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Fr. 701

December 30, 2015

So, the question must be asked whether individual identity, in the sense defined by Mogensen, proves unsalvageable. If there remains a way out for those in favor of individual identity, it must, in our sense, take one of two forms. Either identity must be unmoored from essentialist framework or underpinnings or the partisan for individual identity must define and refine a more precise notion of identity. In the latter case, it seems likely that this redefinition will come at the price of significant modification to the underlying idea, to the point that it may no longer be recognizable as that targeted by Mogensen. Such would, in the end, go a considerable way towards confirming the author’s hypothesis.

As the former case, it remains conceivable that individual identity could be approached from an non-essentialist perspective in the sense that identity shows receptivity to change and external stimuli. Mogensen himself contemplates this possibility when he writes:

I have in mind those philosophers […] who emphasize that our identity is not something fixed and can in principle be shaped by active self-­creation. If we hold a view of individual identity according to which who we are is not some immutable natural fact, is it still plausible to suppose that we are dealing with a symptom of psychological essentialism (p. 29)?

The supporter of such a position argues from a position of strength on at least two counts. First, intuitively, identity seems subject to external forces in the form of receptivity, elaboration or articulation undertaken by the person. Secondly, if human nature resists definition in terms of essence, it is entirely plausible that individual identity likewise resists definition. Individual identity need not always manifest durability, immutability, etc..

Willing though Mogensen is to concede these points, he is also keen to remark that such counterarguments make too much of essentialism. More specifically, those proceeding from such contentions consider essentialism a monolithic formation where, to be considered a case of essence and essentialism, all characteristic traits of essentialist thinking must be present and interconnected. On understandable grounds, the author here demurs:

[E]ssentialism isn’t all-­or-­nothing and the full cluster of essentialist assumptions needn’t occur together. My view doesn’t require that beliefs about individual identity embody every hallmark of essentialist thinking. The claim that belief in the phenomenon of identity centrality is ultimately traceable to essentialism is quite consistent with the possibility that certain characteristic essentialist assumptions are overruled when philosophers explicitly theorize about individual identity (p. 29).

In sum, so long as thinking about individual identity engages in the kind of (unconscious but wishful) projection of essentialist traits, the author’s critique of this projection remains valid. Consider a projection which brings together half the classical traits of essentialist thinking with regards to an object as opposed to bringing all such traits. This quantitative difference does not make the former half as much a projection as the latter, for, at its root and in its structure, the former projection remains just that, a projection.

At this point, certain readers may be willing to concede Mogensen’s broader claims yet still find value in the notion of individual identity at issue here. This might even prove the initial steps towards a middling position or a more self-conscious approach to individual identity. For his part, the author sees danger in such a possibility, precisely in that it distances our way of conceiving individual identity from firm empirical ground on which we might otherwise stand. In particular, he sees in this exercise of psychological essentialism confirmation of an error theory of identity:

The hypothesis supports an error theory about identity because scientific evidence reliably indicates that there do not exist real essences corresponding to the projections of psychological essentialism (p. 29).

To the extent that indulging essentialist thinking about individual identity obscures more scientific bases or approaches to the matter, so must this indulgence be brought to task. For neither would it propose a clear utility for such function nor bring us closer to understanding what identity is, were it approached from more empirically sound fields. Instead of essentialist thinking, we should instead promote more relational approaches:

[I]t’s a matter of consensus in the philosophy of biology that species membership should not be defined in this way. Species membership is instead understood as grounded in relational properties, such as genealogical relatedness. Attempts to isolate genetic essences believed to underlie distinctions of race and sex similarly find our intuitions out of step with biological reality (p. 30).

The author counts mistaken assumptions about water’s identity as two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen as another example of essentialist thinking in the sciences and philosophy of science. Just as the precise composition of water’s liquid phase can vary in number of ions and polymers, so can there be no chemical essence to water. On the contrary, its “identity”, in whatever relevant sense, must be seen as the conjunction of a certain number of component relations.

What then are the final conclusions to be drawn on individual identity?

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