The authenticity condition

Among that group of people on the liberal left who present themselves as policers of privilege, or as ‘intersectional’ ‘allies’ and so on, there is a prevalent belief that guides pretty much all else, but which should be rejected. It is the belief that unless A is a person of type X, A cannot understand X. Only a transexual/poor person/etc. can understand the experience of transexuals/poor people/etc. Let us call it the ‘authenticity condition’, the condition that the only person qualified to speak on X is someone with a direct personal (i.e. ‘authentic’) experience of X. Someone raised this point elsewhere on my blog, in response to a post on transsexualism, and Paul Bernal makes it in an otherwise fairly unobjectionable post on the often invisible privilege that enables some people to get on in life at the expense of others.

A focus on ‘privilege’ (which I put in scare quotes because the judgement of what counts as privilege in the context of the kind of liberalism I’m talking about is often quite tendentious) often goes hand in hand with this insistence on the authenticity condition, and the latter tends to devalue any of the insights of the former.

It should be immediately obvious that the authenticity condition is false. At root, it says nothing more than that person A can have no direct and unmediated experience of the thoughts or feelings of person B. Quite so: only the individual has unmediated access to those thoughts and feelings. (It is so banal that it is hardly worth saying.) But the individual themselves can mediate those thoughts and feelings. B can say to A ‘I feel happy because someone gave me a book’, and as long as A has had some experience of happiness by themselves, and knows what a book is, A can grasp a mediated sense of what B is feeling. Furthermore, once A knows that B is made happy by being given books, it’s possible for A to make interpretations of B’s feelings even without B directly reporting them, or to act in such a way as to make B happy even without B saying how to do it. So, for instance, if A sees B on another occasion reading a book, A might very well think that B is happy, because they have a book; if A sees B unhappy, they can hand over a book in the expectation that it might lead to an increase in happiness. B can correct this assumption of a relationship between books and happiness turns out to be wrong (the book might be by Dan Brown, for instance), but it’s a fair assumption to make on the basis of A’s previous knowledge.

Sometimes this knowledge which is gained before the event of an interpretation is really quite considerable. Consider the extensive and complex knowledge that a GP has of thousands of kinds of ailment. If B walks into Doctor A’s consulting room reporting a particular sort of discomfort, Doctor A has no direct and unmediated access to what B is reporting, but on the basis of what they do know about medicine, Doctor A can diagnose an illness and prescribe a treatment. The doctor doesn’t need to be able to directly feel what B feels, because B can report it. Sometimes, a patient might not be able to fully articulate the quality of a feeling they are experiencing, but a doctor can extrapolate from their knowledge to be able to accurately determine what the patient is suffering from, even though the patient doesn’t realize that the twinge two inches to the left is more significant than the more assertive one to the right.

According to the authenticity condition, the doctor would have to say ‘Since I cannot directly experience your thoughts and feelings, I’ll have to ask you to diagnose and treat yourself. It would be improper of me to do otherwise, because I would be presuming knowledge of your situation which I can’t experience at first hand. I would be impugning your experience and declaring that my own is superior to yours. In this context the only proper thing for me to do is, therefore, to shut up’.

Of course the liberal defenders of the authenticity condition would make no such demand of a doctor. The doctor has knowledge, access to what is currently understood to be true about medicine, and it is right for that knowledge to be applied, however imperfectly, to the treatment of patients. In the case of doctors, and pretty much nothing else, the majority of people are still happy to subscribe to the notion that there is Truth, an explanation for things which lies outside of ordinary everyday experience, and which has enormously useful explanatory power for our everyday lives. But the essential condition of liberalism, and particularly of the authenticity condition, is the assertion that there is no truth: there are only particular individual experiences, which only individuals can articulate.

Pretending to make do without truth

The particular historical cause for the emergence of this view was the experience of the twentieth century in the West, in which the kinds of Truth proclaimed by the Nazis, Soviets, and Americans (fascism, socialism-in-one-country, and capitalism) were seen to cause unparalleled human suffering. Alongside the rejection of fascism and socialism, the liberal consensus made an unconscious pact to reject the notion of Truth too, except in certain special cases: medicine is one admissible form of truth, and science more generally is given this credence too. Until recently, it was also fairly common for governments to be granted the privileged status of guardians of Truth, which they protected by means of ‘national security’ protocols and secret services, but since leaks about the unjustifiable practices of the security services have appeared, governments and intelligence agencies have lost their status as guardians.

We should not be misled by the abuses of those who have access to different forms of truth into thinking that Truth itself should be rejected. Even a hundred Harold Shipmans would not make it reasonable to suppose that medicine itself is untrustworthy and murderous. Nor should we be misled into thinking that in rejecting fascism and socialism we got rid of all Truth claims from global politics. One Truth got left behind, which claims to be the best explanation for how a peaceful, democratic, healthy, and prosperous civilization can run. It has increasingly many critics, but this Truth, which we call capitalism, is still given fundamental credence.

Truth is opposed to the authenticity condition, because Truth is by definition an understanding which has the potential to be universally applied. Medicine claims to explain universally what is wrong with sick humans. Alternative forms of medicine contest those claims to truth, but they make their own truth claims. Patients judge between the competing claims. That is how truth works. Crucially, the truth claims of the competing medicines are accepted as such: people know that they are weighing claims to universal truth, not just listening to individual opinions. A doctor doesn’t claim that antibiotics will help in accordance with the authenticity condition, but in accordance with a relationship to Truth.

As individual humans, we don’t have unmediated access to the experience of others. We find it very easy, however, to extrapolate from our own experience, by means of a fairly elementary logic. We suppose that our own experience is true to itself, and we assume the potential of universalizing that experience so that, with adjustments, we can do our very best to understand the thoughts and feelings of the people around us. Call it sympathy or empathy, call it Mitsein if you want to be Heideggerian about it. In each case, it is an interaction motivated by a commitment to Truth, not the authenticity condition. To insist that only X can speak of X is to deny the possibility of human sympathy and interaction, of one person attempting to work out, on the basis first of reflecting on their own subjective experience, and second listening to or observing another person, what another subject is feeling. To insist on the authenticity condition is to say that unless A experiences B’s sadness, A has no idea what it means to say that B is sad, or cannot imagine how B feels. It’s ludicrous. It’s inhuman. It should be rejected.

Putting truth back

Non-transexuals can gain a mediated understanding of the experience of transexuals if they listen to the accounts of transexuals. They can only get this understanding through mediation, but that’s not because they’re non-transexuals. It’s because nobody can gain unmediated access to the experience of another person. Transexual A can only understand the position of Transexual B through mediation too. They might need less of an explanation of the basic setup than Non-Transexual C, but we are not talking here about a difference in quality but only in quantity of knowledge.  In principle, Non-Transexual C can become quite as knowledgeable about the transexual experience in general as any transexual – or more so. Similarly, a doctor can understand the experience of lung cancer superbly well even without having lung cancer. A priest can understand the feelings of a person preparing for death even without being in the last moments of life themself. A historian can understand the subject position of people long dead. And so on. The Truth being appealed to here is that human experience is universal, that the only identity that counts is ‘being human’, and that every other kind of identity, however much it is pressed onto one culturally, is plastic, and can be reshaped or rejected.

So, finally, the authenticity condition must be rejected because, far from representing a view of the world that entirely denies the possibility of Truth, it actually supports the capitalist Truth. One of the principal strengths of late capitalism is the way that it has externalized human nature, in the sense that it makes us believe that the things that ‘make us who we are’ – things like musical taste, clothing, hairstyle, the kind of holidays we take or books we read, etc. – are ‘out there’, not within us, and specifically ‘out there’ in a market situation, so that we can buy a huge number of objects that help us to make sense of ourselves as individuals. It is even fair to say that our experience of ourselves is, thanks to late capitalism, essentially mediated too, by external commodities. In order to feed its circulation, capital likes us to generate ever-proliferating lists of identities, all of which need to be mediated by commodity purchase, none of which can be allowed to be universalized. Often, in the areas of human experience that liberals are particularly keen to police, these identities come under the capacious umbrella of the term ‘minority’. This is a non-analytic term, which says nothing about the experience or power of the people within it. The Queen is in a minority of one among 70 million, but she is hardly a ‘minority’ in the sense that people habitually use the term. But the non-analytic term ‘minorities’ has replaced useful analytic ones like ‘working class’, with the effect that the policing of language to do with ‘minorities’ has overtaken the focus on much more significant problems to do with class (an issue on which Mark Fisher, among others, has written extremely persuasively recently). Analytic terms like ‘working class’ of course are used to explain human experience in relation to a form of Truth (in this case an anti-capitalist one), but the authenticity condition denies the possibility that anyone who is not working-class (or, like Russell Brand, has lost the authenticity of their class by earning lots of money) can speak about the subjective experience of the working classes – and so it kills the possibility of an emancipatory politics.

Why do people bother with something that is not only foolish but also destructive to the progressive cause? Well, the authenticity condition certainly provides a comfort blanket for people who want to feel uniquely important, and who feel that their views must be heard because they are the only people with a right to speak. But it is at bottom a selfish condition, a condition which professes to ignore the possibility that human beings can talk to one another and see the world from another person’s perspective. It is fundamentally opposed to all forms of solicitude and love. It is a Thatcherite’s wet dream. Those who wish to defend this oppressive mode of thought should face up to the consequences of their intellectual commitment.

9 thoughts on “The authenticity condition

  1. I think we need to find better examples than doctors and scientists to demonstrate how the truth presumption operates, and as long as we haven’t, it’s hard to appropriately contrast what we see as the flaws of liberalism. It’s just that things like the ongoing climate “debate” and anti-vaccination movements are not fringe or minor; they’re properly full-on challenges to the idea that there is such a thing as Truth anywhere, at any time. Medicine is the thing that I have the biggest rows with people about, in fact, around these sorts of debates. and I feel that we *ought* to be able to point to a place where Truth operates transactionally, I just can’t think of a good one. A mother and a hungry child perhaps? Dunno.

  2. Good post. I think the point that one can (and should) reflect upon one’s own experience honestly and listen to the expressed experiences of others and use *each to understand the other* is an important one; self-reflective engagement rather than self-protective “tolerance,” or to put it more succinctly, engaging in real power analysis. I also think it is extreeeemely interesting that the liberals who want to tell women specifically that they cannot understand the “trans*” experience (b/c we aren’t really allowed to say transSexual, are we? We must use the uselessly abbreviated trans* or extremely poorly defined “transGender” and refer to feminists who spend their lives questioning gender as “cisgender,” but I’m off on a tangent-) they accept without question that a man can know what it is to be a woman so fully and innately that he can simply declare himself one. Male privilege and the accompanying ignorance which necessitates listening to actual women — somehow that no longer applies. Woman is simply something a man imagines. No engagement or analysis with the lived experiences of women required.

  3. A related quote on the fetish of subject positions from Richard J. Evans’ book In Defence of History:

    ‘The idea that each group in society writes its own history breaks down in practice. By and large it is *not* the case that professional historians, who are still overwhelmingly white, male and middle class, spend their time writing the history of other middle-class white males, even if some of them, like John Vincent, argue that they should. Moreover, the argument that white, middle-class men who write women’s history or black history, heterosexuals who write gay history, and so on, were ‘appropriating’ the history of other groups in an illegal manner, because they lack the experience necessary to do so, is itself unsustainable on a number of grounds. For the ultimate implication of such a view would be that the history of religion would have to be left to clergymen, of war to the generals, of fascism to fascists. In the end no history would be possible, only autobiography. That such a view can have right-wing implications was illustrated by Carl Bridenbaugh’s Presidentail Address to the American Historical Association in 1962, for instance, when he charged that ‘many of the young practitioners of our craft, and those who are still apprentices, are products of . . . foreign origins . . . They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past . . . They have no experience to assist them.’ Nationalist historians have frequently argued in this manner that they own the past of their own country, and that foreigners have no business in trying to appropriate it. Even Fernand Braudel, much of whose work had been devoted to the history of Spain, Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean, argued paradoxically in his last work, on *The Identity of France*, that ‘the historian can really be on an equal footing only with the history of his own country; he understands almost instinctively its twists and turns, its complexities, its originalities and its weaknesses.’

  4. Dear Paul,
    Just to say first of all, I’ve enjoyed others of your posts on this blog, and really enjoyed your analysis of Taruskin’s “E-G-N short circuit” in the Quilting Points book – hilarious and spot-on! However I do think there are problems with this post, and I’m interested to address them (perhaps in dialogue with you) because I feel they do get to the root of whether and on what basis contemporary philosophy is possible – certainly in the Heideggerian, “Truth”-centred mode exemplified here.
    My concern isn’t primarily with what you call the “authenticity condition”, but we can start there. I would not defend the position that the only person qualified to speak about the understanding of people in category X should be a member of that category themselves; but I would propose that the first people we accord a public voice in expressing the experiences particular to category X should understand those experiences “from the inside” – that their views have, in the literal sense, priority. This is because I think there are limitations that attend on speech about the experience of others, and to overcome those limitations we do have to listen very patiently and not jump in with our own interpretations and analyses. Those limitations are limitations of experience and sympathy, which I’ll get on to. Our analyses, meanwhile, are to an important degree the products of privilege. “Check your privilege”? Yes, we should: we have the time, the articulacy, the intellectual training and the socio-economic position to represent and analyze human experience (in our case primarily artistic experience) in print. Lots of people do not. But if we think that our intellectual realizations and the coherence of our analyses grant us the right to speak before so many others, we should at least reflect on the possibility that such realizations and coherence are crucially founded upon experiences which are NOT universal.
    It is in this sense that we do not have the kind of access you posit to “Truth” with a capital T. To that extent I am what you call a “liberal”. But I don’t believe that the alternative is solipsism, “particular individual experiences which only individuals can articulate”. The defensible alternative in my view is relativism, cultural, historical and social relativism; and I think it makes philosophizing about Truth extremely hard, if not downright impossible.
    I don’t really want to get drawn into the medical analogy you lay out, which I find full of potential pitfalls: your mention of antibiotics is just one example (medical experts are currently being forced to envision the future of modern medicine without antibiotics; such drugs do not represent a once-and-for-all “solution” to illness based on permanent truth but a pragmatic response, temporally limited by the inevitable development of bacterial resistance). I’ll just say that it’s possible to distinguish different epistemological or phenomenological attitudes to the “facts” of someone’s illness, the direct or experiential attitude and the diagnostic attitude of the doctor, and one can talk about the doctor’s activity as translating one mode of knowledge into the other. To this extent it’s not about the doctor “understanding the experience of lung cancer”, it’s about recognizing the symptoms and knowing what treatment options are available. (Of course sympathy comes into it when it comes to discussing such options with the patient, for instance; but the “power” of Western medicine is its resolutely diagnostic-analytic approach, not a sympathetic bedside manner.) And so your comparison with the relationships to experience entered into by priests and historians is misconceived. I hope you won’t mind if I concentrate in the following on what historians do rather than what priests do!
    The complexities of the historian’s task cannot, I believe, be understood if you think that “human experience is universal and the only identity that counts is ‘being human’”. It is about sympathy – you’re right on that score, I think. But is the concept of sympathy really fundamental to your approach? To get technical, in terms of the history of ideas I would identify sympathy or Einfühlung as part of the nineteenth-century hermeneutic approach to history, which viewed imaginative identification with historical subjects as the historian’s primary task. It was this psychological-hermeneutic approach that was rejected by Heidegger (whose concept of Mitsein certainly cannot be translated as “sympathy”, as you assert). It also stands in a fairly oblique relationship, it seems to me, to Marxism, with its emphasis on history as the hard “materialist” interaction of economic interests, technologies and resources. If you’re a Heideggerian and a Marxist, then I personally don’t see a contradiction inasmuch as both are predicated on the sidelining of “sympathy” qua methodological approach. The roots of sympathy lie further back in the late 18th century and the Renaissance; and in my view they are not naturally allied with the supposition of universal Truth – in fact, quite the reverse.
    Take for instance Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals”, whose influence can be traced down through Herder to the Romantics and into the mainstream of German historicism. Precisely what is remarkable about Montaigne’s text is his refusal to judge the practices and way of life of the cannibalistic Brazilian Tupinamba tribe as any more “barbarous” than those of modern France: “I think there is nothing barbarous and savage in that nation, from what I have been told, except that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinion and customs of the country we live in.” If we switch from the sphere of ethics to the sphere of aesthetics, then we can find Wackenroder articulating a parallel position on the truth or beauty of art in 1797: “if your soul were to see the light a few hundred miles [sic] further east, on the soil of India, then you would feel in those small, strangely-formed, many-armed idols the secret spirit, hidden from our perception, that inhabits them, and would not know, when you looked on the statue of the Medici Venus [by Botticelli], what you ought to think of it”.
    Far from being a defender of “absolute” or transcendental values in art, Wackenroder was actually a cultural relativist and understood as such at the time he wrote, as the editors of the critical edition of his works, Richard Littlejohns and Silvio Vietta, have pointed out. When he was writing, you didn’t have to go to India to note significant cultural differences within human experience, however: it was enough to take a trip through Catholic south Germany. And to sympathize with the experiences of devotion and piety that Wackenroder saw in the people around him it was necessary that Wackenroder suspend immediate judgement on the “Truth” of the Catholic religion. (That was precisely why Romanticism was a step beyond the Enlightenment rationalism of Voltaire, which did not suspend judgement in that way.) The point was to get a sense of what Catholic experience was like. To do that meant bracketing questions of religious dogma and concerning oneself instead with emotion and art – the advantage of artistic and emotional experience being precisely that commitment to the propositional content of someone else’s “truth” was not required.
    Wackenroder’s journey was not that of a fantasist, but of a highly motivated and thorough young scholar who made important contributions to such diverse fields as Germanic philology and the history of Renaissance art. Facts and details mattered to him. But the reason why they mattered, ultimately, was not the hope of theorizing a universal Truth, but because they could help one in the task of imaginatively mediating others’ experience in all its wealth of culturally-situated difference. You’re obviously right when you say that “we don’t have unmediated access to the experience of others”; but to me you’re just as obviously completely wrong when you say that “we find it very easy…to extrapolate from our own experience by means of a fairly elementary logic”. It’s not easy at all. It’s bloody difficult even today to understand why and how Catholics see the world as they do if you’re not one yourself (and I’m not, but I have friends who are). It happens to be quite important, though, if you reflect that there are 1.2 billion of them spread across the world, and they wield a good deal of power and influence.
    It may be that I’m misinterpreting your concept of (experiential) Truth; if so I’d very much appreciate it if you’d unpack that more. But I don’t think I’ve misunderstood that you would like it to apply universally, and I see problems with that. If all of our lives were framed in exactly the same way by the same set of brute facts – death and economic exchange, let’s say – then we could perhaps be confident that our “horizons” of experience were congruent. But the constant and contingent activity of the human imagination means that facts are never “brute”, not even death (if you believe in reincarnation or heaven, then in your imagination death is not the absolute limit that a philosopher like Heidegger wants us to see it as). We have to discover where our experiences overlap through dialogue, imagination, and patient research into others’ cultural backgrounds. That’s not easy extrapolation, that’s hard work, and I don’t find that contemporary philosophers help me very much with such work. What helps is listening; allowing the other to speak first, and not interrupting them with a shout of “but you haven’t understood the reality of class struggle! You must read Marx/Zizek/X/Y/Z!”
    with best wishes (and some nostalgia for the golden days of Royal Holloway graduate debates about theory!),
    Matt Pritchard

  5. It’s interesting that you choose doctors as an example of Truth-holders when, for example, most doctors used to take it as Truth that “hysteria” was a real condition. This conclusion was not reached without observation, but the problem was in the conclusions reached from those observations- that is, they saw women expressing melancholy over their material conditions, and concluded that it had to be the result of a physical defect. The issue didn’t arise from the idea that Truth could be found, but from the mistaken notion among doctors at the time that they had already discerned said Truth.

    The A and B example actually illustrates the value of “authenticity” narratives, in that A in fact takes B at their word when they say they enjoy books. An example that highlights the problem of privilege-cum-Truth would be: B tells A “I feel happy because someone gave me a book,” and A replies (based on extensive theoretical knowledge and practical observation of C, D and E) that books only offer a false shadow of happiness and offers B a movie instead. Or: B tells A how much they enjoyed a book (which happened to be on subject X), and A responds by giving B a book on subject Z, which B loathes. Observation and inference gave A an incomplete picture of the Truth, but A has blind spots which prevent them from realizing this.

    In my opinion, narratives of “authenticity” and “privilege” aren’t necessarily an attempt to deny the existence of universal Truth; rather, they challenge the position of so-called “neutral” observers who claim to be in possession of said Truth when their conceptions of it are incomplete or inaccurate.

    1. … As in how distinct social awareness offers experiential sensitivity that develops outside of (and conflict with) the “extraordinary lifelong privilege” that JPEHS points out in this blog’s extensive biographising of a difficult childhood. I wouldn’t dismiss his powerful statement as nostalgia and authenticity hashing.

      1. But this blog’s author would never suggest that his experiences, as outlined in the biographical note, cannot be understood or articulated by anyone else. So the blog’s author doesn’t fall into the error of the authenticity condition here. Nice try, though.

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