Authenticity (philosophy)

Authenticity is a concept in psychology (in particular existential psychiatry) as well as existentialist philosophy and aesthetics (in regard to various arts and musical genres). In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which an individual's actions are congruent with their beliefs and desires, despite external pressures; the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures, and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. A lack of authenticity is considered in existentialism to be bad faith.[2] The call of authenticity resonates with the famous instruction by the Oracle of Delphi, “Know thyself.” But authenticity extends this message: "Don’t merely know thyself – be thyself."[3]

Views of authenticity in cultural activities vary widely. For instance, the philosophers Jean Paul Sartre and Theodor Adorno had opposing views regarding jazz, with Sartre considering it authentic and Adorno inauthentic. The concept of authenticity is often aired in musical subcultures, such as punk rock and heavy metal, where a purported lack of authenticity is commonly labeled with the epithet "poseur".[4] There is also a focus on authenticity in music genres such as ", grunge, garage, hip-hop, techno, and showtunes".[5]

Chinese philosophy denies that there is a single "authentic self" that people need to find or uncover. Instead, it proposes that without introspection, people's patterns of behavior are largely the result of their experiences. Instead of expressing authenticity as a goal, the Chinese tradition proposes that people can shape themselves as they see fit, and that the best use of this flexibility is to become a person who serves society.[6]



One of the greatest problems facing such abstract approaches is that the drives people call the "needs of one's inner being" are diffuse, subjective, and often culture-bound. For this reason among others, authenticity is often "at the limits" of language; it is described as the negative space around inauthenticity, with reference to examples of inauthentic living.[7] Sartre's novels are perhaps the easiest access to this mode of describing authenticity: they often contain characters and antiheroes who base their actions on external pressures—the pressure to appear to be a certain kind of person, the pressure to adopt a particular mode of living, the pressure to ignore one's own moral and aesthetic objections in order to have a more comfortable existence. His work also includes characters who do not understand their own reasons for acting, or who ignore crucial facts about their own lives in order to avoid uncomfortable truths; this connects his work with the philosophical tradition.

Sartre is concerned also with the "vertiginous" experience of absolute freedom. In Sartre's view, this experience, necessary for the state of authenticity, can be so unpleasant that it leads people to inauthentic ways of living. Typically, authenticity is seen as a very general concept, not attached to any particular political or aesthetic ideology. This is a necessary aspect of authenticity: because it concerns a person's relation with the world, it cannot be arrived at by simply repeating a set of actions or taking up a set of positions. In this manner, authenticity is connected with creativity: the impetus to action must arise from the person in question, and not be externally imposed. Heidegger takes this notion to the extreme, by speaking in very abstract terms about modes of living (his terminology was adopted and simplified by Sartre in his philosophical works). Kierkegaard's work (e.g. "Panegyric Upon Abraham" from Fear and Trembling) often focuses on biblical stories which are not directly imitable. Sartre, as has been noted above, focused on inauthentic existence as a way to avoid the paradoxical problem of appearing to provide prescriptions for a mode of living that rejects external dictation.[8]

Authenticity, according to Kierkegaard, is reliant on an individual finding authentic faith and becoming true to oneself. Kierkegaard develops the idea that news media and the bourgeois church-Christianity present challenges for an individual in society trying to live authentically. Kierkegaard thus sees “both the media and the church as intervening agencies, blocking people’s way to true experiences, authenticity, and God. “[9] His conviction lies with the idea that mass-culture creates a loss of individual significance, which he refers to as “levelling.” Kierkegaard views the media as supporting a society that does not form its own opinions but utilizes the opinions constructed by the news. Similarly, he interprets religion as a tradition that is passively accepted by individuals, without the inclusion of authentic thought. Kierkegaard believes that authentic faith can be achieved by “facing reality, making a choice and then passionately sticking with it.”[9] The goal of Kierkegaard's existentialist philosophy is to show that, in order to achieve authenticity, one must face reality and form his own opinions of existence. So as not to be discouraged by levelling, Kierkegaard suggests, “One must make an active choice to surrender to something that goes beyond comprehension, a leap of faith into the religious.”[9] Even if one does not want to put forth the effort of developing his own views, he must do so in the quest for authentic faith. This is how Kierkegaard described authenticity in his 1850 book Practice in Christianity:

"Therefore, it is a risk to preach, for as I go up into that holy place-whether the church is packed or as good as empty, whether I myself am aware of it or not, I have one listener more than can be seen, an invisible listener, God in heaven, whom I certainly cannot see but who truly can see me. .... Truly it is a risk to preach! Most people no doubt have the idea that to step out on the stage as an actor, to venture into the danger of having all eyes focused on one, is something that requires courage. Yet in one sense this danger, like everything on the stage, is an illusion, because the actor, of course, is personally outside it all; his task is precisely to deceive, to dissemble, to represent someone else, and to reproduce accurately someone else's words. The proclaimer of Christian truth, on the other hand, steps forward into a place where, even if the eyes of all are not focused on him, the eye of an omnicient one is. His task is: to be himself, and in a setting, God's house, which, all eyes and ears, requires only one thing of him-that he should be himself, be true. That he should be true, that is, that he himself should be what he proclaims, or at least strive to be that, or at least be honest enough to confess about himself that he is not that. ... How risky it is to be the I who preaches, the one speaking, an I who by preaching and as he preaches commits himself unconditionally, displays his life so that, if possible, one could look directly into his soul-to be this I, that is risky! Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity 1850, Hong p. 234-235

Nietzsche's view of authenticity is an atheist interpretation of Kierkegaard. He rejects the role of religion in finding authenticity because he believes in finding truth without the use of virtues. Nietzsche believes of the authentic man as the following: Someone who elevates himself over others in order to transcend the limits of conventional morality in an attempt to decide for oneself about good and evil, without regard for the virtues “on account of which we hold our grandfathers in esteem.”[10] Nietzsche rejects the idea of religious virtues due to the lack of questioning by the individual. One must avoid what he calls “herding animal morality,”[10] if he is to find authenticity. To “stand alone” and avoid religiously constructed principles, it is essential to be “strong and original enough to initiate opposite estimates of value, to transvaluate and invert ‘eternal valuations.’”[10] One must be a free thinker and theorize views outside of their predilections. The commonality of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s existential philosophies is “the responsibilities they place on the individual to take active part in the shaping of one’s beliefs and then to be willing to act on that belief.”[9] For Nietzsche, the secular mentality is a form of weakness and, for authenticity to be achieved, one must truly transcend conventional morality.

According to Abulof, authenticity's calling – being true to oneself – deceivingly conceals the deep chasms between two divergent interpretations of the "self": essentialist and existentialist. Essentialist authenticity demands we find and follow our preordained destiny, our inborn core. Conversely, existentialist authenticity prescribes “determine your destiny!” urging people to become aware of their freedom to choose their own path, which may, but need not, join that of others. While essentialists search for signs of self-betrayals, existentialists defiantly ask, “How am I not myself?” and answer: only when I forget my freedom, and surrender to “bad faith.” Otherwise, my choices – whatever they might be – constitute me.[11]

Existential journalism

Existential philosophers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger investigate the existential-ontological significance of societally constructed norms to decipher authenticity. For an existential journalist, this aversion to, and turning away from, an unquestioning acceptance of norms contributes to the production of an authentic work. Merrill believes that authentic journalism can exist if the journalist is true to one's self and rejects conformism. There are traditions that exist in media and news outlets that prevent journalists from achieving authenticity. Like Kierkegaard's view of media and church, Merrill believes that journalists are “gladly sacrificing individual authenticity to adapt nicely to the highly regimented, depersonalized corporate structure.”[12] Journalists are restricted by “institutional red tape” and, thus, cannot achieve authenticity. It is beneficial for journalists to adhere to the “red tape” because their work will be published.

Actively shaping one's own belief and then acting upon that belief is a laborious task. A journalist that hesitates in writing a story because it is not within the norm is unable to achieve authenticity because of the notion that following the norm is more valuable than being authentic. The contention is, however, that “individual freedom and courage to act is more valuable than collective adherence to journalistic codes of conduct.”[9] As journalists make conscious decisions to write authentically, they are able to contribute more value in their work. The consequence of authentic writing is positive and ensures that the journalist, according to Merrill, “grows, matures, creates himself, and projects himself into the future.”[12]


Philosopher Jacob Golomb argues that the existentialist notion of authenticity is incompatible with a morality that values all persons.[13]

Erich Fromm

A very different definition of authenticity was proposed by Erich Fromm[14] in the mid-1900s. He considered behavior of any kind, even that wholly in accord with societal mores, to be authentic if it results from personal understanding and approval of its drives and origins, rather than merely from conformity with the received wisdom of the society. Thus a Frommean authentic may behave consistently in a manner that accords with cultural norms, for the reason that those norms appear on consideration to be appropriate, rather than simply in the interest of conforming with current norms. Fromm thus considers authenticity to be a positive outcome of enlightened and informed motivation rather than a negative outcome of rejection of the expectations of others. He described the latter condition – the drive primarily to escape external restraints typified by the "absolute freedom" of Sartre – as "the illusion of individuality",[15] as opposed to the genuine individuality that results from authentic living.

Other perspectives

Those who advocate social reform value the study of authenticity since it can provide a radical manifesto and an overview of the shortcomings of social structures. Michael Kernis and Brian Goldman defined authenticity as "the unimpeded operation of one's true or core self in one's daily enterprise."[16]

While authenticity may be a goal intrinsic to "the good life," it is often a difficult state to actually achieve, due in part to social pressures to live inauthentically and in part to a person's own character. It is also described as a revelatory state, where one perceives oneself, other people, and sometimes even things, in a radically new way. Some writers argue that authenticity also requires self-knowledge, and that it alters a person's relationships with other people. Authenticity also carries with it its own set of moral obligations, which often exist regardless of race, gender and class. The notion of authenticity also fits into utopian ideology, which requires authenticity among its citizens to exist, or which claims that such a condition would remove physical and economic barriers to pursuing authenticity.


Secular and religious notions of authenticity have coexisted for centuries under different guises; perhaps the earliest account of authenticity that remains popular is Socrates' admonition that "the unexamined life is not worth living". In aesthetics, "authenticity" describes the perception of art as faithful to the artist's self, rather than conforming to external values such as historical tradition, or commercial worth. A common definition of "authenticity" in psychology refers to the attempt to live one's life according to the needs of one's inner being, rather than the demands of society or one's early conditioning.[17][18][19]

The search for authenticity is a hallmark of romantic modernity. Romanticists since the late 18th century prescribed intuition, emotion and a return to nature as a necessary corrective, even an antidote, to Enlightenment's “cold” reason.[20] In the twentieth century, Anglo-American discussions of authenticity often center around the writings of a few key figures associated with existentialist philosophy, where the term originated; because most of these writers wrote in languages other than English, the process of translating and anthologizing has had a strong impact on the debate. Walter Kaufmann might be credited with creating a "canon" of existentialist writers which include Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. For these writers, the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces and influences which are very different from itself; authenticity is one way in which the self acts and changes in response to these pressures.

The call of, and for, authenticity - "be thyself!" - has pervaded modern thought and culture. A Google ngram (1800-2008) indicates the dramatic rise, since the 1960s, in relative frequency of this modern command: "in books, Hollywood films, commercials, and daily conversations, we advise, even order: be yourself!"[3]

Cultural activities

Staged authenticity refers to information or performances presented by tourism professionals and locals. It is the way that locals perceive what tourists want to see and experience.

Due to different groups' and individual's different experiences, views of authenticity regarding cultural activities vary widely and often differ between groups and individuals.[21] For Sartre, jazz music was a representation of freedom; this may have been in part because jazz was associated with African American culture, and was thus in opposition to Western culture generally, which Sartre considered hopelessly inauthentic. Theodor Adorno, however, another writer and philosopher concerned with the notion of authenticity, despised jazz music because he saw it as a false representation that could give the appearance of authenticity but that was as much bound up in concerns with appearance and audience as many other forms of art. Heidegger in his later life associated authenticity with non-technological modes of existence, seeing technology as distorting a more "authentic" relationship with the natural world.

Some writers on authenticity in the twentieth century considered the predominant cultural norms to be inauthentic; not only because they were seen as forced on people, but also because, in themselves, they required people to behave inauthentically towards their own desires, obscuring true reasons for acting. Advertising, in as much as it attempted to give people a reason for doing something that they did not already possess, was a "textbook" example of how Western culture distorted the individual for external reasons. Race relations are seen as another limit on authenticity, as they demand that the self engage with others on the basis of external attributes. An early example of the connection between inauthenticity and capitalism was made by Karl Marx, whose notion of "alienation" can be linked to the later discourse on the nature of inauthenticity.

Individuals concerned with living authentically have often led unusual lives that opposed cultural norms; the rise of the counter-culture in the 1960s in Europe and America was seen by many as a new opportunity to live an authentic existence. Many, however, have pointed out that anti-authoritarianism and eccentricity does not necessarily constitute an authentic state of being. The connection of the violation of cultural norms to authenticity, however, is strong and real, and continues today: among artists who explicitly violate the conventions of their profession, for example. The connection of inauthenticity to capitalism is contained in the notion of "selling out," used to describe an artist whose work has become inauthentic after achieving commercial success and thus becoming to an extent integrated into an inauthentic system.

In music

The concept of authenticity is often raised in the punk rock and heavy metal musical subcultures, in which people or bands are criticized for their purported lack of authenticity by being labeled with the epithet "poseur".[4] "Poseur" is used to refer to a person (or band) who copies the dress, speech, and/or mannerisms of a group or subculture, generally for attaining acceptability within the group, yet who is deemed not to share or understand the values or philosophy of the subculture. "The code of authenticity, which is central to the heavy metal subculture, is demonstrated in many ways", such as through clothing, the use of an emotional singing voice and having serious themes in the songs.[22] In metal, one study of how fans sought out authenticity within the metal scene noted three elements to authenticity: long-term dedication to the scene; knowing key events of metal culture; and making the right choices based on one's authentic inner voice.[23] In Black metal, an extreme metal genre, sincerity, authenticity and extremity are valued above all else."[24] In the metal and hardcore punk subcultures, a band that began from a working class milieu that later signs to a major record label for a lucrative recording contract may be deemed to have "sold out" and lost their authenticity. In addition to the focus on authenticity in "...punk, house, grunge, garage, and hip-hop," ideas of authenticity have seeped into many other genres, including those considered by some to be less "authentic" than the aforementioned.[5]

In marketing

In marketing brand authenticity is defined as the degree to which brand identity is causally linked to brand behaviour.[25] Authenticity is perceived, if a brand fulfills its brand promise in a unique, consistent and continuous way.[26]

See also


  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Music That Lives It: The Doors, Pink Floyd and...Drake? : Buzz : Music Times
  2. Authenticity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  3. Abulof, Uriel (2017-12-01). "Be Yourself! How Am I Not myself?". Society. 54 (6): 530–532. doi:10.1007/s12115-017-0183-0. ISSN 0147-2011.
  4. "Homeward Bound. Towards a Post-Gendered Pop Music: Television Personalities' My Dark Places". Archived from the original on 2008-12-01. Retrieved 2012-07-30. My Dark Places April 10th, 2006 by Godfre Leung (Domino, 2006).
  5. Barker, Hugh and Taylor, Yuval. Faking it: the Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. W.W.Norton and Co., New York, 2007.
  6. Lessons From Chinese Philosophy (audio interview with Michael Puett)
  7. Golomb, Jacob (1995). In Search of Authenticity. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-11946-7.
  8. Baird, Forrest E.; Walter Kaufmann (2008). From Plato to Derrida. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-158591-1.
  9. Kristoffer Holt, “Authentic Journalism? A Critical Discussion about Existential Authenticity in Journalism Ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 27 (2012)
  10. Nietzsche, F.W., & Zimmern, H. (1997). Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future. Mineola, NY: Dover.
  11. Abulof, Uriel (2017-12-01). "Be Yourself! How Am I Not myself?". Society. 54 (6): 530–532. doi:10.1007/s12115-017-0183-0. ISSN 0147-2011.
  12. Merril, J.C. (1995). Existential Journalism (rev. ed.) Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
  13. Golomb, Jacob (1995). In Search of Authenticity: From Kierkegaard to Camus. London: Routledge.
  14. Fromm. E., Escape from Freedom, Farrar & Rinehart 1941 (also published as "Fear of Freedom" Routledge UK 1942)
  15. Fromm E., Fear of Freedom, ch. 7
  16. Wright, Karen (May 01, 2008). "Dare to be yourself". Psychology Today.
  17. Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., Joseph, S. (2008) The authentic personality: "A theoretical and empirical conceptualization, and the development of the Authenticity Scale". Journal of Counseling Psychology 55 (3): 385–399. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.55.3.385
  18. Authentic life. Psychology Centre Athabasca University.
  19. "Existential Psychology". Eastern Illinois University. Archived June 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  20. James., Engell (1980). Creative Imagination. Cambridge: HUP. ISBN 9780674333253. OCLC 935280039.
  21. AJ Giannini (2010). "Semiotic and semantic implications of "authenticity"". Psychological Reports 106 (2): 611–612.
  22. Weinstein, Deena. Heavy Metal:The Music and its Subculture." Da Capo Press, 2009. p. 46
  23. Larsson, Susanna. "I Bang My Head, Therefore I Am: Constructing Individual and Social Authenticity in the Heavy Metal Subculture" in Young. 21 (1). 2013. p. 95-110
  24. Olson 2008, p. 47.
  25. Schallehn, Mike; Burmann, Christoph; Riley, Nicola (2014). Brand authenticity: model development and empirical testing Journal of Brand Management. 23 (3), p. 193:
  26. Drivers of perceived brand authenticity Retrieved 07-19-2018

Further reading

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