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Fr. 705

January 14, 2016

3. Is it sound to isolate meanings of identity without specifying the purpose which they are to serve?

In all fields, there comes a time for defining the objects with which that field’s practitioners principally concern themselves. But, with the need for definition, there simultaneously arises the question of both what purpose(s) that definition will be put to and from which it follows. For definitions cannot be purely descriptive and insulated from the evaluative; they necessarily find a place in a system of rules which guide the act of description. Put somewhat differently, where there no longer remains a hard and fast distinction between description (or observation) and evaluation, as per Quine and pragmatism, all observation necessarily involves a measure of evaluation. By extension, descriptive activities resemble evaluation from action-guiding principles in important ways.

From the outset, Mogensen does well to define his object as distinct from that on which other, similar studies bear. Recall that he carefully marks out his understanding of individual identity as that deep or true self from four other conceptions:

1.) Personal identity is a species of numerical identity, representing an equivalence relation between one and the same individual considered at different times. A person’s individual identity is not a relation, but a set of defining properties exemplified during a certain period of time […]

2.) As it figures in ‘identity politics’, ‘identity’ denotes either a socially significant category of group-membership or the shared self- understanding through which such a group attains a sense of solidarity and distinctiveness […]

3.) ‘Identity’ in this sense [of identity crisis] corresponds roughly to ‘self-image’ or ‘self-understanding’: your own (continually evolving) sense of what makes you you. Our topic is not who you understand yourself to be, but who you really are […]

4.) [The] person as identified with some attitude insofar as it receives reflexive endorsement via a corresponding wholehearted higher-order attitude. (pp. 2-3)

This much is to his credit. Yet it proves much less clear to which theoretical or practical purpose his conception of individual identity is to correspond. In other words, we should ask how and for what end a person appeals to the notion of individual identity or the deep and true self. It is, however, precisely this question that goes unanswered in the text. Certainly, a person likes to speak of his having an individual identity over and against others, but nowhere does the author suggest what purpose this claim serves. It proves a very different matter whether the person claims this individual identity as an empirical object in some way influencing the existence of other empirical objects (i.e. that about which other scientific claims might be made) or as a shorthand for the justification of the person’s point of view with regards to her past experiences.

If in regards to the first claim the person’s explanation of individual identity reveals itself as woefully inappropriate as an empirical object, the person’s explanation of individual identity in the second does not appear to suffer the same argumentative fate. In this way, the same explanation may prove more tenable in one set of circumstances than another and this primarily because there differs the purpose to which that explanation has been put.

Indeed, we have made a similar case elsewhere for the importance of purpose in determining whether a given explanation, description or observation is good or bad:

If we above asserted that explanations can be better or worse, it remains to be seen in what manner we can deem them better or worse. Lacking any transcendent standards by which to levy such a judgment, any such evaluation must come with regards to purpose. This evaluation can take multiple forms, of which we shall briefly sketch three. The evaluation can bear on the explanation by questioning how well it fulfills the purpose which the explanation either explicitly or implicitly sets itself. Alternatively, the evaluation can question whether and how well the explanation fulfills other purposes than those which it explicitly or implicitly sets itself. Lastly, the evaluation might call into question the value of the purpose itself, independent of the explanation which comes to fulfill it.

For the time being, we shall remain with the first of these and hold that an explanation may be deemed better or worse in virtue of the purpose which it sets itself. By extension, if explanations can be better or worse, this would suggest that self is an object capable of receiving explanation. The question remains of which kind of explanation self is susceptible. This, in turn, leads back to the question of purpose, for the purpose alone determines what kind of explanation self will receive, i.e. what kind of considerations, evidence and argumentation are admitted in favor of or against the explanation.

In a word, purpose is paramount in judging the description or explanation, but it is precisely this purpose which lacks on the author’s account. So long as this lack persists, his accusations cut a wider swath through the notion of identity than they perhaps should. Despite his persuasive argumentation, individual identity remains a viable notion, capable of rehabilitation, insofar as individual identity (understood as that deep or true self) does not prove mere illusion for all practical purposes to which it might be submitted. For, in discursive situations or moral deliberation, it is unclear why none of my properties would play a more central, important or relevant role than any other. (But perhaps there has simply been a subtle shift in the notion of identity at issue, as Mogensen would likely be right to contend.)

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