Thursday, May 08, 2008

Authentic Development

More from that NPR story:
“If we allow people to unfold and give them the freedom to be who they really are, we engender health. And if we try and constrict it, or bend the twig, we engender poor mental health.” -- Dr. Diane Ehrensaft

I'm sympathetic to this as a developmental approach. But there's something deeply puzzling about the central concept of the authentic self, or "who they really are". It seems intuitive at first, but when you stop and think about it, what does this really mean?

(1) One thing it might mean is that we are all born with a particular Platonic 'form', template, or image of the specific adult we ought to become. We might call this form our "soul", or "true self". Environmental influences which bring our earthly bodies to more closely resemble the ideal form of our souls thereby enhance our "authenticity". We are then "inauthentic" insofar as we come to diverge from the soul's template.

(2) Here's a more sensible, naturalistic alternative: at any given time, we have certain dispositions concerning our future development. We may define the most "natural" developmental path as that which is most supported by our current dispositions. It is, in this respect, the "path of least resistance". You may be able to eventually reprogram those dispositions, in which case the end result will no longer be 'inauthentic' (because you will now have new dispositions which support your new character and lifestyle). But there is some sense to the idea that at the start of the reprogramming process, you were "going against the grain", and not developing in the way that would have been most natural for you at the time.

Does this matter? It's hard to see why it should have any intrinsic import, if things turn out just as well either way. But Ehrensaft's suggestion is, I take it, more pragmatic. She thinks things turn out better when we help people to develop in line with their existing dispositions, rather than trying to shape them against the grain ("bend the twig").

(3) A third view would be to understand 'authenticity' in more extrinsic terms, as a matter of "nourishing one's individuality" in the relational sense of being different from other people. To be authentic, on this view, is to be quirky, eccentric, and unique (perhaps in a way that's in line with your natural dispositions, as per #2 above). Normality is inauthentic.

I feel a little bit of a pull towards this just because the "normal" life in our society is so base. But it's not the normality itself that's the problem. It's what normality here happens to consist in. (Even if everyone else was more nerdy and interesting, I can't really see the newfound "oddity" of being a drunken frat boy as any kind of virtue.) Though perhaps we need to look at this in a more fine-grained way, since there's arguably something about the little quirks in each person that we think expresses their distinctive individuality, and that we value accordingly.

Any thoughts?


  1. This way of talking always has bugged the hell out of me. I especially hate when, in connection to such a view of authenticity, they quote Polonius from Hamlet. Since Polonius is hardly someone worthy of emulation or even trust in the play.

    I'm much more sympathetic to Nietzsche's dictim to will a self.

  2. (Sorry for the duplicate comment)

    To your other point, the problem with promoting growth in line with our dispositions is that those dispositions might be quite bad and lead to greater unhappiness. The hidden assumption in these claims is typically that manifesting your dispositions rather than fighting them leads to greater happiness. But that's just demonstrably false. Lots of people have quite a few self-destructive dispositions or even worse dispositions destructive to others. Consider someone with a disposition to pedophillia for instance.

    The only kind of authentic/inauthentic categories I've found that make any sense is Heidegger's. But there authenticity isn't about the self ultimately but about the worlds. The authentic self is the mode of openness to things as opposed to taking them just in terms of the practices and understandings I've been given by the various communities I find myself in. In other words to be authentic is to honestly inquire about reality.

  3. Right, some dispositions are simply bad and should be ruled out on those grounds. But we may think that a plurality of permissible (or even commendable) character types remain, and so our prior dispositions might appropriately decide between these. Doesn't that make sense?

  4. I think the problem is that typically people promoting the Polonius line don't make that distinction. Secondly all it seems to end up saying is promote goods and focus on the goods you like. Yet it misses out on new discovery. For instance had I merely expanded the dispositions I had at 19 I'd have missed all the discoveries over the next decade that allowed me to find new good dispositions.

    Now one could always say that in the act of expanding dispositions naturally new dispositions occur. (And perhaps old ones are lost) But I think I'm saying something stronger. That one should put oneself in places where one is challenged and those challenges entail focusing on things I don't have a disposition for.

  5. > Does this matter?

    the very act of being stopped from doing what you would naturally do is probably an issue.

    Also 'people aim to do what comes naturally' is one of the best measures what people desire/would vote for.

  6. The issue of someone else stopping what you want to do is an issue. I think though few would disagree there. The real issue is whether an authentic self in terms of seeking to manifest our current dispositions is itself good.

  7. Here's a more sensible, naturalistic alternative: at any given time, we have certain dispositions concerning our future development. We may define the most "natural" developmental path as that which is most supported by our current dispositions. It is, in this respect, the "path of least resistance".

    Following the path of least resistance might be what matters, at least instrumentally, but it cannot be a criterion of personal identity. If you are essentially the being you are now more naturally disposed to become, you are almost guaranteed to die in a very short while, since it is eminently likely that you will soon fail to become that person.

  8. Two possible additional ideas -- I'm not sure which might be correct from the five though.

    4) like 2, but replace "dispositions" with "talents" -- the idea being that there are certain excellences that our natural abilities are best suited to -- someone who has the chops to be a great philosopher might not have the chops to be a great basketball player. So we should try and develop those dispositions, activities, etc., that match our capacities for achivement.

    5) Some kind of really hard-to-evaluate counterfactual about how we (as we stand today) would choose to develop given full information about the consequences (to our characters, to our overall happiness, etc.) of the available options.

    or even harder to evaluate

    5b) compare the possible developmental paths open to us, and consider which we'd reflectively endorse most strongly at the end of each path.

  9. Clark Goble,
    I think in the vase majority of cases people don't stop themselves from doing what comes naturally. But if you were to do that all the time I think that would probably be a fairly unhappy life and thus all else being equal a bad thing.

  10. I've always considered the concept of "authenticity" in itself as rather inadequate. I understand "authenticity" as akin to self-respect, rather than that of developing/nurturing idiosyncrasies. As such an authentic person, in my view, ought to be a person whose personhood is a result of critical knowledge of her subject position -- her position in her culture, if you may.

    It is quite demanding. The person is required to have the capacity to be critical in understanding her relations with the environment and others. But I reckon this is a fair account since referring to a quirky person as authentic seems too quick and easy. I think an authentic person must recognise the significance of her social relations (or lack thereof) in order to act in good judgment. And so, I should like to say that an authentic person must be rational as well.

    Am I making sense?

  11. yes your making sense - authentic is generally taken to be self-aware and rational by those that use it in the social science/psychology sense.

  12. Paul - very interesting! I especially like your #4. I think there are general reasons to think #5b won't work. (See my post on love and reflective bias. If you have ten kids, you might fiercely cherish them and reflectively endorse your decision more strongly than if you'd sensibly refrained from the last several. That doesn't make it better, of course, as you can see more clearly in advance.)

    Back to the issue of authenticity: I think the intuitive notion may be related to considerations of integrity. For example, it seems "inauthentic" to pretend to be "someone you're not", e.g. attempting to impress an acquaintance by going to the opera when you'd rather be at the pub, or vice versa.

    The notion of "living a lie" surely has some real content, and it may have something to do with whether you really endorse your current lifestyle, or if you are instead somehow "betraying" your own tastes and values. (Though of course it is possible to seek to develop new tastes without thereby misrepresenting yourself or otherwise sacrificing your integrity!)

  13. Genius, I think most of "what comes naturally" is fairly innocuous. So my points are some of what comes naturally isn't in our long term interests (even ignoring cases of obvious immorality).

    But secondly I think frequently if not in the majority of cases what comes naturally is overridden by our reason. So I think reason is frequently at odds with such a view of going with the grain. Indeed in Greek philosophy this is a very common view of what philosophy is supposed to do. Find out if our dispositions are in fact something we ought pursue. Now how the Greek philosophers decided this varied obviously. But they had rather elaborate explanations of all this.

    While I'm skeptical of moral philosophy on general principles and Greek moral philosophy on even more I think there is something to be said for all this. Take the Stoic view which might say that something is functioning normally only as it functions with respect to the whole. Thus what is our path of least resistance may just be us malfunctioning due to our proper role. So to them what our 'true self' is can only be understood relative to the whole. (I'd say the Platonists and neoPlatonsists have a similar scheme)

    Note though how this completely inverts the problem.

    The problem is that despite Richard's comment that we ought neglect what is obviously immoral from consideration that it isn't that easy.

    Put simply I'm not sure we can talk about being true to oneself without talking about some moral scheme and more particularly the metaphysical assumptions inherent in such a view. That's obvious with respect to the Greeks but I think it true even with more modern ethical systems such as utilitarianism.

    I think the reason such questions are so popular in our culture is because there is a set of metaphysical and ethical assumptions regarding individuality that our culture tends to accept unthinkingly. That then biases our intuitions.


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