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Fr. 483

January 17, 2014

3. This last fact, that we make use of rules in light of our circumstances and informational needs, transitions naturally into the third consideration in favor of mapping the presentation of identity onto grammar. Not only does there exist an excess of rules for any given situation, these same rules are also subject to change over time, addendum and deviation. Indeed, rules can evolve for a number of reasons. Prescriptive linguistic authorities can issue a ruling on a previous ambiguity in order to make the transmission of information clearer. On a descriptive view, individuals can also introduce new terms in function of their individual, communal or societal needs to designate a new entity or relation. Even apart from these considerations, rules may simply fall out of use, merge with others or undergo parallel modifications because the purpose that they once served is no longer present in the relevant linguistic community.

As a concrete example, consider the evolution of natural languages over long periods of time. For instance, the rules by which a person of antiquity, another of the medieval period, another of the Enlightenment and a last one of contemporary times would proceed for giving shape to their speech will undoubtedly diverge, if not contradict. The linguistic needs of each time differ. Consequently, their linguistic resources for combining meanings differ. This same divergence is to be found on the question of how these same individuals would voice or present their identities to one another, for the rules by which one proceeds are not necessarily to be found in the presentation of another. If the first two individuals proceed in view of firm universal, ontological horizons and the last two without such horizons (at least to a lesser extent), even the notion of identity has a different meaning for the individuals in question, to the point that certain of them would resist being called “individuals”. Taylor himself references on occasion just how incongruous it would be to present an analysis of Luther in terms of modern identity for which the key problem is disenchantment or loss of meaning, when, for Luther, this problem is rather that of condemnation. The modern problem would, in short, be incomprehensible for Luther even if both problems concern identity in general.

In the end, just as grammatical rules can be dismissed, retained or invented from an endless source, as is evident in the inexhaustible and incompatible instantiations of rules in natural languages, so too do the rules of identity permit of dismissal, retention and invention, this evolution inexhaustible in view of their concrete developments within a culture.

4. Finally, this proximity between grammar and identity is motivated by a group of linguistic considerations, which, if need be, could be dispensed with. Cioran famously wrote that, in questions of identity, it is important to consider that “On n’habite pas un pays, on habite une langue.” This comes out to an extent in similar observations that we live in an era as much as a land, fueling the sort of considerations present in much of Herder’s work. For this reason, language would seem itself an integral part of our identity, both through the language(s) that we speak and the idiosyncrasies or cadences that make our particular way of speaking that language our own.

Furthermore, it should be remembered that, in matters of giving form to and presenting our identity, it is fundamentally a matter of expression. In other words, the presentation of our identity is inescapably mediated by language and the conceptual resources available to us. As a result, the identity that we make publicly available to others and privately so to ourselves is in and of itself linguistic through the framework of its presentation.

To conclude, we return to the considerations from which we set out: the lack of specificity attached to accounts of identity’s inner workings. It is this lack that motivates the present search for a grammar of identity and the rules that come with such. For, if the model introduces measures that a particular identity might not meet and thus fail to qualify as an acceptable identity, the notion of grammar leaves us considerably more flexibility on specifying what it is that goes into any given identity. It is likewise important to remember that such a grammar is fundamentally incomplete in that its totality remains, in principle, unexpressed or indeterminate:

“We often declare our identity as defined by only one of these [universal commitments or particular identifications], because this is what is salient in our lives, or what is put in question. But in fact our identity is deeper and more many-sided than any of our possible articulations of it” (Sources of the Self, p. 29).

Yet with the seeming misfortune owing to its incompleteness comes a stroke of luck as well. So long as the rules for presenting and shaping identity are forever incomplete, their exposition open-ended, both the means of developing identity and its final form are free to evolve without limit, without concern for explanatory inadequacy.

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