Authenticity (philosophy)

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Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre viewed jazz as a representation of freedom and authenticity. (Pictured is Johnny Hodges.)[1]

Authenticity is a technical term used in psychology as well as existentialist philosophy and aesthetics (in regards to various arts and musical genres). In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, 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 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".[3] There is also a focus on authenticity in music genres such as ", grunge, garage, hip-hop, techno, and showtunes".[4]



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.[5] 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.[6]

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. “[7] 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.”[7] 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.”[7] 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.

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.”[8] 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,”[8] 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.’”[8] 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.”[7] For Nietzsche, the secular mentality is a form of weakness and, for authenticity to be achieved, one must truly transcend conventional morality.

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.”[9] Journalists are restricted by “institutional red tape” and, thus, cannot achieve authenticity. It is beneficial for a journalist to adhere to the “red tape” because his 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.”[7] 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.”[9]


Philosopher Jacob Golomb argues that the existentialist notion of authenticity is incompatible with a morality that values all persons.[10]

Erich Fromm

A very different definition of authenticity was proposed by Erich Fromm[11] 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",[12] 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."[13]

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.[citation needed] 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.[14][15][16]

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.

Cultural activities

Due to different groups' and individual's different experiences, views of authenticity regarding cultural activities vary widely and often differ between groups and individuals.[17] 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.

The punk subculture classifies members who are deemed to not understand or respect the subculture values as "poseurs".

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[citation needed], 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".[3] "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.[18] 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.[19] In Black metal, an extreme metal genre, sincerity, authenticity and extremity are valued above all else."[20] 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 even such transparently "inauthentic" genres as...techno (Moby) and showtunes (Rent)."[4]

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. 3.0 3.1 Homeward Bound. Towards a Post-Gendered Pop Music: Television Personalities’ My Dark Places at the Wayback Machine (archived December 1, 2008) My Dark Places April 10th, 2006 by Godfre Leung (Domino, 2006).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Barker, Hugh and Taylor, Yuval. Faking it: the Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. W.W.Norton and Co., New York, 2007.
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  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Kristoffer Holt, “Authentic Journalism? A Critical Discussion about Existential Authenticity in Journalism Ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 27 (2012)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Nietzsche, F.W., & Zimmern, H. (1997). Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future. Mineola, NY: Dover.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Merril, J.C. (1995). Existential Journalism (rev. ed.) Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
  10. Golomb, Jacob (1995). In Search of Authenticity: From Kierkegaard to Camus. London: Routledge.
  11. Fromm. E., Escape from Freedom, Farrar & Rinehart 1941 (also published as "Fear of Freedom" Routledge UK 1942)
  12. Fromm E., Fear of Freedom, ch. 7
  13. Wright, Karen (May 01, 2008). "Dare to be yourself". Psychology Today.
  14. 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
  15. Authentic life. Psychology Centre Athabasca University.
  16. "Existential Psychology". Eastern Illinois University. Archived June 3, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  17. AJ Giannini (2010). "Semiotic and semantic implications of "authenticity"". Psychological Reports 106 (2): 611–612.
  18. Weinstein, Deena. Heavy Metal:The Music and its Subculture." Da Capo Press, 2009. p. 46
  19. 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
  20. Olson 2008, p. 47.

Further reading