Preference and identity-sense

Sitting on my desk are two cups. There is the Styrofoam cup which is soft to the touch and lightweight. It looks clean and is cheap. There is also a china cup; this is heavier, harder and breakable if dropped. When full of hot coffee it does not retain the heat so well and so sometimes burns my fingers. I have described these two and doubtless I could say more.

The china cup is by far the cup I prefer drinking from. None of the details cited above are relevant to this as I prefer the china cup because it makes the coffee taste better. The question that intrigues me tonight is how do preferences arise? Where do they come from? How do they work horizontally between options in the world and how do they work vertically in selection between my senses?

Is perceiving simultaneous to preferring?

Is perceiving simultaneous to preferring?

When did I decide that I liked coffee in a china cup and only that would do? Did I decide this before I encountered China or Styrofoam, or coffee? Locke would argue no, for he insists that there are no innate ideas[1]; all meaning is derived from experience. Did I decide then, as a young prospective coffee drinker, that one type of cup was more grown-up than other, or more sophisticated? This breaks the preference down in to a kind of Husserlian polarisation between meaning making and the meaning made, or the meaning and the meant.[2] If this is unconvincing, is it more compelling to suggest that I retained in my memory the taste of coffee-from a-china-cup and compared this to each new coffee drinking experience subsequently? Maybe I just liked this, (c1) and not that, (c2) so I went back to this (c1).

To what extent then does our perceived identity, or identity-sense, determine the things we like the taste of and to what extent do the things we like the taste of determine our identity-sense? Can I really possess ‘preferences’, do they pervade my body or are they resident in my brain?  My contention is, that though the debate rages on about the relative influence of nature and nurture, my identity-sense nevertheless plays a role too. The question is ‘where?’; where in the development and expression of my preferences does my identity-sense play a role? Perhaps in my quest for authenticity I can quiz myself: ‘Am I the sort of person who drinks from china or who drinks from Styrofoam?’ I might of course be the ‘sort of person’ who would dismiss as crass such artificial adaptation to social castes and expectations.[3] I might instead wonder, ‘Am I the sort of person who settles for anything not preferred, in submission to the expectations of others?’

One’s identity, I am convinced, is a public affair, one’s identity-sense however is one’s independent auditing of the meaning one’s identity accrues. It does not have to be an explicit relation between preferences and self-definition, but it amounts in the end to this relation nevertheless, for I endorse or gainsay all kinds of things on the basis of whether I find authenticity in them or not. Without it being explicit, my identity-sense may cause me to reject the prestige of china and celebrate the ordinary.

The point I find interesting is that my sensibility of the world is holistic and my identity-sense auditions all that accrues meaning to my life with every sensory and perceptive means at its disposal. As an embodied, intersubjectively intentional being embedded in the world, my identity is authenticated as much through an audit of my sense of taste as of my conscious beliefs or culture.


[1] Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (First published 1690), The Pennsylvania State University, Electronic Classics Series, Jim Manis, Faculty Editor, Hazleton, PA. 18201-1291, accessed at file:///C:/Users/Peter/Documents/Academic%20E-Books/humanund.pdf.

[2] Husserl, E. in Jean-Francois Lyotard, Phenomenology, trans. Brian Beakley, SUNY Press, 1991, 55

[3] Erving Goffman, (1956) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, in Elliott, 2008, 38-39

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