Identity

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I think about identity a lot. Although thinking about it is especially hard to avoid at the end of the year with all the advertisements proclaiming “New Year, New You,” there is a year-round, never-ending American rhetoric about being yourself, expressing yourself, finding yourself–all without any explanatory force. What is the self? What is the source or where is the seat of my identity? Who am I? Am I the same person I was last year, five years, ten years ago? Am I a product determined by my environment or are there parts of me that are inborn and unchangeable?

These are typical formulations of questions about identity. They ask for a philosophical, psychological, biological, and/or neurological answer. But I have also begun to think about a more anthropological variation of the question. Do we become different people in different places?

When I first came to Turkey in 2007 I was shocked that people looked at me as an American. On my most recent stint there I was surprised when my new friends perceived me as a Christian. Before going abroad I had never actively thought of myself as an American, and my relationship with Christianity has never been as straightforward as my abroad friends assumed. On the other hand, nobody had any idea that I had any interest or talent in art, yet in the US my artistic interests seemed to define me.

In different places, it seems that different parts of our identity become salient. Do you agree?

PS: This Open Yale course on “Death” covers some of the basic problems and classic thought experiments on the philosophy of identity. The RadioLab podcast about “Memory and Forgetting” adds complexity to the question (specifically, the idea that our memories are not static).

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One thought on “Identity

  1. UM January 10, 2011 / 5:44 am

    There is no self according to Buddhasa Bikkhu. I tend to agree with him. Self is an illusion.

    Like

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