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January 21, 2005

 

On Self and Identity: A Critique


Chagall "Lithographe"
"Self" and "Identity are not facts about people; they are ways of thinking about people. Therefore, it doesn't really make sense for us to say that someone "has a self or an identity," as if each is a thing that actually may be had, possessed or discovered.

Self and identity are changeable. However it is the kind of changeability that derives from the fact that self and identity are not names of identifiable or concrete, monolithic entities. They are classes of (perhaps unformulated) self-experiences, which are quite varied in terms of scope, time of origin, vantage point and context.

Consider these examples: I hit myself (self= my body; I hate myself (self= my personality); I'm self-conscious (self= my actions); I'm self-sufficient (self= competence); I feel like my old self (self= sense of continuity); I'm selfish (self= my needs); my shame was self-inflicted (self= my agency); and I couldn't contain myself (self= my subjective space).

The reifications of "self" and "identity," then, center around the concretist idea that cognitive processes are substances, with such properties of matter as spacial location,weight, quantity and inertia. Similarly, our assumptions about feelings too often are identified with qualities of actual substances, substances to be withheld or expelled, gotten rid of or destroyed; or they may fill one up, explode, leak out or spill over. Feelings for others, in addition, in this manner are described as ties that may be cut (like ropes, umbilical cords, or sadistic chains), be substances that engulf, poison, paralyze, suffocate, or "murder" one's "soul."

Even though such archaic thinking is commonly used as metaphor in our communications about everyday life, more accurate perspectives would not ascribe substantiality to what are essentially cognitive and emotional processes.

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