The Quest for Authenticity: The Misadventures of the Self in Modern Political Thought

Dissertation, Princeton University (2000)

This dissertation is a critical study of an ideal that is at the heart of modern culture: the ideal of authenticity. Authenticity calls the individual to be true to him or herself, and to resist the pressures to conformity that modern social and political institutions can exert. The dissertation assesses both the value and the dangers of this ideal for the individual self and for democratic politics. ;Focusing on representative accounts of authenticity in modern and contemporary thought, the dissertation outlines three distinct modes of the ideal: expressive authenticity, negative authenticity, and receptivity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Taylor, George Kateb, and William Connolly each contribute in different ways to a delineation of these modes of authentic selfhood. In examining their different contributions, the dissertation argues that authenticity in its receptive mode is superior to both expressive and negative authenticity. Expressive authenticity, which seeks the unified enactment of an identity that fulfills or realizes the self's innermost contents, circumscribes the range of possible experiences and self-conceptions that are available to individuals. It can also circumscribe the self's openness to others. Negative authenticity, by emphasizing that aspect of the self that necessarily escapes any external determination or commitment, can deprive the self of meaningful forms of fulfillment. When the quest for authenticity in either of these modes is politicized, or turned into a collective project, it tends to enlist the self to new kinds of conformity. Moreover, each form of the ideal, when politicized, risks effacing or trampling differences in others. ;Receptivity, which emphasizes the irreducibly plural nature of the self, calls one to cultivate a stance of attentiveness to the "otherness" that one contains and to external others as well. The dissertation argues that receptivity points to a form of politics that is more restrained than the forms of politics associated with expressive and negative authenticity. It argues that an ideal of receptivity, when its meanings and its political implications are properly understood, can mitigate the dangers that accompany authenticity in its expressive and negative modes, while retaining what is valuable in those forms of the ideal.
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