Monday, June 11, 2012

On Identity

To me, the concept of identity seems to consist of a paradox. To define something its particular character must be highlighted but at the same time this particularity must be formulated in general terms that are in no way unique to object being defined. In effect, not only must a definition consist of contrast to something but must also simultaneously consist of similarity to something else.

For instance, let us say someone asks himself "who am I?". The two extreme forms that the answer can possibly take are - 1) I am who I am or 2) I am a being. The first answer lies on the particularist extreme, where the object is considered as something unique, as sui generis; without any common characteristics with anything else. On the other hand, the second answer lies on the generalist extreme, where the object being defined shares its definition with every existent thing. Both are logically true, in fact both are truisms. But both are useless as definitions; they give no new information at all about the object. The first answer puts the object too close to the eye, and the second one puts it too far. In either case, the object being defined is invisible.

A more useful definition will then be the one that lies somewhere in between these two extremities. It must move away from the generalistic extreme by bringing about the unique characteristics of the object ("I am a human being, an Indian and an Engineer") but at the same time these characteristics must have an existence independent of the object and thus necessarily indicate the object's similarity with certain things; the things with which the object shares these characteristics  (my Indian-ness does not owe its existence to me rather I share it with all other Indians). So,while I am distinguishing myself and highlighting my uniqueness, I have to also simultaneously highlight my similarity to certain things and characteristics. And, even though there's a strong tendency to highlight my uniqueness, I can not to go all the way to define myself in absolutely unique terms; in that case, I will come too close to the mind's eye, so to speak, and thus will become incomprehensible.
I think we understand this intuitively and thus rarely think of things or ourselves as completely unique or completely general. When people choose identities (often multiples) between these extremes, the most basic desire governing these choices perhaps is the desire to be seen and understood.
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