The puzzle of identity


The puzzle of identity

Vincent Descombes talks to Tim Black about identity, autonomy and the need to look outside of oneself.

Vincent Descombes

Topics Long-reads Politics

Who am I? As French philosopher Vincent Descombes explains in his newly translated book, Puzzling Identities, this is a distinctly modern question. Of course, it looks simple enough. And so familiar are we today with the question of identity, the question of my identity, that we barely interrogate the meaning of the question.

But that is precisely what Descombes does in the first part of Puzzling Identities. He looks at how the question of identity – ‘who is he?’ – was originally little more than a third-person inquiry. It is the type of question the reader might well be asking now: who is Vincent Descombes? We can say that he was born in 1943. We can say he is a professor of philosophy at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. We can say, too, that he is an author of several prized works, beginning with Le Même et l’Autre, which was published in English in 1980 as Modern French Philosophy. There are other biographical details which further identify Vincent Descombes as that Vincent Descombes. He studied philosophy and sociology at the Sorbonne in the 1960s, for instance, and, while there, he was a member of the anti-Stalinist Marxist group, Socialisme ou Barbarie.

So far, so Wikipedia. But the question of identity, the question of who someone is, has acquired a deeper, first-person sense. It is no longer simply the elementary question of us establishing who he or she is, from their name and date of birth, to their occupation and interests; it is also a moral-psychological question for me or you to attempt to answer for ourselves, a subjective project, an individual quest for that identity for which we want to be recognised, valued and esteemed. And as such, it is often a difficult, vexed question, one experienced by adolescents, for instance, as a problem as they struggle between the values of their parents and those, perhaps, of their peers, or better still, an ‘identity crisis’ to use the famous formulation of Erik Erikson, who plays such a prominent role in Puzzling Identities.

What happened?, I ask Descombes over email. How did ‘who am I?’, a question that, as he argues, wouldn’t have made any sense to an Ancient Athenian or, indeed a Medieval peasant, come to be a defining question of the modern age, generating endless self-presentation on social media, and fuelling the ceaseless demand for recognition of who I am? What was it that prompted Oscar Wilde to predict that, while ‘”Know thyself” was written over the portal of the Antique world, over the portal of the new world, “Be thyself” shall be written’. Descombes’ initial answer is pithy: ‘Between Pericles and us, something took place: Christianity has been active. It has extended to all human beings without exception the concern for personal salvation.’

Descombes is right, of course. Christianity did make the question of one’s salvation or, indeed, damnation, a personal concern, a matter of outward devotion and inward faith. In Puzzling Identities, he cites Hegel from Outlines of the Philosophy of Right (1820): ‘The right of the subject’s particularity, his right to be satisfied, or in other words the right of subjective freedom, is the pivot and centre of the difference between antiquity and modern times. This right in its infinity is given expression in Christianity and it has become the universal effective principle of a new form of the world.’

Hegel’s ‘right of subjective freedom’ is roughly equivalent to what we might think of today as individualism. It is the right of the individual to formulate and act upon his or her own conception of what he deems to be good – his ‘right to be satisfied’. But the question of identity is more than that. It is a form of subjective freedom, but its object is not salvation, or even the good; its object is the self itself. In other words, it is the right of the individual to formulate his or her own conception of his or her self.

I ask Descombes to expand on the reasons for this development, beyond the advent of Christianity. His answer seems to rest on the changes that occur in the shift from the politically mediated relations operative under feudalism to the freer, economically mediated relations of capitalism. Or the ‘great disembedding’, as he calls it. His response is worth quoting in full:

‘Just as [the philosopher] Charles Taylor does, I draw the idea of “the great disembedding” from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944), where it applies to the fact that the economy has been conceived as an independent system, governed by its own laws and inherently able to find by itself its point of equilibrium. In Polanyi’s thought, the transformation he is telling us about boils down to a differentiation between the domain of economy (a domain governed by natural laws) and the domain of politics.

‘Now, Taylor gives to the term a new application by describing the modern individual as somehow “disembedded” from the social fabric in which he is born and has been raised. Here, Taylor is following the anthropologist Louis Dumont who, in From Mandeville to Marx (1977), integrated Polanyi’s views into a general account of the process generating us, modern individuals, out of pre-modern human beings. Dumont points out that in Ancient times and during the Middle Ages, it was not impossible to become an independent individual, but that there was a price to pay for such an emancipation. The price to be paid at the time of the Roman Empire was becoming a paradoxical philosopher – such as the Stoics.

‘In Christian times’, Descombes continues, ‘it was leaving behind one’s worldly concerns and becoming a monk. The important turning point here in the shift from traditional cultures to modernity is the Reformation: complete personal salvation is now open to everybody – it is no longer necessary to leave the world. Dumont has described this transformation as the transition from an ideal type he calls the “extra-worldly individual” to a new type of humanity (us), the “individual in the world”. Such an “inner-worldly individual” is precisely what I call, following Taylor, a “disembedded human being”.’

Crucially, Descombes tells me, the ‘disembedded human being’ no longer necessarily identifies with any social roles. Or as Descombes himself puts it, ‘a modern man… presents himself as an individual, as someone who happens to have various social statuses but who can think of himself independently of these structures’. And because identity is no longer a social given, no longer a third-person attribution, it can become a first-person question, or, better still, a this-worldly quest.

It doesn’t always of course. For much of modernity, many people developed other socially and politically mediated identities, through religion or class or nation – they sought other, outward ways of identifying themselves. But, at the same time, there has long been an introspective strain of thought in post-Reformation culture, what Taylor calls the ethic of authenticity, whereby writers and artists, from Rousseau to the Beats, focused on the imperative to be true to one’s unique way of being – a way of being distinct from the social world. Social facts, be they dates of birth or social roles, come to be seen as constraints on one’s identity formation. Identity was a question not for society, but for me. Its real source was now something inner, rather than outer, an essential nature the realisation of which was to become one’s life work.

There’s a wonderfully insightful passage in Puzzling Identities that captures well what it means to turn the question of identity into a project of self-definition: ‘What distinguishes the modern man is not that he has ceased to owe his individuation to the fact of having been born, and therefore escaped having his actual genealogical and social position in the world as his identity in the literal sense. What distinguishes him is his refusal to invest his literal identity with a normative function. At this point he must replace the literal identity, which is for him a simple factual identity, with another self-definition that he will henceforth call his true identity.’

‘The refusal to invest [one’s] literal identity with a normative function.’ It’s a telling line. Yet while it’s one thing to reject one’s family, or to refuse to be reduced to one’s job, it’s another to refuse some of the most basic literal facts about oneself. Which raises the obvious question: has identitarian politics reached its as-yet most extreme manifestation in the rise of so-called trans- identities, where even one’s biological sex ceases to have a claim on who one is?

‘I am not sure about these matters’, Descombes admits. ‘One way to understand gender issues is indeed to interpret them as an individualistic claim: it should be up to me, not to society, to decide which sex I belong to. Or, if not which sex, at least which gender. On the other hand, “transgenderism” might be taken to be a protest against limitations which are inherent to the human condition. As a matter of fact, belonging to one sex (and only one) deprives me of the possibility of experiencing what it is like to be of the other sex.’

Throughout Puzzling Identities, Descombes returns to this idea of the limits on identity formation. Chief among which is the impossibility of being both this and that, of being man and woman, for instance, of, in effect, having it all, of being as many identities as one chooses. After all, they’re called identity crises for a reason. They arrive at the point of indecision, the moment when one is torn between incompatible value systems. One needs to choose to become this, or not become this. One can’t be both. Hamlet needs to be a vengeful son, or a brilliant Renaissance man, as his time studying in Wittenberg tempts him to be. But still… is it really not possible to have more than one identity?

‘Even if the word “identity” is taken in the new, psycho-social sense’, explains Decombes, ‘we still need to answer the logical question: who is the owner of all these identities? Let’s suppose that I have more than one address. On such an hypothesis, I could be said to have “multiple homes”, meaning that there are several places where I am, or can feel, at home. You could send me a letter at any one of these addresses. However, unless I can have more than one body, I would not be able to be present at all these places at one given time. It’s the same with Hamlet: his problem is that he cannot be literally two persons at the same time.’

And what of autonomy? The transformation of identity into a subjective quest (and question) does appear to be related to individual freedom – the freedom, that is, for individuals to pursue their own sense of self. But Descombes notices something: the stripping of one’s literal identity of any meaning, or normative value, has not opened up new vistas for freedom. Quite the opposite; it has led to the adoption of a variety of already reified identities. Or, as he puts it:

‘The rise of identity issues in the public conversation shows precisely that people are now inclined to think there is a limit to one’s capacity to fashion oneself. We see people opposing any change in their characteristic way of doing something because doing so, they say, is part of their identity. They could not give it up since this would amount to consenting to their own alienation. Which means that the individual is no longer conceived as the bearer of a pure power of self-determination (as was the case when Existentialism was predominant).’

Descombes does have a response to the limits and dead ends of identitarian thinking: involvement and expression in the external world. One ought to seek subjective satisfaction, pace Hegel, not through an internal quest, but through external activity. The individuality of a great artist, for instance, is constituted through the individuality of their work, not their dandyish posing. One’s self-identity, it seems, can never really be a purely internal matter. Descombes quotes Aristotle: ‘The work is the maker in actuality.’

Vincent Descombes is a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. His most recent book is Puzzling Identities, published by Harvard University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

He was talking to spiked review editor Tim Black.

Picture by: Anelieke B, published under a creative commons license.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Long-reads Politics


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