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Fr. 694

December 12, 2015

The second candidate principle or criterion examined by Mogensen consists in uniqueness. Such a principle would hold that the basis for identity centrality proves the extent to which a trait is unique or sets one apart from one’s fellows. At first blush, the criterion enjoys a certain plausibility: individual identity as that which makes one stand out as an individual.

Yet it would seem that not all unique traits are created equal. As Mogensen is quick to note:

One problem for this view arises from the fact that we all have certain uniquely identifying properties that seem entirely peripheral. Your fingerprint may be unique to you. Still, you wouldn’t be considered a different person if your fingerprints changed. Suppose that although the number of hairs on your head is actually quite common, the number of hairs on your shin is completely unique. It seem absurd to insist that the number of hairs on your shin is therefore more central to who you are than the number of hairs on your head (p. 12).

Were traits of any and all kinds to be held in equal importance, such a view would quickly end in incoherence. Trivial traits would, as the author rightly suggests, enjoy as much claim to centrality as the more significant.

Therein lies a possible way for skirting this objection, one employed by authors as diverse as Taylor and self-help psychologists. For it is not merely a question of isolating those traits which render one distinct from others. It proves just as important to find the most significant of these traits so as to get a grasp on the identity of the person. Put simply, not all traits are necessary to understand a person.

If we thus preclude trivial or non-significant traits in favor of only those significant to identity, it remains to be seen whether uniqueness can make sense of a trait’s identity centrality. Here, the attempt to ground identity centrality in uniqueness encounters a new knot of problems insofar as many significant traits (nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, etc.) appear significant in virtue of their being shared with a larger community.

Mogensen highlights just this when he remarks:

A person’s religious beliefs are typically thought central to her identity. However, many religions have enormous numbers of adherents […] On its face, the mere popularity of a given religion doesn’t tell us anything about the extent to which adherence to that religion belongs to the core of a person’s identity. Thus, it would be strikingly counterintuitive to suppose that Christianity becomes less central to the identity of ordinary Christians to the extent that missionaries succeed in finding new converts (p. 13).

This point remains valid so long as we remain at the first level of categorization. Establishing an inversely proportional relationship between a significant trait’s popularity and its identity centrality will issue in incoherent assertions like that above. That said, it remains to be seen whether uniqueness might not still hold for traits such as upbringing for which greater variables are likely to enter into play.

Moreover, at a second level of categorization, we might find that one’s subjective attitudes or approach to the initial categorization of significant traits could create room of this kind for uniqueness with regards to widely shared traits. If each person’s interpretation, reading or approach to beliefs, dispositions or practices associated with that traits diverged from others, it would not be unreasonable to see in this divergence a sort of uniqueness. Similarly, uniqueness could be associated with the entire constellation or network of traits making up individual identity.

Yet Mogensen’s major point still stands. In that uniqueness seems unable to predicate the centrality of a given trait, it cannot serve as a principle or criterion for organizing the logical space of individual identity. Indeed, it seems likely that Mogensen would find the preceding considerations, if not handwaving, at least somewhat off-target. For a given religion does not seem important to a person because she has a unique approach to certain matters of dogma; it proves important for the sense of community it affords. As to the second, the uniqueness of the network, this would leave us unable to predicate the importance of certain traits as opposed to other and would effectively resign us to silence on individual identity.

Accordingly, the author sees in the candidate principle under consideration a philosophical corruption of everyday thinking:

[W]e can easily explain away any tendency to associate uniqueness with identity centrality as a recognitional heuristic tuned to a world in which inauthenticity is assumed to be a common occurrence. It’s part of our ordinary thinking about identity that a person’s outward behavior needn’t manifest who they really are. Inauthenticity characteristically arises from conformity and imitation. For this reason, we assume that inauthentic persons can be recognized by their lack of originality. Conversely, traits which are distinctive or unique are more likely to be indicative of who someone really is (p. 13).

In short, everyday thinking would work backwards from inauthenticity’s equivalence with conformity to authenticity’s distinctiveness, and it is simple enough to see where this goes awry. For authentic beliefs stand often enough as common property of a community. This point highlights, however, something of a faultline in Mogensen’s reading. Although it is admirable on Mogensen’s part to attempt to reconstruct the vagaries of ordinary thinking, this particular reading may obscure other characterizations of inauthenticity. If we grant that outward behavior need not reflect inward character, it does not follow that inauthenticity arise from conformity alone. It may arise just as easily from conflict within the hierarchy or network of traits and beliefs.

All the same, uniqueness seems ill-positioned to serve as a criterion for setting out the centrality of different traits. If imitation is suicide for the individual, as per Emerson’s dictum, uniqueness fares no better in sorting out identity.

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