What is Identity?

Identity is a word that everyone understands and yet nobody has completely defined. It is like ‘beauty’ or ‘poetry’ in that people can sense when they experience it but can’t seem to put their finger on it. The boundaries are fuzzy, which lends to difficulty in definition. Just look at light.

I will not attempt an academic review of the various approaches to identity over the ages. If I were to tell someone that the identity of a person behind the curtain was written on a card, it would be reasonable for that person to expect the defining characteristics of that person to be written down. This, however, is dependent upon the context of the relation of understandings of the informer and informant, that is our mutual context of known persons. Being that we both assume to know only one person named Steve, this characteristic is enough to write down upon the card to inform as to the identity of the person behind the curtain. However, if the person with me knows more than one Steve, I may need more clarification, such as Scuba Steve. In order to match the intended identity of the person within my mind, with the person with behind the curtain, with the person within the mind of my companion, a shifting list of characteristics is needed. Therefore in some social settings it is only necessary to say the eccentric is coming back at noon and everyone understands the identity of the person to whom I am referring. In some social settings this is is no more helpful than eluding to the wet fish in the pond.

This brings up another point about identity in that it is a social construct. I would offer that given the scenario of a person born on an asteroid without any knowledge of any other humans, ever, that this person would have no identity. But this is a wild claim that I have not the space to pursue at this time. Back to my point, identity is a social construct and as such it necessarily has values attached to it. Again, I make a wild claim here that deserves its own unpacking. But I shall suffice to say that to be social is to be subject to the force of a sort of gravity, a push-pull, from one to another. The use of identity does two things at the same time in that sets out the location of an individual within a group. The lone human on the asteroid would have no identity of zemself, but would have an identity with us if we were able to watch mer secretly.

This, of course, brings up a most basic question of identity of the person on the asteroid as becoming self-aware of zemself as something different and alive from the asteroid around zemself. This self awareness, the conscious I that is differentiated from the rest of what is not I, is another confusing aspect to the notion of identity. What is it that makes II? While reading people try to grapple with this question of the individual I… they are inevitably pulled toward social, context-based definitions. The I, it would seem, has very fuzzy edges, the location of which is reminiscent of the problem of vagueness seen in the paradox of a heap of sand.

One way to think about identity then is to remember that we use it to delineate something from other somethings. The heap of sand has no identity as a heap and trying to define one as such within itself bears us no more fruit than were we to try to find the Steve part of Scuba Steve. Trying to do so runs us aground in the paradox of the heap. Yet if we both were in my kitchen and there was a handful of sand upon the floor and I directed you to clean up the heap of sand, you’d know exactly what I was referring to. If we were both on a beach, a place filled with sand, the definition has changed. Were we both taking machine gun fire and I yell at you to take cover behind he heap of sand, you’d likely look for something larger than a handful.

Identity is reliant upon context and context is shared.

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