Saturday, August 9, 2008

Authenticity and Phoniness

Over the past few weeks, I attended CTY to study philosophy. The following essay was the final project for the class.

Twentieth century existentialist philosophers Heidegger and Sartre talked about the concept of authenticity in their works. Here, authenticity will be defined as "the state where an individual's conscious actions, interests and thoughts reflect what he thinks", this is not to say that one acts upon impulse, but exists as himself by choice. Thus, it is honesty to others and oneself, or, as Holden Caulfield would put it, "not being phony". I will define phoniness in this essay as "the state in which a person's actions and interests do not reflect what he really thinks, living as someone else, he is restricted to the set of beliefs that are not his." Authenticity is a quality of self-interest, as someone authentic puts his own interests in mind, not those of the person he tries to conform to. In the following paragraphs, I hope to identify sources of phoniness and their effect on authenticity.

Martin Heidegger commented that social norms and personal laws have a negative effect on a person's authenticity by pre-prescribing people with a set of beliefs from the very beginning. Thus, we are raised with these beliefs in mind; just living in any community gives us these social norms. However, I question whether or not Heidegger was really correct in saying that social norms have a negative effect. Take for example, two children, one abandoned at two and raised by wolves and another raised normally. With no doubt the wild one will lack the social norms that we take for granted. And what of the city boy? With no doubt his upbringing in society would have ingrained these basic beliefs in him. But which one is more authentic? Heidegger said that social norms will add phoniness because it will blur out how the individual would behave if he did not have any influence in anyway. As I said earlier, I disagree. Personal laws and norms will not make anyone any less authentic because they are held strongly by the individual to be true. Only when a person conforms to a social norm because he fears that not doing so will harm him is he being phony. Thus, we can conclude that both the Tarzan and the city boy are authentic.

Perhaps the most significant and controversial factor affecting authenticity is the interests and tastes of others. Short lived trends and fads have and disruptive effect one one's authenticity because one will have to alter his views, interests and tastes in unnatural ways to stay in the interests of others. Doing so would not reflect what one really thinks, thus creating phoniness.

Jean-Paul Sartre's waiter example describes another type of phoniness that comes from society, but more importantly, from oneself. Essentially, the waiter example shows that people define themselves by their occupation. That "I am a waiter" not "my occupation is a waiter". This, obviously, is harmful to authenticity.

Authority figures also sometimes have a negative effect on authenticity. Often times you will hear that a person "represents the public opinion". Given the collective nature of the public opinion, there is little doubt that the authority is conforming to what the public wants. This in a way is similar to Sartre's waiter.

Anyone who has been young at anytime of their life would understand how quickly changes in thought, action and interest comes and goes. Take for example, with one good logical reason to do something, a person will do it. Does this frequent changing harm authenticity? No. Children are developing their authenticity from the moment they begin to comprehend things. Thus they are seeking a way of going about things that reflects their personal beliefs. This can be defined as identity development. Is this to say that phoniness does not exist in the young? No, should one stay with some view, interest or belief that does not reflect what they really believe, that is inauthentic.

So why does authenticity matter? Authenticity is essential to the pursuit of happiness. I will take a note from Tal Ben-Shahar's Happier. Happiness is made of two amounts of pleasure and meaning, the more of both, the better. Conformity will harm meaning and purpose because your actions, not reflecting your beliefs, will set you further away from your goals. Similarly, conformity will procure one no pleasure, because, while a mild feeling of security comes from knowing that there are many who share your mind, not being able to act upon your desires will not be pleasurable. Add the two and you will get the nihilistic feeling of hopelessness and nothingness. Thus, we can conclude that conformity is nihilism.