Three concepts of identity

What I mean by ‘identity’ here is not the relation of sameness between two persons at two different times, but a characteristic or a mark that a person has. In this sense of ‘identity’, a person can have more than one identity. There are, however, three different concepts of identity in this sense.

The first can be called the concept of plain identity. This is the concept of identity understood in the most unrestrictive way, that is, when ‘identity’ is understood to mean simply ‘that which a person can be identified as’. On this concept of identity, as long as something is true of a person, we can refer to it as one of her identities. The concept of plain identity is so unrestrictive that a plain identity of a person does not even have to be something that the person can be uniquely identified as. I have, for instance, the unique identity as my son’s father, but I also have the identity as a father, which is not unique. This feature of plain identity accords well with our everyday use of the word ‘identity’, such as when we speak of our cultural, social, national, or professional identities and when we speak of different people’s having the same identity.

It is clear that in this unrestrictive sense of identity I can have many identities; some of them cover a large set of my activities and a long period of time, while others cover just a particular involvement at a particular time. One of my plain identities is a professor of philosophy, which is a long-term identity that involves doing different kinds of things; it is also one of my plain identities that I am the person who is writing this very sentence that I am now writing, and this is one single activity that lasts only for a very short while. Not only activities or projects that I positively undertake form my plain identities, things that are entirely not up to me, or not entirely up to me, also form my plain identities.

The second concept of identity can be called the concept of self-identity. A person’s plain identity becomes his self-identity if he identifies himself, or self-identifies, with that identity --- if he sees the identity as defining who he is, or at least part of who he is. In one of its usages, the term ‘self’ refers precisely to self-identity as I define it here. In this usage, as David Velleman points out, “the term ‘self’ refers --- not to the person, or a part of the person, represented reflexively --- but to the person’s own reflexive representations, which make up his self-image or self-conception” and which gives him “his sense of who he is” (Velleman, Self to Self, pp.355-356).

It is obvious that not every one of my plain identities is what I would consider to be part of who I am, or constitutes part of my self-image or self-conception. It is, for example, a plain identity of mine that I am the person who is typing this very sentence that I am now typing, but I certainly do not think this identity is part of who I am. Indeed, even when a plain identity of mine is considered by others to be who I am because it is, as they see it, an important identity, I may not agree with them. If I myself do not consider the plain identity as part of who I am, then it is not my self-identity. As Bernard Williams puts it, “[t]he difference between an identity which is mine and which I eagerly recognize as mine, and an identity as what someone else simply assumes me to be, is in one sense all the difference in the world” (Williams, Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, p.62).

Williams’s remark seems to suggest that if I self-identify with a plain identity of mine, it must be a plain identity that I value, that is, something that I want myself to be or something that I think I should be rather than merely something that I admit I actually am. Given that most people have the natural tendency to see themselves positively and have the psychological need for self-esteem, people normally value their self-identities. This may be why some philosophers understand self-identity in terms of reflective endorsement: what it is for a person to identify herself with her identity is for her to approve of it after reflecting on whether she should approve of it.

However, given the complexity of human psychology, as exemplified by phenomena like self-hatred and despising oneself, it does not seem difficult to imagine a person who self-identifies with an identity that she disvalues. If I were a Dalit (an untouchable) in India, I might, because of how I was brought up and because of how the caste system works, self-identify with my identity as a Dalit and see myself as being obligated by that identity to act in particular ways, but I did not have to value that identity (why should I?). In any case, I certainly can identify myself with an identity that I do not value or disvalue ¾ not everything that I admit as defining who I am is also something that I am proud of being, something that I see as good in some way, something that I think I should be.

The third concept of identity, which is closely relation to the concept of self-identity and also what we need for evaluating a biographical life, can be called the concept of unifying-identity. A unifying-identity is a self-identity that unifies different parts of a person’s biographical life into a narrative whole that can easily develop further by virtue of that very self-identity (if the person continues to live). Since a unifying-identity unifies different parts of a person’s life, it contains many plain identities of that person, some of which may be that person’s self-identities. A unifying-identity must itself be a self-identity, but a self-identity is not necessarily a unifying-identity, just as a self-identity must itself be a plain identity, but a plain identity is not necessarily a self-identity. A self-identity that is not a unifying-identity may still form a narrative whole in the sense that it constitutes a story that has a beginning and an end; the reason why it is not a unifying-identity is that the narrative whole cannot easily develop further by virtue of that self-identity. Since a self-identity can be a unifying-identity, if some of the self-identities contained in a unifying-identity are themselves unifying-identities, it will be a case of a unifying-identity containing other unifying-identities as its parts.

The distinction between self-identity and unifying-identity is not clear-cut, that is, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a self-identity is also a unifying-identity. But it is not hard to see that there is a distinction when what we consider is not a borderline case.


Why 'meaning'?

When people are troubled by questions like ‘What is the meaning of my life?’, ‘Does my life have meaning?’, and ‘Is my life meaningful?’, there are, presumably, some concerns they have that they think can be expressed by asking such questions. But what are these concerns? And why can they all be expressed by asking questions about meaning or meaningfulness?

In his attempt to look for a concept of meaning or meaningfulness common to the major theories or conceptions of a meaningful life, Thaddeus Metz suggests, after failing to find such a common concept, that these theories or conceptions are united by family resemblances, for they all address some of the questions in a group of related questions. He does not explain how the questions are related or what determines whether a question should be put in the group; he gives us only examples of such questions (“questions such as the following: how may a person bring purpose to her life, where this is not just a matter of pursuing happiness or acting rightly?  How should an individual connect with intrinsic value beyond his animal nature? How might one do something worthy of great admiration?” (“The Concept of a Meaningful Life”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 38, pp.150-151)). But even if he had explained in some way how these questions are related, he might still not have explained why they are all questions about meaning or meaningfulness.

According to Susan Wolf, a meaningful life is “one that has within it the basis for an affirmative answer to the needs or longings that are characteristically described as needs for meaning” (“Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 14, p.208, italics added). And the concerns that she thinks people have when they are troubled by the problem about meaningfulness are “whether their lives have been (or are) worth living, whether they have had any point, and the sort of questions one asks when considering suicide and wondering whether one has any reason to go on” (p.209). Should we then say that what explains why the concerns can all be expressed by questions that are asked in terms of the concept of meaning is that the questions can all be used to express needs for meaning? We can certainly say that, but it does not seem to get us very far, for the term ‘meaning’ is used in ‘needs for meaning’. We still have to explain why it is that what these questions express is needs for meaning rather than needs for something else.

The best answer, I suggest, is that all the concerns are related to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ (and its cognates). Or more precisely, all the concerns people have when they are troubled by the problem about meaningfulness are related to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ when it is used in some other contexts as well as in the context of thinking or talking about the meaning or meaningfulness of one’s life.

To see the plausibility of this suggestion, we can first consider linguistic meaning, that is, the meaning of ‘meaning’ when the word is applied to linguistic items such as words and sentences. As a matter of fact, it is not only in English that the very same word is used in both ‘the meaning of a life’ and ‘the meaning of a sentence’ (or ‘the meaning of a word’). In each of the other major languages the same word is applied to both a life and a sentence: in German, it is the word ‘Bedeutung’; in French, ‘sens’; in Spanish, ‘sentido’; in Italian, ‘significato’; in Portuguese, ‘significação’; in Russian, ‘значе́ние’; and in Chinese, ‘意義’.

Linguistic items can be evaluated as having meaning or not having meaning, or as being meaningful or being meaningless. It is good for a linguistic item to have meaning, and bad for it not to have meaning. Some may think that anything that is meaningless is not a linguistic item. Let us grant that, for instance, a meaningless string of letters from the English alphabet, such as ‘rytwe’, is not really a linguistic item, but it is clear that a grammatical but meaningless string of meaningful words, such as Noam Chomsky’s famous example of ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’, is a linguistic item ¾ it is a sentence. Sometimes a linguistic item is not literally meaningless in the way Chomsky’s example is, but it is still considered meaningless or nonsensical in the context in which it is used because it does not fit in with the context and does not provide information it is supposed to provide, such as when someone utters ‘I think Epictetus was cooler than Jesus’ as an answer to the question ‘Are you coming to my party tonight?’.

One reason why a meaningless linguistic item is bad is that it hinders, or at least fails to facilitate, communication and understanding. In other words, it fails to fulfill its proper function. Another reason may be that it is an aberration in something that is otherwise orderly and systematic. That is, a meaningless linguistic item is disagreeable. There may be other reasons, but here I need only to point out the fact that linguistic meaning has an evaluative aspect; when we apply ‘meaning’ or ‘meaningful’ to a linguistic item, we are making an evaluative judgment. Likewise, when ‘meaning’ or ‘meaningful’ is applied to a life, the resulting judgment is also evaluative. Accordingly, when a person asks the question ‘Does my life have meaning?’ or ‘Is my life meaningful?’, she can be expressing her concern about the evaluation of her life.

When we evaluate a linguistic item as having a meaning, we certainly do not mean that it has the meaning that all other linguistic items have. There is simply no such thing. In most cases, each linguistic item has its own meaning, or is meaningful in its own way. Like meaningful linguistic items, meaningful lives can be meaningful in very different ways, though it is not as clear that there is no such thing as the meaning of life (this is why some people are looking for it). And when a person looks for the meaning of her life, she is not looking for a generic meaning that all lives have in common ¾ even if there was such a meaning.