Emotional authenticity

The antinomy of emotional authenticity

Authenticity is an important ideal of emotional life. Yet it is not obvious what we mean by an authentic emotion. Ronald de Sousa illustrates this problem in The Rationality of Emotion (1987) with an example of a homosexual who comes out to his best friend. The friend's spontaneous reaction is violent and hostile: she expresses disgust, disappointment, and anger, and walks away without wanting to discuss the matter. But the next evening she calls him and apologizes for her unreasonable, unkind, and prejudiced reaction, assuring him that she wholeheartedly accepts his sexual orientation, which need not affect their friendship in any way. Comments de Sousa:

In favour of spontaneity, one can say that the first reaction was unreflective, un-censored, and therefore presumably genuine. - On the other hand, might her prejudiced reaction not be a mere reflex, unrelated to her character? It stemmed perhaps from effects of a narrow-minded education that she has not yet had time to mend (de Sousa, 1987, p. 12).

The problem of deciding which reaction is more authentic is complicated by the fact that "both spontaneous emotion and deliberate attitudes are intimately bound up with our conception of people's character and moral worth" (ibid., p. 13). De Sousa believes that this antinomy remains unsolved even if by relating authenticity to appropriateness and emphasizing that "going with one's feelings is not the royal road to authenticity" (ibid., p. 264) he, no doubt, takes a stance on the reflective side.

This chapter investigates the notion of emotional authenticity with the purpose of resolving de Sousa's antinomy. This is a significant task for even if authenticity is an important notion in the contemporary research of emotion, it lacks a proper theoretical foundation. True enough, philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger (1962), Jean-Paul Sartre (1956), and more recently, Charles Taylor (1991), have produced extensive and sophisticated accounts on authenticity and or related notions ("Eigentlichkeit", "mauvaise foi"). However, their influence on contemporary discussion on emotions and authenticity has remained scarce. In part, it may have been difficult to apply philosophical accounts of authenticity to emotions, especially as their originators have not generally provided guidelines for that purpose.[1] Yet a more fundamental reason lies in the normativity of the philosophical concept of authenticity, which scientists find difficult to accommodate. For the normative sense of authenticity raises the question of whether one should feel in a particular way, quite independently of what one actually feels "deep inside" as the clichéd expression for a descriptive understanding of authenticity goes. Accordingly, a descriptively inauthentic emotion is somehow less genuine as an emotion, whereas a normatively inauthentic emotion lacks justification of certain kind, whether or not it is genuine or authentic in the descriptive sense (Mulligan, 2009).[2] This fundamental difference between the normative and descriptive perspective on authenticity appears to set the two discourses wide apart.

However, I shall argue for a reconciliation between normative and descriptive views on emotional authenticity. In particular, I shall argue that certain anomalies of the descriptive analysis of emotional authenticity in terms of sincerity and spontaneity suggest that we must distinguish between sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity is a psychological concept, whereas authenticity is a normative notion. In addition, I shall put forward an integrity view of emotional authenticity that takes its lead from normative accounts of authenticity. In this view, authenticity is analyzed in terms of coherence between an emotion and one's internally justified values and beliefs. However, an authentic emotion must also be sincere in the sense of being psychologically real. Moreover, authenticity is a regulative and open-ended ideal as our spontaneous emotions frequently challenge the coherence of our present emotions, values, and beliefs, thereby urging change, learning, and growth on a way towards a new, more enlightened coherence. But since all authentic emotions need not emerge spontaneously, spontaneity, unlike sincerity, is not a necessary condition of emotional authenticity.

  • [1] Sartre is an exception with his Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1939). In this little essay, Sartre suggests that the function of emotion is to change the world in an indirect way by changing its meanings when all ways to direct change by purposeful action seem to be barred. In these self-manipulative acts of "magic" that Sartre compares to sleep, dream, and hysteria, consciousness degrades both itself and the world by captivating itself to a distorted world of affective meanings that deny or freeze the fundamental capacity of consciousness to transcend itself, whatever the situation. Therefore, emotions constitute an example of "bad faith" and qualify as categorically inauthentic for Sartre.
  • [2] Mulligan focuses on the descriptive meaning of authenticity in arguing that inauthentic emotions are not real emotions, whereas authentic emotions are merely emotions. Even so, he recognizes the normative meaning of inauthenticity in remarking that "we sometimes speak about inauthentic emotions or beliefs that are in fact beliefs or emotions. In those cases the in-authenticity of a belief or an emotion is constituted by its relation to other beliefs and emotions" (my translation). Mulligan does not discuss this meaning of authenticity besides remarking that it relates to "the difficult phenomenon of personal integrity"
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