March 17, 2020 by Miriam Jacobs


The Dutch philosopher Maarten Doorman acknowledges an obsession concerning authenticity, in current society. For example, we are not searching for sport shoes, but we want real Nikes. Or, we don't go to Starbucks for a coffee, but for an authentic Starbucks. Doorman redirects this obsession to the work of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Doorman, we desire for the real, the natural, the authentic, since the times of Rousseau.

In an article of the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, Doorman writes that this strive to authenticity has raised, because of an increase of the use of social media. On these media, we try to present ourselves on an authentic way. Doorman calls this a “directed authenticity.” According to Doorman, thinking is secondary, strategical, and therefore inauthentic. This is, contrary to feeling which is primary and therefore authentic. Doorman emphasizes that our obsession with authenticity is paradoxical, because this obsession removes us from it, while we try to reach it on a calculating way.

According to Rousseau, man has alienated himself from his being, when he decided to live together in communities, and civilization made its appearance. Rousseau distinct natural man from civilized man, which show the same paradox Doorman sees. Namely, Rousseau considers natural man as authentic, and civilized man as inauthentic. However, to find back our authenticity, he doesn't call us to a return to the situation of natural man. Instead he appeals to modern man, to commit himself to the inner natural man, because the natural man represents the non-rational feeling which is authentic.

In the essay, I will search for the meaning of authenticity according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Through my research I want to discover why Doorman redirects the current obsession with authenticity to the work of Rousseau. My claim reads: Modern man is not able to find his authentic being, because he tries to find it on an inauthentic way, which makes him stay stuck in a paradox.

The paragraphs in my essay show three opposites, which will end in the paradox of authenticity. The first opposite describes feeling as being authentic versus thinking being inauthentic. Following by a deepening in the distinct between civilized man, natural man and the characteristics of authenticity. Subsequently, I describe authenticity as existing from good as well as evil fundamental characteristics. Finally, it gets clear that the paradox of authenticity is reflected in the social dynamics in society. The obsession with finding authenticity in society, reflects the lost connection with the authentic being inside man.

Feeling versus thinking

Within philosophy, authenticity is about the extent to which somebody is faithful to his own nature, despite external impulses. Rousseau refers to this when he says: “Everything reinforces my heart, the tendencies that it naturally had.” , and, “nothing more matched my nature than the quiet and withdrawn profession of a good craftsman.” Rousseau characterizes himself as a person who acts in accordance with his own desires, motives, ideals and beliefs. They are not only of his own, but they also express who he really is. This is about authenticity, as the idea that in a way some things are 'you', or express who you are, and who others are not.

This concern, for both Rousseau as Doorman, the fact that feeling is preliminary to thought, and with that it is authentic. Rousseau says; “I have only one faithful guide I can count on, namely the series of feelings which have determined my development, and second, the series of happenings which have caused these feelings or are the results from them.” This means that feeling is surrounded by thinking and by extern impulses, but in itself it is authentic. According to Rousseau, only feeling is a loyal guide, because of its authenticity. Only after that, he values the causes and results of feeling.

We express our feelings on a nonverbal way, like art or music. Rousseau mentions that only the results of feelings can be described. Only what they generate can be put in words. This means that a description of the authentic is never the authentic itself. In other words, we are forced to use our inauthentic thinking, when we want to say something about authenticity. This way, we seem not able to escape from what Doorman calls “directed authenticity”. This directed authenticity occurs, when authenticity is mistaken for the description of authenticity. Hence, we seem unable to escape the fact that we only can describe authenticity on an inauthentic way. According to Rousseau, we need to turn inside to be authentic. We have to focus on the soul. Because she is independent from faith. Hence, she is not influenced by the necessities. Therefore, her impressions are unique.

This means, that authenticity should not be searched in the extern world. Instead, only what is not influenced by faith, is authentic. Hence, that what is influenced by extern impulses, is necessarily inauthentiek. Thus, when man searches for authenticity on an obsessive way, on social media, he will not find it there. The lack of connection with the soul, and the sense of unhappiness associated with it, could be translated to the words of Doorman about man in current society: “We live in a period of boredom and nostalgia. Ideals are obsolete, and classical meaningfulness has become problematic through secularization, and we miss the clarity of past decades. People have this feeling that history is over, and therefore they desire more to an assumed reality in the existence experienced as an orphan. A reality which once was there but has vanished.

In this quote, Doorman calls the problematizing of meaningfulness, by secularization. Interesting here, is that, according to the dictionary, the word religion stems from the word religare, which means connection to Divinity. In the light of Rousseau's approach of the soul, one could say that modern man lost the connection with the authentic soul. I see a resemblance with what Doorman calls the existence experienced as an orphan.

Natural man versus civilized man

The absence of resemblances with one another is an important element in authenticity, according to Rousseau. He makes a distinction here, between natural man and civilized man, which will be discussed further in this text. About natural man he writes: “Natural man is indifferent towards the self-love: the need to compare himself with the other, before he can be satisfied with himself, does not exist for this man. “, and, “The inequality, the fact that he is stronger, more beautiful, more intelligent than the other, has no influence on the behavior of natural man, because he doesn't care about how he will be valued by others. This shows the paradox within the obsession for the quest for authenticity. Because on social media the quest to authenticity gets colored by the comparing element. The possibility, for instance to “like” on social media, expresses a desire for acknowledgement.

Rousseau sees a distinct between natural man and civilized man. I quote: “natural man and the civilized man are essential different. Everything should be attuned to their essences. But what to do when both essences are in conflict with each other? What if one not raises a human for himself, but for the other's sake?” This quote makes clear that Rousseau sees natural man authentic, because he gets raised for himself. The civilized man, however, expresses the element of comparison, that contradicts authenticity.

He illustrates this distinction with the following quote: “The natural man is everything for himself, he is the unity in number, the absolute oneness, who is only related to himself or what is equal to him.” The citizen is merely a broken number, who is bound to his denominator, and whose value is determined by the relation to the whole, by the civilized organism.”From his natural state man is a whole, while the civilized man is only part of the whole. Thereby, civilized man is not according his own nature, thus not authentic.

However, Rousseau himself experienced an authentic unity between his lover and him, and says: “ Without noticing we became inseparable, and we arranged our existence on a mutual way, while we felt that we were not only essential to each other but we were each other sufficient, and we got used to not thinking of things outside us, and we limited our happiness and desires to this mutual and among humans unique possession, that, like I mentioned before, is not the possession of love, but of somethings more essential which, without dependency from desires, sex, age of body, was connected to everything that makes one oneself, and what one cannot loose without ending being himself.”

In this Passage, Rousseau draws out life according its own nature, which can exist in between people, when the mutual dynamic connects to the original nature of man. Both lovers are each other sufficient, and they seek meaning within their mutual existence. The lovers are not connected through characteristics, but through authenticity that lies beneath that. Hence, it is possible to be connected with one another on an authentic way.

Rousseau mentions that one stops existing, when one loses or denies his nature. According to this idea, the obsession with authenticity, colored by rational thinking, would be an expression of people not existing anymore, because they deny their own nature. Namely, in the eyes of Rousseau it is difficult to stay faithful to one's own nature. This would mean that there are only a few authentic people. Again, I see why Doorman refers to Rousseau, when he illustrates the obsession with authenticity. After all, when a lot of people deny their nature by calculating thinking, it makes sense that a lot are searching for it.

About these people Rousseau says: “One time, a tempted man will resist because he is strong, another time he will fail out of weakness. Would he have been the same as before, he would not have failed. ” Hence, an authentic human being doesn't fail, because he stays faithful to his immutable nature. Only the unfaithful human being collapses by the external impulses. Modern society is soaked in external impulses, including the worldwide web. Man stands for the big challenge to be authentic, while temptation to move away from it, is present everywhere.

Non-rational versus rational

Rousseau seems to search for the authentic human being through the non-rational. He digs beneath language and reason to the natural human being, who enjoys a way of existence, on non-rational and nonlinguistic way, and who puts in touch with our existence, in other words with what we are. Rousseau illustrates this when he mentions that he thinks in images. As mentioned before in this text, the authentic feeling is not to be put in words. Images are also preverbal, and so they are non-rational. By exposing the sequence of thoughts and memories in images, Rousseau shows that he himself is searching for natural man.

Nevertheless, finding authenticity doesn't mean the disappearance of inauthenticity. On this subject Doorman notes: “He who wants to be real, by definition he is not, because with the awareness of that desire the inauthenticity is there too, like day only exists because the existence of the night and like with birth our death is an inevitable fact.” This means that man is naturally a paradox, because he exists from both authenticity and inauthenticity. In other words, man exist both from the non-rational natural man and the civilized citizen.

However, according to thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud, we need the rational citizen to be able to act on a moral right way. These thinkers doubt the concept of human nature as a fundamental good. From their “hermeneutic of distrust” (Ricoeur 1970), human nature is seen as including violent forces, disorder and unreason, but also as including tendencies of prosperity and altruism. In that case, every idea of an ethical based primary ideal of authenticity is unreachable. According to these philosophers it would be wrong when we assume that interior is a moral valuable guide.

Namely, this assumption is strongly attempting and builds upon an exaggerated optimistically idea of human nature. When the idea of rational liberation has been set aside, the powerful impact of the non-rational gets visible. The current obsession with authenticity, could be translated to a desire to become liberated from the rational. However, according to Nietzsche and Freud, this liberation would mean that we get confronted with both the moral and the immoral characteristics.

Paradox of authenticity

Hence, Nietzsche and Freud see immoral characteristics as immanent in the human being. Therefore, authenticity cannot be seen as an ethical ideal. Rousseau also internalizes the origin of evil when he declares: ” Fools, you who complain about nature continuously, learn that all your aliments come out of yourselves. At the same time he believes in the virtue of man and criticize the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who started from the idea of a natural state wherein the human being is intrinsic evil. According to Doorman, this means that he doesn't want to return to the former state of nature, but he appeals to a moral that leads to authenticity.

According to Rousseau, these immanent characteristics get activated by the dynamics of modern society. He sees a connection between different ways of being, and their expressions caused by experienced impressions in reality. Unnoticed, these sensory impressions influence our ideas, feelings and actions. The authentic self-relationship of the original human being, inspires to sympathy and affected relationships with others, whereby one is sensitive for “the look at the sensitive essential”, which the human being is. The human being is especially sensitive for this in his relationship with his loved ones. Suffer by loved ones inspires the human being, because this suffer is also his own suffering.

According to Rousseau this self-relationship unfolds to virtue. Virtue expresses itself in a concern for the fellow human, without the presence of individual interests. True virtue only acts from an independency from its own capacities. From this true virtue, a human being only desires what is in his own power. Here, Rousseau describes virtue as an authentic virtue. There seems to be a connection between behaving from this authentic virtue and the authentic self-relationship, where it is based on. Behaving from authentic virtue, which is thus based on self-relationship, leads to authentic relationships in society.

Nevertheless, we stay behind with the tension between moral and self-realization. Nor Kant, nor Hegel, nor the tradition of authenticity (Schiller, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger) succeeded in finding a solution for this field of tension. However, I cannot shake off the impression, that Rousseau actually managed to solve this field of tension between self-realization and moral, because he considers both as intrinsic elements. After all, the social moral can be seen as a reflection of authentic virtue, which is immanent.

Social morality exists from both the authentic and inauthentic behavior. Authentic behavior is based on self-realization. At the same time, inauthentic behavior is based on comparation with the other and seeking for acknowledgement outside oneself. The best we can hope for is the awareness of the complexity and the ambiguity of our inner lives. From this awareness we should develop a practical wisdom or moral common sense, and a reflexive ability to judgement, which allows us to find a balance between the contraction of morality versus self-realization.

According to Rousseau it is about finding the right balance between both. He sees that the sensitivity of our hearts is a product of nature and our constitution. However, without her environment she cannot develop herself. Without the environment a human being is not able to get to know his own true nature. This is nevertheless a big challenge which ask for a great amount of self-discipline. The concept autonomy, according to Rousseau, exist mostly from the development of a capacity for something like “ego-integration”. This means that, although this is radicalized in his book Emile, the direction that someone gives to his life comes from within. It asks an enormous amount of self-discipline, because impulses have to be suppressed, when one wants to follow his self-chosen path.

Hence, it seems that immanent characteristics are activated by social dynamic. At the same time, society is formed by people, and so the extern impulses of society are in fact reflections of the interior of human kind. The authentic human being who is faithful to his own nature, is able to translate the social dynamic into the inner dynamic, because he is aware of the reflection. His sensitivity for competition and the need for social acknowledgement, will continue for as long he is not aware of his inner dynamic, because he will go on trying to solve on the outside what needs to be solved on the inside.

The obsession with authenticity in the outer world is a dynamic that resonates with the desire of self-realization within. For as long a human being searches for this by rational thinking, he will never discover his true nature. That way he will stay imprisoned in the paradox of authenticity, because he seeks on a rational way what only can be found through the non-rational. Rousseau doesn't reject society, but he dares the human being to connect again with the non-rational natural man. We don't need to go back to the former state of nature. We only have to realize that we exist from both natural man and civilized citizen, be aware of the paradox of authenticity that comes with that, and transform it into a positive balance.


Doorman sees an obsession with authenticity in current society, which is reinforced by social media. He speaks therefore about a directed authenticity, because it is directed by strategic thinking. Within this directed authenticity it is clear that people compare themselves with one another, and they seek for acknowledgement to each other. Especially social media shows this mechanism. This, while for Rousseau the absence of comparison, and the independency of social acknowledgement are elements of authenticity. According to Doorman, thinking is inauthentic, contrary to feeling which is prior to thinking. Like him, Rousseau describes feeling as authentic, because it is without words and it is non-rational. That is why Rousseau seeks for the preverbal and non-rational, or in other words the natural man, in the human being. The rational citizen seems to have lost this connection, which is to be translated to an obsession with finding it back again.

However, this search shows a paradox within authenticity, because authenticity means being faithful to one's own nature, despite extern impulses. The obsession with authenticity leads instead to inauthenticity, because it is based on the extern impulses, like social media. With this obsession Doorman refers to Rousseau, because he blames this alienation from human nature to the moment man went to live together. However, with that Rousseau only refers to the loss of the connection with the inner natural human being. He does not mean that we should go back to the former state of nature. However, only when there's is found a balance between natural man and civilized citizen, in the interior of man, he can start living from his authentic nature in society. The obsession with authenticity is in fact a cry for help to find natural human inside again. Nevertheless, for as long man tries to find authenticity through inauthentic thinking, he will stay captured in the paradox of authenticity.


Primary literature

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Bekentenissen. Vertaald door Leo van Maris. Amsterdam: Athenaeum-Polak & van Gennep, 2008.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile of over de opvoeding. Vertaald door Anneke Brassinga. Amsterdam: Boom, 2012.

Secondary literature

Anderson, Joel. “The persistence of authenticity.” Philosophy & social criticism, 21, no. 1 (1995): 101-109.

Berkeljon, Sara. “Authenticiteit is nep,” de Volkskrant, february 25, 2012.

Doorman, Maarten. Rousseau en ik. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 2012.

Guignon, Charles & Varga, Somogy. Authenticity. In Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, (September 11, 2014).

Marks, Jonathan. “Misreading one's sources: Charles Taylor's Rousseau.” American Journal of political science, 49, no.1 (2005): 119-134.

Wikipedia s.v. “Authenticiteit,” laatst bewerkt 8 februari, 2019

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