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.


Luzdeana said...

Hi Henk!
I've found your post very interesting, even though I had to go back and read some parts again to get your idea. Besides, Philosophy is not my field, though you know I enjoy learning about it and I've always been of a "reflective type". I agree absolutely, there's little stability in man's identity. And of course it has to do with the fact that man is a social being and interaction is crucial. Even more nowadays, with so much information reaching us from the media in a continuous flow.
Thank you for helping me learn!

Stein Aksel said...

I couldn't really comprehend what you meant by this. Might be a language barrier, as I'm a Norwegian teenager.

Are you saying that our personal identity is affected by onlookers in such a way that it changes according to the situation?

HbdW said...

Hello Diana,
Thank you for your reaction.

HbdW said...

Hello Stein,
Thank you for your reaction. No, the problem isn’t your English, but it is the complexity of the discussion. The discussion about personal identity is about 400 years old, and started with the English philosopher Locke. My problem with the discussion is that most philosophers in this discussion think that your personal identity is completely in your mind. They say that your identity is determined by your memories and your past experiences. However, I think that your body belongs also to what you are and, when writing this blog, I got the idea, which I took over from sociology, that what you are is also determined by how other people around you see you, especially by those people around you that are important for you (the sociologist G.H. Mead called them “relevant others”). However, recent research has shown that opinions you have about other people depend on your feelings of the moment that you give the answer. Even whether the cup of coffee in your hand is warm or cold has influence on your answers! So, the opinions of other people about you are accidental in a certain sense. Of course, I do not want to say that your personal identity is fickle, but that there exists THE personality of you is something different. Therefore I wanted to bring up it for discussion. My ideas about it are still in the making but it might still be so that what we are is not as fixed as many people think. I think this is in agreement with the insights of psychology.

Simon said...

Hi Henk,

maybe not the original meaning but the phrase 'No man is an island' comes to mind. In other words no personal identity is totally independent of others around them. Certainly we cannot 'be' in a normal functional sense unless we develop in a social setting. We have an independent physical existence but no 100% independent personal identity.

BTW when you think of it states of matter depend on what is going on around them, the state of water will depend how it is influenced by its surroundings.

Another way to think about it would be in terms of networks, nodes, inputs and architecture. Ok a node will have it initial value/state but that will change depending on what the inputs are and what the values are of the surrounding nodes. In this sense each node has an independent existence but that is also intimately tied up with its interaction and identities of those around it. You would probably find someone more familiar with systems theory would have better appreciation of this.

As I think I might have already raised with you, those in this area already see us as a complex adaptive system, but it maybe to fully describe our ontological nature, one must see this within a network of other complex adaptive systems, be they similar systems and or a background environmental system. No doubt some Continental philosopher must have already raised this.

HbdW said...

Hello Simon,
Thank you for your reaction. Actually I should have known before with my sociological background. I have also some knowledge of networks. Until now the discussion about personal identity sees the identity determined by internal factors and most if not all personal identity theorists are internalists from that point of view. However, I want to plead here for the addition of external factors that make up our identity, too. I do not want to argue for a completely externalist approach, but what I want to say is that I think that our identity is made up both of internal and external factors. It looks like one of the discussions in action philosophy, namely the question whether our actions are determined by internal or external factors. Here, too, I have defended a mixed approach.
I have no idea what continental philosophers have said in this respect.