Monday, December 28, 2009

The contextuality of personal identity

In my blogs and elsewhere in an article (see ) I argued that the main stream of the identity theoreticians is wrong in claiming that the identity of a person is merely psychological, and I have defended that idea that it has both psychological and physical aspects. In my blog two weeks ago I argued that in addition our personal identity includes the ways relevant other people look at us. This implies that our identity has not only internal aspects but that it has external aspects as well. Although this is a step further away from the mainstream of the personal identity theory, in essence it is still Cartesian, like the mainstream theory is. I mean this: the hidden idea behind both the mainstream theory and my theory is that there is a kind of homunculus, a little man, in you, or a kind of processor, or how you want to define it, that says: “That’s me”.
Now, take this. I find somewhere in a drawer a Giro cheque, which has been there for years, and I want to pay with it, not knowing that it is not valid any longer and that such cheques have been replaced by bank cards already long ago. In the shop I am treated as a stupid man; maybe even as a deceiver. A few years ago, however, I would have been treated as a decent customer. So, what am I? A stupid man or a deceiver or alternatively a decent custom? It depends not on me but on how other people see me and on the rules and regulations of society.
Second. In some countries, like the Netherlands (at least in practice), it is allowed to have little quantities of drugs for personal use. In other countries, however, it is a criminal act that will be heavily punished. So, in some countries I am a person who obeys the law, in other countries I am a criminal.
Third. Hundred years ago, when the movement of conscientious objection of military service arose in the Netherlands, conscientious objectors were looked down on and often despised. It was difficult for them to find a job, some jobs were legally forbidden for them, and they were often seen as traitors of the state. However, after, say, the 1970s, conscientious objectors were seen as respected young men who followed their principles. Being a conscientious objector was often an asset when looking for a job. In Germany now one of the problems of doing away with conscription is that there will be no conscientious objectors any longer, who are highly esteemed and do useful jobs.

The upshot is that my personal identity, what I am, is not only embodied, or actually embodied and “embrained”, but that it is also embedded in the world around us. Personal identity cannot simply be the (maybe hidden) Cartesian idea in us but it depends, at least for a part, on the context in which we live. What we are, good or bad, a philosopher, a man, an inhabitant of the Netherlands, is determined and defined in the world around us. If this context becomes different our identity changes with it as well.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Big Brother and Bentham’s Panopticon

One might think that Big Brother is a recent invention and that it is related to electronic cameras and TV screens. It is true, the expression “Big Brother” is only 60 years old and has been thought up by George Orwell, and the modern way of observing people is not possible without cameras and screens. Nonetheless, the idea as such is much older. I do not know how old it is, but at the end of the 18th century Jeremy Bentham designed what he called a panopticon. Forty years ago the panopticon has been discussed by Michel Foucault in his Discipline and punish. However, for a description I want to quote Elisheva Sadan’s Empowerment and Community Planning (e-book version, 2004, on , p. 62): “The Panopticon is an eight-sided building surrounded by a wall, with a tower at the center. The … occupants of the structure sit in cells located on floors around the wall. The cells have two apertures – one for light, facing outwards through the wall, and one facing the inner courtyard and the tower. The cells are completely separated from one another by means of walls. … Overseers sit in the tower and observe what happens in every cell. The [occupants] are isolated from one another, and exposed to constant observation. Since they cannot know when they are being observed, they supervise their behavior themselves.” As Foucault (1979, p. 200) explains, the structure can be used “to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy”, or, I want to add, any other person that you want to observe in this way. It is based on the idea of secret observation and secretly controlling what people do. Seen in this way, the panopticon is nothing else than Big Brother before the expression existed.
A panopticon and surveillance cameras are ways of exercising power over people. As such this needs not to be bad. Prisoners are in prison with reason, because of what they have done in the past. Surveillance cameras are often used in order to prevent crime. There are enough people who will misuse the situation if a crime can be done unpunished. But these kinds of power are not personal, as I explained in my last blog. They are embedded in a bureaucratic situation with all the risks of a bureaucratic situation: nobody feels oneself responsible in person for what happens and what the whole organisation does. It is as Sadan says (p.63): “The most diabolical aspect of power is that it is not entrusted in the hands of someone so that he may exercise it upon others absolutely. It entraps everyone who comes close to it: those who exercise power as well as those who are subject to it. The jailers, like the prisoners, are in certain senses also entrapped in the prison.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Personal identity and Big Brother who is watching you

In my last blog I concluded, succinctly formulated, that the eye that is watching you is also within you. People behave differently when they know that they are being watched and when this being watched lasts long it becomes a part of their ways of life. In short, it becomes part of their identities. People living in dictatorships tend to behave differently from the way people in free countries do. The idea that everything you say, at least what you say it in public, can be used against you, makes you cautious if not wary and tends to suppress spontaneous actions and reactions. This way of acting becomes what Bourdieu has called a habitus, and persons used to habitual manners do not suddenly change when the circumstances that made to develop them change, for instance when the dictatorship falls.
This is why surveillance cameras and other measures from the arsenal of Big Brother are so dangerous. Maybe they prevent or suppress some forms of crime but they function like people who are watching you. But there is an important difference: if a person is watching you, for instance a policeman or a bystander, and you are wondering why, you can ask him or her for the reason and you can explain what you are doing if you are doing something weird or something that might be interpreted as a suspicious action. But to whom do you have to go in case of a camera? A camera does not talk back and does not have a microphone where you can complain and explain. Usually you do not know who is behind the camera and where you can find the guard or authority responsible for the camera. And if you know, it takes so much effort and time, that probably you’ll resign to the fact that the camera is there, and you’ll adapt your way of acting. If this happens once, it might not be such a problem, but if it happens often and regularly, it is likely that it becomes a part of your personal habitus in the end. There is a good chance that your spontaneity diminishes. You adapt to the situation and the people around you and you avoid attracting attention. Positively but also negatively, for you never know how what you do is interpreted and you cannot explain what you are doing. Maybe you tend also to avoid certain places. In other words your personal identity has changed. And if it has come so far, Big Brother does no longer need to watch you, for Big Brother is now within you.

P.S. Yes I know that Big Brother reads my blogs, too.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Personal identity and those who are watching you

People have given many definitions of man. Famous is Plato’s definition: Man is a biped without feathers. So Diogenes took a picked chicken and said: Look, Plato’s man! Aristotle defined man as a “zoon politikon”, a political being. Based on what I wrote in my last blog, we can say that man is a being that acts. Or maybe I can better say, man is a being that is able to act, for not acting does not disqualify a being as man, but it is the possibility to act that is essential, and the rest is up to him or her.
But what does it mean that man is able to act as distinct from doing something else? Much has been said elsewhere, also in my blogs, about the difference between behaviour and action, acting with an intention and the like, and I want to refer to that discussion for indicating what acting is. Now I want to discuss another question: Is it really so that it is up to man as man to fill in his or her action capacities? For this suggests that man is free to act within his or her physical limits. However, in a blog of mine some time ago we have seen that the temperature of the cup of coffee in my hands influences my decisions. This is in agreement with other studies. For example, Steven Tipper and Patric Bach have shown that students rated other people as more academic and less sporty when the research situation had been arranged that way that they could give a quick answer than when it had been arranged so that it took more time to answer. The authors concluded that the way we characterize other people depends on the fluency of our response. For Tipper and Bach this says something about social perception, the way we perceive others. For me, these and other studies say as much about how man is constituted. They suggest that man is not simply a bundle of capacities that has to be filled in. Man consists in an interaction between the mental and the physical, something that scientists have discovered already long ago but that many philosophers still seem to deny, if we think of the discussion about personal identity. Unlike what the mainstream of the philosophers who discuss this theme tends to think, our identity is not merely psychological but it is made up of the mixture of our psychological and our physical characteristics and their interactions.
So it seems that we have an identity made up of our psychological and physical aspects, allowing that we develop in time. However, if our judgments of how other people are depend on the fluency of our responses and maybe also on the temperature of the cup of coffee in our hands, then the same must be true for other people who judge us. If this is so, another factor comes into play. In what we do, we often react to how other people react to us, including their judgments of us and their behaviour based on these judgments. On the one hand, this is an aspect that attributes to the development of our identity. But on the other hand, this makes that our identity exists not only of our psychological and physical characteristics and the way they have developed in time, but our identity is also made up of what we are in the eyes of others, at least in the eyes of those others who are significant for us. And we can say, as many eyes there are that see us, as many identities we have in a certain sense. Moreover, these identities are not stable but at least for a part they depend on the temperatures of the cups of coffee in the hands of the onlookers, the fluency of their responses when they judge us and what more there is, which are factors that naturally change continuously.

The upshot of all this is that our personal identity exists not only of our psychological and physical characteristics and our past experiences as identity theorists often think. It is also made up by what is outside us and around us, which involves also that it is not stable. The eyes of our significant onlookers are a relevant factor among those that influence our identity. So, personal identity theorists have to allow for it but until now they haven’t.