Does Identity Matter?

by Dwight Furrow

When we speak about identity, we usually have in mind the various social categories we occupy—gender categories, nationality, or racial categories being the most prominent. But none of these general characteristics really define us as individuals. Each of us falls into various categories but so does everyone else. To say I’m a straight white male puts me in a bucket with millions of others. To add my nationality and profession only narrows it down a bit.

While all these factors contribute to one’s identity, they don’t reach what makes each of us a distinct individual. Why should that matter? It matters in part because we want to be treated as an individual not a type, but also because having an understanding of one’s distinctive identity might help us decide what kind of life to live. It might help us guide our self-formation by reinforcing decisions tailored to one’s very specific needs, values, and aspirations.

So what does constitute our distinctiveness as persons? We might try to answer this by thinking about cases in which one’s identity is missing—what is commonly called an identity crisis. In an identity crisis we question our purpose in life, what our role or place in society is, what values we ought to be committed to, or the meaning and significance of our activities. But having purpose, meaning, and a commitment to certain values doesn’t quite individuate us either. We share values, commitments, and meanings with many others. These all seem necessary to us as individuals but aren’t sufficient to explain what makes us the distinctive selves we are.

When confronted with such puzzles we might hope that philosophy could straighten us out. However, the results of philosophical inquiry into questions of personal identity are mixed, although I think in the end helpful.

Philosophers have tended to approach these questions by asking what makes us the same person over time. We change significantly from birth to death. Nothing about us remains unchanged. What makes us the same person despite those changes? This is referred to as the re-identification problem of personal identity, and it can be asked not only of persons but of any object, although for simplicity’s sake I will stick to persons.

One answer to this question is called animalism. You are the same person over time because you are the same continuous living organism. But this theory has trouble explaining the following intuition. If your brain were transplanted into a different body and all of your brain functions and psychological characteristics survived the transplant, where would you be? Would you no longer exist because you’re in a different body? Most people say you would be in your new body because your personal identity tracks your psychology.

Thus, theories that identify psychological continuity as constitutive of personal identity are the most widely held. According to the psychological continuity theory, I am the same person over time if there is the right kind of psychological connection between different temporal stages of my life. However, it is difficult to nail down exactly what is the right kind of psychological connection. Memory by itself isn’t sufficient, although a memory theory has been one widely held account of psychological continuity. The memory theory asserts that I am the same person today as I was when I was a teenager if I can remember at least some episodes that occurred back in the day. But this will be adequate only if the remembered events actually happened to me, and who I am hasn’t yet been established. That is, we can’t define identity in terms of memory if, in order to certify the memory as “mine,” we have to presuppose the identity we’re trying to define. The argument is circular.

Some theorists have argued that “the right kind of psychological connection” between me today and me in the past is that these experiences are caused by the same brain. But this is plausible only because we assume that experiences caused by the same brain are in some way qualitatively similar. But what is that quality that makes my experiences mine that would make “caused by the same brain” relevant?

Moreover, notice that neither the memory theory nor a broader psychological connectedness theory answers our question. When someone suffers an identity crisis or wonders how they should define themselves, they are typically not suffering from abnormal memory loss. Neither are they typically feeling disconnected from their experiences, although what psychologists call “dissociation” may figure in some identity crises.

Part of the problem is that we might be asking the wrong question. The question regarding how we can identify the same person over time seems to be different from the question of what characteristics constitute my distinct self or are properly attributable to me as a distinct person. The former question seems amenable to evidence from fingerprints or DNA. The latter question seems to be about a wider range of characteristics deeply attached to personhood and fundamental to one’s self-conception in a way that fingerprints or DNA are not.

Philosopher Marya Schechtman insists on a division of labor between the two questions. She sets aside the question about re-identification, and pursues the question of proper characterization by developing a narrative theory of personal identity, which marks a considerable advance over earlier psychological continuity theories. According to Schechtman, personal identity is a product of being able to tell a coherent story that would count as the same story over time. Since I am telling my story and would have access to my own psychological states in a way no one else does, my story would be distinctly mine.

This view that self-told, personal narratives are central to the coherence of our lives has enjoyed widespread support in diverse fields and is a promising answer to our question of what makes you, you in that deeper more fundamental sense. But the narrative theory is not without problems. Narratives can be false, radically so. Thus, the narrative I tell myself cannot by itself support the judgment that the characteristics identified in the narrative as mine in fact belong to me. Furthermore, there are many people who cannot tell stories—very young children or someone in a persistent vegetative state—who nevertheless have an identity.

However, both problems can be addressed by including third-person narratives that confirm the first-person narrative we tell ourselves. In the most recent iteration of her theory, Schechtman accomplishes this via what she calls the “person life view.” A person is the same person over time if she lives the same paradigmatic life, which includes birth, personal and social development, a variety of social interactions, and death, all of which shape and are shaped by our personal characteristics and capacities. Importantly, a paradigmatic human life includes narratives that others tell about us that serve as a truth-check on our first person stories, thus mitigating the problem of false narratives. In addition, it is through paradigmatic ways in which we treat very young children or family members in a persistent vegetative, along with the third-person narratives we tell about them, that they too sustain an identity over time, thus eliminating worries that not everyone with an identity is capable of narrating their lives. But notice that the person-life view still requires a first-person narrative. A paradigmatic human life would not capture what is distinctive about an individual unless it was narrated from a subjective point of view.

All its virtues notwithstanding, there may nevertheless be an additional serious difficulty for the narrative theory. There is no question that human beings tell stories to make sense of our experience; some of us incessantly narrate our lives. But does everyone tell a single story about how the episodes in their life form a coherent whole? There are many who deny this claim. Galen Strawson, a prominent critic of the narrative view claims he does not. He writes:

It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.

Strawson’s argument is that, for him and persons like him, the events of a life are too disparate to organize themselves into a linear narrative. One can force disparate events into a story and many do, but for Strawson this is an optional strategy for making sense of life.

In this debate about the narrative theory, there is some question about what counts as a narrative. By “narrative” do its proponents mean something as straightforward as The Da Vinci Code or something as fragmented as Naked Lunch? Proponents of the narrative view seem to mean a straightforward linear narrative with a beginning, middle, and end and tidy transitions between episodes. But it isn’t obvious that the course of our lives is quite as linear as this theory requires.

The order in which events in a life occur and the order in which they are remembered and narrated are radically disparate. Countless events happen to us, some with substantial causal impact, that are never narrated. Thoughts come and go, most of which we do not author, with no requirement they be part of a narrative at all. Although most of us can establish a timeline of major (and some minor) events in our lives, we routinely suffer memories taken out of sequence that influence the present and the way we project a future. Once episodes in a life fall from the present into the past, as memories, they never appear within their original sequence of events. Memories of events to be narrated may not begin to capture the causal impact of the events when they occurred.

And we often project futures that are fanciful bearing little relationship to the present or past. Our personal narratives are more non-linear than linear unless we make an effort to impose order on them.

Thus, it isn’t obvious how to characterize the unity of such self-narratives that would support the judgment that one is the same person over time. Perhaps we, or some of us at any rate, are more like the British writer William Somerset Maugham who wrote: “I recognize that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?”

It might well be that some people who suffer an identity crisis are suffering because their narrative doesn’t hold together. They have lost the plot of their lives. But here is the difficulty with the narrative theory as a way of conceptualizing a way of responding to an identity crisis. If I’m suffering an identity crisis the last thing I want is more of the same story. I don’t want to be the same person or continue the same narrative—that is what got me into trouble. In other words, identity seems to be the wrong relationship between me and my past self in circumstances where significant change is called for. The way out of an identity crisis is to become a similar person, me but without the conditions that give rise to the crisis, which may require I substantially change who I am.

It seems to me that a sense of a continuous self over time comes from three sources.

·         A suitably large number of memories of different stages in one’s life, some of which involve plans or anticipations of future states of affairs that came about because of one’s own actions.

·         An implicit confirmation of these remembered events by others who shared them.

·         And a continuing sense of agency in carrying out plans and implementing actions to achieve goals.

The social context in the second condition is crucial both practically and theoretically. Without the acknowledgement of others who share experiences and confirm our perspective on them, I doubt we could develop or maintain a sense of self; and as noted above a memory theory would be circular and subject to worries about false memories unless supplemented by a third person perspective.

However, none of these conditions for a sense of self require a relationship of identity if we mean by that “possessing the same or similar characteristics.”

I suspect someone suffering from an identity crisis is having trouble with their sense of on-going agency. They feel they are either ineffective at developing meaningful plans or powerless to implement them. But in such cases, it’s not identity they seek but change and difference. What matters is not that I have the same or similar characteristics over time. Rather what matters is that my new self was caused by my old self. My actions come with an implicit awareness that I am performing the action. I view my actions as my own because I appear to be the author of them. It is a relation not of identity but of success in satisfying intentions that anchors our sense of self. What is distinctive about me is that I am the cause of my actions.

Thus, identity (understood as being the same or closely similar person over time) doesn’t matter (or doesn’t matter much) for one’s sense of self. We need enough continuity of characteristics to carry out plans and projects and to sustain relationships. But beyond that a capacity to change is equally important, a capacity that is threatened by a demand for too much unity.

For more on philosophy as a way of life visit Philosophy: A Way of Life.