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Charles Guignon's On Being Authentic is a solid and
readable overview of the modern concept of personal authenticity. Guignon is a specialist on Heidegger and
teaches philosophy at the University of South Florida. Unlike much philosophical writing, On Being Authentic is directed to a
general readership and does not require any specialized knowledge. I enjoyed this book a great deal and
recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject.
Personal authenticity is one of the
few ideals that are nearly universally praised in mainstream American
culture. Its high popular regard is
rivaled only by equally slippery terms like "happiness,"
"education," and "success." Not too surprisingly, our idea of personal authenticity is
relatively modern. Guignon argues that
most people did not start seeing themselves as "selves" separate from
their social station until the end of medieval times. The Protestant Reformation demanded that believers examine their
conscience to know if they were right with God. Simply fulfilling one's social and religious duties was not
enough to achieve salvation; one's religious experience had to be sincere, and
one could only know this through introspection. Massive social mobility and the development of capitalism created
new social roles and destroyed old ones.
Personal ambition and agendas defined by what one wanted for oneself were possible on a larger
scale than ever before. Amidst all this
freedom, it became a new challenge to decide who one really was.
Guignon is at his best in tracing
the historical development of the modern self, using examples from Faust and a variety of writers from the
Romantic era. He does a fine job of
illustrating the strange mixture of confusion, disillusion, and exhilaration
that affected many intellectuals in a world where there seemed to be only the
vaguest limits on what kind of "self" a person could construct. Some writers were optimistic: Rousseau idealized a "natural
man," free from civilization and morally superior to it. Nietzsche celebrated the coming of a morally
autonomous "superman." Freud,
in contrast, saw little but brutality in unrestrained human nature. Romantic writers like Rilke described a deep
sense of aimlessness and alienation and a corresponding need to look deeply
within oneself to find what was good and worthwhile in the world. Without overreaching or doing violence to
the complexity of his subject matter, Guignon makes a strong case that these
distinctively modern concerns led to the popular ideal of authenticity.
In the concluding chapters of his
work, Guignon attempts to formulate a philosophically sound definition for
"personal authenticity." I
thought this portion of his book was less effective; although I admire Guignon
for taking a positive stance toward his subject and not simply deconstructing
the idea of authenticity and dismissing the reader with an ironic smirk. Guignon argues that there is a role for a
modern, self-directed ideal of authenticity.
Unfortunately, his shift from history and analysis to advocacy is
Referencing modern philosophers
like Charles Taylor, Bernard Williams, and Cheshire Calhoun, Guignon argues
that "authenticity" should be understood as a social virtue rather
than a purely personal one. He
champions Platonic and Christian virtues of moral introspection informed by the
options and limitations of modern society and one's need to maintain a stable
sense of self. Ideally, the quest for
authenticity would lead to "the ability to be a reflective individual who
discerns what is genuinely worth pursuing within the social context in which he
or she is situated" (155). Guignon
makes a credible argument that this type of authenticity is an essential social
virtue for modern democracies; people who cannot make consistent and personally
meaningful judgments of what makes a good life have no hope of preserving a
My main criticism of Guignon's
conclusion is that it does not seem to address what people today really mean
when they speak of "being authentic." Guignon argues that personal authenticity should be understood as
a social virtue essential for citizenship in a modern democracy. Even if one accepts that Guignon's
conception of personal authenticity is a democratic virtue, it is not clear to
me that his definition corresponds to the popular ideal of authenticity. Civic virtues and the duties of citizenship
do not seem to be major concerns for those who advocate personal authenticity.
own analysis of personal authenticity leads me to think of "authenticity"
as a floating signifier, similar to "happiness" or
"freedom." These three words
have favorable associations for most people, but defining them would require
limiting their meaning, and the point of using a word like "freedom"
outside of any context is to suggest good associations while avoiding any of
the limits that give the word a clear definition. People searching for "authenticity" seem to desire a
feeling of religious virtue and personal peace in a world without the personal
and social limits that make virtue and peace achievable goals. Guignon is more optimistic, and believes
that there is such a thing as "being authentic," and that
authenticity is a socially and personally worthwhile goal. Whether or not the reader agrees with him,
his book remains a thoughtful introduction to the topic.
© 2005 David A. Flory
David Flory is a writer and
musician with a long-term interest in clinical psychology. He has a B.S. in
math from the University of Texas, and he lives in Texas.
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