“It's my identity.”
“Our identity are our roots.”
“I identify with this.”
“It's an identity issue.”
These are considerations that we often hear, both in public and political discourse - with certain purposes, in personal and more private contexts or in open debates. They are typical examples in which language is used not to explore oneself or the world, but to dominate it in an attempt to fix it once and for all. Yes, because the identity (from the Latin idem in the meaning of the same, itself) is used by us to fix a hard core in our interiority. This hard, unchanging and untouchable core is treated as if it were our most intimate truth, what makes us what we are. Our truth, indeed. It can be a character of our personality, a psychological trait, a sharing of religious or generically cultural practices with our community, our sexuality, our biological trait, or a combination of these possibilities. Be that as it may, we are convinced that the truth about us has always been there: as the 20th Century philosopher Foucault wrote about sexuality (but we can apply it very well to all the examples cited above) –
“We ask it to tell the truth [...]; and we ask it to tell us our truth, or rather we ask it to tell the profoundly buried truth of this truth about ourselves that we believe we possess in our immediate conscience.”
And we have gone even further: we think that this indefensible identity is our most precious asset and that we must defend it at all costs. The issue is very delicate, and through this article, I will try to give some food for thought to remember that identity, both community and personal, is above all an illusion; it contains nothing concrete. Of course, it helps us to live better but - as Kant argued - to be aware that something is an illusion (as useful as it is), is necessary to maintain its usefulness and avoid damaging true / false oppositions.
We could begin chronologically from this idea’s birth, at least as far as the West is concerned; we could speak of Greek philosophy, Aristotle and the concept of substance. The substance, for him, was just a substratum – something that is "underneath" and is immutable. Aristotle spoke of essence and of attributes or accidents that are grafted onto it, determining the more or less temporary characteristics – something very similar to what identity is for us. But, so as not to float in this type of discourse, which may sound very abstract to the sceptics, let us not start from the beginning and from ancient Greece.
Let's start instead from the end and from the modern times with their most prestigious instrument: science. In everyday language we often say, “it's in my DNA.” When we pronounce these words, we mean that there is something that is inevitably part of us, lying within us, which cannot be changed; it is our substance, our essence, our identity. After all, DNA is precisely the programming code that makes us be what we are, right? Not exactly. In fact, up until a few decades ago – also on the basis of an ontological tradition started in the ancient thought continuing up till today – it was believed that we had finally found in the DNA that immutable hard core of which the material traces had been followed for centuries. It was thought we had discovered a procedure that – in a nutshell – should have worked in this way: DNA genes encode RNA and therefore proteins’ biosynthesis. DNA was therefore our functioning program, what lied beneath everything, what made us what we are, and we can't do anything about: the inviolable dogma of our identity.
“It's in my DNA, it's my identity.”
This belief about the functioning of life on the genetic level soon proved to be an illusion, thanks to the scientific research itself. The concept of identity went into crisis – for the umpteenth time – when it was discovered that there are long sequences of DNA not codifying for anything. After a first phase where this was called junk DNA, it was actually discovered that – it is true – a large part of that DNA does not codify for anything, it is not a wearer’s piece of identity; but it is not rubbish, it has another important function: promoters or enhancers are found on those sequences. Without lingering on technical details, we only need to mention that the promoters and enhancers are specific regions of DNA to which proteins (transcription factors) can bind. The transcription factor binds to the promoter / enhancer and the gene (or a whole networks of genes) is activated, starting to codify.
For our train of thought, the very interesting thing is that transcription factors come from other environments: they can come from outside the cell’s nucleus, from other distant regions of the body or from outside the organism too. Take testosterone, for example: it is produced in the testicles and it travels throughout the body until it reaches the cells of a muscle; through numerous phases, it finally activates a transcription factor in the nucleus which, in turn, activates networks of genes that begin to codify with the final effect of growing the muscle; or take the example of a hormone that comes from outside the body: like the pheromones emanating from the child and olfactory received by the mother. When they get to the maternal body, thanks to a process similar to that of testosterone, they make specific genes starting codifying and, as a consequence, they make the mother more reactive and ready to look after the baby. That presumed identity, always equal to itself, does not exist. We are what we are not because we have it written in the DNA, but by virtue of different environmental stimuli. The context has a decisive influence on our biological structure and, because we often change context, we can say that we ourselves change. There is no fixity in our identity.
The fact of being elusive to ourselves is not only corroborated by genetics and biology, but also by a famous thought experiment conceived by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century: Theseus' ship. Hobbes invites us to imagine the Greek hero Theseus traveling on his ship over the years. Inevitably, during his wanderings, Theseus, from time to time, has to repair his ship by replacing an axle, a tree, a rope. Theseus, whenever he replaces one of these parts, keeps the one he removed and places it in his garden. Over time, repairing become more and more in number, until - Hobbes argues - the time comes when Theseus has replaced all of his ship’s components. At this point another ship has been actually assembled in the garden. Now, Hobbes asks: which one is the real ship? The one in the sea or the one in the garden? Can we say that the ship in the sea is the same one that sailed at the beginning of the hero's journeys?
Here again we find the problem of identity. In Hobbes’ metaphor the ship is clearly our body; and, as in the case of the above mentioned DNA, the mental experiment of Theseus' ship tells us that there is nothing immutable in us that makes us be what we are: even the ship is in continuous evolution due to external interventions (damages followed by repairing). In the end we even find ourselves with two ships in an obvious paradox: it is in fact impossible for the ship's identity to reside in both the places (it would be like imagining that, if we were cloned, our clone would have our own personal identity) . Therefore, what we are cannot be identified either in our genetic code, or in the matter we are made of or in the shape we have, nor in the ideas or beliefs we profess. These things all change slowly, day by day, second by second, tirelessly.
Thus, we something always escaping from us, something we can never really get. Or as the Scottish philosopher David Hume concluded, we are only the result of our imagination: in fact, all we can get from the world are perceptions and the set of those perceptions forms our identity (our ego). Perceptions, however, are plural and ephemeral definitions: with extreme rapidity – even in the course of a few hours – we pass from being happy, to being tired, from annoyed to cordial, from frightened to reassured. Perceptions, coming to us from the environment, follow one another and there is never a moment when they are all present and stable at the same time, so that we can say that I am all of that instant’s perceptions. Because moment has its own set of perceptions. So, according to Hume, identity as something given and fixed (a set of perceptions) is nothing but an illusion of our imagination.
We could debate on the identity issue for a long time – in fact we have been talking about it for a couple of millennia! But the intention of the lines above is to make two simple things emerge. First, we cannot be sure of having something stable and immutable. Second, a question: does that mean we have to give up our uniqueness? It could be. However, just because we do not have a brand identity imprinted on us – it’s much more stimulating the thought that we can build our uniqueness thanks to environmental, contextual stimuli and to perceptions we decide to undergo. Obviously not everyone has the same chance to undergo equal influences. But we all have the faculty to want, to be able to select - negatively or positively - some of the factors that shape us incessantly. And what we can’t control, we can at least be aware of. In an almost Kantian consciousness, identity is a very useful illusion.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Francesco Ziveri holds a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy from Università Statale in Milan, Italy; he also attained a first level Master's Degree in Strategic Management for Global Business from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Holding a long experience in public debates, local politics and newspapers, he strongly believes in the tools of dialectic and methodological skepticism. His unconditional love for western philosophy, perpetrated by reading books, by dialoguing and by writing, brings him in a tireless journey in search of new and alternative points of view on the world. He aspires to grow a mustache as thick as Nietzsche's.