Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Being of Identity

What is identity? It is not substance. Is it a quality? Is it a relation?

I propose that identity is the accumulation of actions, passions, qualities, and relations by and in which one not only tends to characterize oneself but is characterized by others. The relations that arise from these changes remain accessible in the memory and are re-asserted when relevant.

Hence identity is not identical with a full understanding of my being and its history, an understanding possible only when every transcendental relation arising from the subjective modifications of inherent accidents are taken into account objectively. In fact, identity may go contrary to transcendental relations that arise regarding my subjectivity; e.g. I identify myself as a certain gender or sex when this assertion has no correspondence to the transcendental relation that exists suprasubjectively, i.e. independently of my thoughts, beliefs, or feelings regarding my identity. Thus, identity is further characterized by what I assert or say of myself and what others say of me.

But identity isn't merely what others say of me, which is reputation and perception. Identity is principally self-perception and the expression of that self-perception with an accompanying acceptance from others regarding this self assertion. Secondarily, since how others perceive me and my assertions is not entirely within my control, identity must also encompass something of these uncontrollable variables.

Identity as self-perception and expression of that self-perception carries with it the implicit desire that others accept this self-perception. Hence this desire of acceptance is constitutive of identity. A person who describes herself with a certain label is upset when people deliberately mischaracterize that identity characteristic.

Because identity exists in the order of ens rationis, that is, the objective, cognitive constructions natural to the species-specifically human form of semiosis, identity will for all concrete purposes be inextricably tied up with the influence of cultural symbols. A person's identity is always expressed with language, with labels, words created and agreed upon by a larger society to mean certain things, and hence, even if identity is primarily self-perception, expression of self-perception, and desire for acceptance, its sources are always outside the cognitive activity of the subject forming the identity.

The strange paradox arises, then, that identity is what a person asserts is most personal and yet is formed exclusively of cognitive constructs originating outside of the person and which constructs the person simply determines will be his own identity, his own uniqueness.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, our uniqueness is not and should not simply be a matter of what I say I am. My inherent accidents are unique to me not only in principle (that is, metaphysically) but in concrete; further, the transcendental relations that arise from my intersubjective activities are unique to me, that is to say, no one else in history has or ever will have the same personal history of events and behaviors. It is impossible to reproduce in principle and in concrete even if it can be imagined.

Finally, identity must be appropriated in the Christian life. St. Paul states it simply: "Now I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Through grace and progressive union with God, we come to identify ourselves as Christ and an extension of His mystical body. But this isn't simply self-determination; it is above all cooperation, perfect cooperation through perfect docility to the interior promptings of the Holy Ghost. The transformation that occurs in our psyche must be so thorough that everything is through God, with God, and in God, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. As Aquinas so profoundly put it, grace is the beginning of eternal life.

What can we learn from this paradox of identity then, namely, that that which is most personal to me is inevitably external to me? And further, what can we learn from the fact that our ultimate identity in Christ must be founded in the self-determination, through grace, to cooperate with God's grace in progressive transforming union? We can learn that self-determination is inevitably linked with cooperation, and these two dynamics of independence and interdependence must co-exist for the proper flourishing of any living organism. This balance must be a corrective to the overemphasis in today's society on atomistic independence, the mutual apathy that follows naturally from mindless consumerism, especially of relentless social media. It is also a corrective to a lack of proper boundaries insofar as interdependence does not mean a dissolving of individuals into an incongruous whole but rather their optimal coordination with each other for their mutual and collective benefit.

The Trinity is the perfect model of this balance between independence and interdependence, where substance and relation coincide perfectly and infinitely, where self-determination and cooperation achieve a total co-incidence.

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