General Question

susanc's avatar

How does it serve us to figure out what constitutes identity?

Asked by susanc (16134points) August 1st, 2008

Why do you think we try to hard to answer this question for ourselves?

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12 Answers

jholler's avatar

why else ya got to do? :-)

Scrumpulator's avatar

I don’t try to answer it at all. I know that my identity does not rest in my hands, but in the actions I take when i move through the world. The people that interact with me hold my identity in different light then I do myself. I am the amalgamation of all that I have accomplished good or bad. What do we think of the identity of Gandhi, Hitler, Golda Meir? What we think has no bearing on their identity, there are so many different opinions on the subject. I disagree with the statement in the last thread about when they are a torso that’s brain dead, people will still think of them as themselves. It is just not going to happen that way. To get a grasp on your identity will never happen
As we grow old and our belief system changes through wisdom, we identify with ourselves differently than when we were in high school. Its a bunk question to ask our selves, when a bomb hits your house and half your family dies your identity will change instantly, and the versions of your identity in the people around you will change as well, So why waste the time. Just be your selves and change with the wisdom you seek.

timothykinney's avatar

Great question, susanc. I approach this question from a Buddhist point of view.

I think the question of identity is linked to Consciousness. When we become self-aware we find ourselves placing boundaries between Self and Other. I say, “This is me. That is not me.” This is necessary to learn how to function in the world.

When we begin to understand Cause and Effect, we see that things happen for a reason. The natural conclusion of this logical chain is to ask what the origin of the Self is. If we explore this question we see that the physical manifestation of Self is not the entirety of Being. In other words, our parents may have given us a body and raised us. But they did not shape our Consciousness, our personality. My “Tim-ness” is unique to me and my experiences.

We want to know who we are because we want to know why we are. But this border between self and other is arbitrary and does not always serve well. If we have moments of clear compassion for the world around us, we want to learn how to be of most benefit to others. This to requires a clear understanding of identity. If I really want to help others, I should start by understanding myself. By understand myself, I begin to understand others. By understanding self and others, the way to be compassionate becomes clear.

So, my answer to your question is two-fold. From an absolute point of view, constituting your identity is not so important. It’s more useful to understand what your function is. How can you help others? But from a relativistic point of view, it’s necessary and important to understand your Identity in order to gain insight into the identity of others and thus take part in something bigger than yourself: a compassionate community.

aaronou's avatar

First of all, what inquring into a philosophical question does for the brain is a bit like what lifting weights does for the muscles, it’s an exercise that builds one’s ability to reason.

But more specifically, why is a question like this important in and of itself? I think it relates to our worldview, the way we perceive the world around us and choose to interact with it. Suppose I were to decide that personal identity is defined by my physical body alone. It is likely that I would be much more inclined to become more of a materialist in my approach to the world around me. What I value most, and even my spiritual concerns, might begin to be more concerned with my physical appearance, or the health of my body and others. Though, I suppose this would only be true if I had decided that this identity issue was the foundation for establishing the rest of my worldview.

For me, attempting to arrive at a reasonable answer for what a person’s identity consists of will only be added to my already established worldview. Perhaps it will allow me to better understand what is of value and what is not, or what is most important vs. what is less important. Perhaps I am overstressing the significance of deciding upon what defines personal identity, but I do think it can be of some assistance in piecing together my perspective of life and its meaning.

aaronou's avatar

Good question though susanc.

Harp's avatar

excuse me for not reiterating my thoughts from the question that spawned this one; I’ll just build further on it here

In Buddhism, the question of who we really are assumes a central place because our belief in the continuity of the self is seen as the root of suffering. Because we come to identify so strongly with our bodies, our thoughts, our opinions, our memories, etc., we form attachments to phenomena that are necessarily evanescent, and much of our energy is exhausted in trying to maintain a fixed identity in this world of change. That effort is ultimately doomed to failure anyway.

One way Buddhist practice attacks this problem is by giving the practitioner the task of going and finding that self-essence he’s so convinced he has. In the course of years of looking for that self and coming up empty handed, the practitioner is forced to come to grips with the illusory nature of the self.

That’s more than a philosophical discovery, however, because the constellation of worries, fears, aversions, disappointments, loathings, jealousies, cravings and sundry other forms of suffering that have agglomerated to that illusion of self have now also been seen as groundless.

At that point, one is free to just be, without concern for who it is that’s being. And, as tim already mentioned, one becomes able to transcend the self/other barrier that is at the heart of so many of the world’s troubles.

marinelife's avatar

I have never pondered this question much. I choose to focus instead on the fact that I am. Perhaps it is because I see myself as part of an interconnected web of life, each point in that web of value to the whole and unique.

aaronou's avatar

To each his/her own! I suppose if it is rather nonsensical and has no value for someone to ponder this question, then there is no reason to consider it I guess.

susanc's avatar

@harp, I love especially much the assignment to go find the self-essence, whereupon the student learns there isn’t any. In psychology they call that a paradoxical intention, I think.

Nimis's avatar

Strangely enough, I think one of my favourite quotes from Heidegger (about architecture!) applies to this.

Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.

I think understanding how we inhabit our mental, emotional, spiritual space allows us to build relationships, experiences with other people and the world around us.

timothykinney's avatar

Nice subtle point, Nimis.

obodicle's avatar

We need to feel that are special and unique. We are but perhaps not as significantly as we think.

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