrace embrace their creative individuality. This fourth dimension of becoming what one is calls on us to be willing to affirm what and who I am.
  5. Intersubjective Consciousness: To answer the critique of existentialism’s narcissism and lack of an ethical component, Taylor posits that our sense of self and our moral values are not developed in isolation but are deeply connected to a shared language and our interactions with others. Intersubjective Consciousness refers the idea that individuals not only have their own inner lives but also exist (perhaps fundamentally) within a shared social, interpersonal and “dialogical” context. Our phenomenological experience of our own conscious experiences are based on a shared world and always-already with others. Shuttleworth writes, “individuals develop through dialogue and their choices are given meaning through a shared horizon of intelligibility.” This fifth dimension introduces an ethical aspect to the concept of authenticity.
  6. Heritage introduces the idea of temporality and recognizes the role of history and tradition in our choices. Our possibilities are “shaped by historical factors,” “determined by our heritage,” and bound to a time and place. this sixth dimension deviates from the purely subjective stance often associated with classical existentialism. Instead it, “enables one to recognize that projects become authentic/inauthentic in accordance with social and personal situations.” Put another way, heritage gives us a context and even telos/aim to determine what it means to be authentic ourself and in view of others.

According to Shuttleworth, “Our theory of authenticity…offers unity through the Nietzschean ideal of ‘becoming what one is’ and narrative” and “As a consequence of adhering to these six dimensions, it was then determined that the individual can conceive of their life as a unified whole, and by thinking of it as possessing an end provides our lives with meaning.” (p 282). We have a unified and meaningful personal identity through narratives and role of stories in defining a self. By positioning possible meaningful ends in terms of others (intersubjective consciousness) and a historical horizon (heritage), we become capable of making committed, mature choices. Our actions can matter ethically and we become responsible to them and ourself.

Shuttleworth summarizes the benefits:

“We are thus confronted with ethical responsibility for our lives, and authenticity provides the most realistic approach to this problem. Thus, although we cannot posit a substantive vision of the good (that one ought to be pious, rational, etc.), we can offer a set of formal conditions, or dimensions, which presents an ethical ideal whilst preserving the individual’s freedom to choose. That is, through living an authentic existence we can achieve freedom, rejecting the social shackles imposed upon us, and determine our values for ourselves.” (p 282)

Choice and agency remain central while preserving role of others and heritage as moral horizons of intelligibility too. As such, authenticity as newly “grounded” concept “provides an ethical ideal by which to orientate our actions and derive a sense of purpose.”

Unfortunately, for as much as Shuttleworth’s book is meant to fill in certain gaps and provide a more grounded understanding of Taylor’s Ethics of Authenticity, I still find he didn’t quite deliver on this mission. Several chapters deviate into side questions and academic explorations around Foucault, power and a range of other topics. I found the argumentation at times tedious especially in view of how important authenticity is meant to be. The final chapter or an epilogue merited a more inspired stand.

Regardless, rather than reducing authenticity to a mere “be true to yourself” slogan, Shuttleworth presents an enriched perspective influenced by Charles Taylor. This perspective offers a practical framework for comprehending and practicing authenticity. It does so by dissecting the multifaceted nature of authenticity into six dimensions or poles, which serve as guiding forces for our actions and decisions in the quest for an authentic existence.

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  • Shuttleworth, K. M. J. (2020). The History and Ethics of Authenticity. Bloomsbury Publishing.