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Fr. 702

December 31, 2015

What then are the provisional conclusions to be drawn on individual identity? In a word, Mogensen considers rather dim the prospects for elaborating the idea of individual identity at issue in the text, specifically that this expression is “understood in terms of those traits that define you as the person you are” or as “‘the true self’, ‘deep self’, and ‘real self’” (p. 3). So long as beliefs concerning individual identity show all or some of the hallmarks of essentialism, Mogensen does not think them worth admitting as empirically sound considerations.

Given the documented unreliability of essentialist thinking, I take it that we ought to distrust beliefs which are known to reflect the influence of psychological essentialism. In particular, we ought to distrust the sense of intuitive obviousness with which such beliefs are apt to strike us. Thus, if belief in individual identity is symptomatic of essentialist thinking, this should cast significant doubt on the reality of our intuitive distinction between central and peripheral traits (p. 30).

In truth, it is just this “intuitive obviousness” with which we must take care and which the author seeks in part to discount. For this obviousness possesses a twofold fault. On one hand, the obvious quality leads the person to assert certain beliefs concerning the self which are incapable of solid empirical bases. On the author, the intuitive aspect leaves the person in a position in and from which it is difficult to countenance renouncing those beliefs. This twofold fault provides sufficient ground for Mogensen to argue for an error theory of individual identity.

He pursues this point in writing:

At the very least, this explanation allows us to see why we could be expected to believe in the phenomenon of identity centrality even if individual identity is ultimately illusory. We are reliably disposed to believe in essences, even where none exist and where no evidence exists to suggest they do. Supposing that we in fact simply have the traits we do and nothing more, we should expect that creatures like us would impose an illusory ordering on these traits, arranging them along a continuum from a definitional core to an outward, front-­facing periphery (p. 30-31).

In short, human beings are “constituted” in such a way that, confronted with a range of concrete instances or tokens, they will inevitably projects patterns into that range with the aim of better apprehending the instances or tokens as the parts of some well-ordered whole. The error would lie neither in recognizing traits in a person nor in correctly attributing traits to a person, but in supposing an order underlying the traits recognized and attributed. In other words, human beings are carried, despite themselves, from more or less sound judgments at the first level (that of traits) to unsound or unfounded judgments at the second (that of a whole organizing the traits).

Insofar as error comes in at the second level rather than the first, we might isolate this error to the person’s attempt at establishing an interrelation or hierarchy of traits, specifically in terms of central and peripheral. Between the terms central and peripheral, there can, for Mogensen, be no thoroughgoing difference:

[T]here is nothing in reality corresponding to our perceived distinction between the central and peripheral traits of a person. I don’t deny that some of our traits are distinguished in terms of their durability, their uniqueness, their breadth and depth of influence, or their importance in our self-­definition. However, neither of these properties serves as a plausible basis for identity centrality. It’s unclear what could (p. 31).

If, as the author suggests, differences between traits can be established, this will either fail to follow from some deeper metaphysical entity or will set out from some other non-metaphysical understanding of self and identity. In either case, the conclusion seems clear that positing individual identity cannot be linked to a metaphysical account:

At the same time, it seems plausible that belief in individual identity is symptomatic of psychological essentialism: a pervasive disposition to conceptualize in terms of a definitional core lying beneath a peripheral surface. Given the documented unreliability of essentialism as a psychological disposition, it would be unsurprising to discover that there is in fact nothing corresponding to our intuitive conception of individual identity. Most likely, you have no identity and nor do I. We have many different properties and none are any more or less central to who we are. (p. 31)

In the end, the author cannot countenance any entity like that envisioned by everyday talk and beliefs concerning individual identity. Identity, so envisioned, cannot have any meaningful existence. Certainly, Mogensen makes a persuasive case, and there is much to be commended in his account. Yet it remains to be seen whether his method leaves people in a better position to find out what other kinds of identity are still available and whether that same method had not already stacked the books against identity from the very beginning.

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