Is being authentic an art, or a science?

09Jun09

According to Heidegger (as I interpret him from On Being Authentic by Charles Guignon) it’s neither – it’s more like a political commitment:

To ‘become who you are,’ as Heidegger sees it, is to identify what really matters in the historical situation in which you find yourself and to take a resolute stand on pursuing those ends. Through resoluteness and commitment, life comes to have a cumulativeness and directedness, and it thereby achieves a kind of lived temporal continuity Heidegger calls ‘constancy’ and ‘steadfastness.’ Moreoever, since the projects you can take over are all inherited from the historical culture into which you are thrown, to take a stand on what matters is always at the same time to be engaged in the shared undertaking (Heidegger calls it the destiny) of a larger community. For Heidegger, then, authenticity is found to have [a] sort of irreducible social dimension …(On Being Authentic, p. 134)

Of all the different conceptions of authenticity, I find the narrative one the most compelling: that creating your life is much like creating a story, with different components that may seem fragmented but are related to one another by common themes and causal explanation. (This is in contrast to the postmodern account, which sees our different identities and roles as an unorderable flux.) And of all the narrative conceptions of authenticity — Guignon mentions Nietzsche, Heidegger, Charles Taylor and Alasdair Macintyre — I find Heidegger’s the most persuasive. Much more persuasive than Nietzsche’s, which focuses on the artistry of creating a narrative self and imparting “style” to your life. I know that in my own personal experience the more I try to focus on the “style” of my life, the easier it is for me to get lost in others’ notions of what’s aesthetically pleasing, modern, avant-garde, sophisticated, even “cool.” But those times when I try to focus my thought and action on what’s truly important do feel like a rising above, or a deepening, of my own personal experience. Though I suppose some marriage of the two conceptions might also work (or I [and Guignon] might be giving Nietzsche really short shrift here).

I really like the way the social aspect plays out in Heidegger’s conception – I had already been dwelling on it a lot when Stephen Epperson, Unitarian Church guru, spoke last Sunday about the “thread of self, and the fabric of community into which it is woven.” Sharing a commitment to what’s most important seems the best way to weave a strong self into a strong community.

But then, this brings up the question of how to decide what that most important thing actually is

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