What is Identity?                                        by Safwan Zabalawi

It was the 2nd July 2003, New York City, when Doug Bruce left his apartment on the Lower East Side at about 8pm.  After 11 hours, he found himself riding a train heading to Coney Island, and extremely puzzled that he had no idea who he was.  This was documented in a case called “Unknown White Male” (1), about a man who suddenly lost his 37 years of memory, and it revealed how important it is to have friends and family members to help identifying oneself.  The concept that we need others to identify ourselves reminds us of the “principle of interconnectedness”, which is not widely spoken about.

According to the Law of Identity, the first of the Laws of Thought, to identify an object (A) one needs nothing more than (A) itself.  Identifying (A) by itself is also sensed in the background of Leibniz's “Principle of Individuation”:

        "Every singular substance does not need as individuating principle anything more than its entity" (2)

Leibniz's 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), which means that referencing an individual entity to its group is important to give meaning to the individual's uniqueness.

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 that person belongs is the DNA pattern.  A specific DNA strand identifies a specific Individual – but in the same time the DNA strand contains patterns of information about the group of humanity from which that particular individual is inseparable.

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 other objects are also needed for identifying (A) – so that the difference from them is understood.  When speaking of identity of (A), we are entitled to ask: relative to what?

Philosophy offers various perspectives about the concept of Identity.  One of these perspectives mentions the notion of “relative identity” (suggested by Peter Geach, 1972) – but it is not clear whether the word relative used here points to the reference, relative to which the identified object shares prime existence.  For example, to identify a person (A) we have to take into account that (A) has no existence whatsoever without a general reference - to which (A) belongs, in this case: the general group of humanity.

The widely accepted Law of Identity, referred to by the expression (A = A), is an example of “self-reference”, failing to relate (A) to the group of origin to which (A) belongs.  As if the trivial expression A = A is embarrassing to mention, philosophy does not endorse it in any major investigation about identity.


Uniqueness” is also expressed as 'distinctiveness of identity':

"[…] Kripke argued that identity and distinctness were themselves necessary relations: if an object is identical with itself it is necessarily so, and if it is distinct from another it is necessarily so". (3)

The words “distinction from others” include “others” in the description of uniqueness – and for this reason the reference to others must be included within the concept of identity.

How can we describe object (A)?  If it is possible to register all properties of the object in concern: (a1, a2, ….,an) then (A) can be described as a specific set of elements:

A = {a1, a2, a3, …., an}

Identifying (A) by the list of its various properties (an) is a description, not an arithmetic equality.  It is better perhaps to use the symbol of 'equivalence'  instead of equality = which would present object A as:

A    {a1, a2, a3, …., an}

A situation will occur that some of the properties (an) of a certain object (A) can also exist in another set defining object (B).  In fact, it is impossible for any individual object to exist without sharing some of its attributes with other objects.

Let there be then another object (B):

B    {b1, b2, b3, ….., bn}

If all attributes (an) of (A) and (bn) of (B) are exactly the same, then there is no difference between the two sets, and in this case A is identical to B (or A, B are indistinguishable).  It is enough to have just one single element in one of the two sets - an element, which is not shared by the other - in order to distinguish between them.

Let's observe a group of people at random, in whatever situation they are.  There are great numbers of attributes, which are shared between individuals and another number of attributes, which are unique to each (for example: individual's fingerprint, being different - even in identical twins).  To give a unique identity to a particular individual, there must be at least one property, which is not shared by other members of the group.  This view efficiently describes the identity of each person in terms of attributes: or unique properties such as fingerprint or DNA pattern, and such identification of uniqueness is accepted in the practice of the legal profession when it comes to identifying individuals.  

The necessity for a 'reference'

Self-reference is evident in the expression of the Law of Identity (A = A): a tautology in logical terms.  A tautology (for example 1 = 1) carries no new knowledge.  Among the objections to this concept of identity was Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1841):

           "Likewise, Hegel attacked the Law of Identity and claimed that “the Law of Identity says very little in itself”.  The fact that A equals A is no more than a tautology and has little meaning – it tells us almost nothing about the identity of a thing.  The only way a thing truly takes on identity is through what Hegel called its “otherness” or what is not.  What a thing is not is as necessary to its identity as what it is, since what is not is what gives a thing boundaries, definition and meaning.  Thus a thing's otherness must be contained within the very identity of a thing". (4)

Another source, however, shows less courtesy in its declaration of an open war of criticism against the expression of A = A, sarcastically rejecting it as nonsensical. (5)

From Eastern philosophy's perspective, when identifying an object, the element of distinction from others comes second to specifying first where it belongs.  The perspective of interrelatedness of objects is derived from a general concept called 'Dependent Origination':

"[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". (6)

This perspective implies that to identify a specific object, a general reference is needed to accommodate the specific.  A question arises: how to find a reference?  There are various reference sets, which can be used, for example, when identifying an individual: ethnic, racial, age-group, etc…It is in fact the general reference which gives a certain identity its general character.  In the process of identification of objects, the accepted reference (set by the identifier) constitutes the criterion, which gives the object in concern its classification.


An individual can be identified by place of birth, social class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, education, political views… etc.  However, these various references shed light on how the identified person is seen according to the selectiveness of the identifier.  Some references are contained within a higher (or wider capacity) reference, such as the reference of ethnicity (X is Chinese) is included within being Asian. There is no conflict in identifying a Chinese person as being Asian, but it is incorrect to identify Asians as Chinese.

If a certain reference for identity is incorrectly employed (inconsistent with reality) then the resulting identification will accordingly be incorrect.  This is what happens when religion becomes a reference for identity, a reference higher than nationality - or even regarded as more important than the reference of humanity.  Since the set of humanity contains the set of religion (but not the opposite), then considering identity based on a smaller reference (religion) as an ultimate reference – this sort of identity is not consistent with reality.  The problem of the Middle East for example can be seen from this perspective: identity of individuals in the Middle East is not based on their shared humanity but on what religious beliefs or sects they are assigned to.  In general, any racial, ethnic or religious conflict is based on using a limited reference for personal identity as superior to any other reference.  

In objective terms, the set of all people (humanity) H contains within it a set R, related to a particular race R or religion.  In Set Theory, R is a subset of H.  Set H can be regarded (in philosophical terms) as the 'general', and set R as the 'specific'.  To regard the specific, as equal to the general – is in conflict with basic logic, as Nichiren, a 13-century philosopher mentioned:

"If you confuse the general with the specific even in the slightest, you will never be able to attain [Enlightenment], and will wander in sufferings". (7)

Confusion about the proportion between the general and the specific can overwhelm groups of people, who would act according to the distorted proportion, and this is reflected in reality in form of a physical conflict, a clash, which may continue as long as the confusion in approach is not resolved one way or another.

Self-identity is  in essence - about belonging, and the search for belonging gives the individual associated perspectives of thinking, and prompts to related actions.  Belonging to a general set does not prevent belonging to a subset (of race or religion).  But extreme sense of belonging to a specific subset will reflect in reality in the form of related conflict.

This would suggest that if the nature of the accepted reference for “self-identity” possesses the quality that guarantees shared co-existence, then this would be the most harmonious and consistent reference of identity.

The mentioned references for identity of individuals represent available categories of classification, which are generated by society.  There is a level of inner-identity, which may or may not coincide with the categories externally set by society.  This inward-identity is reflected in one's behaviour and actions.  In fact, because the individual is indivisible from society, then relationships, comprising actions, translate one's inner-identity (mental) into behaviour (physical).

In highly composite objects, diverse functions are required for survival, and some of these functions can be conflicting (such as sleep and waking states).  Conflicting tendencies, however, may pose a problem.  On the one hand, a tendency for rest and seeking the least-efforts path is needed, but on the other hand, seeking rest is conflicting with the tendency to produce efforts and growth.  A tendency for self-centredness conflicts with a tendency for social sharing.

Eastern philosophy distinguishes between two types of 'self': a “small-self” (which is the product of inner weaknesses, such as ego) – and “greater-self” (that of maturity and beneficial engagement):

The development of the greater self, it is important to note, does not merely describe a passive change in perception.  It must be reflected in the choices and actions that weave the fabric of our daily lives.  Specifically, the greater self expresses itself in a broadened sense of responsibility and a wish to contribute to the well-being of others and of the planet. (8)

It should be noted that there is always one identity of the individual, which displays either the “small self” or the “greater self', exclusively.  The example of a car moving on a highway can be useful: a slow speed movement represents the way of a burdened “small self” of the individual, while the high speed movement represents the strong “greater self” - and in any of these displayed circumstances there is always one and the same car, or identity.  The transformation of the limited small self into the greater self requires constant efforts leading to maturity and expansiveness.

Collective Identity

What is valid for an individual is also valid for a group of individuals having the same reference for their establishing own identity:

Within social movement theory, collective identity refers to the shared definition of a group that derives from its members' common interests, experiences, and solidarities.  It is the social movement's answer to who we are, locating the movement within a field of political actors.  Collective identity is neither fixed nor innate, but rather emerges through struggle as different political actors, including the movement, interact and react to each other.  The salience of any given collective identity affects the mobilization, trajectory, and even impacts of social movements.  Consequently, collective identity has become a central concept in the study of social movements. The concept of collective identity emerged in the 1980s in Europe within new social movement (NSM) theory.  Most locate its origin in the work of Alberto Melucci (1995). (9)

The concept of Collective Identity belongs rather to sociology, and its essence confirms the philosophical view that identity must be based on a general reference, which can be shared between individuals, creating thus a common identity as a group, despite uniqueness of each of its members.

Is not this the 'power of belonging to a collective identity' what has been taking place throughout history in all communities?  Whether the sense of collective identity one shares and possesses is based on exclusiveness (such as the case of racism) or on a greater sharing (such as the case with humanism) – is decided by the 'value' assigned to the reference of the collective identity.

A specific Collective Identity must belong to a general reference, which is the source of all Collective Identities, according to the logic of sets.  In case of racial or religious conflicts, the collective identity (C) of a certain race or religion is based practically on its uniqueness as the sole reference for its identity.  This is a case of putting the specific as equal to (or higher than) the general (being here the general set of Humanity - to which (C) or others equally belong).  Because this mistaken approach to identity conflicts with the fabric of reality, reality will show this conflict in a form of physical confrontation.


The Law of Identity, which specifies object (A) by itself, lacks the necessary ground of a 'reference' of belonging.  This situation places the identified object in conflict with reality.  Although it may seem that philosophical disagreement about the background of a certain concept may not go beyond academic disagreement, in reality, however, the consequences of lack of correct way of identifying objects or individuals can lead to disastrous results.


(1)     Unknown White Male :  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436864/

(2)     Leibnitz on Individuation: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40694380?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

(3)    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy / Identity

(4)    Danaher, James. Jesus After Modernity, p. 84, James Danaher, ISBN 978 0 227 68001 8

(5)       A-is-A ???  http://fatfist.hubpages.com/hub/Law-of-Identity-A-is-A-is-Contradictory

(6)     Dependent Origination:  https://www.nichirenlibrary.org/en/dic/Content/D/29

(7)    Daishonin, Nichiren  The Essential of Attaining Buddhahood, p.747.   Soka Gakkai © 1999

(8)    http://www.sgi.org/about-us/buddhism-in-daily-life/the-greater-self.html

(9)    Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, key topic: identity,