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The problem of being (in)authentic

Terugblik en index plaatje zelfAuthenticiteit. Filosofie van het zelf | Radboud Reflects lezing door cognitiefilosoof Leon de Bruin en filosoof van de psychiatrie
Sanneke de Haan | Woensdag 20 september 2017

‘I suspect there are almost four hundred unique persons in this room.’ With these words, program maker Anouta de Groot of Radboud Reflects immediately made clear what was at stake tonight: our very selves. What makes me myself? What does it mean to be ‘yourself’? How can I be authentic? Philosopher of mind Leon de Brujn from Radboud University addressed these questions enthusiastically in the opening lecture. He subsequently went into critical conversation with Sanneke de Haan, philosopher of psychiatry at Radboud University and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, led by philosopher Cees Leijenhorst of Radboud University.


‘I am Leon de Bruin and I am inauthentic’, De Bruin confessed humorously in his openings words. He started by discussing several intellectuals who wrote about authenticity. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in a ‘natural, authentic self’ that was perverted by society, but that we could find by ‘looking within ourselves’. The famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud argued on the contrary that authenticity is an ethical illusion – we are conflicting creatures by nature. These opposing views set the stage for the discussion on authenticity.

Making choices

Since the ‘authentic self’ was highly problematic in philosophy, the focus shifted to making authentic choices. On the basis of the movie Double, about two look-alikes who are each other’s complete opposite, De Bruin explained that being authentic means taking responsibility for and reflecting on the consequences of your actions. In a word, ethical reflection. However, this is also no definitive answer. The philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, strongly criticizes this perverse notion of authenticity. If authenticity no longer defines boundaries with questions like ‘who should I be?’ the world becomes meaningless.

A romantic lie

Can we really want what we want? De Bruin asked those who have an authentic desire to raise their hands. He immediately admits his question is unfair, because he instantly dismisses that possibility with the view of philosopher René Girard. All our desires are derived from others, says Girard. We only desire what others – specifically our role models – desire. Authentic desire is a romantic lie. As the minutes pass, not much seems to remain of authenticity.

Nudging and confabulating

How can you be your authentic self, if the meaning of the words ‘authentic’ and ‘self’ is no longer clear? Some scientist believe that people need a little ‘nudge’ in the right direction. Healthy salads should be shown at a spot in a cafeteria where everybody unconsciously walks to. ‘Unconscious’ is important here, because if people know the fast food is located after the salads, most will walk straight to the French fries.

We also confabulate all kinds of stories about our choices. In an experiment people had to make a choice between the picture of a blonde and a brunette. After the subjects picked one, the experimenters unknowingly to the subjects switched photos and handed these to them. They came up with all kinds of reasons why they liked the brunette better, while they initially picked the blonde. What remains of authenticity if we seem to just make up stories and believe these stories ourselves?

‘Rivella notion’ of authenticity

De Bruin ended his lecture where he began: by explaining why he is inauthentic. But also why that’s perfectly fine! ‘My choices are influenced by others, and the closer they are to me, they better they’re able to do that’, he admitted. ‘Why should you be authentic? Sometimes it’s nice to just say: I’m a social construct, everything is derived, my choices are mostly made by others.’

De Bruin even argues that authenticity is only possible if there’s the possibility of alienation: the fact that others and my surroundings influence my choices and are in that sense already part of me. Paradoxically, with that knowledge in mind, it’s impossible to be authentic in a strong sense: I know the choices I make are not mine. De Bruin however concluded optimistically with a slogan derived from soda brand Rivella: Being inauthentic is ‘a bit weird, but nice nonetheless!’

The self in psychiatry

After the lecture, De Bruin went into conversation with philosopher of psychiatry Sanneke de Haan. Philosopher Cees Leijenhorst noted that the De Bruin’s talk was problematic for psychiatry, because with many mental illnesses the boundary between ‘self’ and ‘illness’ is crucial. Do antidepressants help me to be myself more, or less but better able to function? How do you determine that? Are bipolar persons themselves or not when their mood does no longer shift so dramatically due to medication? De Haan said there’s no unaffected self, but there’s also no need for it. Others can help you to be authentic, to clear things up and decide what’s best for you. ‘Being authentic means acting, sometimes implicitly, in accordance with your values’, De Haan argued. If you want what you want and are truly happy with your choices, you live authentically. These values should not necessarily be invariable. De Bruin problematizes this view, because why are this specific values your values and not others? Where do these come from? De Haan responded by saying that there is a practical difference between wanting what you want and simply not being able to make other choices. In the first sense you’re authentic.

Practical advice

The question of how to be your ‘own authentic self’ is highly problematic and did not receive a final answer. Being truly authentic might as well be an impossibility. Still, De Bruin believes that in a world that is moving so fast, we need the idea of a strong, authentic ‘inside’. When critically reflected upon, this authentic core disappears, but it is very helpful in daily life. For De Haan, engaging in conversation with friends and family remains the most important. When you doubt what is best for yourself, others who know you well can help you to find out. We are left wondering how many of the four hundred people left the hall as uniquely and authentically as they came in.

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