Philosophy and Identity

By Anonymous

Growing up in a Muslim environment that conflicted with a lot of my beliefs and worldviews, made me think, early on, about whom I truly was. I was confronted with an array of thoughts, ideologies and perceptions of identity. All of these have built upon each other in a way that they have broadened my understanding of myself. I believe it is natural to understand who we are (the self) on a deeper level, in order to understand where we come from and where we belong (identity).

American society has a tendency to define people, and approach societal issues under the prism of race, ethnicity, economic background, gender and sexual orientation. It tends to disregard the fundamentals of human nature, by failing to take into account philosophical ideas on the self.

I tend to divide these philosophical approaches to the self into three categories: determinism, individualism and nihilism. Deterministic approaches argue that the subject is conditioned by a set of factors, external to its will, and these necessitate some of its behaviors. One of these deterministic theories about the self is the evolutionary one. It states that all of our actions are nothing more than part of a plan geared to the conservation of the human kind. Another one is the Freudian theory that states that we are, essentially, nothing but the product of psychological mechanisms fueled by libido (sexual tension). These viewpoints might very well sound gloomy and undermining the human condition. However, they offer unique insights into what some human behaviors are motivated by, whether good or bad.

Individualism is the belief that the subject is a self-controlled agent, powered by will and reason. Existentialism might be the most influential one among these, stating that we are the mere result of our choices. Even when we find ourselves in very undesirable situations, we ought to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Some even define our humanness by the ability to reason and to practice self-control. Not channeling our impulses would be failing to meet the standards of our species.

One ideology that I am very fond of is stoicism. It reduces the self to a collection of thoughts: those that are at the ‘surface’ of our memories and those that have been internalized. Thoughts, both actualized and internalized, condition our actions and hence define who we are. While individualism might seem too restrictive and a sort of philosophical “point mass model”, it gives superiority and nobility to the human condition.

Finally, some schools of thought have completely negated the existence of a self, reducing it to a mere illusion. Buddhism believes that our selves don’t exist as isolated units but we are made ‘one’ as a result of people’s association between distinct things. An object is nothing but a collection of its parts; humans are nothing but an addition of dimensions that don’t actually make up a single entity.

There are obviously many more philosophical conceptions of the self, especially relating to political and social contexts. I find all these ideas very intriguing and thought provoking. I like to think that all of them hold a certain degree of truth. Each approach gives us a new lens under which we can analyze the human condition and understand it more deeply, in all its complexity. Also, each one of these ideas is useful in different situations. For instance, to better deal with embarrassment one could find solace in believing that the self is a mere psychological construction with no essence. I believe such thoughts should be much more present in our social debates as they set the ground for more reasonable and objective arguments.