What features are essential to being a person? What separates you from other individuals? In one sense your self-identity is the way you characterize yourself as an individual. What are these characterizing qualities? Also your self-identity is what makes you the same person over time. What is it that allows us to be individual people at all? Whatever our attempts to answer the problems of self-identity, it begins with the fact of our consciousness. Ideas concerning consciousness assume some metaphysical claims that have been questioned. We will look at some of these claims in the following chapter.
Sometimes we are not aware of our identities, sometimes we are self-conscious, or very aware of our identities. Many philosophers have argued that self-consciousness is not just crucial to having a concept of one's own individuality, but is also crucial for establishing that one is an enduring self. Descartes knows that he exists and continues to exist as long as he is a "thing that thinks." This consciousness that allows us to know that we exist composes our soul, a substance. Descartes is saying that self-identity depends on consciousness.
Locke believes that self-identity depends on our having the same consciousness and memories. He differs from Descartes because he distinguishes between a substance (the soul) and consciousness. Locke's idea that memory is what constitutes a self-identity is inspired by the Cartesian notion that a person's relationship to her own thoughts is unique. You cannot think my thoughts, and I cannot think yours. According to Locke, memory provides an infallible link between what we might call different "stages" of a person.
There are two objections: (1) we forget much of what we experience, and (2) our memories are not always accurate.
Hume concludes that the idea of a self is simply a fiction. This is because he believes that when we are self-conscious we are only aware of fleeting thoughts, feelings and perceptions, we do not have an impression of the self or a thinking substance. He believes that because we are used to spatiotemporal continuity of an object (we see a tree, and believe that it is the tree we saw a moment ago) we rely on resemblance as a criterion of identity. He believes that we cannot even establish the identity of objects on this account. Hume's argument "I can never catch myself" relies on a presupposition, he is presupposing that there is a "myself" to be caught.
Kant agrees with Hume, identity is not found in self-consciousness. The enduring self is not an object of experience. It is transcendental. By "transcendental," Kant means what is a necessary condition for the possibility of any experience. If there was a different self at each moment of consciousness, we would not be able to perceive anything. Because we do experience objects, we must assume that we have a unified consciousness that combines all of these impressions into the perception of these objects. This is Kant's self.
The "I" that had the experience can always be found.
The self, for Kant, is also the activity of applying the rules by which we organize our experience. We must "synthesize" our experiences into a unity, for we could not come to have any knowledge otherwise. He calls this "the transcendental unity of apperception." He calls this self the transcendental ego, because it is basic and necessary for all human experience.
Kant objects to Descartes on three grounds. (1) Our concern with self-consciousness is given impetus because we are not often self-conscious. (2) Kant does not believe that the thinking self is a thinking thing because the self is not in our experience but rather responsible for it. The self is an activity, which undermines the traditional concept of the soul. Finally, (3) Kant believes that we need two very different conceptions of self. The first is that the transcendental self is essential to being a self and the second is the idea of the empirical ego, which includes all of those particular things that make us different people. This allows us to differentiate between particular selves.
Self-identity is the way that you think about yourself. It is a mask and a role that you wear in every social encounter. The way in which a contemporary Chinese farmer thinks of himself and judges himself is very different from that of a contemporary American college student. When you say that people are "essentially the same," then you believe that there are universal criteria for self-identity and that the differences between people are merely superficial.
Existentialism believes that self-identity, in every case is a matter of choice. Jean Paul Sartre believed that there were no set standards for self-identity, either for individuals or for people in general. There is no such thing as "human nature" and what we are-and what it means to be a human being-are always matters of decision. There is no correct choice, there are only choices.
On the existentialist account, each person chooses which facts are to be considered as essential to one's self-identity. The facts alone are not enough to judge a person (this is called facticity) the person's projections into the future, their ambitions, intentions, hopes etc. also have to be considered (a person's transcendence).
Within discussions of the individual self, it becomes evident that the individual self is largely, if not entirely, a social product defined by society. We have all found ourselves acting according to an identity that was wholly imposed upon us by other people. First, there is your conception of your own identity. And then there is the identity that has been imposed on you. RD Laing looks at this problem as the cause of some of our most serious psychological breakdowns. We get the sense that our real selves are known only to ourselves, but at the same time we do not really exist except with other people.
Sartre argues that we should break away from our social identities and create our selves. Nietzsche argues that we should develop ourselves as unique individuals. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard deplores "the public" and urges an end to collective identity and social roles in favor of renewed respect for the individual. Kierkegaard is so adamant that he believes that the person who does not choose his or her own identity cannot even be said to really exist. Heidegger argues against collective social identity by claiming that "they," the "they" of "the public," is in fact an anonymous no one.
This individualist movement is the mainstream of western thinking. One problem is that if we become too focused on individualism, personal needs eclipse the needs of the group and can result in the destruction of the community. In contemporary times, the question of how individuals are defined by, or in, society is a deeply political one.
In America, we are sensitive to stereotyping and to strict enforcement of social rules, because we feel that our identities are taken out of our own control and our individuality is overlooked. Malcolm X argues that African-Americans' self-identities are largely defined for them by American society in which whites are a majority. Social roles have also been binding to other groups, like women. Some feminists claim that the only way that society can repair itself and allow people to have individual identities is to establish a society without clear social and sexual roles.
Many thinkers find that overly individual thinking can be dangerous. Hegel argues that individuals in history are significant only insofar as they contribute to movements far greater than themselves. This idea that each of us is virtually insignificant in our tiny place in history hurts our grander conceptions of ourselves, but Hegel argues that no other view is defensible. Even the greatest among us is nothing more than an expression of the "universal," the forces of society and humankind as a whole.
Jacques Derrida's movement, "deconstruction" is the attempt to offer a social analysis and criticism which recognizes its own identification with the culture it criticizes. To "deconstruct" a theory is not to destroy it nor to rebuild it, but rather to "reread" it.
Derrida claims that the "unified self" is just a product of Western culture and that it is now dying at the hands of its own creator. If there is self, he suggests "it must be plural."
Bad faith is refusing to accept yourself. Either you can refuse to accept the facts and actions as relevant to your self-identity or you can go too far in the opposite direction, believing that your actions conclusively and unalterably establish your self-identity. Bad faith points to the most important fact about personal self-identity?there isn't any. Whatever the facts about you, you are always something more than those facts. As long as a person is alive, he or she is identified by intentions, dreams and hopes as much as by what is already true by virtue of the facts.
Herman Hesse, in his novel Steppenwolf, presents a character whose "self" is a multiple or pluralistic self. Harry Haller lives with the myth of "two selves," one human, rational and well behaved, the other beastly, wild and wolf-like. Harry's unhappiness stems from his oversimplified notion of self, according to Hesse. Hesse believes that the simile self is a strictly "bourgeois convention." Why do we have to regard the self as a single unit? He suggests that it is because we have one body, so we assume that we have one self.
Luce Irigaray claims that the "essential" self is limiting and oppressive, particularly when applied to women. She claims that the genuine and free identity of a woman is a multiplicity or plurality of characters. She believes that the female is not a sex at all. She is claiming that there may not be any natural masculinity or femininity at all in the plural "self" from which we sort them out. Genevieve Lloyd criticizes the mind body distinction from a feminist perspective. This is because our society has come to accept the stereotype of the "masculinity" of the mind and the "femininity" of the body. Feminists believe that this forces sexism into our notions of human nature.
Eastern religions have long criticized the notion of the unified "self." Some Eastern religions claim that the idea of the self is just an illusion which one accepts out of moral weakness or backwardness.