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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Monday, 18 November 2013

Authenticity of Cultures and of Persons

Beate Roessler, University of Amsterdam

In this paper I argue that it does not make sense – either empirically or normatively – to speak of ‘authentic’ cultures. All we need when talking about cultures is a relatively weak concept that still carries enough normative weight to function as the meaningful background of a person’s identity, autonomy and good life. Discussing the authentic culture, I refer to the debates around the German Leitkultur as well as the Dutch populist movement as examples. However, I am interested not only in the concept of the authenticity of a culture but also in the concept of the authenticity of persons: if an 'authentic culture' is not feasible, does this have repercussions on the concept of the autonomy and authenticity of persons? In suggesting that this might be the case, I argue that persons can be autonomous without always being fully authentic.[1]

The reference to or insistence on cultural authenticity often leads to resentment vis a vis strangers who are viewed as endangering the authentic culture, destryoing what is valuable, good and familiar. Authenticity leads to resentment if ‘authentic culture’ is understood in an essentialist way and if the authenticity and essence of the culture are conceived of as values in themselves.

In this paper I will argue that it does not make sense – either empirically or normatively – to speak of ‘authentic’ cultures. All we need when talking about cultures is a relatively weak concept that still carries enough normative weight to function as the meaningful background of a person’s identity, autonomy and good life. However, I am interested not only in the concept of the authenticity of a culture but also in the concept of the authenticity of persons: if an 'authentic culture' is not feasible, does this have repercussions on the concept of the autonomy and authenticity of persons? I will suggest that this might be the case, although not in every respect.

I shall begin by looking at the debates around the German Leitkultur and the Dutch populist movement in order to present paradigm examples of the idea of an authentic culture. I will then discuss the concept of culture that is used in these debates and develop a more open, heterogeneous and transformative version. In a next step, I will look briefly at the relation between cultures and the autonomy of persons and then discuss more precisely the relation between a person’s autonomy and her authenticity. I shall raise some sceptical doubts about the thesis that in order to be autonomous a person has to be authentic tout court, using examples that reveal tensions between autonomy and authenticity.

German Leitkultur and the Dutch populists – a brief closer look

Leitkultur is one of those almost-untranslatable German concepts that nevertheless denote or express something that is not purely German: the idea that a nation has and should have a ‘guiding culture’, that this guiding culture can be under threat from immigrant cultures, that it can be precisely described and clearly demarcated against those elements or influences which do not belong to it. The concept of a Leitkultur is mostly used as a Kampfbegriff – a polemical concept – in situations of felt threat where the authenticity and identity of the Leitkultur are supposedly in danger.

Leitkultur has come to mean the idea that immigrants have to assimilate with as opposed to integrate into German culture.[2] The term is utilised to mark the alleged limits of foreign cultures to adapt to German values. In this sense it is opposed to the idea, made popular by Juergen Habermas, of constitutional patriotism: for defenders of the Leitkultur, this constitutional patriotism is too weak a concept to protect the achievements of German culture, its traditions and values against the dangers of foreign cultures.

Habermas writes: "To the present day, the idea of the Leitkultur depends on the misconception that the liberal state should demand more of its immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the principles of the Constitution. We had, and apparently still have, to overcome the view that immigrants are supposed to assimilate the ‘values’ of the majority culture and to adopt its ‘customs’.”[3]

In the wake of the recent publication of Thilo Sarrazin’s Germany Does Away With Itself, the idea of a Leitkultur has regained currency in Germany. The book suggests, on the basis of semi-scientific arguments, that the future of the German population is in danger because of the high numbers of immigrants from Muslim countries: the wrong kind of immigrants leads to the wrong kind of population.[4] To quote Habermas again, “In the book, Thilo Sarrazin, a politician from the Social Democratic Party who sat on the Bundesbank board, develops proposals for demographic policies aimed at the Muslim population in Germany. He fuels discrimination against this minority with intelligence research from which he draws false biological conclusions that have gained unusually wide publicity... [and] popular support.” So the concept of a German Leitkultur seems to be a purely political concept: mixed at will with ideas like Judeo-Christian traditions, and other traditions and values, its only function is to claim a clearly demarcated national culture in order to protect it from foreign influences.

Whereas in Germany, particularly since the debates around Sarrazin’s book, the idea of a Leitkultur seems to be a form of elitist populism aimed at the sensibilities of the bourgeois and well-read elite, in the Netherlands the debate has a different tone: populist without elitist ambitions. It is not bourgeois intelligentsia or poetic and philosophical tradition that are referred to as paradigms of the Leitkultur. On the contrary, it is Henk and Ingrid, Jack and Jane, the average Dutchman and -woman who are threatened in their Dutch traditions of tulips and cheese as well as tolerance, equality and the welfare state – tolerance, equality and the welfare state, that is, for people who have been living in the Netherlands all along.

Let me draw three lessons from this brief look at the Leitkultur debate. Firstly, it is not only minority cultures that use and are interested in a concept of authentic culture; majority cultures make much the same political move if their alleged identity seems in danger. Secondly, the concept usually functions as a political Kampfbegriff: the authentic culture is only a useful point of reference in situations of perceived danger. Thirdly, the concept of authentic culture seems to be a mixture of cultural, religious and political values which is then sold as one homogeneous culture. Thus ‘authentic culture’ turns out to be not a cultural or philosophical concept but a political one.

Which Concept of Culture?

Let us look more closely at the underlying concept of culture. Andrew Mason gives the following definition of the concept of an authentic or essentialist culture: “A conception of culture is essentialist if it assumes that when the members of a group share a culture, they do so in virtue of sharing some characteristic, or set of characteristics, and that the particular characteristics they share make it the particular culture that it is.”[5] Cultures in this sense, he goes on, are “clearly demarcated, rather than overlapping and with blurred boundaries”; they are “internally uniform”, suggesting “that the members of cultural groups are alike in terms of their values and interests, or that the practices in which they participate are homogeneous in the sense that they do not vary significantly across the culture”.

I find this definition very helpful; and note that this is precisely the idea of the German Leitkultur: members of the cultural group are supposed to be alike in their values and interests, the practices in which they participate are supposed to be homogeneous and the culture itself is supposed to be clearly demarcated against other cultures. But why is this idea of an essentialist or authentic culture so problematic? Let me point out two reasons.

For one, it is empirically inadequate: as empirical research shows, cultural groups are far more heterogeneous and diverse in their composition than the essentialist concept would have it.[6] If the purpose of the concept of culture is to serve to understand social reality, this version clearly fails; social reality, as we know, is far more complicated and diffuse and demands a more complex and open description of what a culture is and what people who share a culture actually do share than is allowed for by authentic or essentialist notions.[7] Furthermore, the way the boundaries are drawn around each culture changes through time, as do the definitions of core practices and beliefs. The idea that a culture is a homogeneic given, waiting to be described and explained, is empirically inadequate.[8]

Secondly, however, it is also normatively inadequate: if we want to develop a notion of culture which can be of use in the complex structure of politics, morality, law and religion in a multicultural liberal-democratic society then we need to de-essentialise the concept in order to see not only how it fits the empirical findings but also the normative demands on persons and their complex identities in these societies. Almost inevitably, the characterisation of a culture in the societal debates is itself a “political act”.[9] We can see this in the German Leitkultur debate: in the criticism of ‘Arabic’ or foreign cultures and their influences, in the desire to protect the authenticity of German culture, cultural arguments are only used on the surface; in fact, insistence on a Leitkultur is political, since what is at issue is political not cultural exclusion.[10]

Therefore, it seems to be normatively more adequate to work with a notion of culture which is more open, allowing for changes and transformations in cultures as well as overlapping cultures and complex identities, taking into account the fact that claims of culture are always also politically contested and contestable – a notion which is, therefore, de-essentialised and better able to explain heterogeneous cultural practices and social reality.[11]

What such a de-essentialised notion could mean is pointed out by Mason: he gives a very loose definition when he writes, “When people share a culture they share a way of life... If sharing a culture is defined in terms of sharing a way of life, cultures may overlap and have blurred boundaries and an individual may belong to more than one culture.”[12] A culture thus forms a loose net of practices, beliefs, values, rites and routines, with different roles and paradigms, and without clear limits between one culture and another.

This definition should be better able to explain and analyse the place and purpose of culture in liberal-democratic multicultural societies: that, as persons in these societies, we grow up being always already embedded in a certain culture, or in different overlapping cultures, developing social and cultural identities which enable us to lead our own lives. Additionally, the notion of culture should account for the fact that in acquiring a certain set of values, norms and meanings, we also learn – ideally – what it means to situate ourselves, how to evaluate our acquired norms and values and how to distance ourselves from them if we feel the need to do so - in short, we learn how to live our lives autonomously. Thus, a modest notion is sufficient for explaining and interpreting the empirical and normative workings of culture. It does not have to use ideas of authenticity and core practices; instead, the heterogeneity and complexity of cultures as ways of life forms the empirical basis and normative horizon for understanding social identity and individual autonomy.

Persons and Cultures

I want to take this idea of cultures as normative horizons and ways of life as a starting point since it forms the background for any discussion of identity and autonomy in modern societes. In these societies, personal autonomy is “a fact of life”, as Joseph Raz famously put it.[13] But cultures form the necessary background for this fact of life. Therefore, before discussing personal autonomy and authenticity, I will briefly consider the relation between personal autonomy and culture.

The central argument for the relation between autonomy and culture is stated by Kymlicka when he writes that culture provides us with the necessary “context of choice”, since autonomy means that we can choose, determine, our own lives. “Through having a rich and secure cultural structure... people become aware, in a vivid way, of the options available to them, and intelligently examine their value.”[14] The different cultures we live in provide us with meaningful options and ideas about how to autonomously live our lives. Without culture people would not be able to develop or exercise their autonomy.

This argument does not rely on a notion of a homogeneous culture; on the contrary, the modest notion of culture developed above is far better for interpreting how cultures work empirically and have to work normatively by opening up a space of meaning for personal autonomous decisions. Cultural backgrounds shape our lives, and different cultures (in multicultural societies) do this in different ways.[15]

This analysis of culture and autonomy has not thus far provided an argument for the survival of any specific culture – it does not, on the face of it, have to be ‘my’ (authentic) culture that enables me to make meaningful choices, as long as there is a culture that provides me with the necessary background of meaningfulness.[16]

So where do we stand? Cultures do not have to be analysed as authentic or essentialist entities; a culture comprehends ways of life and traditions, rather than having distinct limits or a clear and everlasting set of defining practices. Furthermore, this concept of culture as normative suffices to explain the conditions necessary for the development of healthy identities and personal autonomy in liberal-democratic multicultural societies. But if it is right that it does not make sense to speak of ‘authentic cultures’ then the question arises of whether this might have consequences for the idea of the authenticity of a person. Is there a way in which a person’s culture might be constitutive of the authenticity of the autonomous person? Could one make an argument from the autonomy (-cum-authenticity) of the person to the authenticity of her culture?

Autonomy and Authenticity of Persons

Autonomy, in a general sense, means being able to determine one’s life according to beliefs, reasons, values and commitments which are one’s own. This rather general definition implicitly refers to a concept of authenticity, because it is our own values we want to live by. A person is autonomous only if “her motivating states are truly her own”.[17]

Most theories of autonomy pose two types of conditions required for a person to be autonomous, viz. competency and authenticity.[18] The competency conditions usually include rather uncontested abilities such as having the right sort of critical reflective capacities, i.e. that the person is rational in a basic way, is able to form intentions and act upon them. These conditions seem to me to be right: a person cannot, even in a basic sense, be autonomous without having the competence to reflect on herself and her beliefs, desires, emotions and values, and to form rational intentions on the basis of this reflection.

However, it is the second set of conditions which is the more interesting here: the authenticity conditions aim to explain the idea that motivating states or values are ‘truly one’s own’. In order to see more clearly that authenticity can play different roles in the attribution of autonomy to persons, I find it helpful to draw a difference between three aspects of the notion of authenticity.

Firstly, authenticity concerns the question of the person’s identfication with her motivating desires: she is autonomous if she identifies with the desires she acts upon. If I reflect rationally on what I really want to do on the basis of my values, norms and beliefs, then I will identify with and act upon the desire which I thereby make ‘truly my own’. If I am not addicted, do not deceive myself or misunderstand myself and if I am able to rationally reflect and to decide, then I’m being authentic – and autonomous. Authenticity in this sense concerns the inner structure of the decision-making process.[19]

This is different in the second aspect of authenticity. Christman, for one, argues that autonomy also has to be seen in an external, historical perspective:[20] a person is autonomous only if she critically reflects on the genesis of her desires, values and commitments and forms intentions on the basis of this reflection. She is authentically autonomous if her (hypothetical) process of reflection is not structurally distorted or manipulated in such a way that she is unable to reflect on the way she developed her values. A person acting inauthentically in this second sense is manipulated in such a way that she would not, after free and non-manipulative reflection, endorse the values upon which she acted and would no longer describe them as ‘truly her own’.

Like theories of recognition, Christman points out a third aspect of authenticity: a person cannot authentically endorse her basic values and act upon them if these values do not get the right kind of social recognition.[21] This is the case, for instance, with members of discriminated minority cultures. In order to be authentically autonomous the person must live in social contexts that make it possible, in principle, for her to endorse her values and to act upon them without running the risk of being discriminated against. If the person cannot be authentic in this sense then she is – or feels – alienated from her social environment. This form of inauthenticity as alienation can prevent her from being autonomous.

The authenticity condition in its three different aspects focuses on a link: a person is autonomous if there is the right sort of link between her motivating desires and her basic values, between her basic values and her assumptions about their genesis and between her basic values and their place in society. Basic values and commitments enable a person to make choices but they have to play the right kind of role in her decision-making process.

In the following, I take it for granted that the authenticity condition in its first sense is plausible: if a person could not identify with her motivating desires then she would act not only inauthentically but also non-autonomously. I leave aside the well-known potential problems here – what precisely ‘identification’ is, the question of infinite regress – and assume they can be solved in a satisfying way. I am more interested in the other two aspects of authenticity since they are, in the context of problems of culture, more intricate as well as more challenging;[22] they are also more problematic - or so I will argue. In short, I think we can be autonomous without always being authentic in the required sense. Let me elucidate my reasons for being sceptical by briefly discussing two examples.

Some Problems

Firstly, think of Robert Noggle’s example of “Oppressed Olivia”: she “has been raised (using standard child-rearing techniques) to abide by and adopt the sexist attitudes of the patriarchal society in which she lives. Consequently, she shapes her ideals, aspirations, and activities in ways that reflect these attitudes. As Olivia reaches adulthood, her convictions include a belief in the naturalness of women’s subservient role, and her deepest aspiration is to be a housewife”.[23]

Supposedly, Olivia has the general competence to be autonomous, to form intentions competently on the basis of her basic values and commitments. However, it seems questionable whether she conforms to the second authenticity condition: she has been growing up in a milieu which tried to manipulate her into a certain role and set of values. It is obvious that her reflection is not free from reflection-distorting factors. It is fair to say that had she reflected under better circumstances she would have been able to achieve more self-enlightenment and see more clearly which of her values and motivating desires are or should be truly her own.

On the other hand, it also seems implausible to deny her any autonomy. It is not wrong to say that we are confronted with numerous structural distortions of Olivia’s kind in our societies; not only patriarchal structures but also consumerist structures can serve as examples. Therefore, we have to be careful: if we want to deny persons autonomy on the basis of these structural distortions we come dangerously close to a rather far-reaching idea of false consiousness.

It seems more convincing to ascribe autonomy to Olivia (or to Olivia-like, less extreme cases), albeit to a less than perfect degree. This does not suggest that the authenticity condition in this second sense is wrong: it only shows that in daily life and under non-ideal circumstances most of us (and maybe even Olivia) are sufficiently resilient to find individually satisfying ways of living autonomously, even under social circumstances which prevent us from doing so fully authentically. Arguing that Olivia can still be seen as autonomous does not attribute to her an authentic relation to her values and beliefs; it implies that she can be autonomous without being fully authentic in the required way. The intricate problem of drawing a line between individual cases of autonomy and the general social conditions - and their critique - which enable or restrict this will become even more palpable when considering the third sense of authenticity.

In turning to this third aspect or meaning of the authenticity condition, we come straight back to the problem of culture: what does it mean to be alienated from one’s basic values?

For Christman, a person is alienated from her basic values, and thus inauthentic and non-autonomous, if these values are structurally disrespected in the society she lives in. The case Christman discusses is the discrimination against a social group or the denigration of certain cultural practices. “Alienation is likely to occur,” he writes, if the social or cultural identity which forms part of my basic value system is discriminated against or denigrated in public.[24] Alienation is here taken to be caused by the lack of recognition of a person’s basic values. This leads to a lack of authenticity – and therefore to a lack of autonomy.

The way to deal with this problem on a societal level is, according to Christman, to give members of the discriminated groups a special hearing, a claim in society: “One must claim that failure to alter this or that social policy would prevent the person from pursuing a social self-narrative shaped by her practical identity without abiding alienation”.[25] A claim does not constitute a right: it only means that the institutions of the liberal democratic state have to have procedures in which these claims ‘get a special hearing’ and can be dealt with in an adequate way. But it is important to note that alienation from values which are seen to be central to a person’s autonomy leads to claims which as such form a prima facie claim to this special hearing.

However, I think that this is flawed: the claim to non-alienation as a condition for autonomy in this sense seems to be too demanding.[26] Look back to the first part of this paper and imagine someone with a strong notion of the authenticity of his culture: if he argues that certain core practices of his culture form a part of a social and practical identity which is for him essential, and if this identity is denigrated in society, this leads, or so he could argue, to his being alienated from essential elements in his basic value system and thus to his being non-autonomous.[27]

We have now reached a point where we can see that the argument I thought might be possible – the argument from the autonomy of a person to the authenticity of her culture – is not valid after all: if we followed that argument then any cultural (authentic, essentialist) practice could lead to either strong claims to policy revision or to too many people being non-autonomous. Therefore, the claim to cultural authenticity – via the claim that lack of recognition leads to alienation – as a necessary ingredient or condition of a person’s autonomy does not seem to be convincing.

Let me present the problem from yet a different perspective. Imagine an elderly couple who has been living in the same small German town all their lives. This town has changed dramatically over the last 20 years; many of the old people have left and newcomers are mostly immigrants, with different religious backgrounds. Imagine this couple to be a perfect representative of the German Leitkultur.

It makes sense for the elderly couple to say that they feel alienated from their city, from their home. Although they generally agree with the values of the liberal democracy in which they live, they insist that they are forced to live under culturally inauthentic conditions. The authentic culture they are relating to has almost vanished (few people now go to church on Sundays) and their basic values and commitments have not kept pace with the changes around them.

It is probably not incorrect to describe the couple as being alienated from the social context in which they are living; nor do they feel their social and cultural identities get the recognition they deserve. However, I do not think it makes sense to ascribe to them a lack of autonomy on these grounds: it seems not wrong (just as it did not in Olivia's case) to assume that their autonomy is sufficiently resilient to withstand these forms of alienation or inauthenticity. We have to be able to differentiate between problems of social recognition - and the critique of society on its basis - on the one hand and an individual person’s autonomy on the other. Clearly, individual autonomy is dependent on its social conditions, but both problems can not be reduced to one another either.


Although the idea of the authenticity of cultures turns out not to be persuasive, it still makes sense to insist on authenticity conditions in attributing autonomy to persons. But only in certain respects: the idea that the authenticity of the autonomous person could be used by her as an argument for a normative notion of authentic or essentialist cultures or cultural practices did not stand up to scrutiny.

It is often intricate and difficult to draw a clear line between the ability of persons to be autonomous on the one hand and the enabling social conditions for this autonomy on the other hand. The view from the perspective of authenticity and the role it plays in the attribution of autonomy illustrate this point: social justice in all its respects is certainly necessary for a fully autonomous good life, but autonomy can often be meaningfully ascribed under less favourable circumstances as well. Recourse to the concept of authenticity, with respect to cultures as well as to persons, can lead to political claims which are problematic from the standpoint of the autonomy theories which gave rise to them: the authenticity of a culture – minority culture or Leitkultur – cannot be used as an argument in debates on multiculturalism or in those on autonomy.


[1]A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.

[2]But see Tibi (1998) for the origin of the concept.

[3]Habermas (2010); the following quotes are all from the same article.

[4]Sarrazin (2010).

[5]Mason (2007) 222f.

[6]See Appiah (2005), Phillips (2007), Christman (2009), Mason (2007).

[7]Mason (2007) 227.

[8]Anne Phillips (2007) 27f .

[9]Phillips (2007) 45.

[10]On cultural and political exclusion, see Appiah (2005) 127,132.

[11]See Phillips (2007), 49ff, on de-essentialising the notion of culture; see also Appiah (2005) 114ff, Benhabib (2002) 4f, and Christman (2009) 196ff.

[12]Mason (2007) 227; see Oshana (2005) for the problem of different identities.

[13]Raz (1986) 394.

[14]Kymlicka (1989) 167; see Appiah (2005) 121f; Christman (2009) 197.

[15]Phillips (2007) 131.

[16]Appiah (2005) 123.

[17]Christman (2009) 141. I shall mostly refer to Christman’s theory as developed in this book since this seems to me the most elaborate and interesting account of autonomy in all its facets.

[18]See, for instance, Taylor (2008). I am coarsening a fine-grained debate in which hardly any concept or position is uncontested, but this should not impair my main points.

[19]This hierarchical model has been discussed at length; see for instance Taylor (2008).

[20]See Christman (2009)149f,155f,189ff.

[21]Anderson & Honneth (2005); Christman (2009) 207ff.

[22]See Noggle (2008) 92f, 96ff for a more sophisticated discussion.

[23]Noggle (2008) 102.

[24]Christman (2009) 215.

[25]Christman (2009) 215 (my italics).

[26]See Christman (2009) 181ff, and Anderson & Honneth (2005). On the other hand, Christman is very sensitive to the difference between an individual person’s autonomy and the social conditions in which she lives; see (2009) 175f.

[27]See Phillips (2007) 113ff for examples; of course, neither Christman nor Honneth want to defend an essentialist notion of culture.


Anderson, J. & Christman J. (eds.) (2005), Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism, Cambridge

Anderson, J. & Honneth, A. (2005), ‘Autonomy, Vulnerability, Recognition, and Justice’, in Anderson, J. & Christman J. (eds.) (2005)

Appiah, A. K. (2005), The Ethics of Identity, Princeton & Oxford

Christman, J. (2009), The Politics of Persons. Individual Autonomy and Socio-historical Selves, Cambridge

Benhabib, S. (2002), The Claims of Culture, Princeton and Oxford

Habermas, J. (2010) ‘Leadership and Leitkultur’, in New York Times, 28 October 2010

Kymlicka, W. (1989), Liberalism, Community and Culture, Oxford

Mason, A. (2007), ‘Multiculturalism and the Critique of Essentialism’, in Laden, A.S. & Owen, D. (eds.) (2007), Multiculturalism and Political Theory, Cambridge

Noggle, R. (2008), ‘Autonomy and the Paradox of Self-Creation: Infinite Regresses, Finite Selves, and the Limits of Authenticity’, in Taylor, J.S. (ed.) (2008)

Oshana, M. (2005), ‘Autonomy and Self-Identity’, in J. Anderson and J. Christman (eds.) (2005)

Phillips, A. (2007), Multiculturalism without Culture, Oxford

Raz, J. (1986), The Morality of Freedom, Oxford

Sarrazin, T. (2010), Deutschland schafft sich ab: wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen, Berlin

Taylor, J.S. (ed.) (2008), Personal Autonomy. New Essays on Personal Autonomy and Its Role in Contemporary Moral Philosophy, New York & Oxford

Tibi, B. (1998), Europa ohne Identität, Die Krise der multikulturellen Gesellschaft, 1998


The final/definitive version of Beate Roessler’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 445-456, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/38/4-5.toc


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