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Authenticity: Is it possible to be authentic?

Socratic Dialogue, Conway Hall, London October 21, 2000

© Gale Prawda

This is a rendition of a Socratic Dialogue which hopes to demonstrate what this exercise entails for those who are unfamiliar with this type of inquiry. The backgrounds of participants was quite diverse from teaching to architectural designing. This dialogue was set up as a one-day inquiry.

Introduction to the dialogue :

Contemporary Socratic Dialogue has its roots in Socrates’ dialogues (as found in Plato’s works) and in the works of the twentieth century German philosopher, Leonard Nelson.

The incessant inquiry to seek the truth stems from Socrates, whereas Nelson developed a more structured method of inquiry not only to discover the underlying principle but also to achieve a consensus of it. Nelson’s method is known as a process in "regressive abstraction", in which a specific question is raised and illustrated by a concrete experience that undergoes rigorous inquiry towards understanding.

Hour-glass procedure :

Is it possible to be authentic?

Example illustrating being authentic

Core Sentence:
refers to freedom to choose
Is it being honest with oneself or consistent?

Assumptions / Presuppositions / Arguments:
Is it questioned in terms of conformity ?
Is it influenced by social approval ?

Changes as one’s nature changes
linked to an idea of the self
can be an act, feeling

A Socratic Dialogue functions with a general question and an example from personal experience
rules of the dialogue
regressive abstraction going from the concrete to the abstract

Rules for the Dialogue
1. use your own experience and think for yourself (do not appeal to an authority)
2. do not speak hypothetically
3. Express your doubts
4. Strive for consensus
5. Try to inquire collectively (It’s not a debate with a winner.)

3 Forms of Dialogue :
1. content : question and example inquiry (if you don’t understand, urgent to stop content)
2. meta : how we are investigating (behavioural areas to work out)
3. strategic : group decides where to go (different possibilities are offered)

Socratic Virtues :
listening , patience
perseverance, trusting one’s doubts,
talking frankly, postponing one’s judgement
willingness to revise one’s opinion, respect for other points of view
(willingness + respect = critical attitude)

Start-up : Associations on Authenticity
a validation of what the thing purports to be
genuine, honest, real (not deceptive)
proof of authenticity
correspondence with one’s deeper self
deep level of genuiness

Beginning with the dialogue :

Choosing the example guidelines :
1. from your own experience
2. it’s an event
3. concluded in time
4. not too emotional
5. as simple as possible
6. willing & able to tell everything about the event (must be willing to share all relevant material to investigation)
7. interesting for everyone
8. the question plays a central role in the example
9. one that doesn’t involve another participant directly

Examples suggested – the choice of the example is based on a consensus

Examples given on a personal experience of being authentic or not :

  • Career change – choosing to do something in accordance with one’s nature
  • To conform to a professional ‘look’
  • To express one’s difference ‘the natural look’ (no hair)
  • Living a lie
  • It’s me or the crowd

Each participant described his/her example and then the group looked at each example to decide on which one was the one they wanted to work on for the dialogue. Since two were similar in nature ‘physical appearance’ but for differing reasons : one was a question of conformity whereas the other was of expressing one’s own true nature (affirming difference), these were examined but felt to be limited in responding to the question. The group unanimously chose the "Living a lie" example as it came up at the last moment. For the other examples, though illustrating the question didn’t grab the group’s attention as much as the ‘Living a lie’ one did. Consensus was almost immediate and unanimous. This example seemed to be most appropriate to respond to the question as well as illustrate the dilemma of possibility to be authentic or not.

The example chosen was Ellen’s : She got married to be socially accepted and realised she was living a lie (for she didn’t love the man she married.) By divorcing her husband, Ellen felt she was authentic and no longer living a lie. The group were invited to ask questions in order to understand the example, clarifying information around it.

Examining the example :
In questioning the example, areas of authenticity came forth : was it something you should be, was it a positive thing, was it concerned with being true to oneself, did it involve making a choice, did it presuppose knowing what you don’t want or doing something which is against your nature, were there different moments of authenticity if it was in accordance with one’s own nature, does one’s own nature change ?

Searching for the core statement :

The participants were asked to view this example as their own and could they see themselves in this situation. Also, asked if they thought the example demonstrated the question of authenticity.

In this part of the dialogue, it was difficult to find one core sentence as the example was so rich there were many areas to look for the core sentence. The propositions varied as follows:

authenticity was linked to freedom and being able to make a choice
the desire to be socially accepted created an inauthentic feeling or at least challenged the desire to be authentic
authenticity was linked to (presupposed) leading an independent life
authenticity was directly connected to feeling in harmony with body, mind and spirit
authenticity presupposed honesty unto oneself (in response to ‘living a lie’)

The later developments of the core statement and striving for consensus (though not yet achieved) :

Authenticity is understanding one’s own nature and making choices consistent with that nature.
You can’t be authentic unless you understand your own nature.

During this one-day Socratic dialogue, consensus was not achieved due to time constraints and thus, participants were asked to respond to the initial question individually (taking into consideration the dialogue up to that point)


Participants responses were communicated as follows :
"Authenticity is not an expression I’d use. It seems too self important. It seems to work as a challenge to the world, without explicitly saying that is what is happening. And (since the idea of being authentic is generally seen as positive) it attempts to moralise that challenge. What would I use instead? Something that sounds more honest, that says ‘This time I know what I want and I’m going to do it because it feels right whether you approve or not’. If I don’t do it, I’m compromising but not necessarily being inauthentic. In an absolute sense, it is never possible to be authentic. Why? Because everything conceptual, including my interpretation of my body’s desires, is socially mediated. So there is no ‘true self’ which I become ‘one with’ and therefore genuinely authentic. To talk about authenticity is just a bit of verbal trickery, an attempt to make the acting out of my desires acceptable by giving it a moral veneer." Peter
 "It may be possible to have times in one’s life where what seem to be authentic acts are possible, or to have an idea of what one wants to do or feel one must do to be authentic. But without an awareness of one’s own nature and the influences upon it, how do we know if we are authentically being authentic? Being authentic must be much more than feeling authentic. Because authenticity may oppose or challenge conventional standards, if a person behaved authentically at all times would they be considered mad?" Ellen
 "To be authentic one needs to recognise authenticity and what it is. Authenticity can be a feeling, an act, an achievement and a belief. Both objects and people can be said to be authentic, or rather people label some things as more authentic than others. But what is it? Authenticity is a recognition of truth and "truth" is relative to our relationship with it. If I choose to be authentic, then I choose to believe, accept and act in a way that is true to myself and of what I want to become." Alan

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