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Fr. 697

December 17, 2015

With this we move to the fourth and final candidate criterion for individual identity, as treated by Mogensen: reflexive attitudes. If the author wishes to distinguish neatly self-image from the individual identity at issue, he nonetheless entertains the possibility that a person’s attitudes towards her traits may play a role in determining their centrality.

This possibility issues in a number of variant views on which the person’s conscious integration of specific traits plays a greater or lesser role in their centrality. Among these views, we find self-narrative whereon:

[T]he centrality of a trait for a person is determined by its narrative significance: the importance it holds within the self-­told story of her life. The authority of a person’s self-­narrative is not absolute, however (p. 17).

Accordingly, if trait x (e.g. fatherhood) is vital in understanding the person’s self-apprehension of his life to that point and traits y and z (e.g. photographer, salesman) do not have the same importance, we might understand the former as having identity centrality in a way that the latter do not. Yet Mogensen is right to emphasize, along with those authors whom he cites, that self-narrative can prove highly unreliable. We need only consider that individuals can indulge in self-deception, lack perspective on their lives or otherwise be unaware of important parts of themselves. In short, a criterion for identity centrality which depends on narrative falls prey to the same difficulties as narrative itself.

A second variant of this view lies in self-value or self-valuing as “some philosophers emphasize a close tie between identity centrality and what we value in ourselves” (p. 17). In other words, the person would attach value to a certain description of herself over and against another, and the value attached to the former would in some way centralize the traits valued therein. Again, if the individual attaches value to the traits “fatherhood” as opposed to “photographer” or “salesman”, we may see in this act the basis or, at least, confirmation of the trait’s centrality.

If we can easily understand the appeal of a view on which the person’s own act of self-value and self-definition plays a role in determining those traits most central to her identity, this second view cannot escape considerations analogous to those which plague that of self-narrative. Mogensen recalls:

Intuitively, a person can be in denial about who she really is. She may reject important parts of her identity, giving certain core traits a liminal place in her self-­understanding (p. 18).

Are these variant views on reflexive attitudes thus beyond saving? As it happens, a corrective for self-narrative might take the form of a realism which predicates that the story told or the values appraised correspond to the reality. Hence, an outsider could act as an objective, correcting influence on the person’s telling or valuing and, by extension, join her authority to that of the individual.

For his part, Mogensen is skeptical of such a corrective in that it involves an incorrect application of what he terms a realism condition. He notes that:

The realism condition is not a means for including certain traits within a person’s identity in spite of her failure to acknowledge them: it’s a tool for excluding certain traits that a person self-ascribes but shouldn’t (p. 18).

In other words, a corrective of this kind must prove negative in function rather than positive. If it acts as a check on the account given by the person of her own reflexive attitudes, it cannot, for Mogensen, introduce new material into that account.

From a conceptual standpoint, Mogensen’s point seems fair in that, were an outside authority to introduce traits into the person’s self-evaluation, this evaluation would no longer set out from reflexive attitudes towards those traits. More simply, self-evaluation would no longer determine identity centrality but evaluation, and reflexive attitudes as a candidate criterion would lose all interest. (Practically speaking, that same point may prove more difficult to countenance insofar as there exist specialists who exercise just such a function with respect to their clients: therapists, life-coaches, etc. In such fields, the realism condition seems to operate in just the way that the philosophical account does not allow.)

Does there exist another possible way forward for reflexive attitudes qua criterion for identity centrality?

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