In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “authenticity” in relation to existentialism. I am inspired by the ideas of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre and De Beauvoir. The title of this post may be misleading. From an existentialist standpoint, to talk about an authentic person is contradicting the very ideas it stands for. An existentialist believes that existence precedes essence. This means that our essence is not pregiven. Our meaning is something that we create. It is an ongoing construction. I do admit that I find the idea of an authentic cybernetician quite fascinating. I am exploring the idea of “authenticity” in existentialism with relation to cybernetics. As Varga and Guignon note:
The most familiar conception of “authenticity” comes to us mainly from Heidegger’s Being and Time of 1927. The word we translate as ‘authenticity’ is actually a neologism invented by Heidegger, the word Eigentlichkeit, which comes from an ordinary term, eigentlich, meaning ‘really’ or ‘truly’, but is built on the stem eigen, meaning ‘own’ or ‘proper’. So the word might be more literally translated as ‘ownedness’, or ‘being owned’, or even ‘being one’s own’, implying the idea of owning up to and owning what one is and does. Nevertheless, the word ‘authenticity’ has become closely associated with Heidegger as a result of early translations of Being and Time into English, and was adopted by Sartre and Beauvoir as well as by existentialist therapists and cultural theorists who followed them.
From an existentialist standpoint, authenticity has come to be associated with freedom and responsibility. Authenticity is about freedom – of self and others. We are responsible for our actions. Our existence is contingent on many things such as the time and place where we live, the society we live in etc. This is referred to as “facticity” in existentialism. We are not limited by this and we cannot live a life as defined by others. We are autonomous beings and we are able to unfold our lives based on our choices. Having said that we are always existing in relation to others. The “I” is in relation to others. I am a husband and a father; I am also an employee; I am also a friend and so on. The “I” is a stable construction that is continuously unfolded. I am continuously constructing a stable presentation of who I am to other people and to myself. Authenticity comes in when we become aware of all this, and when we strive for the freedom of others.
The idea of unfolding is an interesting idea. It has an undertone of potentiality. The term ‘potentiality’ refers to possibilities. At any given point in time, there are a large number of possibilities, some that we are aware of and many that we are not aware of. We have the freedom to choose the specific possibility and we have to be responsible for that choice. The notion of possibilities aligns with the notion of variety in cybernetics. Variety is the number of possible states of a ‘system’. When a ‘system’ has requisite variety, it is able to stay viable. As Ross Ashby, one of the key pioneers of cybernetics, put it – only variety can absorb variety. When the ‘system’ is able to use one of the many possible states it has, to tackle a specific demand imposed on it by the external world, it is able to stay viable. This is what is referred to as the “absorption” of variety. The ‘system’ should be able to identify the available possible states it has at its disposal. This requires the ‘system’ to have some knowledge of what each possible state can do or not do. This knowledge comes from previous experiences or past interactions. The states that worked will be retained by the ‘system’, and in some cases the ‘system’ will modify certain states while interacting with the external world through a learning situation. All these notions are part of first order cybernetics. I believe that the ‘authentic cybernetician’ should be more interested in second order cybernetics. As Heinz von Foerster put it, first order cybernetics is the cybernetics of observed systems, and second order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observing systems.
From the second order cybernetics standpoint, we are aware of the observing process itself. This means that we are aware of the observation of our act of observing – being aware that we have blind spots and that our observation is a construction based on our biases, experiential reality etc. This would also mean that we realize that there are others also involved in similar observations and constructions. Authenticity in existentialism is being aware of our facticity and the freedom that we have to make choices, and being responsible for our actions. The idea that we are constructing a version of reality, and that we are responsible for that construction is a key point in second order cybernetics. When I talk about ‘authentic cybernetician’, there might be an expectation that I should put forth a prescribed step-by-step formula for being an authentic cybernetician. This would be a first order viewpoint. Being authentic however, requires a second order approach. There is no prescribed methodology here. We are invited to be aware of how we are thrown into this world, and how we are situated here; how we are somewhat defined by our past actions and yet somehow, we are not necessarily bound by those actions. It is about improving our interpretative framework so that we can afford requisite variety.
I will finish with some wise words we should heed from Simone de Beauvoir:
We have to respect freedom only when it is intended for freedom, not when it strays, flees itself, and resigns itself. A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied. And it is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.
Stay safe and always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Affording What’s In Your Head: