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A Critique of Authenticity

Roger ‘Wa.terhouse
Central to the philosophy of Heidegger and Sartre
is the call to be authentic. (1). They say
‘Examine your life; jon It you fool
people, mislead them, hide yourself, live a lie?

Don’t you fool yourself, pretend you are being
altruistic, cover up your motives, hide from your
own guilt? Of course you do – because everyone
does. This is a basic fact about the human condition which can only be overcome by a struggle, by
painful, ruthless, soul-searching self-appraisal.

We know when we are being inauthentic, ev.en
though we don’t admit it to ourselves, even though
we try not to notice it. And the fact that we do
know this when we are forced to attend to it, is
the best evidence there could be that we all have
the possibility of being authentic. Our normal
il!authenticity and the ever-present (if suppressed)
awareness that we could be authentic, are a
fundamental structure of human being everywhere
and for all time. Human beings are always selfaware: authentic / inauthentic expresses the mode
of this self-relation. To grasp my true self is to
be authentic; to hide my true self is to be inauthentic. In a derivative sense I may be authentic
or inauthentic in relation to another person. Being
authentic in a relationship is when I reveal my
self openly and honestly both to myself and the
other. Conversely, being inauthentic is hiding
myself both from myself and from the other.

Admit these things, and strive to be authentic! f
The cere of Heidegger’s Being and Time is the
elaboration of this’a priori’ structure of human
existence in terms of its other structures – temporality, spatiality etc. The obsessive theme of
Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is the struggle with
myself against inauthenticity: the struggle to claim
my birthright of freedom and independence against
the tempting surrender to easy inauthenticity.

Prometheans of the human condition, Heidegger and
Sartre stand forth as heroes of our time: like OldTestament prophets recalling us from sin and blindness to the way of truth (2); making philosophy into
what it should be – a way of life~ Pity, perhaps,
but it doesn’t work.

The argument is plausible, appealing, but pernicious in its effects. They point to a type of experience
with which we are all familiar and about which we
have ambiguous feelings. They then say this is the
most significant range of experience and cite as
evidence the fact that it can be used to unbalance us.

Playing upon remembered fears or adolescent
anxieties they drive us back out of the world into
navel-gazing, saying ‘How can you hope to understand the rest of being if you haven’t come tq terms
with your own?’. But because they have already
retreated, their articulation of this range of
experience is misleading and ultimately false. And
while they seem to be clarifying and explaining
they are distorting and obscuring. The inevitable
conclusion is that authenticity is a chimera. They
have set it up in such a way that it is in practice
totally unattainable. But by that time their commitment to it is so great that they must still exhort us
1 In this article I am referring primarily to the Heidegger of :Being and
Time (B&T), Oxford, 1967, and the Sartre of Being and Nothingness
(B&N), London, 1969.

2 cf. Heid~gger, What is Philosophy? Twayne, 1959.


to strive after what they know we cannot reach. So
Heidegger goes chaSing he knows not what (‘Let’s
call it Being ‘), while the more realistic Sartre
ends in despair.

The Fallacy
The fallacy of this self-defeating argument lies in
the suppressed claim that the key to our existence,
the centre of our being, lies in our reflective relationship to ourselves. Neither Sartre nor Heidegger
thinks that we create our own being – we simply
find ourselves in it and must make of it what we
can: they even coin a term to refer to this otherness of my being – facticity. And because both of
them (irrespective of occasional disclaimers) are
searching for a prior, eternal truth (3) they feel
no need to remember how the self-reflective
individual developed into the sophisticated being
he is. They invite us to jump into our adult being
as if that being were not intrinsically dependent on
our development from children. ‘1, and I alone, am
responsible for my being’ says Sartre. If this were
intended as a principle of morality we could take it
for the rhetoric it is. But it is intended to include
a descriptive truth about how rcame to be as I am;
and as such it is Simply false. I am as I am not
simply because of how I have thought myself to be,
nor even because of how I have made myself (4).

My being is not essentially self-reflection, nor even
activity with respect to myself. My history is a
history of action and interaction with others; I
could not be as I am now without this formative
interaction with other people.

The historicality of individual human beings is
something Heidegger and Sartre take no proper
account of (5). They forget that we were all babies
once. Though they dwell upon the fact that we are
going to die, they lightly dis miss the fact that we
were born, were sucking infants, toddlers, children, adolescents. How we are now is not merely
how we conceive ourselves to be. It is how we have
been made by ourselves and by others – for without
others we would not even have the language with
which to articulate our self-conception.

We are essentially social beings. As a matter of
fact each and everyone of us knows that it was
others who taught us to speak, to question, and to
philosophise. ~ Sartre our-autonomy is founded
upon others: it was other people who taught me to
rely on myself. I learned to articulate my experience. I learned to think about myself. The selfawareness that I have was not with me at birth – it
was learned from other people. I was born into a
pre-existent historical and social context. I inheritted a language and a culture, each at a particular
stage of its development. As I learned and began to
appropriate for myself the language, cultural traditions etc, I began to act up~n the m, i. e. to contri ~
bute to their history and to change or maintaIn tnem.

3 While Sartre rejects the traditional notion of a human essence, in B&N
he clearly believes that there is a general ‘human condition’ in which
everyone finds himself irrespective of place or time. Heidegger’s whole
work is devoted to the revelation of a truth not only a priori and eternal,
but ineffable.

4 Sartre’s CartesianiSm is well known, but cf. Heidegger’s B&T, p6S.

5 They both stress (private) temporality at the e:xpense of (public)
historicaltty. In trying to derive the latter from the former Heidegger
gets completely confused, see B&T, p433ff.

I enter into a take and give relationship- dialectic,
if you prefer (6)-with ‘objective’ historical conditions. In my dealings with other people I confirm or
challenge, for example, traditional moral rules, or
usages of words. The significance of my acts is
never arbitrary, and it never depends solely on me.

If I am able to appropriate my acts, take posseSSion
of their significance in a fully self-conscious way,
it is because I can assess their objective meaning.

And the objective meaning is something I have
learned in my earlier dealings with others.

Authenticity of Relationships
For Heidegger and SaFtre the subjective meaning
precedes the objective, the private goes before the
public. So long as their discussions are confined to
isolated acts or encounters, this position is tenable.

But it becomes totally untenable when the individual
is seen as having a personal history which did not
begin at the same time as the history of the world.

The primacy of the subjective over the objective
is something they extend into their accounts of (in-)
authenticity in relationships. Heidegger gives no
concrete examples, but does allow that relationships
may be authentic (7). He seems to be thinking of
profound friendships, or deep relations of a dependent kind – such as a master /pupil, or parent/ child
relationship. In any case what makes the relation.,;.

ship authentic is that it provides the context for one
or other person (he does not stipulate both) to be
open and honest about him/herself. In fact, it is not
so much that the relationship is authentic as that the
person is authentic in the relationship. Heid~gger
does not show that any reciprocity need be involved:

the same relationship could apparently’ be authentic
for me but inauthentic for you.

In a similar way Sartre dissects relationships
into contingent encounters between self-absorbed
tndividuals: except that for him relationships are
absolute disjunctions. Almost by definition it is
impossible for a relationship to be authentic: it is
characteristically the context of my own selfdeception. He takes a concrete exaIljple in which a
man is trying to seduce a woman (8). They are
havinganJntellectnalconversa.tion;…he .puts his ..hand
6 cf. Merleau-Ponty. The Phe’nomenologY of Perception’, p442ff.

‘7 B&T, ppI58-9.

8 B&N, pp55-6.

over hers. It is a sexual advance but e.mbiguous:

she can interpret it as an asexual gesture if she
wishes. She does so wish and pretends to herself
that the man is wholly absorbed in their platoniC
relationship. She is being inauthentic in that at one
level (the physical) she is quite aware that he is
making an advance; she is actually enjoying being
desired. But she ‘detaches’ herself from her body,
regards it as not-her, so at another level she can
interpret what is happening purely as a meeting of

According to Sartre the girl is guilty of ‘bad faith’,
She is being inauthentic in that she is fooling herself: this inauthenticity is a self-reflexive relationship. Of course the girl is ‘fooling herself, but she
is doing so in terms of the relationship. Just as we
learn language in the context of l1elationships so we
learn inauthenticity in relationships – as a way of
coping with them. The key to understanding the
strategy the girl is employing lies back in her
personal history. It is only when he detaches it
from this history that Sartre can present it as
evidence of some universal metaphysical desire
to become thing-like (en-soi).

“The little girl is in mummy’s bedroom. Spilling
out of the open box on the dressing table are
sparkling necklaces,. bracelets, brooches. If
mummy weren’t here the little hands would be
delving into the treasure, holding up, trying on.

But mummy doesn’t let her and mummy is here,
sitting at the dreSSing table. Nevertheless the
jewels do so want to be touched. So while she is
talking to mummy, and even distracting her by
saying what nice hair she has, the little hands
stray “absent-mindedly” to the box. When
mummy objects she will say, “Oh, I wasn’t
thinking”, so mummy can’t be too cross.’

It is in instances like this that inauthenticity is
learned. It is a perfectly sensible strategy for doing
what one is not allowed to do. It develops into a way
of doing what is wrong, what one feels guilty about
or afraid of doing. What starts off as an excuse for
other people becomes an excuse for oneself as the
moral prohibitions of conscience are internalised.

So when Heidegger ‘deduces’ the possibility of having a conscience from the fundamental possibility
of being authentic (9) he is reversing the order of
events in personal history. My explicit adult reflection upon self and the truth of its expression can
only arise because I learned to tell lies at the same
time as I learned to tell the truth. The ability to
raise the question of authenticity can only arise
because of prior· interactive learning of how to
relate to others.

Role Playing
Essentially the same ‘as the inauthenticity of the
woman’resistiI”€ sexual acjvances is the inauthenticity involved in playing a part. Observe the waiter,
says Sartre (10), see how he carries hi mse lf ,
moves between the tables, bends over customers
etc: all his movements are a little too precise, too
ex~erated. They reveal that he is deliberately
playing a role: he is trying to be a waiter – the
‘perfect’ waiter. This, Sartre concludes, is not
merely false but inauthentic, because of the way in
which the man is relating to himself. Like the
woman being seduced he is trying to make himself
thing-like (into a being-in-itself, in Sartre’s terminolOgy). That is, he is trying to suppress his
9 B&T, p313.

10 B&N, p59.


e’ssential freedom and become like an object with
properties: the perfect waiter does this, the perfect
waiter does that ..•
Inauthenticity of this kind, playing a part, putting
up a front, might at first sight seem more like a
straight case of self-relationship, with no essential
involvement of others. After all I can rehearse my
part alone, in front of the mirror (11). If I a m a
secret transvestite I might altogether avoid the
company of others when I play my part. But of
,course the whole significance of role-playing derives from it being essentially a way of presenting
myself to others. And even when I am rehearsing,
or secr’etly performing, its significance still
derives from its being a pretended relating to others.

It is of course a highly sophisticated activity, one
which has to be learned and one which forms an
essential element in the games of even very s.mall
children. Pretending to be Someone else, to be
Daddy, or a doctor or a cowboy, is a way of exploring and coming to understand both how other people
are, and how one can be oneself. There is no
necessary dishonesty, no necessary fooling of oneself or others in the activity of playing a part. As
Sartre admits, the waiter may be putting on airs out
of sheer boredom, or may be playing games with
his customers.

But though role-playing is not inevitably inauthentic in the way that Sartre claims, it clearly can be.

When I present myself deliberately as something I
am not with the intention of deceiving someone else,
this is obviously inauthentic. And if I so create a
part for myself that I always live in it, detached
from my own spontaneity, I have become habitually
inauthentic. What ne’ither of these cases reveal is
any metaphysical tendency to :r:egard myself as an
object, as Sartre would have (12). Nor do they
establish that when I do play a role it is essentially
a mode of relating to myself. On the contrary, .

playing a role is essentially a mode of relating to
others. If I can fool myself into believing in the role
I am playing this is only because I know what it is
to present myself to another, I am thinking myself
into his position. In this sense role -playing is
doubly dependent on my relationship to others.

flow to avoid Bad Faith
The implication of both Heidegger ‘s and Sartre’s
accounts is that becoming authentic is largely a
matter of getting my head straight about myself.

For Heidegger I must escape the idle chatter of the
crowd and resolutely face the Significance of the
fact. that I will die (13). My anxiety in the face of
my coming death will have the positive effect of
pulling me back to the truth about myself. I will
then resolutely decide to be authentic in future.

If Heidegger talks in abstracts- or at best the
pseudo-concrete (14) – Sartre at least has the me.rit
of working out the implications in terms of real hfe
histories. Biography is Sartre’s alternative to
Freudian style psycho-analysis. His ‘biography’ of
Genet is that of an existentialist hero. Genet was
forced by society into inauthenticity: into playing
the role of a homosexual criminal. Genet’s heroism
is that of Mephistopheles – his history is a superhuman struggle to become authentically evil: he
fails because there can be no such thing. When
11 cf. SlLrtre’s ~, Penguin, 1965, p30. It is significant that the ‘l1ero’

of this early novel haS no living relationship to others: he relates only to
himself and to things.

11 Sartre’s whole use of ‘self-object1visation’ is founded on a very loose
metaphor. Not even the most ‘mechanical’ of schizophreniCS really
regards himself as an object or even supposes he can actually become one.

13 B&T, pp219-24 and 350ft.

14 cf ‘On the pseudo-concreteness of Heidegger’s philosophy’, G. Anders
St~rn, Philosophy and Phenomenologlcal Research!, 1947-8, pp337-70.


Genet realises this, and when he realises, crucial~y
that he has been striving to become thing-like (wnicb
is impossible), he can relax into authentic spontaneity. Sartre recognises, of course, that the return
to an open exhibition of spontaneous inclinations
may not meet with social approval. It is an interesting questiQn, whether I can authentically be a racist,
or comfuit murder: Sartre tries hard to show that I
cannot, and that racism at least is essentially
inauthentic (15).

In the last analysis Sartre needs to invoke a moral
-imperative – the universalising principle that when
I act I act for all: my every deed is legislation by
example (16). This pathetic failure on Sartre’s
part, this collapse back into moralising, is the
direct result of making authenticity essentially a
relationship to self. From the fact that I am being
honest with myself absolutely nothing follows about
the way in which I will relate to others. There is
no way that Sartre can show that an authentic
relationship to myself produces authentic relations
to others. In fact it may have the reverse effect of
making me better able to dissimulate and deceive
other people. Thus Sartre could derive no existentialist ethics from the ontology of Being and Nothingness (17). There are no authentic acts per se. In
fact his authenticity has no implications for action
because it is not a question of acts but of attitudes.

Providing I have the right attitude towards it (i. e.

complete awareness of exactly what I am doing and
that I am doing it .freely), any act can be authentic.

‘Normal Authenticity’

This gross distortion of our capacity for authentic
relationships follows from the misrepresentation
of individual being as essentially ~social. Our
normal dealings with others are not made up of
elaborate strategems of deceit, or intricate webs
of lies. As children we are innocently frank before
we learn when to be otherwise, and even at that age
we are aware of the need to have our honestly
described experience confirmed by others. Such
openness is the basic ingredient of the universal
human experiences of friendship and love. We not
only strive after but often attain the satisfaction of
authentic relations with. others.

Heidegger and Sartre however elevate authenticity
into an ideal which is virtually unattainable – an
almost mystical coincidence with self. It is really
something everyday, even com monplace. I reveal
myself to others in my acts; I do so knowingly and
honestly. I cannot help but reveal myself in some
way. To be inauthentic is to foster mistaken interpretations – which is possible only against the
normality of unmistaken interpretations. It is only
because of this knowledge that I am revealing
, myself to others that I can conceive of deceiving
. them, of pretending to be what I am not. To use
. Sartre ‘s terminology, my Being .. for-self (pour-soi)
is founded upon my Being-for-others (pour-autrui),
and not the other way round (18). When I come to
‘think of myself I do so with the linguistic apparatus
which I have learned, and with-the knowledge of
what my parents and other teachers have told me
about myself (whether deliberately or otherwise).

If this thinking matches the way I feel, it is adequate for me. If I feel differently from what I have
been told aboutq;lyself, I may be able to revise what
15 in:’~rlra1t of an ant1~Sem1te, Childhood of a Bo8&,- The ResDeetabii·
Prostitute etc.

16 B&N, p553ff.

17 As he intended. See B&N. p628
18 Paradoxically, both Sartre and Heidegger concede this when they
recognise the normal ‘falling’ (B&T, p219), or ‘bad faith’ (B&N, p47ff)
of my being.

I have be-eh told by articulating the way I feel: in this
case I have the maturity to create myself progressively. But if I am not able to revise my”:self-image,
if the gap between be lie.! and fee ling Is unbridgeable,
of if I attempt to bridge it by accommodating my
feelings to the belief, the result is a serious,
damaging, inauthenticity.

The point is this: my self-conception is always
a matching between feeling and belief (19) – feeling
which is immediate or remembered self-experience,
and belief which is derived initially from what I am
told by others (20). When I act I am of course aware
of what I am doing: but how that act is to be conceptualised or interpreted is not initially known to me.

As a child I have to be taught it. Once I have
learned what that act means, what it reveals to
others about me or about my intentions, then and
only then am I able to use it to dissimulate. That is,
I perform it not because I want to, but because I
want others to believe certain things about me.

Once I realise I can do that, then I can perform the
act in order to be able to believe certain things
abollt myself. So I give money to the beggar not
because I have any sympathy for the lout, nor even
because anyone might be, but because I
want to be able to think of myself as generous. The
inauthenticity arises here: I don’t fee I generous,
even though the public meaning of what I have just
done is that I am generous.


The inauthenticity with which Sartre and Heidegger
are so concerned is essentially this: the awareness
of a gap between feeling and thought (21) – how·1
think I am as against how I feel myself to be. These
are, if you like, the subjective and the objective
aspects of my being, the for-itself and the forothers – except that both these pairs of terms mislead us. If I act on stage I am inauthentic; I do not
express what I feel, but I choose my actions for the
meaning which they will convey. If I play a role off
the stage, I am inauthentic in that I choose meanings which I try to embody in my acts. In either of
these cases I mayor may not intend to deceive by
my inauthenticity. What is clear is that these are
deliberate acts of corn munication to others: I am
intending to convey meanings, which, as it happens,
do not express what I actually feel. It is worth
remembering that such inauthenticity may be praiseworthy or even heroic on occasion: the sufferer
from an incurab.Ie disease who conceals his pain so
as not to distress his relatives, for example (22).

The derivative case of inaut he nti city , interesting
by its abnormality and perversity, is that where I
address the communication to myself. In this instance and only in this instance, is inauthenticity
a self-‘reflexive relationship. The perversity lies
in the fact that by my acts I hope to convince myself
that I feel what I do not in fact feel (or that I’do not
feel what I do). The abnormality tn that this is
not my normal way of acting upon my feelings:

normally I do not try to deceive myself about what
I feel. If I were to, then I would rightly be called
psychologically abnormal


In short, ‘it is because I am essentIally a SOCIal
being, a being-for-others, that I am able to conceive of my self as expressed through or concealed
by my actions. It is this conceptualisation and my
learning of the accepted meanings of certain acts
which enables me to dissimulate, to play a part for
19 Which fact forms the baBis~ fot Sartre’s theorization of Being-for~self
(direct feeling) and Being-for-others (articulated beliefs).

20 cf. R. D. Laing, Self and otbers, Tavtstock, 1961, p88ff.

21 cf. the early definition of schizophrenia as a spUtting between affect and
cognition, e. g. Mayer Bross, Slater & Roth, Clinical Psychiatry
3rd edition, London, 1969, p264.

22 Or Pagl1acci, of course.

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others (with or without the intention of deceiving
them). And it is because I know the meanings which
others will take from my acts that I can perform
them for my own benefit alone i. e. engage in the
classic type of self-deception.

The Individualism of Phenomenology
It is the extreme individualism of He’ldegger and
Sartre which causes them ·to deal with inauthenticity
in the way they do. It is part of Husser! ‘s legacy.

When he founded phenomenology he saw it as a reassertion of the subject, of the individual human
knower who had been suppressed in traditional
accounts of knowledge. His suspension of received
beliefs and appeal to the phenomena of experience
was effectively a critique of the ‘objective’, the
socially received, based on my own individ~ality: .

his search was for the ‘pure’ phenomenon, Immedlated by society, history or culture: his aim – to
uncover the true essences of the universal ideas
which are contained in the human reason. The only
ptace which society could have in his scheme of
things was as the series (23) of individual human
egos: his only possible account of history was as
the spontaneous movement of the spirit of European
culture (24).

Heidegger’s individualism was both more complex
·and more’ subtle. He was too steeped in the hermeneutic tradition of interpretation to suppose that
there could be any easy immediated access to ‘pure’

phenOmena. Yet like Husserl, the injunction which
‘informs all his thinking is to let things appear as
they really are, in spite of the interfel-ence caused
by other people and society at large. Heidegger
knows it is difficult t~ get society off his ba-ck, but
he makes a determined effort to do it. Our language
is corrupt, he says,; words mislead us, society
distracts us, the history of thought is a decline
from its apogee under the Greeks. The great
thinkers are ~ho~e who stanq out against the corrup23 cf. Sartre on the Mries, Critique o~ Dialectical Reuon, p256.

24 See Phenomenology.1Jld ~e 9rista 9f Philosophy, p191.


tion o~ society and culture, alone, in anguish, but
with supreme fortitude.

The Sartre of Being and Nothingness builds society
into the ontological structure of the individual as an
ineradicable but utterly alien intrusion. The other,
society, is that which limits my natural absolute
freeom. I am inescapably a Being-for-others, an
object: and that aspect of my Being is not mine. I
can neither escape it nor capture it: it is what
makes me vulnerable, the potential victim of another subjectivity. I am both a subject and an object t
but only my subjectivity is freedom: my objectivity
is unfreedom, the vehicle of inauthenticity, the
interference of society with my autonomy and my

The effect of this acute individualism is to dismiss the social as necessarily injurious to the
individual. Problems which ‘appear’ to be social
and about relations are relocated either within the
individual, or at the unbridgeable abyss between
self and others. ‘There is nothing I can do’, says
Sartre, ‘to prevent my relationships becoming
forms of sado-masochism: that is the way all
human beings necessarily are.’ (25) So these
‘anparently’ social problems either admit of no
solution, or the solution is to be sought within the
individual. It is in this sense that Heidegger and
Sartre are navel-gazing, and it is because of this
that their doctrines can have pernicious effects.

‘Ihe Location of Solutions in Society
The phenomena which Heidegger and Sartre use to
construct their accounts of inauthenticity are
essentially out there in the social world. Their
locus is my dealings with others. What I understand
about myself is inferred from the way in which I
relate to other people. Authenticity in relationships
is therefore botfi the basis for, and the meaning of,
authenticity to self. If Heidegger and Sartre think
that I can deal with inauthenticity simply by modifying my attitude towards myself, they are absolute·
ly wrong. Heidegger’s exhortations to be resolute,
look forward to death wi th fortitude etc, are not
mere verbiage; they are pernicious doctrine,
because they actually prevent us recognising where
the locus of effective action lies. And Sartre’s utter
pessimism effectively constitutes advice not to
bother trying. The effect of both is either paralysis
or utterly ineffective musings. The only way to deal
with inauthenticity is where it occurs – in and
through relationships. And despite Heidegger and
Sartre, relationships are not accidental collisions
between naturally isolated individuals.

The question which is left by the critique of
authenticity is whether there is any wider significance to what otherwise appears as the self-indulgent
reflections of lonely bourgeois intellectuals.

Obviously Heidegger .and Sartre write their own
hang-ups (about death, isolation etc) into their
pronouncements about the eternal condition of man.

The appeal of their writings is another matter.

They seem to have articulated and so raised to the
level of consciousness an aspect of alienation
typical of contemporary capitalism. A more
adequate articulation would need to locate these
problems of the individual within a general theory
of alienation.

25 B&N, p364ff.


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