Puzzle 2: What Is An Identity?

by Neil Van Leeuwen

Since the Corona crisis rages on, it has come time for a second blog whose purpose is to distract you from the woes of the world. In case you missed it, I promised in my last blog that for the duration of the crisis I would write about philosophical puzzles in order to give you, readers, something to occupy your minds.

Last month’s puzzle was about whether people have voluntary control over their beliefs. That issue is moderately big in philosophy of mind and epistemology, and most philosophers who think about it lean toward involuntarism — the idea that it is not possible to change one’s beliefs through direct voluntary control — though the issue is far from resolved. In any case, I’ll post some links at the bottom of this blog that point to papers on that topic.

My puzzle in this month’s blog consists of a question:

What is an identity?

I’m talking about the kind of identity that makes you a member of a certain social group (call these collective identities, social identities, or — in my favored terminology — group identities), though that’s just a rough characterization. Consider the picture above. The men in the photo are all Russian religious leaders. And their garb marks them as having certain religious identities: Armenian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Russian Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox Old-Believer.

But religious group identities are just one of a great variety of types of identity. And if you gather even a smattering of identities together from across the spectrum, the collection of things that count as group identities seems motley: Bulls fan, deadhead, Christian, Democrat, union member, Italian American, Zionist, socialist, Shakespeare lover, etc.

Each of the underlined terms designates an identity. But what on earth does being a Bulls fan have in common with being a Zionist? Both are “identities,” but those are very different properties indeed! Or what does the property of being a deadhead (a diehard Grateful Dead fan, for those of you who spend all your time in libraries!) have to do with the property of being an Italian American — other than that some people are both? In short, what is it that everything that counts as an “identity” has in common?

Even though this is a philosophical question, social psychologists have written more on it (at least in the last fifty years) than philosophers. Analytic philosophers, including our own John Perry, have written much about “identity” in a different sense, namely, a certain mathematical relation that is often expressed with an “=” sign. And philosophers have even written much about personal identity, or whatever it is that makes me today the same person as me yesterday and me tomorrow. But that is still far from addressing the puzzle about group identity that’s at hand.

So what do social psychologists say about what group identities are? In an overall excellent piece in Psychological Bulletin, Richard Ashmore and colleagues (2004) write the following, which seems representative, about what makes for a collective identity:

The first and most basic element is self-categorization. This is widely recognized as the heart of collective identity: identifying self as a member of, or categorizing self in terms of, a particular social grouping… Self-categorization is essentially the pre-condition for all other dimensions of collective identity… To feel proud of being a member of a particular group, for example, I must first place myself into this category. (p. 84)

This sounds like it solves the puzzle at first. But closer inspection just shows that the problem recurs.

For note that there are many ways that I (or you or whoever) self-categorize. I am a guy who prefers to go to the DMV on Tuesday when it’s less crowded; I am a guy with thick eyebrows; I am a guy that has a cousin named Ed; etc. All of those are self-categorizations. And they are also self-categorizations that put me in a group with a bunch of other people that share the same property. But none of the self-categorizations just listed is the identity kind of self-categorization. Now take this one: I am a Stanford alum. That clearly is a self-categorization of the group identity kind (at least for me it is).

So identities don’t involve just any old self-categorization. And this raises the question of which self-categorizations are the ones that make for identities.

One might say that an identity is a self-categorization that is important to a person. But that doesn’t really help. It’s important to me, after all, that I have a cousin named Ed, since I love my cousins, Ed included. But guy with a cousin named Ed isn’t an identity (at least so far). So saying an identity is a self-categorization that is important to the one who does it is insufficient.

Or you might say that the answer is already in the passage above: an identity is a self-categorization that places you in a certain social group. That feels right, but it is also not so helpful. The group of people who go to the DMV on Tuesday may be quite social indeed, and there is certainly a group there (trivially). But my self-categorization as such doesn’t amount to a group identity.

If you were then to say that that’s not the kind of social group that is meant, you would be right. However, you would also be tacitly admitting that the kind of social group that is meant is one for which there is an identity — but then we are back to where we started! We meant to use “self-categorization” + “social group” to define “identity.” But we ended up having to tacitly import the idea of an identity to clarify what was meant by “social group.” And now we have a circle.

So that just leaves us with our initial question…

What is an identity?



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