Identity

The root condition for rational judgment.

“Rational” here has a particular sense: a rational decision is consistent with the individual’s intention, or conatus—what he is striving to do; what he is about. The intention may be selfish or enlightened; it may be mistaken; it may be altruistic or self-sacrificing: if the person wishes to do something for others without counting the cost, rational behaviour will take steps to do so. What rational decision cannot do is choose a direction in the absence of context, if the decision-maker has no identity, no intention—no conatus. Reason can exist without a rational person being present—the laws of Euclid would exist in a lifeless universe—but rational judgment about whether something is a good idea or not only make sense if there is some definition of whom it might be a good idea for (Resilience > Feedback).I4

Without identity, there is no more reason for a person to make rational decisions with respect to himself and his community than there would for him to make rational decisions in the interests of any other person or thing, such as an enemy, a rival, or a predator. Antelopes suffering from a loss of identity might forget they are antelopes that run away from lions: instead, they might be on the lions’ side and give themselves up; or they might think they were goats, migrate to the uplands and starve in the rocky wilderness. Identity is knowing who you are. Judgment without identity is madness.

Arguments which comprise only abstract principles lack those roots in identity: assertions of good or bad intentions unconnected to the particular of people and places are, in this sense, not rational. If there is no identity in terms of which a person, a community, a nation, is able to make rational judgment, then there is no one there, no defining interest. Impressive analysis may be abundant—tests, procedures, numbers, targets—but it cannot correct (though it may disguise) the lack of orientation needed to make it rational.

Being in a community or having a cultural context is not a sufficient condition for identity being defined, but it is a necessary one. It means that there are coordinates: the person can take a fix on his position in terms of the community, its place, its culture, its tradition, its narrative (the stories which link up with its past, explain its present, and give it meaning). Community, so identified, can—given a chance—provide the authority of a defined, rooted, rational context in which the individual can think for himself or herself, apply judgment, express emotion, be a person. There is a frame of reference in which rational judgments can be made: reason means something.

If you have a secure identity, you have freedom to explore the unfamiliar, to encounter the surprising. You have the freedom to think. If, however, you are in the insecure condition of having no reliable identity, you need to affirm it in some other way: your opinion is your identity, so that, when making a judgment, you use it as an opportunity to declare—to yourself and others—who you are. The protection of your identity takes priority over actually engaging with the question; it leads you to a quick answer which says nothing about the matter in hand, but a lot about the opinions which you cannot afford to change—because if you did, there would be nothing left of you. In this way, our freedom to think atrophies. Identity, then, consists of being intuitively sure of who you are, having no need to define this by any particular set of values and therefore being able to approach a question by applying judgment on its merits, rather than on your merits.

The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen disagrees with this: identity, he argues, is a product of a person’s many characteristics, experiences and opinions—the case, for instance, of a person whose identity comprises being . . .

. . . a stockbroker, a nonvegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer, and one who believes that God created Darwin to test the gullible.I5

But it is deeper than that. Identity is not the sum of characteristics. It consists of a deep, rooted sense of being; though you may stop being a stockbroker and start on a new career, you do not start a new identity. Your being does not have to be promiscuously defined in terms of something else; it is already, as the poet Thomas Traherne has it,

A living Inhabitant
Of the Great World.
And the Centre of it!I6

The soil in which identity grows is a lifelong immersion in culture, tradition and manners. It is set in a particular place, so that place, landscape and located roots are integral to it. We must not be too rigid about this, since being of no fixed address does not necessarily mean having no fixed identity: gypsies and ships’ captains are not necessarily prevented from discovering their identity—but their place is the road, or the sea. Specificness — non-abstraction — is set in a particular place, and the idea that ethics are located goes deep into the language. Greek tópos (place), from which we get both “topic” and “topology”, was used by Aristotle in tópoi (patterns of argument) in his treatise Ta Tópica—“Commonplaces”. Judgment is, first of all, located in the specifics of the particular case:

Patterns of argument are not so many rival intellectual theories; rather, they are complementary practical theories, each of which is relevant to some specific type of moral problem. Decisions about which practical theory will best allow us to resolve any particular problem can only be made in the context of, and with an eye to, the detailed circumstances of that particular problem.I7

Here is the principle of practical wisdom, prudence, Aristotle’s phronesis. It focuses on the particular. Particulars are found in places. Places nurture identity. Identity enables reason.I8

 

Related entries:

Dirty Hands, Loyalty, Narcissism, Metamorphosis, Nation.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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