The Politics and Ethics of Identity: In Search of Ourselves
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Like so many of Hegel’s pithy observations, this one is suitably enigmatic. I am drawn to it because it can be read to capture, avant la lettre, and with admirable brevity, the implications of recent work on identity in psychology, analytical philosophy and political theory. This research indicates just how elusive the concept of the self is, conceptually and empirically. As many philosophers contend, the self may be an illusion, but one that is central to the well-being of modern people. As Hegel suggests, we appear in multiple guises by virtue of our numerous self-identifications, but invariably think of ourselves in the singular. Given the contradictions between our self-understandings and those of science, we have a strong incentive to keep the former under wraps. My goal in this book is to shed light on conceptions of identity and their associated practices. Following in the footsteps of Hegel, my end goal is to think about the relationship between identity, and politics and ethics.
Most analytical philosophers and neuroscientists question the existence of the self. Some deny its existence altogether, and describe consciousness as a never-ending stream of fleeting sensations and reflections on them. For others, there is a ‘minimal’ or phenomenological self, an illusion to be sure, but a powerful one that provides meaning to our lives and guidance in our interactions with others. If selfhood is questionable, identity, which rests upon the foundation of the self, is an even more dubious concept. Westerners—and many other people—would be as shocked by the thought that they do not possess a self as they would be by the suggestion that they are without a gender. More remarkable still, most Westerners believe in the face of all the evidence to the contrary that their identities are consistent and unique.
Highly respected scholars in diverse fields (e.g. Clifford Geertz, Erik Erikson, Paul Ricoeur and Anthony Giddens) encourage this illusion, as do prominent philosophers (e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor) who want to ground ethical systems in such identities. They write in an era when our discourses reveal the near-metastasis of the word self, which is now attached via a hyphen to an almost endless list of words. These include self-image, self-seeking, self-esteem, self-knowledge, self-consciousness, self-reference, self-preservation, all of which have a positive valence. In part, my project is aimed at pulling the empirical rug out from underneath such claims, but more importantly, in understanding why they are made. What accounts for our fixation on the self in the modern era, and more so still in the last half-century? What kinds of identity projects has modernity spawned? What accounts for this variation, and to whom do different constructions of identity appeal? Could we recognize ourselves as fragmented and question the status of the alleged selfhood on which our identities are based? If so, what would be the ethical consequences?