Skip to main content

Identity and Self-Determination

  • 205 Accesses


This chapter brings together the epistemological conclusions I have reached with my earlier concerns about the individual’s ability to freely develop himself. This chapter is the culmination of everything argued so far and offers an account of the individual as being partially constituted by the self-descriptions he forms of himself, where those descriptions are subject to socially grounded objective standards while also allowing the subject to have a degree of creativity in choosing which descriptions to endorse. I also briefly discuss the possibility of critically developing those social frameworks within which we are participants as a way of opening up to ourselves new possibilities of self-description. In this way the development of both the individual and the social world can still be understood on the basis of a critical interaction between the two, where each contains conflicts and tensions that can only be resolved by the mutual development of each. A second important strand of argument in this chapter aims to show that certain essential features of the human identity—certain forms of emotional response or evaluative orientation—depend on the world of meanings opened up to us by social practice.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-77246-2_7
  • Chapter length: 52 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   64.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-319-77246-2
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   84.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   84.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)


  1. 1.

    Frankfurt (1971), 5–20.

  2. 2.

    Charles Taylor (1985b), 16.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., 18.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., 18.

  5. 5.

    Ibid., 19.

  6. 6.

    See Chapter 1.1, ‘Inescapable Frameworks’, in Taylor (1989).

  7. 7.

    Ibid., 27.

  8. 8.

    Ibid., 30.

  9. 9.

    A challenging criticism of the basic idea I am discussing here can be found in Moran (1988), 135–151. Key ideas deployed in this paper are further developed and connected to other issues discussed in the current chapter, including logical differences between first- and third-person ascription, in Moran (1997), 141–161. Some ideas about the authority of self-consciousness, as discussed later in this chapter, are also worked out in Moran (1999), 179–199.

  10. 10.

    Given that I have spent so much time arguing that our social practices shape our conceptual grasp and so too our awareness of things, one could push that objects do not have so much independence from language in contrast to our identities. I think the difference here probably comes down to the role individual authority has in self-ascription in contrast to the ascription of, for example, scientific concepts, which require group endorsement to have any authority or much practical consequence. There are clear realist issues running in the background here, which I consider to be beyond the scope of this book.

  11. 11.

    Taylor (1989), 34.

  12. 12.

    Taylor (1985b), 22.

  13. 13.

    This idea can be found in Anscombe (2000).

  14. 14.

    See chapter 2 of Winch (2003).

  15. 15.

    Ibid., 48.

  16. 16.

    Ibid., 50.

  17. 17.

    Ibid., 50.

  18. 18.

    This is just another term for meaningful behaviour, that is, behaviour embodying concepts which the agent himself grasps.

  19. 19.

    Ian Hacking makes a similar move: ‘It is a common theme in the theory of human action that to perform an intentional act is to do something “under a description”. As human kinds are made and moulded, the field of descriptions changes and so do the actions that I can perform, i.e. the field of human kinds affects the field of possible intentional actions. Yet intentional action falls short of the mark. There are more possible ways to see oneself, more roles to adopt. I do not believe that multiple personalities intentionally choose their disorder, or that they are trained by their therapists. However, if this way of being were not available at the moment, hardly anyone would be that way.’ See Hacking (1995), 368.

  20. 20.

    It is also worth noting that I do not think we can ascribe a particular action to a person without also ascribing certain intentions or motives, nor do I think we can understand a person as having certain feelings or desires without their being embodied in certain behaviours (this is a clear consequence of the rule-following considerations). Furthermore, to describe an action as spiteful is to characterise the desires, motivations and behaviour of an individual as being of a certain sort.

  21. 21.

    See Tanney (2013c), 290.

  22. 22.

    Tanney (2013b), 300.

  23. 23.

    Ibid., 300.

  24. 24.

    See Chaps. 3, 4, 5 and 6.

  25. 25.

    Tanney (2013c), 279.

  26. 26.

    Ibid., 280.

  27. 27.

    One should note the return of ‘context’ here and recall how Winch previously equivocated on ‘context’ and ‘rule’. I followed Winch in arguing that to understand a context is to understand the rules involved in the situation. See the section on ostensive definition in Chap. 5.

  28. 28.

    Tanney (2013a).

  29. 29.

    Ibid., 156.

  30. 30.

    A parallel idea to this notion of ‘commitments’ is in the work of Gilbert Ryle under the term ‘implication threads’. The idea is, once again, that attributing certain concepts to a situation involves our commitment to the various logical consequences of that concept, where those logical consequences are grounded in the social norms governing its correct use across shifting contexts. See Ryle (2009a), 456–457; as well as Ryle (2009b).

  31. 31.

    Tanney (2013a), 160.

  32. 32.

    Taylor (1985a), 70.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., 70.

  34. 34.

    Wittgenstein (2001), 138. See also passages 635, 636 and the surrounding discussion.

  35. 35.

    Tanney (2013c), 284.

  36. 36.

    Hegel (1971), 73.

  37. 37.

    Ibid., 73.

  38. 38.

    Sellars approaches this issue with promise when he talks of sense -contents—the ‘something’—not as immediate items of knowledge that can serve a foundational role in our epistemological enterprise but rather as theoretical entities we posit as part of an explanatory project.

  39. 39.

    For a now classic discussion of how to understand the relation between the deliverances of intuition and their mediation through concepts, see McDowell (1996).

  40. 40.

    Tanney (2013c), 307.

  41. 41.

    Ibid., 297.

  42. 42.

    Tanney (2013b).

  43. 43.

    Goncharov (1954).

  44. 44.

    Tanney (2013b), 310.

  45. 45.

    The qualification concerning endorsement is an important one. As I am about to argue, the constitutive relationship between the explanations we form and the shape of our thoughts, feelings and identity, depends on the fact that our behaviour qua symbolic activity changes with the endorsement (indeed, what counts as an endorsement can be reasonably held to mean just such a change in behaviour) and so embodies new rules or principles, that is, new descriptions. Were Olga to not truly endorse her explanation then her symbolic activity would not transform in the requisite way for her to count as ‘a woman in love’.

  46. 46.

    ‘We can say therefore that our self-interpretations are partly constitutive of our experience. For an altered description of our motivation can be inseparable from a change in this motivation. But to assert this connection is not to put forward a causal hypothesis … rather, it is that certain modes of experience of our predicament are not possible without certain self-descriptions .’ Taylor (1985b), 37.

  47. 47.

    ‘Think about a duck-rabbit design, which, although ambiguous between being either the head of a duck or the head of a rabbit, is arguably not the head of a cow or pig. Now, imagine that when the figure is drawn with more detail (a body is added) it becomes a duck and not a rabbit. The analogy would be that Olga’s pattern of behaviour before her reflections was in certain ways indeterminate (though certain interpretations of her behaviour could be ruled out) just as the duck-rabbit design is ambiguous (though certain descriptions of the design can be dismissed). After her reflections and her endorsement of one pattern (on our analogy she recognizes the pattern as a duck), she behaves in a way that is consistent with that recognition. Her endorsement of it (as a duck) and her subsequent behaviour allow the pattern to develop in such a way (say, it develops a beak, webbed feet, feathers, etc.) that renders the other interpretations no longer viable.’ See Tanney (2013b), 311.

  48. 48.

    Ibid., 310.

  49. 49.

    Ibid., 319.

  50. 50.

    Winch (2003), 53.

  51. 51.

    Ibid., 64.

  52. 52.

    Kuhn (1962), 23.

  53. 53.

    Kuhn has offered illuminating accounts of what I am here trying to describe in his paper ‘Second Thoughts on Paradigms’. Kuhn argues that scientists are often educated into the use of exemplars for the purposes of learning how to articulate certain formulas for specific purposes. When learning a scientific formula it is very general and demands specification for use in concrete cases. However, the formula is meant to inform us how to make sense of concrete cases we may confront in the future but have not yet produced specifications for, and the formula itself does not involve rules for specification. Nothing in the formula itself can tell us how to specify it for a given novel concrete case. Instead, what we must turn to are the exemplars; those classic cases where the formula has been specified, and by some form of tacit comparison we discover how to specify the rule in the new cases. The example he gives is that of moving from the known specification of a formula used to make sense of a ball rolling down one side of a hill and up another, to help specify the formula for an analogous case of the swinging pendulum. As Kuhn argues: ‘No conjunction of particular symbolic forms would exhaust what the members of a scientific community can properly be said to know about how to apply symbolic generalizations. Confronted with a new problem, they can often agree on the particular symbolic expression appropriate to it, even though none of them has seen that particular expression before.’ Kuhn (1977), 301. Note that though no explicit formulation nor any past performance can tell us exactly how to go on, there are nevertheless right and wrong ways of going on—the fact that so many scientists do go on the same way shows this. Exemplars for the applicability of a concept like ‘shame’ might come from such cultural artefacts as the films we watch, or the novels and poems that we read. For more on tacit inference, see Polanyi (1966), 1–18.

  54. 54.

    Winch (2003), 61.

  55. 55.

    The notion of ‘practical identity’ found its way into the literature through the work of Korsgaard who I discuss below. In particular see Korsgaard (1996), 100–107.

  56. 56.

    It is a shame that in this story Olga’s coming to self-realisation is in both cases dependent on the influence of men encouraging particular self-descriptions. This is not, of course, how things have to be.

  57. 57.

    Alistair MacIntyre discusses the nature of narrative re-descriptions of past events, including past interpretations, and he does so in a manner which parallels (indeed, influenced) Taylor’s notion of a transitional argument. Furthermore, MacIntyre applies these ideas to both personal and scientific development. See MacIntyre (2006). If the reader would like to explore this thread further, see Lippitt (2007), 34–65. See the response to Lippitt in Rudd (2007a), 541–549. The notion of life ‘as a whole’ over which these two debate is something I deal with at the end of this chapter.

  58. 58.

    Tanney (2013b), 320.

  59. 59.

    Taylor (1985a).

  60. 60.

    Ibid., 47.

  61. 61.

    Ibid., 49.

  62. 62.

    Ibid., 52.

  63. 63.

    Ibid., 53.

  64. 64.

    Taylor argues that even if we allow animals some sort of proto-sense of shame (and one might push that there has to be some embryonic feeling of this sort for it to ever develop into our notion of ‘shame’) it will be entirely different to ours, simply because our sense of shame is so shaped and dependent on the meanings things have for us. See Ibid., 69.

  65. 65.

    See the last paragraph of the first section in this chapter.

  66. 66.

    Ibid., 67.

  67. 67.

    Such a re-evaluation would involve a change in our strong evaluations, or the imports of our subject -referring feelings, it would involve a development in the meanings things have for us, and in the ways we feel.

  68. 68.

    I do not use the language of ‘narrative’ very much but it is clear here that my account is one form of the growing number of narrative accounts of human identity. Along with references in footnote 57 of this chapter, the reader should also see Schechtman (2011), as well as Rudd (2007b), 60–75. Rudd also puts forward an account of narrative identity complementary to my own, for the purpose of offering an alternative to the discussions of continuity of personal identity typically found within analytic philosophy: see Rudd (2005), 413–435.

  69. 69.

    ‘When I speak of human kinds I mean (i) kinds that are relevant to some of us, (ii) kinds that primarily sort people, their actions, and behaviour, and (iii) kinds that are studied in the human and social science, i.e. kinds about which we have knowledge. I add (iv) that kinds of people are paramount. I want to include kinds of human behaviour, action, tendency, etc. only when that are projected to form the idea of a kind of person.’ Hacking (1995), 354.

  70. 70.

    Ibid., 355.

  71. 71.

    Interestingly, the ‘looping’ in Hacking’s ‘looping human kinds’ involves the idea that once members of a kind come to see themselves as such, their behaviour changes accordingly, and since the behaviour of those in a kind has changed, so too has the kind. In this way there is an interplay between the scientific investigation of a kind and the members of that kind understanding themselves as such. This parallels my discussion above concerning the endorsement of a description, its subsequent effect on behaviour, and so too the applicability of future descriptions. See in particular Ibid., 369.

  72. 72.

    Ibid., 368.

  73. 73.

    Daniel Bell has some useful material on the notion of ‘damaged human personhood’ as a result of society not providing the necessary structures for particular identities to adequately realise themselves. See Bell (1993).

  74. 74.

    Hacking (1995), 380.

  75. 75.

    One can read Sartre’s Huis Clos as an exploration of this basic idea: our unavoidable dependence on the recognition of others, and the painful experience we have when the recognition we receive is not confirming of our identities, or conducive to our realising ourselves in the world in a unified way. Though Sartre’s play does not highlight the social dimension as I am trying to do here, but rather the more personal level at which these conflicts can play out, I do not think the two dimensions are in fact easily separable. A literary example which does highlight the social dimension can be found in Fante’s Ask the Dust. This story explores the struggling life of an Italian American living during the Great Depression-era in Los Angeles and is in many ways an exploration of the tensions within the Italian-American identity at that time. An important background to this story is the racism of the era, which supplies much of the social dimension in how the lead character struggles to ably realise himself. For example, the main character identifies with both American values and Italian values, and the result is a character who dreams the American Dream, while facing constant limitation from American discrimination. He internalises some of this discrimination against himself and his Italian background, which conflicts with the Italian pride he has found within his family life. The result is an untenable and mercurial mix of love and hatred for both America and himself, an emotional mixture of both arrogance and self-loathing. He overcomes the tensions in his identity through finding the success in American life which he so desired. However, his successful self-realisation is contrasted with that of Camilla Lopez, a person facing similar racial tensions, but who could not realise herself in the world in the same way, and who ultimately disappears into the desert. See Sartre (1982) and Fante (2004).

  76. 76.

    Brandom is more cautious in how he spells out the relationship between concepts and the descriptions that deploy them. See Brandom (2000).

  77. 77.

    See chapter 5, section 6 of Korsgaard (2009).

  78. 78.

    Ásta Kristjana Sveinsdóttir is a useful place to turn to on this point, especially in respect of feminism. She offers what she calls a ‘conferralist’ account of human kinds (a form of constructivism) which draws on the dual elements of Hegelian self-realisation which she describes as expressivism and objectification: the living out of a conception and the attributing of a conception. In doing so she draws comparisons with the playing of language games, and the ability of such games to be oppressive or liberating. She also discusses some of the lingering issues concerning realism, which I mention in an earlier footnote, and the difference between socially constructed natural objects (such as sex) and social kinds such as gender. See Sveinsdóttir (2013), 716–732, and Sveinsdóttir (2010).

  79. 79.

    Though it might be argued to contain a normative dimension of a different sort, insofar as its actions are assessable according to the standard of self-maintenance. See Rouse (2015) and Okrent (2007).

  80. 80.

    Korsgaard (2009), 18.

  81. 81.

    Ibid., 142.

  82. 82.

    It is interesting that to this end Korsgaard deploys arguments similar to my own anti-privacy arguments developed in chapter 5. In particular see Korsgaard (1996), 135–145.

  83. 83.

    Korsgaard (2009), 75.

  84. 84.

    Ibid., 78.

  85. 85.

    I believe that somewhere in here lies the solution to the traditional is/ought problem in ethics. If I am a certain sort of person then I must act in particular sorts of ways.

  86. 86.

    For more on this sort of idea, see MacIntyre (1985).


  • Anscombe, G.E.M. 2000. Intention. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bell, Daniel. 1993. A Discussion About the Value of Language-Based Communities, the Gay Community, and the Family. In Communitarianism and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brandom, Robert. 2000. Articulating Reasons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fante, John. 2004. Ask the Dust. In The Bandini Quartet. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frankfurt, H. 1971. Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. Journal of Philosophy 67 (1): 5–20.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Goncharov, Ivan. 1954. Oblomov. Trans. D. Magarshack. London: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hacking, Ian. The Looping Effect of Human Kinds. In Causal Cognition: A Multi-Disciplinary Debate, ed. Dan Sperber and David Premack, 1995. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hegel, G.W.F. 1971. Philosophy of Mind. Trans. W. Wallace and A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Korsgaard, Kristine. 1996. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2009. Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1977. Second Thoughts on Paradigms. In The Essential Tension. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lippitt, John. 2007. Getting the Story Straight: Kierkegaard, MacIntyre and Some Problems with Narrative. Inquiry 50 (1): 34–65.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1985. The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition. In After Virtue, 2nd ed. London: Duckworth.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2006. Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science. In The Tasks of Philosophy: Selected Essays, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • McDowell, John. 1996. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moran, Richard. 1988. Self-Interpretation and Self-Constitution. Ratio 1 (2): 135–151.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1997. Self-Knowledge: Discovery, Resolution, and Undoing. European Journal of Philosophy 5 (2): 141–161.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1999. The Authority of Self-Consciousness. Philosophical Topics 26 (1): 179–199.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Okrent, Mark. 2007. Rational Animals. Ohio: Ohio University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Polanyi, Michael. 1966. The Logic of Tacit Inference. Philosophy 41 (155): 1–18.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Rouse, Joseph. 2015. Articulating the World. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Rudd, Anthony. 2005. Narrative, Expression, and Mental Substance. Inquiry 48 (5): 413–435.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2007a. Kierkegaard, MacIntyre, and Narrative Unity – Reply to Lippit. Inquiry 50 (5): 541–549.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2007b. In Defense of Narrative. European Journal of Philosophy 17 (1): 60–75.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Ryle, Gilbert. 2009a. Abstractions. In Collected Essays 1929–1968, 2nd ed. Oxford: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2009b. Philosophical Arguments. In Collected Essays 1929–1968, 2nd ed. Oxford: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1982. Huis Clos. In Huis Clos and Other Plays. London: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schechtman, Marya. 2011. The Narrative Self. In The Oxford Handbook of the Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sveinsdóttir, Ásta Kristjana. 2010. The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender. In Feminist Metaphysics, ed. Charlotte Witt. London: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2013. The Social Construction of Human Kinds. Hypathia 28 (4): 716–732.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Tanney, Julia. 2013a. Reasons as Non-Causal, Context-Placing Explanations. In Rules, Reason, and Self-Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2013b. Self-Knowledge, Normativity, and Construction. In Rules, Reason, and Self-Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2013c. Some Constructivist Thoughts About Self-Knowledge. In Rules, Reason, and Self-Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, Charles. 1985a. Self-Interpreting Animals. In Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1985b. What Is Human Agency? In Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1989. Sources of the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Winch, Peter. 2003. The Idea of a Social Science. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2001. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. 3rd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2018 The Author(s)

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Whittingham, M. (2018). Identity and Self-Determination. In: The Self and Social Relations. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation