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. Read more »