What is Identity?



Many years ago, I attended a lecture about the concept of Interconnectedness in Eastern philosophy.  

I listened to the lecturer giving a general idea about the subject, but I was surprised when he suddenly asked his listeners to answer - in just one word -  the question: How do you identify yourself ?


I didn't understand first what was the relevance of identifying myself in one word - with the lecture's subject about ”interconnectedness".  But at that time, while just coming to the lecture from my work, the closest answer I found (to identify myself) was: “engineer.”  Other participants answered the question to identify themselves by words like: “ a mother”, “a teacher” – and so on.  


Now, hearing how we identified ourselves, the lecturer pointed out: “Do you notice that one cannot identify him or herself without including others in the definition. To be an "engineer" involves working with others such as technicians, etc.  And being a "mother" means having a child – also, identifying oneself as a "teacher" implies connection with students, and so on”.  That was a straightforward way to explain how one's personal identity reveals interconnectedness with others.  


After that lecture, I started lamenting that the education I received at my early schooling did not offer such scope of concepts such as Interconnectedness and Identity.  But then I remembered that, in fact, we were taught at secondary school in Logic lessons about the Principle of Identity (A = A).


Such a simple and true formula: A = A , is accepted by our mind without dispute or opposition.  But how meaningful it is to identify an object (A) by itself  - as (A) being (A) !

If the object to be identified, for example, is a tree, then saying that a tree (A) = a tree (A) - is no more than a tautology, which does not offer any useful information.  


So, the subject of "how to identify things?" - kept nagging in my thoughts.  


It seems that it is necessary - if we want to identify something - to first distinguish the uniqueness of the object (or person to be identified).  Uniqueness tells us about what we do not share with others.  But this means also that “others” are important for our uniqueness to make senses.  A person is unique among peers, but not among trees or fish.  There must be a general reference of belonging, a well-known category, which covers one's uniqueness.


Choosing a reference of belonging - is necessary to clarify the identity of an observed object or person.  And this general reference of belonging can be a category: a family, or ethnicity, race, religion, education, etc.  The reference of belonging (to a certain known category) – is essential to identify an object or a person.  


Take as an example the most common document of identity, such as a passport.  A passport includes information about the uniqueness of the holder, date and place of birth within a family.  It also includes a reference to the nationality or the general group of belonging of the holder of the passport.   This way of identification is convenient and simple.  It is practical, but - in a deeper sense - it seems inflexible, and restricted.  For example, a passport which is valid for 10 years refers to the same person during the period of its validity, a person who must have changed somehow in time.  A person is much more than what just uniqueness and belonging - offer to identify.  We have potentials, we change in many ways and we are not fixed.


If we seek to have a full description of identity, then in addition to the elements of: "uniqueness of the object" and its "reference of belonging" -  the element of "potentials of change" - must be included..  


The conventional Law of Identity A = A is static, fixed, and it does not offer information about the identity of the object in time, nor about the reference of belonging.   A general Law of Identity of (A) would include much more than mere A = A.


Some may wonder: is it really important to examine this subject of Identity in such a depth?

And the answer is that, yes, because a mistaken approach to identity can lead to serious conflicts, on a personal or society levels.   Almost all conflicts in the world are about identity.  The whole problem of the Middle East can be defined as a clash of conflicting references of identities.    

And on the individual level - one's perception of own identity is what defines one's life.


Everything in our life depends on who we think we are.


Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams)                                                                           January 2020


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