Thursday, August 2, 2012

8. Personal identity

Behind a number of political debates, for example on immigration, the re-emergence of nationalism, and European unification, there lie issues of identity: personal and cultural. I give a series of five pieces to deal with the different aspects involved.

There is individual identity (‘who am I’) and collective identity (‘who are we’). Also, there is categorial identity (‘to what do I/we belong’) and existential identity (how do we experience ourselves). For the individual, existential identity is personal identity, and for a group it is cultural identity. Existential identity is connected with the question’ What do I/we want’, associated values, and the question ‘how do I/we think’. Individual identity does not stand alone from collective identity: I can hardly belong to a group that is completely at odds with what I think that I am and what I want. And collective identity contributes to the formation of individual identity. Here I consider individual identity.

‘Identity’ here is an intriguing term. It suggests that in having an identity one is identical to oneself, remaining equal to oneself. But the self is wobbly and fragmented, opaque, and changes, develops, within limits. Nevertheless the self has a certain stability. Where does that come from?

It comes from the body. In that body the individual has its own temperament in innate dispositions, and a personality as a whole of attitudes, responses and behaviours. Without body there is no identity and in death we lose it. In the body all impressions, movements, and experiences come together. Those form dispositions, impulses and ideas on the basis of experience, and that experience is bound to that one body along its unique life trajectory.

How does that work, more precisely? According to Antonio Damasio the brain forms images or ‘maps’, in neuronal structures, of the interior body, of organs. Those internal images in the brain are fed by the physiology of organs, and in turn play a role in the regulation of those organs. Next, from observation of external objects and experience with actions those body maps are affected, and a new level of images or maps arises. Here, from interaction with the outside world the notion arises of the self as an independent player in that world. Next that leads to the build-up of a biographical self, with memories of earlier experiences, and expectations and plans for the future, and the whole of all that forms the identity of the self.

Now, if the self is in ongoing development, what then is authenticity, being true to one’s real self? What ‘real self’? Where in time does that lie? How can one be true to something that is under development and that furthermore one knows imperfectly? The idea of the self as something that is given beforehand and manifests itself in life without change is not only unrealistic but also creepy. Then one is condemned to that original self. Is authenticity, perhaps, giving oneself the opportunity of developing identity, in the realisation of one’s potential for it, in interaction with one’s environment?

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