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Fr. 699

December 28, 2015

If Mogensen is unlikely to concede authority to any of the candidate principles for identity centrality, it is natural to ask what then becomes of self (understood as individual identity). The most appropriate way forward, for Mogensen, lies in attributing the sense of individual identity to cognitive illusion. If no candidate principles can account for identity centrality and identity centrality allows us to speak intelligibly of individual identity, then perhaps approaches to individual identity conceal deeper problems.

With this in mind, the author outlines the debunking strategy to follow:

Fortunately, my argument doesn’t rest entirely on cataloguing these failures. I’m now going to argue that we can point to a plausible debunking explanation that allows us to see belief in individual identity as arising from an unreliable but pervasive psychological disposition. The disposition I have in mind is psychological essentialism (p. 25).

Insofar as belief in individual identity treats in essences and psychological essentialism, understood as the disposition to catalogue the world in terms of essences, joins to our apprehension of the world and ourselves notions of essence, the fallacies arising within the latter may well apply to the former. Indeed, if the case of individual identity can be assimilated to psychological essentialism, we would do well to heed the dangers posed by the latter.

So as to grasp better the main thrust of psychological essentialism, Mogensen proposes a short summary:

[W]e exhibit a broad-­ranging disposition to conceptualize key features of the world in terms of essences: in particular, we are disposed to assume that what makes an individual the kind of individual it is depends on its possession of certain defining inner qualities, rather than any characteristic surface features. This belief is not explicit, nor accessible to introspection, but rather a tacit background assumption guiding our efforts to categorise and classify (p. 25).

Although surface characteristics may offer a handle on certain of the underlying, essential qualities, the former are not themselves constitutive thereof. If surface qualities cannot hold the place of the essential, species-defining qualities, then the person’s conceptual work in this case stands or falls with the ability to sort out the different kinds of essential qualities. Yet, despite cataloguing the world in terms of essences, few people seem to operate with a clear understanding of that which an essence comprises.

In truth, the essence presents little in the way of qualities which a person might grasp. Consider that:

The essence is assumed to be unobservable and may in principle be completely masked by outward appearances (p. 26).

Although people readily categorise in terms of essences, they typically do so without any clear understanding of what these essences might be. Essences are projected automatically; only later do we form hypotheses about their nature (p. 26).

The foregoing leads us to the conclusion that the essence projected is constitutively incomplete and must remain “an essence placeholder, capable of being filled in different ways” (p. 26). From this point, people may come to project such descriptive qualities as immutable, durable, self-manifesting, self-masking, etc. To these may even be added normative qualities, e.g. authenticity, etc. All of the above goes to show just how much work humans get out of the idea and projection of “essences” onto objects in the world.

To this point, Mogensen adds:

People do, however, make certain characteristic assumptions about the causal powers of essences. For example, they assume that although the essence can in principle fail to be expressed (as in the example of a horse that looks and acts like a zebra), the essence ordinarily accounts for an individual’s observable traits and causes the characteristic features associated with a given kind. Knowledge of essences therefore carries rich inductive potential (p. 26).

This potential carries with it, however, certain dangers, particularly when for the qualities being sought no physical properties can be found or isolated.  However helpful the function or current its usage, it will prove divorced from reality (in some innocuous, non-correspondentist sense). More specifically, this concept will lose explanatory power, which stands as one of the key components of a good theory. To the loss of explanatory power is joined, moreover, illusion. On a weak version, illusion may temporarily distract the person from the reality of the phenomenon observed but may still prove useful to the person in some way or other. On a strong version, illusion reveals a constitutive incapacity to observe the phenomena in its real form and may represent a danger to the person in some way or other.

When Mogensen writes “[m]y hypothesis, then, is that belief in individual identity is symptomatic of psychological essentialism” (p. 27), he seems rather closer to the strong version than the weak for reasons to which we shall return.

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