Elements of Human Authenticity, by B.G. Yacobi

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The quest for authenticity

In the quest for truth and meaning in life, human beings strive for authenticity in social interactions and various forms of expression. If life is an art, one of the key elements of its value is authenticity.

Authenticity is usually defined as being true and honest to oneself and others, an undeniable credibility, and absence of pretence. Being true and honest to oneself and others implies that it is relational, and that it is connected to self-identity and relations with the outside world. Personal authenticity is challenging to attain and difficult to maintain because of the outside influences and demands on an individual, as well as due to the individual’s own limitations and biases.

One of the drives for authenticity relates to the need to be one’s own architect of life, and not to be a puppet of the theatre of society. Striving for personal authenticity provides an antidote to outside conditioning, and to some extent is a reaction to prevalent inauthenticity in politics, culture, religion and everyday life.

The meaning of authenticity is clarified by invoking inauthenticity, since one must contrast authenticity to its opposite, like comparing light to darkness. Thus, it is inherently connected with that dualism of human existence that is manifested by the presence and tension between the opposites.

The concept of authenticity is a human and social construct and as such it has no independent existence outside of the mind. Some argue that it is an impossible state of being and point to dilemmas associated with it; the state of authenticity is transient and impossible to maintain indefinitely. Neither authenticity nor inauthenticity can be adequately defined, identified or measured, since many characteristics and attributes of an individual are in constant change, with no fixed reference point, and are strongly influenced by individual biases and preconceptions, as well as by social factors.

Authenticity has been explored throughout human history, from ancient Greek philosophers to Enlightenment authors, to existential philosophers, to contemporary social theorists and thinkers, producing a large number of writings and a variety of views. Some claim that personal authenticity is discovered and others argue that it is invented. But, irrespective of different views, personal authenticity is a characteristic of a dynamic process of endless becoming in a changing society and world, rather than a fixed state of being.

The quest for authenticity can be considered as a process of examination of the self and the outside world. And since the self arises from interactions between self, others, and the environment in a complex society and world, there may coexist multiple complex identities depending on place and context. Some also argue that the self is not a single entity, but contains multiple layers of perceptions, thoughts and changing behavior depending on context.

Becoming authentic is an individual mission, as each person has own individual way of being human. Consequently, the concept becomes quite arbitrary and thus confusing in relationships; what is authentic for one individual may be different for someone else.

The Essential Elements of Personal Authenticity

Being authentic is being true and honest to oneself and others. But this may not be enough; there are certain requirements, without which the concept of personal authenticity would remain an empty shell, one that is ambiguously defined and poorly understood. Although personal authenticity is in principle desirable, in the absence of certain elements it may in fact be detrimental for interpersonal relationships and for the functioning of society. These necessary components of authenticity include self-awareness, unbiased self-examination, accurate self-knowledge, reflective judgment, personal responsibility and integrity, genuineness and humility, empathy for the other, and understanding of the other, as well as optimal utilization of feedback from others. These components must also integrate the need for limiting and adjusting one’s authenticity according to specific situations. Any measure of true authenticity does not imply expressing one’s inner self, with a range of emotions and shifts, in all situations. In this context, mindfulness, or unbiased awareness in the present moment, is of great importance, since its practice enhances the clarity of inner dialogue and diminishes the extent of ego involvement. But even with such a broad range of variables considered and all the precautions taken, it would be almost impossible to take into account all the unknowns. It is important to consider how one’s authentic expressions, however cautious, would be perceived and interpreted by the other. Using the golden rule of treating others as one would like to be treated is of great essence and can be used as a guideline.

The human condition is such that evolutionary and adaptive factors steer the mind towards more unpleasant or negative thinking. If everyone would behave authentically, without any limitations, human society and civilization would be in jeopardy. People would reveal deep-seated pain and suffering in life, and the inherent anguish of fragile human existence in the presence of dread, wars, death, and economic uncertainty, as well as of the unknown and unknowable. On the other hand, the struggle to transcend the unknown provides some meaning in life and elevates us somewhat above our origins.

In the absence of any clear criteria for human authenticity, the boundaries between authenticity and inauthenticity are not clearly demarcated. These borderlands are amorphous and uncertain, and are often porous and changing, especially when applied to politics, business, or culture.

The dynamic process of endless becoming may reveal multiple facets of personal authenticity. The most difficult choice is between what is ethically correct and socially appropriate. The effort of trying to connect with the outside world, while struggling to maintain some measure of authenticity, may in fact constitute the essence of life.

The uniqueness of an individual is not in who he is but who he becomes. Becoming authentic is a process, not an event. It involves not just knowing oneself, but also recognizing others and their influence on oneself, and the influence of one’s actions on others.

Becoming authentic is an individual project. But personal authenticity should not be confused with radical individualism. If the quest for personal authenticity is just for self-fulfillment or self-actualization, or for the gratification of personal desires, then it is individualistic and ego-based. But if it is accompanied with the full awareness of the others and if it is integrated with all the aspects of the outside world, then it is a worthwhile strive and not a superficial trend. True personal authenticity is not about individual perceptions and feelings alone, but also about those intertwined with the outside aspects of reality.

Complete self-knowledge is unattainable; one cannot possibly explore the entire labyrinth of human consciousness. Hurdles may arise as some parts of self may be poorly understood, or forgotten, or simply unknown. One must also strive for moral behavior, in spite of the pressures through economic exchange from the crowd and society. Difficult circumstances, such as illness, may also lead to excessive self-doubt and insecurity; so, true self-knowledge must make allowance for such conditions.

To be authentic is to be true and honest to oneself and others, and that requires certain personal characteristics, realizations, commitments and responsibilities.

To be authentic, one must be aware of a complex relationship between the self and others, and between authenticity and inauthenticity. One must be mindful of one’s own inauthenticity and imperfections, and transcend the conditioning of the past and associated set of behaviors and biases that determine one’s interactions with the world.

To be authentic, one must be mindful of the fragility and uncertainty of the human condition, including awareness and acceptance of human mortality. One must be mindful of human suffering and struggle for survival; and one must be watchful of own physical and emotional states, as well as of those of the others. To be authentic is to recognize and accept pain, fear, loneliness and vulnerability as the realities of the human condition, thus making those natural human attributes.

To be authentic is to be aware that one’s state of being may determine what one thinks, or how one perceives and interprets things. One should be able to conduct an uninhibited internal dialogue, but at the same time should let go of personal dialogue when conducting an external dialogue.

To be authentic, one must be mindful of the limits of human knowledge and understanding, as well as of the limitations of natural language to communicate accurately one’s thoughts. One must consider a possibility that any received truth about nature, including human nature, may not be the final truth. To be authentic is to doubt one’s own perceptions and interpretations, as well as those of others, and be willing to accept uncertainty. To be authentic is to recognize and accept human limitations as elements of human authenticity.

To be authentic is to observe both oneself as a part of the whole and a whole that contains multitude of other parts, and to be aware of their interactions. One must be able to navigate the labyrinth of one’s mind and to move back and forth in time to connect past events and memories into a coherent sense of self.

To be authentic is to modulate aspects of one’s authentic inner self according to circumstances; it is the ability to recognize and select the most suitable authentic personal characteristics and response for a given situation.

To be authentic is to consider the possibility that the emergence of human life and intelligence is a cosmic accident devoid of meaning or purpose, apart from human designs. To be authentic is to design some purpose in life, and in the same time not to be attached to it as the only design, but only as one among many.

To be authentic is to be consistent with the principles and attributes outlined above, and in the same time to be careful with that consistency, since it may inhibit the evolution of the self. Self-discovery is a lifelong process, and at every stage of life there are not just things that we do not know, but also those that are constantly emerging and morphing with those that we know and don’t know. The discoveries and interpretations about oneself and the world should be considered carefully to ensure they do not inhibit or prevent their possible reevaluation or evolution into a deeper understanding of those discoveries.

To be authentic is to consider existence as neither always absurd nor always meaningful, but sometimes the one and sometimes the other, depending on the perspective or context.

To be authentic is to recognize that nature is what it is, irrespective of any meaning or interpretation attached to it by the human mind; it is indifferent to human life and suffering, being neither malicious nor caring. This is a fundamental state of nature, regardless of human existence. Nature is neither moral nor immoral; it has no sense of right or wrong. Such concepts as morality, sense of justice, honesty, and authenticity are unique to humans; these concepts have evolved in a society as a set of norms for achieving some measure of harmony within it.

To be authentic is to consider that in the grand scheme of the universe most things, including self, are not important, and recognize that all these concepts and values are human constructs and thus have their limitations. We are compelled to develop these concepts in an effort to facilitate communication and understanding, and to come to terms with our existence in the universe and to describe reality, with full awareness that the universe is too complex for such concepts. But these concepts help us generate hope for some measure of meaning in life.

This list of principles and attributes of personal authenticity is not a substitute for precise definition of personal authenticity. It only provides a road map, with an implicit understanding that it cannot be fully explored. Thus, personal authenticity appears to be at the limits of human reasoning. Nevertheless, since one of the primary criteria of personal authenticity is being true and honest to oneself and others, this requires a broad understanding of everything that relates to human life and nature.

One cannot possibly implement all the traits and attributes of what entails to be authentic. The level of self-knowledge and personal authenticity depends on a wide variety of individual factors, including different personal circumstances, interpretative abilities, culture, religion, ideology, worldview, as well as the intricacies of the individual’s character, experience, knowledge and emotional factors. Thus, each individual perceives and interprets oneself, the others, and the world in one’s own way. Moreover, all those are constantly changing and their comprehension is always partial and biased.

Dilemmas, Paradoxes and Limits

Authenticity and inauthenticity are not considered as mutually exclusive states but as mutually dependent concepts. One may not discover personal authenticity by avoiding the outside world, but by immersing in it. In this case, authenticity emerges as a result of constantly challenging outside influences and pressures.

The paradox of authenticity is that the individual strives to achieve greater authenticity through immersion in the outside world, where adaptation to the world can erode authenticity. Then there are the ingrained attachments to a specific culture or social structure, and limits to self-knowledge. This is further complicated by the presence of cognitive illusions and biases, including self-deception, wishful thinking, and the tendency to behave differently under observation.

Since our lives operate on a probabilistic level, authenticity can only be discovered in uncertainty. Thus, another paradox; the authenticity can only be achieved through the immersion into uncertainty and doubt, but those would hinder the discovery of true self, without which human authenticity cannot be achieved.

Throughout life, the individual has to struggle with the dilemmas of personal authenticity. This struggle involves various identities, principles, and ideals, which are continually reevaluated during self-examination and through socialization. One of the dilemmas of personal authenticity relates to the fact that, although most personal attributes change with time, authenticity is expected to have some measure of consistency. The seeming contradiction involves the requirement for both change and consistency. In other words, as individual’s identity is continually changing and evolving, how can one determine one’s instantaneous identity, or recognize authenticity over a lifetime, or discover the meaning of authenticity? Perhaps, the value of authenticity is not in its consistency, but rather in its consistent evolution throughout the lifetime of the individual.

The sense of authenticity can be recognized by invoking inauthenticity, since one must contrast authenticity to its opposite. Thus the dilemma: if one thinks one is authentic and is unaware of any inauthenticity, one cannot really be certain of one’s authenticity. This dilemma is related to the universal presence and tension between the opposites. Human perceptions of the outer world and the inner life, together with all the interpretations and knowledge, including those related to self, are entangled and inseparable. They coexist as components of a puzzle, but cannot be unraveled into simple elements.

The conscious mind is limited to only several bits of information or ideas for comparison and analysis at a given time. These bits or ideas may arise from an individual’s thoughts or from the outside world. This constrains the capacity of the human mind to examine greater amounts of information or multiple aspects of a given topic. The inclination of the mind is to fill in the gaps with the available details and facts from memory that contains only partial knowledge. In addition, human understanding is limited by the senses that only allow a narrow window of what is potentially available in the outside world. Consequently, this leads to an incomplete understanding, at best, or erroneous representation, at worst, of what we observe, experience or imagine within the given constraints and categories. Thus, human knowledge always remains incomplete.

In relation to the list of principles and attributes of personal authenticity, since the conscious mind is limited to only several items at a time for analysis, this limitation of the mind’s capacity to simultaneously consider all those principles and attributes imposes the limits on human reasoning. Without the full awareness of the broad range of those principles and attributes of authenticity, no complete personal authenticity is attainable. At any given moment, authenticity can only be partial.

The complexity of human existence makes any unambiguous discovery of personal identity a monumental challenge. Personal identity is influenced by a wide array of factors, including various interests and desires, which are intertwined in a complex way and may result in unpredictable traits and behavior. Due to the inherent limitations of the human mind, the analysis is usually simplified, and the intricate interdependence of various elements that play an important role in forming personal identity is typically overlooked. This may result in fragmented inquiry and the illusion of understanding of the personal identity.

Another limit in the quest for authenticity is related to the language. The primary purpose of language is to express and communicate ideas, thoughts, information, and feelings. But it is open to misinterpretation and distortion. The limits of language and human thought are some of the barriers to human authenticity. Words and language are often inadequate for expressing the full spectrum of one’s thoughts and feelings. Some things cannot be expressed at all by any means of communication including language. Words and sentences are often ambiguous, since they have more than one meaning. In addition, the individual’s shifting thoughts and perceptions about self may not be comprehensible, so expressing them using words and language may not always be consistent. One may also ask whether words actually represent reality or just a concept of reality, or a reduced representation of reality, or whether words and language may even generate multitude of separate realities.

Language mediates experience, understanding and communication. Therefore, a completely authentic or unmediated self-awareness is nearly unattainable. In addition, any strictly objective discovery of the self is only possible without any preconceptions and biases. Thus, no self-examination, however long and detailed, can ever reveal one’s true identity.

A fully transparent language, with direct and clear correspondence between thoughts and words, does not exist. Allegories, connotations, implications, and metaphors are the major causes of misunderstandings and misinterpretations in communication. In some contexts, such as fiction and poetry, certain ambiguity is in fact desirable, since it is each individual’s associations and interpretations that provide some new meaning and understanding. But in authentic communication, ability to think clearly and communicate thoughts precisely is of great importance. Thus, one must always be mindful of possible ambiguities of language. At the end, the interpretation of the spoken or written bit of information by a listener or reader will determine whether information was received as intended.

The Barriers to Authenticity

There are several factors that may hinder the development of personal authenticity. These include prior programming, the fear of rejection and failure, social pressures to conform and thus live inauthentically, and lack of understanding of the concept of authenticity. Other reasons for being inauthentic include the desire to avoid conflicts with others, including hurting others and being hurt by others, as well as to avoid admitting individual flaws. In certain situations, the need for constructive collaboration with others may demand some adaptation and thus hinder authenticity. And in these cases, individuals usually try to show their best faces and express what is expected of them, so that they will be perceived in a good light. To a large extent, all these factors both compel and constrain one’s daily thoughts, perceptions, feelings and choices.

In spite of endless possibilities open to humans throughout their lives, practical options available to each individual are limited by various circumstances related to their surroundings, culture, education, capabilities, genetics, and just being in the right place at the right time. All throughout life we are programmed to adapt to our environment, society, and culture, so that to a large extent our environment in essence defines who we are. We are told that this adaptation is essential for social cohesion and for fostering a sense of community. Such social pressures inhibit becoming authentic, since otherwise it may result in social isolation. The process of self-examination may also be challenging and exhausting, since it may uncover some undesirable personal traits and characteristics that demand changes.

For the most part of conscious awareness, the human mind is preoccupied with everyday living. It is in a continual conflict due to the various painful events, fear, loneliness, struggle for comfort and security, futile efforts, illusions and disappointments. It is hard to be aware of one’s authenticity and to pursue it for prolonged periods of time; there are always distractions and hurdles. The struggle for survival usually takes priority over other pursuits for most of the people for most of the time. Throughout life, many events and circumstances are beyond one’s control. In most cases, the best one can do is to choose an appropriate response. That choice may ultimately indicate the extent of one’s authenticity.

It is important to invoke some of the features of human nature that may inhibit the quest for personal authenticity. The human traits that are of major concern include self-deception, wishful thinking, and various cognitive biases. This is further complicated by the tendency of the human mind to construct its own illusory reality. Another concept relevant to personal authenticity is that of bounded rationality, which refers to rational choices made in the presence of limitations on time and adequate human knowledge and cognitive capacity. This concept states that fully rational decisions are not always possible due to limited human abilities for analyzing complex problems.

The limits of human perception, thought and self-knowledge are some of the main barriers to personal authenticity. Human reality is based on perceptions, belief systems, knowledge, preconceptions, experiences, and feelings. The limits imposed on our senses and knowledge allow a perception of only a small portion of reality; and since all those attributes are different for everyone, reality is also different for every person. One may never arrive at complete self-knowledge, which is constantly defined and refined on the basis of new understanding against the background of the outside world and its demands. In this context, becoming attached to a rigid self-image inhibits the continual refinement of self-knowledge.

Human existence is limited within a narrow range of possibilities. We are unable to know the extent of our ignorance or how much remains to understand or discover. Superimposed on this are various limits to understanding the universe and the fact that in specific terms we do not know what we do not know, and that our knowledge and reasoning are always partial. This implies the dilemma of how to reconcile with the presence of a perpetual problem of grasping the whole with our limitations and partial understanding that seem to determine our instantaneous perception of the universe and ourselves.

The unbiased perceptions and interpretations are unattainable. Authentic communication is contingent on individual’s capacity to recognize what is true for that individual, and on the adequacy of language to express one’s true thoughts, opinions and feelings. In this context, it is important to recall that there are inherent limits to language, interpretation, and expression, which in essence limit authentic relationships with others. Thus, in many personal communications it is not always apparent whether the authenticity, or the inauthenticity, relates to the circumstances, the proper or improper use of language, the subject matter, or the participants and their perceptions and interpretations. This is further complicated by the possibility that language may influence thought and affect perception.

Complete authenticity is not sustainable in the presence of various needs and demands for adaptation to the outside world, as well as due to inner needs and conditions. Thus, although authentic states may be achieved, typical states are those in a broad spectrum between full authenticity and complete inauthenticity. One practical way to approach authentic states is perhaps progressively avoiding inauthenticity as much as possible.

In general, anything organized by humans, including religions, political and government organizations, and corporations contain inherent human flaws and are nearly universally flawed and inauthentic. In such organizations, personal authenticity and authentic communication are difficult to maintain due to the need for adaptation and fear of rejection. The crucial problem for the society is the inability to know how to effectively deal with the fundamental human needs for power, status, hierarchy, and competition, as well as with the universal preoccupation in all aspects of human interactions through cost and benefit analysis. Becoming authentic is difficult because of the need for approval and recognition by others, which entices one to appear and behave according to their expectations. This is combined with the conditioning of the past, including opinions and beliefs, misconceptions and self-deceptions, hopes and dreams, and pain and disappointments.

Organized religion is one more barrier to personal authenticity. Although religious doctrine does incorporate the concept of authenticity, organized religion and personal authenticity are contradictions in terms. Authenticity cannot be achieved by those believing in any dogma, either religious or empirical, since our knowledge and understanding of ourselves, the society and the universe are continuously changing and augmented with new understanding, which inevitably contradicts those dogmas. Religious ways of knowing and discourse, based on the texts full of ambiguities and myths, constrain the freedom of inquiry and thus inhibit authenticity. Religious practice and deliberations do not encourage individual choice. The individual is told who he must be by others; he does not discover himself from the inside.

Morality, imposed from the outside through narrow religious doctrine and beliefs, is passively received through dogmatic teaching and recapitulation of old texts, and therefore may not be sufficiently compatible with new understanding and knowledge. As the religious doctrine constantly demands that humans fit into a fixed structure and obey religious authority, this would prevent any free open-ended inquiry about morality and personal authenticity.

The fundamental paradox of religious morality and authenticity is that being moral and doing good as acts of obedience and payoff after death is not an authentic morality but a response to fear of damnation; it is a matter of reward and punishment. Thus, the motivation in this case is only self-interest, which should in principle disqualify a person from the ultimate reward of everlasting peace in paradise that is prepared for authentically righteous persons. Morality is authentic not when it is based on fear of punishment and obedience to divine commandments in expectation of reward, but when it arises from free choice and sense of responsibility.

The future of human intelligence and self-knowledge is linked to emerging human enhancement technologies. These include memory and cognitive enhancement. The issues of concern relate to the nature of human nature and identity, the nature of society, the meaning of existence, and the limits and ethical considerations of human enhancement. The merging of human and machine may require new definition of what a human being is. The diminishing boundary between humans and machines and the corresponding identity formation will generate more issues in the context of the philosophical, political, social, and cultural implications, including those related to self-knowledge and personal authenticity. Further in the future there may be sufficiently advanced technological capability that would allow personal thoughts to be accessed. This may result in a loss of privacy and individualism, and thus in a loss of authenticity.

Conclusion

Human or personal authenticity is difficult to define, attain or measure. It is related to an intricate blend of elements that make up human personality and life. The quest for personal authenticity is hindered by various barriers, such as immersion in the outside world that requires adaptation and compromises, as well as by the presence of illusions and biases and of limits to language and self-knowledge. Some measure of personal authenticity can be revealed in specific situations and it can evolve, but can never be fully realized, since our understanding of ourselves and the world is constantly changing and never complete. The process of attaining personal authenticity involves episodes of its partial realization interrupted by periods of inauthentic existence, followed by the struggle for the recovery of authenticity.

Read this author’s biography.

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