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been there for years, and I want to pay with it, not knowing that it is not valid any longer and that such cheques have been replaced by bank cards already long ago.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.


Simon said...

"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."

Nicely put Henk

Simon said...

This actually fits in well with my Systems Account of Identity. After all to understand a system you look at how the parts interact or relate.

HbdW said...

Thanks Simon.