The meaning of authenticity

What is authenticity?

In its broadest sense, authenticity is the ability to behave and speak in a way that is consistent with an individual's belief system, their desires and their principles. Conversely, when someone or something is said to be inauthentic, it is deemed to have been compromised in some way that means it is not essentially what it purports to be. To be authentic, therefore, necessarily means being honest to some extent. However, some people can get themselves into a knot over authentic behaviour by fooling themselves in some way. Although authenticity is something that philosophers have debated for centuries, no single definition of it predominates. That said, it covers all aspects of human endeavour, from everyday work to leadership ideas, to music, architecture and literature.

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What is authenticity, according to psychology? 

Psychologists tend to consider authenticity similarly to Ancient Greek ideas about the subject. The great philosopher, Socrates, claimed that it came from self-examination and the desire to ask often difficult truths of ourselves in order to understand our authentic selves. In psychology and psychotherapy, it is often the therapist who prompts such questions to try and help patients to reach a genuine idea of who they truly are. Where are psychologist thinks that a patient is being evasive, he or she will tend to probe away until they sense a deeper level of understanding has been reached at. 

Can you prove authenticity?

Because the authenticity of something is largely established according to an individual's opinion of whether it is authentic or not, there is no possibility of proving its authenticity or otherwise. Generally speaking, highly authentic things will engender widespread agreement that they are such. Few people doubt, for example, that the Mona Lisa is an authentic work of great art. However, whether one is viewing the authentic painting as painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, or a copy, is an open question of debate. This is a question of provenance rather than artistic authenticity; however, sometimes, two concepts that are conflated with one another.

Why does authenticity matter?

Without authenticity, there can be an issue of how much trust we can place in each other, public institutions and ourselves. If we feel inauthentic, then – generally speaking – it is because we are being so. The nagging doubt of inauthenticity drives us to ask more profound questions which, in turn, leads to a better comprehension of the world around us. In art, what is authentic and what is not may be debated widely but, in the end, most people accept that it is the artist's genuine intention that counts most even if it is not executed in precisely the way that he or she wanted. Without it, there is no way of assessing culture.

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Can you fake authenticity?

Although some actors might claim they can mimic authenticity, the point is that it actually cannot be really be faked on a theatre stage or movie screen. Only the appearance of it exists in a performance, which means that it is necessarily inauthentic no matter how heartfelt it might come across to viewers. Authenticity has become a bit of a buzzword, and many influencers and otherwise known people use it as a way to brand themselves. It is however not always 'real', as some people use it as an excuse to communicate their thoughts or feelings without any regard to how that might make others feel, or whether or not that is actually their honest opinions.

What is authenticity in learning?

In the field of education, authentic learning relates to an instructional method of teaching. Students are encouraged in this model of learning to consider real-life problems that are known to them already; in other words, that are authentic. From these situations, students will discuss possible solutions which may involve exploring new concepts. Put simply, authentic learning allows exploration of deeper concepts and understanding from a practical standpoint. In some other models of education, the reverse is so – students gain theoretical knowledge and then apply it in real-world situations. One of the key characteristics of this type of learning is that the chosen subject matter should be something that the students are already familiar with so that the entire exercise in problem-solving always feels close to home, or authentic. Commonly, this will mean focussing on things that are to be found outside of the classroom and other academic settings.

Why does authenticity matter in leadership?

To many, authenticity is a key part of being an inspiring leader that people feel comfortable following. And yet, inauthenticity can also be something that some leaders use in order to manipulate their followers. For example, lying politicians are sometimes more popular than those who are more straightforward in what they say. Regardless of whether someone is lying or not, they must appear to believe in what they are saying in order to be a successful leader. This is being authentic and appearing to be inauthentic can cause followers to question more than anything else. In business, most successful leaders have an authentic personal brand that they are able to fall back on to encourage others to follow even if the destination endpoint is a little vague. Sometimes, this is based on nothing more than charisma, but it can also be down to deeply held personal values and principles, too.

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Why is authenticity attractive?

People tend to respond favourably to authenticity. When they detect it, they will often consider it to be genuine and, therefore, revealing of the true nature of someone or something. For example, someone who is given a watch as a present may well be pleased to have a timepiece, but they could think it is also a fake and consequently not the genuine article. If they have, they can see paperwork and craftsmanship that proves it is the real thing, and then it is not just the value of the item that goes up but often the enjoyment of owning it. The same goes for people. Authentic people tend to be considered more trustworthy, honest and likely to make good decisions while inauthentic people are often associated with negative connotations, such as deceit, untrustworthiness and shiftiness. For this reason, people and items deemed to be authentic tend to also be considered more attractive.

Where does authenticity come from?

The term 'authenticity' has been around for many centuries to mean genuine but, in philosophy, the word is often used to translate a neologism that is found in Martin Heidegger's 1927 book, Being and Time. In this philosophical work, Heidegger coined the term Eigenlichkeit which is a fusion of Eigen, meaning 'own' and Keit, meaning 'ness'. As such, translators have used the word 'ownedness' or 'being one's own self' in English for Eigenlichkeit. Most settled on 'authenticity', however, as the best way of describing Heidegger's concept. From this point of view, being authentic really comes from within and is subject to one's own view of oneself rather than from external players. To be authentic, in this sense, means simply being true to oneself regardless of the pressures you might feel from friends, family members, colleagues and wider society to act in a certain way.

What does authenticity with integrity mean?

Integrity and authenticity are often used together, and some people used these terms interchangeably. However, it is often better to think of integrity as something that supports an authentic approach. Integrity has the same Latin root as the verb to integrate, in other words, to include and to assimilate. In this sense, we are only able to be truly authentic when we also include all parts of ourselves. If you are conflicted about a course of action, for example, seeing its downsides as well as its positives, then it will be harder to be authentic about advocating for it. On the other hand, when we are fully behind something, it comes with integrity which makes being authentic that much more tangible.

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What does authenticity mean in music?

To begin with, there is a mode – a set of frequencies that are associated with one another, like a key – called the authentic mode. Famously, this mode is used in Gregorian chants. In classical music, authenticity means staying as close to the original intention of the composer concerned. For example, this might mean that musicians play instruments of the period rather than their modern counterparts. In popular music, the punk rock scene of the 1970s placed a great deal of emphasis on authenticity. This meant, for example, understanding the value system that underpinned punk and not simply seeing it as a fad with its own fashions and styles. To punks, inauthentic people were regarded as poseurs although there is little agreement about what exactly constitutes a poseur or, for that matter, a true punk. There are other sub-genres of popular music which also encourage performers to play in an authentic manner. Some parts of the heavy metal scene fall into this category as do a number of folk music and trad jazz performers.

How does authenticity impact on journalism?

According to philosophical writers such as Søren Kierkegaard and, to a lesser degree, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, journalists must never accept all of the constructs of society and use their own authentic inner integrity to ask questions which should help to gain a better understanding of the world. This is particularly important, Kierkegaard argued, for creating intellectually authentic journalism which does not accept in an unquestioning way societal and political norms. For him, the reporter's role is to demand answers to challenging questions. Whether or not these reveal new truths is beside the point – it is the journalist's function to strive in this way so that all conventions and current wisdom are tested. However, as many have pointed out, the commercial requirements of modern journalism often make such authentic questioning unrealistic to maintain all the time.

How can you gain more authenticity?

Since, by most definitions, being authentic is something that comes from within, it is only possible to be more authentic by paying greater attention to the fundamental beliefs we have that lie at our core. People who do not have a deep sense of what is true to them or an inner ethics & morals code will necessarily find it harder to come across as authentic. Therefore, if you would like to be viewed as a more authentic person, it is best to pay attention to what is integral to you, in other words, your integrity. Most people would do this by slowing down and listening to their inner selves, perhaps using mindfulness techniques to focus on the essential aspects of themselves. With greater self-awareness, so greater integrity can come about, which ought to lead to a more authentic approach to life.

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Authenticity in summary

In the end, being authentic means being true to something. In most people's eyes, what this 'true' thing is remains highly personal and comes from within. When people are authentic to themselves, it tends to be noticeable to those around them. This is especially so when the individual concerned also has integrity about them. For people who cannot sustain a sense of self-integrity, inauthenticity will soon become apparent. Of course, what is inauthentic and what is not is a highly debatable subject. Some people will accept an outright lie as authentic if it happens to chime with their world view, whereas others will regard something as inauthentic if it fails to live up to the very highest standards of integrity.

As such, an authentic person has to operate in a way that is consistent with what they think and feel at the most fundamental level. This might come down to their sense of morality, for example, such as what feels right or wrong. In this sense, being authentic or true to oneself might mean transgressing social norms, such as someone breaking a law that they feel is inherently unjust. Equally, what is authentic and true for one person may not be for another. This means that being authentic is not something that can ever be taught.

Of course, some skilled actors are able to create very convincing illusions of authenticity during their performances but, to do so, they often have to draw on something true or dear to them to bring emotional truth to their role. This technique is most commonly associated with the 'method acting' school and is something actors are trained to do. That said, it would be a mistake to consider this approach as something that can be used to teach people to be more authentic. It is simply a way of portraying a part in an authentic manner, not authenticity itself.

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