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.