Philosophy  •  February 24, 2018

“Authentic Self” vs. “The Real Self”

In a Western society, when we talk about “self”, particularly “authentic self”, we assume a stable, consistent definition of who we are. If you speak to Bill Gates in one way but speak to a homeless person in another way, people will accuse you of being inauthentic, or even a “phony”. “Self” is an unchanging essence of a person, like the characteristics of silver or gold. At least that is the assumption.

Where does this assumption come from?

In contrast, let’s look at what Jacques Lacan defined as “The Real”. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll define “The Real” self as physiological self. How stable and consistent is it? Not very.

How you feel first thing in the morning is quite different from how you feel at noon. In fact, you don’t need that much time to pass. Five minutes after having a cup of coffee, your “Real” self is already dramatically different. Your Real self before eating dinner and after might be very different also. How you feel today might be different from how you felt yesterday because you stayed up all night partying. How you feel this month may be different from how you felt last month. How you felt when you are twenty years old might be very different from how you feel at age fifty.

The Real self is highly volatile and far from consistent and stable. Given this inconsistency, why do we think “self” should be consistent? A more reasonable idea of self should adapt to every moment and context; how you are feeling, whom you are speaking to, what time it is, what you just ate, where you are sitting, etc.. You may be a cheerful person today but a grumpy person tomorrow.

But our society doesn’t like this. It wants us to behave consistently and predictably. So, we are pressured to behave consistently even if we are not. This is what Lacan called “the reality” which aligns with how we use the term in our everyday speech. “The reality” is the societal expectations we have to conform to. In our society, we can’t just do whatever we feel like. We have to face “the reality” which is essentially the opposite of the Lacanian Real.

From this perspective, there is nothing “authentic” about behaving consistently. Given that nobody is perfectly consistent and stable at all times, if you present yourself consistently, how could it be “authentic”? Your very effort to be “authentic” (consistent and stable) would naturally lead to a sense of being inauthentic or fake because there is nothing authentic about consistency.

Going back to my first question: Why do we assume that authentic self must be consistent? This is an effect of language, what Wittgenstein called “bewitchment”. As soon as we try to define something linguistically, as soon as we assign a signifier to something, we assume its definition must be consistent. To be more accurate, for the language to work (to be able to communicate something), the definition must be relatively stable. If the definition of “spoon” changed all the time, we wouldn’t be able to pass it when asked for it. It’s not that such stability actually exists in The Real, but that the cost of being able to communicate through language is the false assumption of stability. But through “bewitchment”, we have come to convince ourselves that The Real is indeed stable and consistent.

As soon as we use the signifier “self”, we must assume a stable, consistent definition because otherwise we cannot communicate what we mean. But the Real self is never consistent. It’s constantly shifting and morphing. Ironically, what we call “authentic” self (the consistent idea of self) is a cultural construct. It’s just a device we use to relate to others more efficiently and pleasantly. It’s a side effect of our language.