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Fr. 692

December 9, 2015

In a paper entitled “Is individual identity an illusion?”, Andreas Mogensen, a specialist in moral epistemology, takes aim at the indeterminate concept of identity in the hope of unraveling the knot of notions therein. In particular, he seeks to tease out the factors which make certain traits central to identity whereas others remain peripheral. Mogensen sums his quest up thusly:

Any attempt to enumerate these supposedly central traits generates a heterogeneous and open-ended list of qualities. A given individual might be defined in part by her professional role, her religious beliefs, her degree of extraversion, her political orientation, her tastes and preferences, her nationality, her sexuality, and more besides. What makes these particular traits privileged: what accounts for their identity centrality? (p. 1)

The author makes clear from the outset that he deems any such account unlikely to meet with success in that previous attempts have issued in failure (to be demonstrated) and future attempts, viewed inductively, will likewise meet with failure. For this reason, individual identity should be classed as a cognitive illusion, the result of underlying psychological essentialism on the individual’s part, and dealt with accordingly.

The relevance of such an inquiry to our own, which sketches an approach to self and identity, makes itself felt from the outset. Indeed, Mogensen’s challenge joins the ranks of those which we have already treated and which present a stiff challenge to a grammar of identity. Accordingly, our goal in this reading will consist in taking that challenge as seriously as we have taken the others in order to see what, if any, resistance we might mount in face of it or whether we must yield to its conclusions. Before any such determination can be reached, we must first give careful consideration to the arguments as they are made. With that, we can turn to the paper itself.

As the terms “individual” and “identity” are indeterminate notions, subject to rival claims as to any definitive meaning, the author naturally begins with a clarification of terms. In quick succession, he distinguishes “individual identity” from other uses prevalent in contemporary philosophy and social sciences: 1.) personal identity; 2.) identity politics; 3.) identity crisis; 4.) identification.

1.) Personal identity is a species of numerical identity, representing an equivalence relation between one and the same individual considered at different times. A person’s individual identity is not a relation, but a set of defining properties exemplified during a certain period of time […]

2.) As it figures in ‘identity politics’, ‘identity’ denotes either a socially significant category of group-membership or the shared self- understanding through which such a group attains a sense of solidarity and distinctiveness […]

3.) ‘Identity’ in this sense [of identity crisis] corresponds roughly to ‘self-image’ or ‘self-understanding’: your own (continually evolving) sense of what makes you you. Our topic is not who you understand yourself to be, but who you really are […]

4.) [The] person as identified with some attitude insofar as it receives reflexive endorsement via a corresponding wholehearted higher-order attitude. (pp. 2-3)

All of the above are to be distinguished from the sense sought here, namely, identity “understood in terms of those traits that define you as the person you are” for which synonyms might include “‘the true self’, ‘deep self’, and ‘real self’”. Our own usage of terms understandably differs from that given here insofar as we associate the term “identity” to sense 3.) (self-image or self-projection) and reserve “definitional traits” for one part of “individual” or “self”.

The preliminary clarification of terms complete, Mogensen goes on to show why the topic of individual identity merits further consideration from philosophers beyond what one might find in the self-help section of a local bookshop. For the author, this consideration follows from identity’s centrality to areas of inquiry in ethics such as: “the ethics of biomedical enhancement; blame and responsibility; contructivist [sic] theories in meta-ethics; and the value of moral testimony” (p. 5). We will not here recap the role identity has to play therein but will content ourselves with recalling an annex line of inquiry in which identity also has a say: discursive ethics and political discussion.

Having demonstrated both the notion’s content and importance for ethics, Mogensen lays out his plan of attack:

Note that my interest here will be in the basis of identity centrality, not its signs or symptoms […] we might have various criteria on which we rely in deciding that some trait is central to individual identity, whereas these criteria might not tell us why these traits have this kind of centrality (p. 8).

Again, the question is not of collecting the various traits which point towards deeper identity. Instead, the aim must be that of isolating the criteria determining the classing traits into central features of a given individual identity. For this, it will first be necessary to evaluate different principles or criteria.

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