Face it, maybe you are a camel

August 26, 2005

Simon Blackburn goes in search of his inner 'Real Self' and finds his 'Old Self'

Many philosophers set a lot of store by authenticity. In fact, the best ever piece of light verse about a philosopher introduces it, in the exacting double-dactyl form:


Herr Rektor Heidegger

Said to his students

To Being be True

Lest you should fall into


This I believe -

And the Fuhrer does too!

The verse suggests there is something fake about Heidegger's injunctions to authenticity, and it is easy to sympathise. Indeed, Theodor Adorno wrote a whole book ( The Jargon of Authenticity ) attacking him on the topic, without managing to put it quite so neatly as the verse does. But authenticity certainly has its jargon - wholeness, integrity, truth, the natural, the self-sufficient, the real, the original, the rooted - all favourably contrasted with what is superficial, artificial, imposed, merely conventional, social, constructed, fragmented, self-estranged, false.

I am sceptical about authenticity. Of course, in moments of disenchantment, there is consolation to be had imagining a Real Me, a butterfly escaped from the chrysalis of the social and the conventional, a self untrammelled by the artificial restrictions of society, beautifully free from the sleepwalking and the mechanical drudgery of modern life. The Everyday Me is repetitive, confined by its role or roles, bourgeois and cautious and prudent. The Real Me is a very different kettle of fish, most likely contemptuous of restraint, free, wild, romantic, courageous, creative. As Nietzsche put it, the one is a camel, patiently bearing the social luggage placed upon it, but the other is a lion. As soon as it is put like that, however, the fantasy begins to dissolve. Why on earth should the real Me be a lion, or even a butterfly? Presumably it is more likely to be a human being, having grown in the way that human beings do, for instance by coming to speak a mother tongue, and by that fact alone inheriting an enormous cultural and social baggage. It is not likely to be all that creative or romantic if it can't speak, and it is not possible for it to be entirely independent of society if it can. Perhaps William Blake's or Wordsworth's celebration of childhood evades this problem, by presenting the pre-linguistic infant as a happy blend of innocence and integrity. But this is hardly a consoling fantasy for most of us. We want to imagine our Real Selves doing better than babbling.

Walter Mitty thought that the real Walter Mitty was a Hollywood hero fearlessly commanding great machines and great enterprises. He was wrong.

The real Walter Mitty was Walter Mitty hopelessly imagining being what he foolishly imagined a hero to be, as an escape from the humdrum way he actually lived. His fantasies, inevitably, are no better than he is, as is sufficiently indicated by mention of Hollywood. The blueprints of authenticity are themselves fakes. This may be obvious in Mitty's case, but he is all of us and if we escape his fantasies, it will be only to fall victim to more insidious ones. Our imaginings may dwell on authentic country living, or authentic adventure, but be similarly infected by the fake and constructed scripts of the heritage industry or the travel brochure. Authentic country living means an Aga and New Zealand wine, while authentic adventure needs a guide and an insurance policy. If we love our classics, our heroes may be a degree more sophisticated than Mitty's, but even Homer's heroes are always actors, and their scripts are myths of the gods. Plato may have been wrong to banish the artists, but given what they supply us, he was not foolish.

To this it may reasonably be replied that we should not expect authenticity to show itself in people's daydreams. Many traditions in philosophy, from before Plato through Christianity to Freud, have insisted that the true self lies only at the end of a long quest, a hard process of analysis, discovery and purification. And only an extreme scepticism could lead us to argue in advance against processes of self-examination and self-improvement. What we may more reasonably question is whether such processes result in the discovery of some authentic self that was there all along, or only the invention of a new way to act, a new script to follow or a new persona to put on. The metaphor of being born again may be more accurate than it sounds, and of course there is never a guarantee that what is newly born is less self-deceived, less of a bore or an idiot, or in any admirable sense more authentic than whoever started the process. It is not usually enviable to have friends and spouses who go in for self-help manuals, or put a lot of store by realising their true natures.

Strangely enough, authenticity was a particular watchword of existentialism. Yet the idea that "existence precedes essence" is precisely the idea that there is no true or Real Me, and certainly not one masked and only dimly visible under the grey paint of civilisation. The existentialists were thus far good Hegelians, profoundly mistrusting the self-sufficiency of the true self, insisting that the self is always the product of community and of social recognition by others. Hegel saw this recognition in terms of restless competition and conflict, and Sartre thought it made life itself hellish, having as he did a particularly dim view of other people. But now there is a problem, because authenticity in the sense suggested so far could not survive without the notion of the antecedent true self. So for existentialism it needed to become reconfigured, not any longer as congruence with an original, natural self, but as pure autonomy, or the conscious seizure of freedom and choice.

Inauthentic living or living in bad faith imply denying the omnipresence of choice. By contrast, the truly authentic seize it and thereby take responsibility for their lives. When Sartre propounded the famous paradox that the French were never so free as under the German occupation, he meant that the occupation forced awareness of choice on everyone, however they then responded to it. But Sartre only half escaped the tyranny of the Real Self. Suspiciously, the authentic life turned out to be not only one lived in awareness of choice, but one in which the response to that awareness followed a definite direction: anarchic, bohemian, suffused with hatred of the bourgeoisie, sexually unconventional and volubly left-wing. Just as the word "faith" retains its positive connotations only when your faith coincides with mine - otherwise being dogmatism or lunacy - so the words "commitment" and "choice" functioned to introduce ideals only when they meant the same kind of commitments and choices as Sartre's own. Otherwise, the injunction to live in awareness of choice becomes disappointingly empty, even more so than Heidegger's dismal injunction to live in awareness of death. Perhaps Sartre forgot that people might choose to be bourgeois and conventional, cautious, monogamous and conservative, with every bit as much awareness as any anti-hero enthusiast for the Bohemian life of the cafe. Indeed, Kant believed that for rational agents there was no escaping the burden of reflection and judgment, so that a pure "wanton", unselfconsciously following desire without ever subjecting it to the reflection of self-consciousness, is not a bad or unenlightened kind of person, let alone a noble savage, but not a person at all. Sartre's injunction is then empty, since people are bound to be following it, however they then behave.

As a psychologist, Sartre gave marvellous vignettes of people trying to conceal from themselves their own complicity in events, such as the girl who lets her hand become a "thing" in order neither to encourage nor discourage the advances of a lover. But this too will have been an exercise of freedom, a cunning strategy admirably adapted to her circumstance, and the only aspect worth calling bad faith would be any later disclaimer of knowledge of what she was doing. Sartre can also write of people who prefer not to think of some options as open to them. But he misleads us if he suggests that this is always a failing. It is the path of virtue to regard some options as closed. With sufficient years behind me I live my life ignoring tightrope-walking as a live option, but far from this being a failing it is no doubt a matter of some relief to my wife and children. It is just not true that you should try every experience once, except incest and folk-dancing. If Real Selves and self-realisation are fantasies, and choice is not a specific value worth enjoining, then there is not much left to the notion of authenticity. But if it is so easy to mock, what explains its continued currency, and what purposes does it serve? One function is to fill the vacuum left by the death of God. If values and norms have no source in the supernatural world, where else can they be grounded? Authentic commitment and self-legislation of values and ideals are appealing substitutes for external authority and command. Obedience only to the dictates of the heart substitutes for the discredited authority of gods and their interpreters. Morality becomes no more than an exercise in integrity, a matter of truth to the inner determinations of the self. The literary critic Lionel Trilling cited Polonius's otherwise banal advice to his departing son Laertes in Hamlet as the first expression of the idea: "To thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man." Fine words, but why should we believe them? Think instead of the contradictory and fragmented self of modernism, the self-conscious self. What if Laertes's own self is insincere and insecure, irresolute and unknowing, new Labour all the way down? If this is how he is, and Laertes expresses his own self, he might make promises he cannot keep, begin undertakings he cannot follow through, use language that means nothing or implies what is not true, and say things about which he is self-deceived, and just because he would most like them to be true. Even worse, Laertes's own self might be steeped in sin. "Get in touch with your inner self," urges the therapist, perhaps unconscious that the inner self may be a pretty nasty piece of work (the moral philosopher Bernard Williams once invited us to reflect on quite how awful it might be if people followed the similar injunction to be a man).

Did Shakespeare then have some guarantee of the pure gold underneath the base alloys that make up the empirical self? Perhaps he was abetted by the rise of inner-light Protestantism, with conscience standing inside as an unmistakable voice that must be heard. To be deaf to it implies being wilfully deaf. A related idea of virtue as integrity, harmony or wholeness is, of course, at least as old as Plato. In Plato, however, the harmonious self is something to be worked for, an achievement attainable only by the wise and the just. These will be the select few whose natures have the gold within them from the beginning, but they will also need to have undergone the most extraordinary upbringing and rigid education. Nobody can become just and wise simply by listening to their deepest inner voice. Virtue is not the birthright of every man, or every man uncorrupted by insidious external influences. It took what Nietzsche saw as the sentimental, democratic, feminine touch of Christianity to add that. But perhaps we cannot shake off Protestantism so easily. We certainly find it difficult to believe that anyone could write the kinds of stuff or say the kinds of thing that we routinely hear from public figures without at some level squirming at their own lack of integrity. We think there must be an inner candle somewhere, however much the subject has tried to hide from its light. If they allowed themselves to look at their sins, we think, they would doubtless repent. Surely it cannot be baseness or fragmentation all the way down. But perhaps we are wrong, and perhaps it is.

This suggests a second reason we cling to authenticity, which is that we feel we require it to underwrite sincerity, a notion that we certainly need. Sincerity ought to be a much easier notion than authenticity. We can identify lapses from simple honesty without tying ourselves up in images of the inner self. Saying that a thing is so when you believe it is not is sometimes simple enough, and detectable, and if the deception is fraudulent, it may be provable in a court of law. Searching for a true self or hoping to express a true self by contrast is, as we have been exploring, at best fraught and at worst a wild-goose chase. Yet the two are connected in subtle ways, perhaps indicated by the thought that sincerity could not sustain the value we put upon it without some help from a lurking conception of authenticity.

The idea is that sincerity is impossible, or if we prefer it, what substitutes for sincerity is too cheap to value, if there is no such thing as authenticity in the self. Thus, if all the world's a stage, you cannot expect sincerity from the world any more than you can expect it from actors in their professional roles. You should not, for instance, expect fidelity or loyalty to a previous part, for the persona who breaks the promise is most likely not the persona who gave it. You should not expect the sentiment sincerely felt and voiced at one time to be an accurate indicator of the sentiment that will be just as sincerely felt and voiced at another.

The selves it is appropriate or strategic to present at each moment are not linked by ties of identity. They make up only an agglomeration or a commonwealth, and any loyalties through time are at best the fortunate precipitate from favourable social circumstances. Even when faced with the most blatant chicanery or abject disgrace, well, hey, we just need to draw a line under it and move on. Cheap intensity of expression and conviction at a moment substitute for wholeness of character. And people in general become like their politicians, men without inner light, men without qualities. In fact, our world becomes a world of players, but it is a mistake, portentously christened the Fundamental Attribution Error in social psychology, to suppose that anybody actually has a character.

Naturally enough, we want to recoil from the ghastly picture of human life this offers. If this is the alternative, we think, then the pendulum had better swing back to real, true, inner selves. But as so often, the right way forward may be to reject both alternatives. We do not have to fantasise an inner John Wayne to escape new Labour. If we are ordinarily fortunate, we have sufficient defences in the world's own processes of education, upbringing and experience, the ones that made us what we are. We do indeed have real selves. But they are not inner, and not overlaid and concealed by the contingent circumstances that in fact created them. They are our empirical selves, with their empirical constancies, sometimes our empirical contradictions, often our empirical complexities.

We can indeed wonder about possibilities of improvement, and dwell on ideals of virtue and excellence as aids to it. Even Plato allowed this function to the artists. We can undertake self-examination, although the term is often misplaced. For when we ask ourselves what we really want, or what we really believe about something, and find the question hard, this is not because we cannot find ourselves or interpret what we find. The question is not answered by uncovering an inner, pre-formed self with an unambiguous desire or belief. It is answered by looking one more time at the choice or at the evidence, and deciding what to desire or what to believe. It is not navel-gazing that gives us such solutions, but thinking the thing through one more time, in engagement with the world. Here "I do not know what I think about Peter Mandelson" (say) really means "I do not know what to think about Peter Mandelson", and that would be answered, if it were worth answering, by further acquaintance not with one's inner self, but with that gentleman's doings.

An authentic Vermeer is a real Vermeer or, if you like, just a Vermeer, as opposed to a fake or substitute Vermeer. The authentic Walter Mitty was Walter Mitty. James Joyce gave us the authentic Leopold Bloom, whose authentic nature is manifested in the myriad small things his little odyssey put in his way.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at Cambridge University.

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