Though personal authenticity is an organizing ideal of late-modern Western societies, it also is a site of some of our most contentious disagreements, lacks coherence in many of its formulations, is not fully understood in all of its implications, and is often unidentified in its function as a marker of social distinction. There is a need for conceptual clarification and deeper historical understanding of the ideal of authenticity. Scholarship on authenticity has argued that it was birthed by nineteenth-century Romanticism and popularized in the counter-culture movements of the 1960’s. On this understanding, authenticity is distinct from previous moral ideals, especially rationalist ones, exemplified by Immanuel Kant’s notion of autonomy. But pre-romantic moral rationalism was itself motivated by an ideal of authenticity. Authenticity is not a deviation from the ideal of rational autonomy. On the contrary, rational autonomy is one of a long series of attempts to generate philosophical and religious programs which meet the requirements of authenticity understood as a norm of validity applicable across diverse but analogous domains, such as aesthetics, metaphysics, semantics, and ethics.
This study analyzes the concept of authenticity as it appears in the writings of Kant and his contemporary, Moses Mendelssohn. Their writings reveal the religious shape of the ideal of authenticity in two religious traditions and illustrate how authenticity as a moral ideal is best understood as an attempt to overcome religious and philosophical idols. Both Mendelssohn and Kant rely on the Pauline distinction between the spirit and the letter as a shorthand for the distinction between the authentic and the idolatrous. Both retain a place for ‘the letter,’ which mitigates the rigorous demands of authenticity, but they configure the relationship between spirit and letter differently, in ways that track with broader commitments about the relationship between signs and meanings, body and soul, and historical and natural religion. The study concludes by observing how authenticity can be used as a tool for social exclusion and intolerance, while pointing toward the possibility of constructing more inclusive conceptions of authenticity by retrieving the best insights of the past from authors such as Mendelssohn and Kant.