Is Personal Identity A Myth?


“We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.”
Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition

“Sitting there on the heather, on our planetary grain, I shrank from the abysses that opened up on every side, and in the future. The silent darkness, the featureless unknown, were more dread than all the terrors that imagination had mustered. Peering, the mind could see nothing sure, nothing in all human experience to be grasped as certain, except uncertainty itself; nothing but obscurity gendered by a thick haze of theories. Man’s science was a mere mist of numbers; his philosophy but a fog of words. His very perception of this rocky grain and all its wonders was but a shifting and a lying apparition. Even oneself, that seeming-central fact, was a mere phantom, so deceptive, that the most honest of men must question his own honesty, so insubstantial that he must even doubt his very existence.”
Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker


“I think therefore I exist,” said Descartes. My problematization at this point, however, is not on the existence of the “I” but on the essence of the “I” itself, given that it really exists. “What is the ‘I’ ?” is an impersonal question–an objective one, if you will. Objectively problematizing the “I” would seem to drag me farther away from it and would just get me to a very superficial “knowledge” about the “I” if ever I would really get there or if it could truly be called a “knowledge” of the “I” at all. Once, it was already done by Wittgenstein (in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and he has gotten to nowhere, i.e., to a “mystical” point where nothing could be further said on the basis of the limits which he has established in the said treatise: “Anything that can be said at all can be said clearly. What we cannot talk about, we must consign in silence.” Hence, objectifying the “I” leads us to the mystical–to silence.

Perhaps, the better initial query is: “Who am I?” It sounds grammatically well and it doesn’t seem to lead me farther away from myself who is asking the question right at this very point in time. Does responding to this question lead me to a true “knowledge” of myself? Well, at least, it is clear right at the start that I am not going elsewhere. I am not after an objective knowledge of myself for I am now at the point of accepting the truth that I cannot actually get to such a knowledge. At least, at this moment, what may only be ascertained to be objective is the fact that if ever I get to a knowledge of who am I, such knowledge is a subjective one. “Who am I?” is  a precise question not directed to anybody else but to myself. In a sense, it is geared to establish my personal identity. My personal identity could be initially understood as my own knowledge of myself–of who am I.  But who needs my personal identity? Is it an issue that has to be thematized for myself? Isn’t this matter something spontaneous and doesn’t have to be asked? Do I really need to have a “thematic” knowledge of myself? Well, if we refresh our memory and be reminded of Socrates’ philosophical challenge, then we should know ourselves,  I should know myself.

Human beings are endowed with the power of self-consciousness or self-awareness, if you will. This makes us homo sapiens sapiens, i.e., beings that are not only conscious but conscious that we are conscious. it doesn’t however mean that such self-consciousness connotes self-knowledge. It only tells us that we are conscious not only of things around us but also of the consciousness that is able to perceive the things around us. We are not therefore endowed with the full knowledge of ourselves at a single instance of time. In this sense, what I can say at the moment is I am aware of the things around me and I am aware that I am aware of this reality. My knowledge at this very moment is that of myself and of the things that I know I am perceiving right now. Well, of course, my memory doesn’t fail me yet and if necessity requires me to recall things of the past that I need to remember for a present purpose, technically I’d say that these matters are within the scope of what I know.

Self-knowledge is a different issue. I am not a complete, permanent, and hence unchanging, being. I am in a process of change. I am process. I am change. I am in a flux. I am flux itself. In fact, it is reasonable to concur with Heraclitus’ ontology as I contemplate on this matter. What I know about myself is just my circumstances at this point in time on top of what I can yet remember as I squeeze my memory. I am an etre-pour-soi, a “being-for-itself” (with apologies to Sartre) and if ever I wish to make sense of what I mean by my “self-knowledge,” it is nothing but a knowledge of my present limitations. It is myself here and now which I myself cannot get hold of for it is not an object that may be grasped sensibly. If “self-knowledge” is literally transposed and thus understood as a knowledge of my self, that’s where the difficulty is. What is that “self” of which I have a knowledge?

Knowledge reifies, i.e., converts into or regards as something concrete what is said to be known. In the process of knowing, something is conceived as complete and unchanging–an etre-en-soi,  a “being-in-itself”. In this connection, knowledge of the self seems non-feasible besides the fact that the self is so abstract and there is no way to capture it. The self is so fluid and elusive and such descriptions do not lead us to its true knowledge but only to the periphery. Perhaps there is really no true knowledge of the self because in the first place, the self in its subjectivity is as unknowable as its objective illusion.

Nevertheless, what is unquestionable at this stage of our almost failed “exploration” is the subjectivity of the self and nobody can actually get to it from the outside for the self is its own access. It is endowed with the dynamics of secrecy that spontaneously operate according to their natural “wirings” and whatever is projected out of it in perceivable terms as “personal identity,” so to speak, may only be approximated and never totally ascertained. My personal identity is therefore not my real self for the latter is that which nobody knows except myself. There is no facilitative channel to objectively access the subjectivity of the real self. The philosopher John Searle simplified it by commenting that A can never know the consciousness of B unless A is B. But if one’s personal identity is not the self of a person, then what is it?

Personal identity is a public image–something objectively known. Its operational locus is the society with all the elements of the latter’s expectations. Personal identity doesn’t therefore have the spontaneous nature of the subjective self for it is culturally calibrated. It is a person’s own created image of her/himself according to how he wants to appear in agreement with or in defiance of certain socio-cultural expectations. One’s personal identity is a person’s mask–a persona–of her/his own invention.

However, there is in our being “something” inaccessible to others, i.e., something in me that is accessible only to me and something in you accessible only to you. That is the core of one’s individual humanity. But there is also something in us accessible to others, our public selves, a.k.a. our personal identities . . . your personal identity that I and other people know and my personal identity that you and other people know. This public self is generally what society expects from us or what we want society to know about us. This is something that we maintain all along and as much as possible, an image we want to consistently stick in the minds of people who know us. There is however nothing wrong with this except that there is still that which I call the core of my individuality. The most that our loved ones could know about it cannot get beyond the closest approximation possible. That’s why the loved ones with whom we have intimate relations can say they “know” us and that which they know about us is not called our “personal identity”. In other words, we don’t need that personal identity for us to be known by them and they don’t require that personal identity for them to truly know us. Personal identity is very superficial. It is what a business outfit needs to engage in a business with us. It is what government agencies require from us to issue licenses or whatever. It is a “portfolio” of information to legitimize our existence in an organization. In a more intimate personal relation, no personal identity is required.

Personality or personal identity is what we actually show to get recognized. But the core of our individuality doesn’t have to be shown. It is something discovered by way of intimacy. Through our public selves, we show sympathy but empathy is possible only through the core of our individual humanity. The latter doesn’t actually show as in the objective sense. It is something that meets and embraces the other in the depth of an intimate encounter where there is no need to say even a word. This is a condition where one understands the other in silence. This is a situation where nothing has to be shown overtly but the spontaneity of discovery becomes a reality. Illustrating further the difference between personal identity and the core of individuality, the former is invented and intended to be shown while the latter is discovered and understood in the depth of intimate connectivity.

But personal identity is not devoid of depth; it requires and involves commitment and principles. In other words, one stands by her/his own invention of her/himself which consists of a constant process to convince her/himself of the “reality” of all the aspects of his personal identity as a matter not only of affirmation but also of confirmation. Personal identity is the public “I” supposed to be knowable objectively. One’s personal identity is known in definitive terms and established as the defining character of one’s person. From this conceptualization emanates the notion that “first impression lasts”. Once one has known the character of another and such knowledge has been strengthened by time, it takes a herculean effort for the former to change her/his impression of the latter even in the face of most indubitable controversies.

Personal identity is the public individual, the legal person, the one presented to us in bodily form with all her/his intellectual, emotional and mental properties. S/he is the next-door neighbor and the office colleague, a fellow member in an organization and an acquaintance in a bar which we regularly frequent. He is every Tom, Dick and Harry that we meet regularly and casually on the street whom we usually greet with an amiable “Hello” or “Hi” and tell others in passing that “That guy is nice and friendly,” without the intent or the means to verify such an impression.

With all these in mind, personal identity doesn’t seem to be an epistemological issue considering the fact that  its reality is not a big deal at all. Life goes on and we are not bothered about the truth or falsity of another person’s identity as long as no moral issue gets in the way of our relationship with them. Anyway, from their point of view as people thinking the same way we do, my personal identity is no big deal at all to them as a matter of epistemological probing. Myth or not, one’s personal identity is a way for me to deal with the other person in an ethically fair manner.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 02 September 2014

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