24 June 2014

Notes on the Notion of Identity


1. Identity comes from a medieval Latin abstract noun, which denotes the quality of selfsameness. Identitas is the relation each thing has to itself.

2. Today when we talk about “identity”, we usually mean the selfsameness of persons, and there are a number of presuppositions that go into the grammar that governs our use of the word.

3. A rigorous delineation of these presuppositions would take the form of an archaeology of modern ethical thought: we would look at Kant, Kierkegaard, Mill, the rest. Others have done this work before — this is a great mercy, because it excuses us from the need to run through lengthy expositions and narratives, and leaves us free to isolate the principles.

4. The fundamental moral principle of identity is ancient. Its most famous expression is taken from the Delphic Oracle: Γνῶθι Σεαυτόν, know thyself. The commandment leaves unstated the promised benefit of self-knowledge, but there are so many different benefits that follow from it, one can fill in the gap as one pleases.

5. No matter how one describes the benefits of self-knowledge, what is assumed is that there is something to be known, and that the nature of that thing is crucially important. The old humanists believed that what was to be known was humanity as such, by which all other things are measured. The Pyrrhonists believed that in coming to know our own ignorance, we would achieve peace in the impossibility of knowledge. For the Stoics, it was the difference between one’s inner freedom and the determinism of the outer world. And so on.

6. For the modern grammar of identity, the “what” of identity is a hypostasis we call “the self”. The grammar of identity today is a personalist grammar, in particular it is an essentialist personalism. What does that mean?

7. We know from Boethius that a person is an individual substance of rational nature. Today we associate personhood with conscious individuals (setting aside all the qualifications and disputes). Personalism is a kind of ethical atomism. Atomism is a kind of metaphysical materialism. Therefore we need to start with materialism.

8. Since “matter” is defined as that out of which things are made, i.e. the component parts of things, “materialism” is a broad name for any method of analysis which attempts to reduce things to their common parts. Atomism is a particular species of materialism, in which the reduction terminates in the identification of a species of discrete, indivisible singular things.

9. Personalism is an ethical atomism. This truth is profound and can produce several layers of insight. For our purposes we will stop at the fact that for a personalist the fundamental unit of moral analysis is the conscious individual. Every moral analysis is in terms of individual persons, and no moral analysis is possible on an interpersonal or sub-personal basis, without returning in some way to the individual person.

10. There are many possible varieties of personalism, but when we speak of identity today, the personalism that comes into play is an essentialist personalism. I.e. a personalism in which what gives identity to these ethical atoms is not their distinctness as separate instances of a common species (e.g. humanity), but an essential “what-ness” determined on the level of the individual.

11. The “what-ness” or essence of individual identity is not thought to necessarily distinguish one from every other person, but to establish a personal kind, the perfection of which one is then called to live out.

12. In fact the great paradox of the elevation of Identity to a prime moral principle is that while it seems on the one hand to promise the liberation of the individual from the impositions of a general moral code, in fact because the personhood invoked by our “identity” discourse is an essentialist personhood, we end up being called to discover and participate in a narrow type of self. Just when one expects moralism to have vanished, it reappears in the form of an ethics of authenticity.

13. Authenticity is based on the idea that one’s self ought to be the origin of one’s behavior, which means that if the self and the manner of life are inconsistent, there is a moral failure. The existentialists call this variously “despair” or “bad faith” or simply “inauthenticity”. To thine own self be true, oh Laertes.

14. The unacknowledged problem faced by all of us as we attempt to discover our selves, is that the self is not easily interrogated. We who place such a high premium on obedience to the Pythia’s command are totally inept at obeying it. Instead we turn to the mysticism of inner inclinations, romanticism about emotions and appetites, and we baptize those inner voices which speak most frequently and clearly to us as our “true selves”.

15. The pressure is tremendous, though. One dare not resist the call of the self, lest one fall into a state of inauthenticity. What shame would follow from this fundamental dishonesty!

16. And so we end up enslaved: to the quest for the self, to our base appetites, which we mistake for the voice of our inner truth, to socially constructed types of identity into which we pigeonhole ourselves.

17. The most remarkable thing about principles of identity is that one can see all the characteristic features of classical virtue ethics tucked away within them. Inauthenticity, the failure to live out the type of self one “truly” is, is a great shame, is dishonesty…

18. The problem is ultimately reducible to a misidentification of the nature of a person. Where do persons receive their natures? From their species. The species is not a type of self or an individual identity. For all of us, it’s quite easy to identify: our species is humanity.

19. Because we are materialists about the visible world, we tend to be gnostics about our inner lives. Man is a rational animal. An animal is just a complex bunch of gears and springs. But gears and springs are not selves. To be a self is therefore not about one’s species: it is radically interior and incommunicable. Etc.

20. But because the human mind has a virtually ineradicable habit of intellectual first principles, it tends to look for the nature of whatever it fixes on. If the self is a thing, the self has a form, a nature, and if it has a form, it has a form that can be perfected or defective or shared.

21. For our personalists, the basic human quest is still a quest for virtue and excellence and happiness, but the problem is that these things are sought relative to a nature constructed by the mind, a nature that is essentially unintelligible (and therefore amorphous, formless, unreal)—a fictitious nature.

22. And yet if we replace this fictitious nature of selfhood with the genuine identity of humans—humanity—things fall into place quite readily. How?

23. Inauthenticity, the failure to be true to one’s nature, is indeed a shameful thing. It is dishonest, because in classical terminology honestas is nothing other than the rectitude of the will and proper order of the passions in accord with the true perfection of one’s nature. As Thomas says, the honest man possesses a certain claritas, a luminosity of soul, which makes him beautiful.

24. What gives the soul clarity? In crystals, clarity comes from the purity of the substance (the absence of anything foreign to or contrary to the order of the whole), and from the collective alignment of all the parts in the proper order. Clarity in human nature comes from the alignment of everything in us: all our powers, passions, appetites, our emotions, ideas, and interests, in the service of the perfection of what we are, our human nature. To be an honest man, to possess clarity of soul, is to be free from all impurity and contrary inclination, to know the good clearly and to desire it totally, so that in every act one tends perfectly toward it.

25. The notion of claritas brings us back to Delphi. Who is it that knows himself? Who obeys the oracle’s command? We know what things are by seeing them, and the best instances of a species show us by their perfection everything it is to be that kind of thing.  

26.  And so we conclude: The one who knows himself truly is the one capable of self-knowledge, the one whose various inclinations and ideas are so aligned with his human nature and whose desires so accord with the good of that nature, that his own life becomes crystalline, achieves the claritas necessary for humanity to shine through him, to be revealed in whatever he does, so that he can see himself as what he is, and everyone else, beholding him, can say “That is a virtuous and honest man.”


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Some addenda:

A.  Notice that by substituting a socially constructed "identity" or "identity type" for the reality of human nature, we more or less guarantee that the quest for honesty ordinarily productive of the virtue of temperance produces instead all the vices directly contrary to temperance.

B.  The honest man knows himself because he is an exemplum of human perfection, and also because in his purity he is particularly suited to recognize the truth about things.  Both in the act of knowing and in the object of knowledge there is a real superiority of intelligibility.

C.  The extreme proponents of the ethics of authenticity generally compound their personalist essentialism with voluntarism, so that the self is not merely discovered but created by an act of radical recognition of the groundlessness of one's identity.  Existentialist personalism of this sort is so practically unintelligible that it remains irrelevant, except as another fog bank we can dive into in the struggle to "find ourselves".

D.  One wonders how long the delusion of identity types can be sustained.  The cynic can point at them and ask cui bono?  Because the expression and cultivation of the self normally takes place in the consumption of particular types of goods, there is a strong interest in various mainstream and niche markets to encourage the ethics of authenticity, because it gives a moral imperative to consumer behavior.  

E.  Additionally, because the identity of the self is plastic and amorphous, it is easily shaped by modes of speaking, and can therefore be reshaped by the transformation of stereotypes and typical associations.   Who teaches us what it is to be human, has the power to teach us the types of human, the species of identity, and to regulate the expressions of those identities by stigmatization and approbation, both direct and indirect.