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Authenticity as a Benchmark of Human Selfhood? On Kierkegaard’s Concept of the Self

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First, this paper wants to ask how the term authenticity is attributed to persons, in order to figure out the semantic content of being authentical as used in philosophical debates and in ordinary language or in pop cultural codes as well. In a second step, I want to show which mostly implicit concept of selfhood is underlying this type of attribution, and what kind of social ideals and moral claims for being true to oneself or becoming a self are presupposed in the usage of the word. Drawing upon Sören Kierkegaard’s concept of the self, developed in his late work The Sickness unto Death (1848, translated 1941), I am going to ask if it is a false or merely an excessive demand to be ‘authentic’, or to what extent it is reasonable to argue for authenticity as a quality standard and benchmark for individual development. That means, in the terms of Kierkegaard, for being one’s own self or of really becoming a self. With his concise and groundbreaking analysis of the structure and dynamics of human selfhood, as this paper finally wants to show, it is possible to shed light onto both—people’s lifelong struggle for being truthful to themselves in their own perception as in the eye of others, as well as why people mostly fail in terms of that demand. Finally, the theoretical framework and alternative concepts of understanding selfhood put forward here should also give some hints for what really matters in personal development and normative goals in education.

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  1. 1.

    Bauer refers to the examples of Dieter Bohlen or Donald Trump. In fact, the main reason Trump's voters cited in polls was his “authenticity” (Bauer 2018, p. 83). Both style icons of public life show blatant egocentrism and ruthlessness as their hallmarks, leaving no doubt that they always have only their own advantage in mind and no problem with pushing themselves forward in the figurative and literal sense or imposing themselves on others, and accept only their own needs as justified. But precisely this seems to be regarded as “authentic” and admirable in form, when one never hesitates and says without scruples what he thinks and feels, means and wants in the situation to the other person.

  2. 2.

    “Authentisch ist der Mensch offenbar nur dann, wenn er sein Inneres, seine vermeintlich unverfälschte Natur, ungefiltert nach außen stülpt” (Bauer 2018, p. 67).

  3. 3.

    Honneth examines this under the buzzword “organized self-realization” and concisely points out the market-dictated “paradoxes of individualization” (Honneth 2010, p. 202 f.).

  4. 4.

    As little precise as the aforementioned criterion of coherence in literature can be, psychology, for example, focuses very much on the negative phenomenon, the diversely-known and well-studied forms of “incoherence” of the self-relationship (Jaspers 1973, p. 107), which describes all possible variants and degrees of personal disintegration, forms of dissociation or fragmentation of the self as an umbrella term. The positive concept of the integrative self and the unity execution of the ego, which is associated with the coherence criterion as a claim to authenticity, is derived from this, but not exactly defined or described from a psychological-psychiatric point of view. Although this is hardly justified, it is formulated in general terms as a fundamental claim: “Der Mensch will wahrhaftig sein, will wirklich, will echt sein” (Jaspers 1971, p. 35).

  5. 5.

    In defining authenticity as “being true to oneself”, Taylor thus falls back on an early interpretation of Herder, who thus coined the ideal of self-determination: a person is authentic when he is honest or faithful to himself, and that is when he develops his life on the basis of his own values. Herder was the first to speak of authenticity as one’s own measure of selfhood: „Jeder Mensch hat ein eignes Maß, gleichsam eine eigne Stimmung aller sinnlichen Gefühle zueinander” (Herder 1887, p. 291).

  6. 6.

    Due to the experience of a strong or weak selfhood, psychologists even talk about the real or “false self” in psychology (Winnicott 1965; Kohut 2015). During the last decades they have gained a lot of new insights into the structure and dynamics of human selfhood by successful therapies (see R. Schwartz 1997), all based on “the self as a dynamic multiplicity of I-positions [or parts] between which dialogical or monological relationships may emerge” (Hermans 2012). And Hermans argues that “multiplicity and unity are not mutually exclusive but inclusive” because of “a core sense of self” (Zahavi 2008). Schwartz’s forward-thinking analysis also defines the Self as a manifold system and “the core of a person”, but he describes it as a quality state of the inner system, not as a substantial and timeless given entity (Schwartz 1997, p. 232).

  7. 7.

    “A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self.” If “the relation relates itself to its own self, the relation is then the positive third term, and this is the self” (Kierkegaard 1941, p. 9).

  8. 8.

    By presenting itself not only as itself, but also as testified to by the other (Liebsch 2006, Chapter VIII), the self is initially not an object of knowledge or narration. Rather, it exists as testified or as dependent on testimony and proves to be challenged by the other to be ‘someone’—for itself and for others.

  9. 9.

    Original: “Etwas ist also lebendig, nur insofern es den Widerspruch in sich enthält, und zwar diese Kraft ist, den Widerspruch in sich zu fassen und auszuhalten” (Hegel 1969, p. 76).

  10. 10.

    Rudd (2012) also refers to this: “to understand the tension between the sense that we are responsible for shaping or authoring our own lives, and the sense that there is something…definite about ourselves that has to be accepted as simply given” (p. 3). In this context, he also criticizes Sartre, Frankfurt and Korsgaard insofar as they overestimate and overemphasize the meaning of “self-choice”; however, he also rejects fatalism for reasons of reason (cf. p. 42 f.).

  11. 11.

    For this reason, it is rightly pointed out in the literature that the self in Kierkegaard “as a complex activity” (Woolever 2013, p. 21) is both individual and relational: “the self is both individual and constitutive relational” (ibid., p. 3), and in this respect it is a selfhood that categorically means an “essential relationship” (Boomgaarden 2016, p. 36).

  12. 12.

    Original: Kierkegaard’s “konkret-maieutischer Ethik” (Hühn 2009, p. 205).

  13. 13.

    Cf. “All immediacy, despite its illusory security and tranquility, is fear and therefore, quite logically, most fear of nothingness” (Kierkegaard 1941, p. 25). And this is because immediately no last reason and stable ground of existence is visible or observable, but instead remains in the dark and can only be caught up in the light of reflection.

  14. 14.

    “By relating itself to its own self and by willing to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the Power which constituted it.” This is not only the way he defines the process of becoming a self, but also the definition of faith (Kierkegaard 1941, p. 154).

  15. 15.

    The dialogic structure and diversity of the Self presented, manifests itself in different voices, opposing motifs and inclinations that make up a person depending on context and situation. Thus, the Self structurally encompasses this plurality of selfhood, but at best brings it to unity in an ephemeral synthesis step. Kierkegaard’s insights gained in phenomenological investigations and deductive structural analysis are now empirically confirmed in various forms of therapy, especially in those who work with the “Inner Team” or “Ego-State Therapy” or “Schema therapy”, for example. But the theory of authentic selfhood according to Kierkegaard, presented here, finds most correspondence in the concept of the IFS (Internal Family System), a highly effective form of therapy developed by R. Schwartz (1997).

  16. 16.

    Plato, Sophist 264a: “that thought is conversation of the soul with itself” (translated by F.N. Fowler).

  17. 17.

    See on role and concept of “repetition” of Kierkegaard in the same named book, 1843.

  18. 18.

    Now even actors can distinguish between good (‘authentic’) and bad play, only in the second case it is actually noticeable that one of them plays a role, that he stages himself as a character, which he is not in the movie or on stage. The criterion for good acting today is indeed (and that was not always the case) how real or authentic the character appears, how much she really brings the person to be portrayed to presence (and by no means only re-presents a role), how real and thus experienced the acting itself appears in the context and situation of the play or the film.

  19. 19.

    ‘Anyone’ is not right either, because the professionalism of a performance is measured by the fact that it can perform in almost any context and environment, i.e. with almost any counterpart and in front of any audience, and can keep the quality of devotion in the self-reference of authenticity, but in fact it varies, it always succeeds more or less, because the audience and the counterpart also play along and relate. Therefore, certain fluctuations in tension and attention are also noticeable.

  20. 20.

    “The humans self is thus being conceived of as an ‘emerging‘ reality which is being constituted in the very act of relating to itself” (Valco 2016, p. 99).


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Correspondence to Karin Hutflötz .

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Hutflötz, K. (2020). Authenticity as a Benchmark of Human Selfhood? On Kierkegaard’s Concept of the Self. In: Brüntrup, G., Reder, M., Gierstl, L. (eds) Authenticity. Studien zur Interdisziplinären Anthropologie. Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

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