The Problem of Self-Reference


The most familiar document of identity is one's passport used for travel.  Undoubtedly, the passport itself would not have existed without an "authority of origin", which had generated that document of identity in the first place.

This simple example points to the fact that: specifying identity of a person can be accomplished only in relation to a reference of origin (to whom that person belongs).

Another example, which clarifies the link between a person's uniqueness on one hand, and the general group to which the person belongs - is the DNA pattern.

A specific DNA strand identifies a specific individual, but in the same time, the DNA - used for personal identity - contains patterns of information about the group of humanity - from whom that particular individual is inseparable.  Uniqueness of a person occupies %0.1 of the total information of the DNA, while % 99.9 is shared among all people. (source:

In order to make a distinction of an object (A), the object must be consistent with itself and different from other objects - but this means that the existence of other objects is also needed for identifying (A).  There is no object (A) which can exist by itself without reference to other objects.

However, despite the necessity of relating to a reference - it is surprising that the "Law of Identity" takes the form of the expression (A = A ), a form expressing self-reference, failing to relate to the group of origin to which (A) belongs.

Western philosophical view:

The Law of Identity (A = A) is also sensed at the background of Leibnitz' “Principle of Individuation”:

          “Every singular substance does not need as individuating principle anything more than its entity” (1)

Leibnitz' Principle of Individuation focuses on the uniqueness of a certain singular substance or individual.  However, to be distinguished, one must belong to a group of individuals among whom one is distinguished.  A person can be unique among other people (but not among trees or fish), and this means that referencing an individual entity to its group - is important.  

Obviously, in Western philosophy, the approach of identification is rather inclined towards individuality.  The Cogito tells us that it is sufficient that I think to be certain that I exist.  The "I" appears twice, there is no "others" around.  This generates the question: who comes first, the individual or society?

Eastern Philosophical view:

From the perspective of Eastern philosophical concepts, the starting point in observation of an object is not how different it is from other objects - but (first of all) where does it belong to:  to what group of other objects it would fit.

Eastern philosophical perspectives are based on the principle of Interconnectedness of beings.  Nothing exists on its own.  Interrelatedness of objects is derived from a general observation, a principle called 'Dependent Origination' - that the origin of an object is dependent on other objects and their causes and conditions:

               “[Dependent Origination] teaches that no beings or phenomena exist on their own;

                they exist or occur because of their relationship with other beings and phenomena.

                Everything in the world comes into existence in response to causes and conditions.

               That is, nothing can exist independent of other things or arise in isolation”. (2)

A similar observation is shared in the African concept of Ubuntu, defining the self as " I exist because of others", who in turn exist because of others, and so on.

For an individual, together with developing awareness about the world, there is a fundamental need for identifying oneself through:

-      accepting a reference for one's existence, to what group it belongs, and

-      understanding of the potential for change, yet maintaining one's uniqueness over the passage of time.

The problem of Self-reference


the Conventional Law of Identity

Self-reference is evident in the expression of the Law of Identity (A = A): a tautology in logical terms.  Tautology (for example 1 = 1) carries 'zero information'.  Some philosophers view the validity of the Law of Identity A = A as restricted to the field of abstraction (but as a formula incapable of identifying objects in the physical domain):

          “In mathematical logic the expression "A = A" has a well-defined meaning,

           which no one disputes, but the expression loses its meaning outside of mathematical logic”. (3)

Identity and the Potential for Change

A major difficulty in analysing the concept of identity is the process of change experienced by the individual over time passing.  An object observed today has a "potential" for a shift in its properties, a change that can be manifest in the future.  Philosophy struggled with the problem of  "Identity over time" - but a direct and simple consideration can be accomplished through the perspective of Potentiality.

To identify object (A) in a full and complete description, the description should account for the Potential for Change in time - as a necessary component of identity.  That, what drives (A) to develop from a current actual state to a future one, is its capacity to change, or simply its inner potential (p).

The phenomenon of change and future potentials – did not find a welcoming place in old Greek description of Identity of objects.  In his book Θ, Aristotle used the word "dumanis" to refer to the potential of object for changes in time. However, potentiality implies various scenarios of the future state of observed object, and is therefore undefinable in concrete perspective:

           “A dunamis in this sense is not a thing's power to produce a change but rather its capacity

            to be in a different and more completed state. Aristotle thinks that potentiality so understood

            is indefinable, claiming that the general idea can be grasped from a consideration of cases.

           Actuality is to potentiality, Aristotle tells us, as “someone waking is to someone sleeping,

           as someone seeing is to a sighted person with his eyes close.(4)

One can argue, however, that the actual state of object (A) - at this present time - was itself a mere potential state (or a possibility) in the past - because (A) continually undergoes changes.  To take Aristotle's example; we can say that the "actual state" of a person waking has a potential to develop into the same person sleeping - at a later time.  This possibility (of the sleeping state) exists now within the actual waking state - in form of potential, a future possibility, and there is no conflict or dichotomy between actuality and potentiality - as both belong to the same identity.

The concept of potentials (or latent states) in Eastern philosophies emerged through the search for a solution to the problem of sufferings.  One's actual state can be that of hardships, but the same actual state of hardships contains within itself a potential (or a latent state) of change - allowing for transformation of one state into another.  


Author: Safwan Darshams

Western and Eastern/African philosophy on Individualism