What is it that is sensed as identity?

For some, the theoretical conditions for personhood are consciousness, rationality, personal attitude, complex communication, self-consciousness, self-motivated activity, and freedom of the will[1]. More contentiously included is moral consciousness. Assuming as I do that the person is necessarily an embodied human person, and a moral one at that, the considerations widen further. It is not my purpose in this post to determine whether or not, collectively, these are necessary and sufficient conditions for human personhood or whether, as such, they must be uninterrupted or uniformly developed. I am of the opinion that human personhood is a coherent notion and will address the question in due course as to what it is that personal identity adheres to. My interest in personal identity is in the first-person[2] grasp one has of one’s personal singularity in the shared human world, that is, one’s ‘identity-sense’,[3] and what consequently can be discerned as fundamental to identity therein.

Identity, an accretion of meaning that one's identity-sense audits for authenticity

Identity, an accretion of meaning that one’s identity-sense audits for authenticity

What then do I mean by identity?  On reflection my initial response is that ‘Identity is all that delineates my unique character definitively’. But there is something extremely elusive here. The question assumes that one’s character can be delineated with constancy, that the election of defining characteristics proceeds according to agreed rules, that these ‘characterful’ elements in my lived life can be harmonised, and that I am unique. What if I have a range of identities? Who has these identities?

Perhaps my name, a social convention in communication, represents identity and confers identity upon me. There is after all a weighty literature on the identity-loss experienced by people stripped of their names; the slaves exported from the African continent; the victims of the Nazi Holocaust; the nameless, numbered by Cambodia’s Citizen No. 1. Certainly my name signifies my having an identity, but it needs supplementing with an extensive subtext, for many people share my name.

I can refer to the things I do, habitually or deliberately, and say that this agency reveals my identity and confers identity upon me. But at what point is a summary of my activity ever definitive and at what stage would I wish to be reduced to such a list? I gather around me distinguishing features and simultaneously fear being pinned down by them like a butterfly collector’s exhibit.

Perhaps identity resides in my historical and cultural context, the time and place of my birth and the locale in which I live. These at least give context and distinction to my name and my actions. I would of course be forced to recognise in doing so that many elements pertinent to my ‘identity’ (that which makes me singularly identifiable and distinguishable from others) are derived from factors beyond my control.

Many elements pertinent to my identity are beyond my control

Many elements pertinent to my identity are beyond my control

Should I include physical features? My gender, my health, my height, my gait, my colouring, the age of my body or the way that I regard it? Though all these elements are vital in delineating my personal identity, and I live through them in reaching out to others, none are ontologically definitive for all.

When I reflect again on the expansive list of ontic variables I can assemble in order to demarcate my presence in the world from any other human being, I am struck by the fact that my identity gains its particular texture from the accretion of meaning my life acquires intersubjectively, whatsoever that meaning is. Whether accidentally, collaboratively, deliberately or retrospectively, my identity is an accretion of meaning whose appropriation I nevertheless desire to transcend.

Methodological note: In outlining a phenomenological description of identity in this blog I synthesise a range of observations offered by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. I am of course mindful of Husserlian methodology and the Merleau-Pontian and Heideggerian rejection of his specific, formal, transcendental epoché. My approach is to regard Husserl’s findings as the result of a phenomenological interrogation which theorises structures discernible in human experience; Merleau-Pontian and Heideggerian findings I regard as practical ‘working drawings’ which clarify existential observations that previously have been ineptly theorised. Whilst they move in opposite directions, they offer a perspectivist but congruent account.[4]

[1] Montes, M. J. A Response to Ronald G. Alexander’s ‘Personal Identity and Self-Constitution’ and Michael Goodman’s ‘A Sufficient Condition for Personhood’, The Personalist Forum, Vol. 8, No. 1, Supplement: Studies in Personalist Philosophy. Proceedings of the Conference on Persons (Spring 1992), pp. 91-96

[2] This first-person grasp supported by Dan Zahavi, in Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the first-person perspective, Massachusetts, the MIT Press, 2008  has its detractors, see for example Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, New York, Basic Books, 2010.

[3] For a comprehensive analysis of the theoretical burden the term ‘identity’ ‘bears, see Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F., Beyond ‘Identity’, Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), 1-47 . This blog holds in phenomenological ‘abeyance’ any assumption that there is a ‘self’ or that each ‘self’ has identity.

[4] Mulhall notes that Heidegger’s Being and Time may not merely intend to explicate how a human being is to achieve genuinely individual selfhood but his work is ‘itself designed to facilitate such an achievement in the sphere of philosophy’. Mulhall, S. Heidegger and Being and Time, London, Routledge, 2005, ix


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