The Question of Identity: Some Preliminary Observations

Is a language possible in which the well-formed sentence eschews a subject? Linguists, I think, categorize languages in one way by the manner in which the basic sentence structure orders three components: subject, verb, and object. In English, we put them in that order, but Japanese, for example, uses Subject, Object, Verb order. In English the sentence “the dog chews the bone” is well-formed. In Japanese, the same sentence would be “the dog the bone chews.” It is interesting to me that the latter sentence is still meaningful and well-formed in English, but the meaning has changed and now the bone is chewing on the dog rather than vice versa.

Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests, in his posthumously published manuscript Philosophical Investigations, that one way to go about finding out what something means is to consider how native language users use that word in context. Thus, if we want to know what the meaning of “life” is, we should look to which contexts or, in Wittgenstein’s terminology, which “language-games” we can imagine native English speakers using the word life. From this consideration and others like it, Wittgenstein believed it was possible to identify a “form of life” particular to language users that gave a ground for the proper use of language. When language users step outside of that ground, language “goes on holiday,” and the things the language users say stop having any meaning.

Wittgenstein should not be understood as a nominalist, however. His belief that people were often talking nonsense was not a belief that the things they were attempting to express by talking such nonsense were unreal. Rather, Wittgenstein was a mystic who believed that certain things intrinsic to our form of life were so basic that it was impossible for language to speak about them without exceeding the limits of what language could do. That is, trying to express certain aspects of life was something like the  Baron von Munchausen’s legendary feat of lifting himself off the ground by grabbing hold of his own pony tail and hoisting himself up into the air by pure strength. Expressing the ineffable is not impossible because the ineffable isn’t real, but because you need the ineffable to be under your feet in order to say anything meaningful at all.

That last paragraph is not exactly true, and not exactly meaningful, but it’s close enough for government work.

What then of identity? If to talk about ourselves we must insert ourselves into our sentences because of the rules of our language, does this mean that the subject of those sentences is real? Or is this an illusion created by our form of life given to drive us mad with postulations about the soul, the spirit, the psyche, the mind, the identity? My working hypothesis is that it is. There are many reasons for this, but the most important for me is that more than anything else I need to believe that I am free to make choices and if my identity is a thing that is fixed within me than that forecloses on all manner of choices that have been predetermined by the nature of that identity. If it is there, even in a very weak form, it must represent certain attitudes and predilections and preferences that I am unable to escape from despite whatever choices I might wish to make.

Perhaps in some cases this is true. I do not believe, for example, that I have much choice about the foods and flavors I enjoy. There are flavors that I like and flavors that I don’t like. I don’t believe I could choose to dislike chocolate no matter how much I tried. However I do have some choice. For example, there are some foods that I have initially taken a dislike to that after time and more exposure I have engaged in the activity that we call “developing a taste” for them. By doing this I have taught myself how to appreciate elements of the foods flavors that were initially instinctively repugnant and thereby chosen to like something that I initially did not. If my tastes and preferences were fixed by my identity, this would not be possible. But surely if anything is fundamental to who I am, ie my identity, it is my preferences for some things instead of others. If those preferences are mutable, as the act of “developing a taste” shows them to be, then might not I be able to choose to dislike chocolate?

And if something so fundamental to identity as taste can be mutable, is there anything that isn’t? What then does this mean for a theory of identity that posits as primary self-identification? I will suggest, although I will not argue the point now, that such a theory is basically unworkable and that “identity.” whatever that is, is not something we have within us but rather a mask that we are forced to wear by others.

If this is true, then identity is always already a form of oppression that must be rejected if we are to be free and equal participants in our society and politics. What that means for the political tactics that fall under the rubric of “identity politics” I leave to be examined at another time.

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One thought on “The Question of Identity: Some Preliminary Observations

  1. For many years I used Japanese in both my business and home life. I became so that my thoughts about anything were wrapped in in the context of the language and all it brings with it. I quit cold turkey. Now my old poetry books and karaoke CDs gather dust.

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