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Wait, Do I Know Who I Am?

Wait, Do I Know Who I Am?

By Merrin Abraham

Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

Authentic and Inauthentic Existence: Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger

‘They’ even hide the process by which ‘they’ have quietly relieved us
of the ‘burden’ of making choices for ourselves.
It remains a complete mystery who has really done the choosing.
We are carried along by the ‘nobody’, without making any real choices,
becoming ever more deeply ensnared in inauthenticity.
This process can be reversed only if we explicitly
bring ourselves back from our lostness in the ‘they’.
But this bringing-back must have that kind of being
by the neglect of which we have lost ourselves in inauthenticity.[1]

Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre have been created, literally, by Walter Kaufmann. These existentialist writers aim at revealing what the self should be, what and how the self should think. Each of them have contributed a lot to existentialism and have given us various new ideas about life. They have divulged so much thought and parted with so many propositions that we could speculate about them for years to come.

Sartre was one of the main figures in the philosophy of existentialism and phenomenology. According to Sartre we have a free will and complete freedom to make choices. He also believes that existence precedes essence, i.e., first the human exists then he discovers his essence. He is not born into this world with a preconceived essence. Therefore, since we have the freedom to make our choices we also will have to face the consequences of those choices. But, Sartre also emphasizes the point that there are certain restraints like the society and human limitations, which he calls ‘facticity’. Facticity signifies ‘all the concrete details against the background of which human freedom exists and is limited’. [2]

Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher known for his extensive explorations of the ‘question of being’. According to Heidegger, authenticity is ‘choosing the nature of one’s existence and identity’. He also associated authenticity with mortality, i.e., fear of death can drive a person to live an authentic life.

I would like to throw some new light on the idea of “Authentic and Inauthentic Existence’. But before I explain authenticity I would like to explain what ‘bad faith’ refers to. ‘Bad faith’ is a philosophical concept that describes a situation where a person is forced by the society to adopt values that disowns him/her from acting authentically. When anyone is cajoled knowingly or unknowingly into doing things they don’t want to do, that’s when they are exercising bad faith or being inauthentic. They may be doing it out of necessity but when they try a little too hard to be that role then they are acting in bad faith.

According to Sartre, a person must have complete freedom and choice. So, when a person claims to live an authentic life he should be taking responsibility for his actions and decisions. When he is faced with such a situation he experiences ‘existential anguish’. The freedom of choice and the fear of failure tempts him to go with the flow, i.e, live inauthentically. Sartre terms this inauthenticity as ‘bad faith‘. [3]

Moving onto to authenticity, it can be defined as the degree to which a person stays true to himself or herself. When you discover and unearth the real you from all that is blocking yourself from being you, you may start to live an authentic life. Authenticity, in its essence, is realizing the truth and living in the truth, being who you know you ought to be, not conforming to boundaries that are false and disillusioned. The society has blinded us, i.e, social actors, from realizing that we have been given a choice, that we have been given freedom. Just as Heidegger states in the above lines, how society or another group has made the decision for us and we unknowingly go along with that idea, practice, ritual or lifestyle. In my opinion we cannot be accused singlehandedly of living inauthentic lives. The world around us constantly pressurizes and incites us to work in a particular way.

Acceptance is the main issue. People are frightened about the prospect of not being accepted, of being shunned for doing something different. Take the example of religion. Certain people have definite or (maybe) indefinite views about their faith. Those who truly believe and know for sure about their faith come under one category. Those who don’t believe in anything of that sort come under another category. What happens to the rest? They are undecided and unable to make a choice. They can’t be here or there. They know what they should do but they can’t decide if it is the right thing to do. They are confused between the right and the wrong, the good and the bad. Their confusion arises from within themselves. Confusion arises from feelings, and feelings are subjective. No one can live a completely authentic life. But one can strive towards living one.

There are people who find their identity in a group and not within themselves. How then can you call their lives inauthentic? Each and every one of us identifies with something exterior to ourselves. Our likes and dislikes are not unique to ourselves. But Sartre states ‘that it is your own choices and acts that make up your identity’. In my understanding, aren’t we choosing to act in a particular way or speak in a particular tongue? Aren’t we exercising our freedom to choose here? For example, I see a new pair of boots that have come into fashion. I choose to buy them and use them. How does that make me inauthentic? All of us who wear those boots share a common identity, a common relation. We are proud to have a common identity. Whereas, when you choose to break away from the group, you are choosing to stand alone.

Now, there are two sides to this scenario. Breaking away and becoming yourself is what Sartre and Heidegger want us to do, or maybe in some cases, what we would want to do. Staying within a group is also our choice up to a certain extent. This is where we find the contradiction. After a point of time you might feel like breaking away but then you won’t be able to do it. You will be in a dilemma. You finally realize that you need to rid yourself of what has been bothering you. I may finally realize that I don’t like these boots anymore. But I won’t be able to throw them away due to the fear of non acceptance. That’s when I start conforming, that’s when I become inauthentic.

Our very existential predicament gives a solution to the difficulty of inauthenticity. If inauthenticity did not exist then where would we find authenticity? As I have mentioned before, you cannot attain complete authenticity but you can strive towards it. I would like to compare Sartre’s and Heidegger’s concept of authenticity with what the Bible says about the self.

“’How can mere mortals be more righteous than God?

How can humans be purer than their Creator?

Why, God doesn’t even trust his own servants,

Doesn’t even cheer his angels,

So how much less these bodies composed of mud,

fragile as moths?

These bodies of ours are here today and gone tomorrow,

and no one even notices – gone without a trace.

When the tent stakes are ripped up, the tent collapses

we die and are never the wiser for having lived.”’[4]

If you consider this scenario, and apply what Sartre has said about authenticity then you can conclude that the above text isn’t true. According to my understanding, Sartre implies that God doesn’t feature in your lives, in any way. You are the sole decision maker and owner of your life. You owe nothing to anyone around you. You have complete freedom and you are responsible for your actions. Since God doesn’t feature anywhere, you yourselves become ‘the master’ or ‘God’. What I cannot come to terms with is the fact that we humans, who are so complex and intricately designed, just emerged and have complete authority over themselves? This cannot be positively true. How can man, a fragile, petite object be the master when he himself has no guarantee when he may die? He could die the very next second and it wouldn’t make a marked difference in this world. Every death and birth is pretty meaningless if life doesn’t have a purpose.

If you take the other side of the scenario and assume that God does exist, then everything Sartre or any other philosopher theorized will be false. God would be the master overall and he would control all the happenings. Sartre would term this inauthenticity because you would be conforming to a particular practice or routine. You would be giving God the utmost importance and you would naturally forget yourself. It wouldn’t matter who you are because you have a creator who is greater than your needs. You shift your focus from yourself to God. You become more selfless and caring, not self – centred and selfish. This assumption clearly gives you an idea about authenticity.

This example can be debated over but that is not the point here. The Bible verse points out a very valid argument, assuming the second scenario. Can you really call yourselves righteous or even close to righteous? In both the cases it would be blasphemous to even suggest such a thing. Try as you may, give yourself all the freedom you want, how will you know what is right and what is wrong? Everything that doesn’t conform is authentic? That is not a very good definition of authenticity.

It is very difficult to term what is right and what is wrong in terms of authenticity. As Heidegger said, authenticity and inauthenticity are not mutually exclusive classes. They depend on each other and are interrelated.

In the outset, authenticity is when a person takes a stand for himself and realizes that he has to live truthfully. Staying in that form is difficult and if a person decides to and manages to be authentic it would do the society a favour. But, if you believe in a creator, a God, then you could live authentically by following the right principles of that faith. Inauthenticity is hard to overcome and veer around. But when self realization strikes it’s hard to stay where you are. You can get complacent and forget about the whole thing, but it will always turn up in everything you do. When you do something because everyone else is doing it, it is meaningless, purposeless. When you start discerning why you are doing the things you do, you are on the path to authenticity. Inauthenticity is plastered everywhere and this is the exact reason why we start thinking of change. It’s your call in the end; who do you really want to be? A replica of the society or a unique individual who believes in himself (and maybe GOD too)?

By : Merrin Abraham

[1] Martin Heidegger Being & Time, Macquarrie p. 312-313; Stambaugh p. 248;     paraphrase


[3]“Sartre: Authentic Existence in Living in Bad Faith.” 19 Apr 2014

[4](Job 4:17-21) The Message Version, Biblegateway

Merrin is currently pursuing an Integrated Masters Program in Humanities and Social Sciences at The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She has a variety of interests ranging from singing and dancing to playing football. She spends her time writing short stories and reading novels. An avid reader, she can survive without food if she has books to keep her company. She attends church every Sunday and takes keen interest in her religion.


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