Identity : Akeel Bilgrami

Jordan Söderberg Mills / Sectum Spectra
Jordan Söderberg Mills / Sectum Spectra

Identity : Akeel Bilgrami

It is doubtful that the concept of identity is susceptible to a substantial philosophical treatment at a high level of generality. This is so not so much because there are too many disparate theories of identity, but more because the sorts of things, the question of whose identity are taken up by philosophers, are too disparate to get a uniform treatment. Broadly speaking, two conspicuously different sets of interests make such a treatment especially difficult. The concept of ‘identity’ when applied to such very basic categories as objects, properties (or universals), events, and persons, forms a cluster of themes in metaphysics and these receive a kind of analysis far removed from such themes as national, ethnic, racial or sexual identity, which are usually discussed in political philosophy and moral psychology. No obviously common notion of identity, which is either tractable or interesting, spans both sets of interests.

One point of intersection between the more metaphysical and the more social themes might be this. The concept of a person has long been thought of as an ethical category. But more recently the most interesting accounts of the metaphysical issue of personal identity have begun to stress these normative and ethical considerations in a rigorous way, thereby infusing metaphysics with value. Though this turn is often resisted, it should not really come as a surprise since the metaphysical question of personal identity has always been one of the criteria of identity of a person over time. And if that question was answered wholly in non-normative terms, then the answer would be disappointing in having no relevance to evaluative questions such as why should a person accept responsibility for actions of a past self that is identical with her, or why should a person particularly care as she does for the well-being of a future self that is identical with her. To insist that any answer to the metaphysical question should have such a relevance would be to begin to unify the two sets of disparate interests in the notion of identity mentioned earlier. Having said that, this lexicographical entry on ‘identity’ will not take up the metaphysical issues any further and will focus entirely on the concept of identity that is of more direct interest to the social sciences.

Here too the issues are diverse. There is the familiar question as to the identity of collective social phenomena: of classes, of nations, and of society itself, and whether or not their identity is in some sense dependent (‘supervenient’) on the identity of individual persons who belong to them. Much has been written on this subject but it is less current than another subject, which is: What is it for an individual person to be a social type, a Muslim, say, or a White Male, a Quebecois, a gay or lesbian . . . ? The currency of the subject is a result of the importance it has come to have in politics. The rest of this entry will further restrict its focus to this question.

Though the extremity of ‘identity’ politics in many parts of the globe in the last few decades has given rise to the constant use of the term ‘identity’ as well as to a glamorous theoretical interest in the concept it expresses, there has been little clarity or rigor in its theoretical deployment.

One initial step towards imposing some theoretical order on the notoriously haphazard concept of ‘identity’ in politics is to distinguish at the outset between its ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ aspects. When a person is said to have a certain identity owing to some characteristics she has, and with which she identifies, then identity is being thought of in its subjective aspects. If a person is said to have a certain identity owing to some characteristics she has, but with which she does not necessarily identify, then we are speaking of her objective identity.

I will explore each in turn.

Subjective Identity

This is the notion of identity that is most immediately relevant to politics since people sometimes tend to allow themselves to be mobilized in the public arena on its basis. It is not not by any meansthat subjective identity is always mobilized in politics. It is more that, where it exists, it is poised so as to be mobilized if other conditions, which I will not discuss here, are present.

What is it to identify with some characteristic one possesses, thereby making it an identity-imparting characteristic in the subjective sense? This is a more complicated question than it might seem.

A first stab at answering it might be to say that someone identifies with a certain characteristic, if she values it. Thus one must value the fact that one belongs to a certain nationality or ethnic community or even a certain profession, if one can be said to have the identity (in the subjective sense) of an Indian or Korean-American, say, or a teacher and writer. That seems to be a minimal initial condition for identifying with it. But it is clearly not sufficient since one may have values from which one is oneself alienated. This can be a fairly common phenomenon. To be alienated from one’s values is structurally akin to being alienated from one’s desires. Just as an alcoholic may be disgusted with his addictive desire for alcohol, so also someone may disapprove of his own patriotism or find his pride in his profession intolerably smug.

So a further condition has to be added to our minimal condition before a characteristic imparts subjective identity. One has to endorse one’s valuing of that characteristic. That would presumably ensure that one is not alienated from its valuing. There is another reason why endorsement of this kind is necessary apart from the attempt to solve the problem of values one is alienated from. The topic of subjective identity is not merely about what one is but also about what one conceives of oneself to be. This idea, therefore, brings with it, in any case, the reflective endorsement of the relevant valued characteristics.

To endorse a value, it is often said, is to have a second-order value. Someone must value the fact that she values the characteristic of belonging to a certain nationality or profession, before she can be said to have the identity of an Indian or a teacher, in this subjective sense. (We should add that something like a second-order valuing may not be necessary in order to ensure that there is no alienation from one’s own first-order values; all that may be needed is something negative: that there is no second-order disapproval of one’s first order value. However, as I’ve just said, the second-order level comes in a more positive form, in any case, because subjective identity is unavoidably about reflective matters such as what one takes oneself to be.)

With this second-order valuing in place have we said something sufficient about subjective identity? Not yet, since one’s second-order values can be highly neurotic, and when they are they can be values that one is also alienated from. For example, someone may feel his second-order value which disapproves of his first-order valuing of his role in his profession as being too smug, as itself being too prim, too censorious, too much of a superego phenomenon.

What yet further condition must now be added to give a sufficient account of subjective identity? One possibility is to conceive of it as requiring a receding hierarchy of orders of value. At each order, one is not alienated from a value if one endorses it at a higher order. So in our example, any neurosis regarding a person’s second-order disapproval of his pride in his profession is ruled out, if he has a third-order approval of his second-order disapproval. This solution raises worries about an infinite regress.

In order to avoid such a regress, a second possibility is to conceive of subjective identity not as emerging in a receding hierarchy but as requiring a coherence among one’s values, no matter what order of value is being considered. So in our example, the second-order disapproval is neurotic, not because there is a lack of third-order approval of the second-order disapproval, but rather because the latter does not cohere with one’s other values at all levels, including the first-order values. The second-order disapproval is something that one is not alienated from, something that one identifies with, only if it coheres well with the first-order values and other second-order values one has. Here no infinite regress threatens, but some philosophical account of coherence among values must be worked out to match the coherentist accounts of belief and knowledge that we already have available with some degree of sophistication. It is worth noting that if this coherentist way of thinking of subjective identity is right, it is very closely tied to rationality in values, since the point of a coherentist account of value is presumably that it is an account of when one’s values are rational. In a word, one identifies with one’s values to the extent that the value is rational, in the sense of being fortified by coherence with our other values. The conclusion is attractive like any conclusion that allows two seemingly separate themes (rationality and subjective identity) to be united.

The trouble however is that if subjective identity is given by a rationality-imparting coherence among our values, then we will be identified with all the values we have which are rational in this sense. But that is of not much help with the idea of identity since it follows from this that our identity (in the subjective sense) is never going to be anything very distinctive. It will pick out nothing very special or identity-imparting among all our coherent values, such as the ones we have been discussing: one’s valuing the fact that that one is an Indian, a teacher, a writer, a Muslim . . . ; no one of these will be more importantly relevant to one’s identity than other characteristics of ours which we value coherently, such as one’s weight, one’s love of cricket or of dessert. Precisely what seemed attractive about this view is what makes it of no particular help on the subject of identity, with which we are concerned.

Perhaps this difficulty teaches a deflationary lesson. Perhaps it is a sign that there is something inflated about the very idea of identity, that our thinking that there is something specially distinctive about some characteristics is misguided, that it is not something we should expect, and that we have come to expect it only because of the recent rise of ‘identity’ politics which has elevated some characteristics nationality, ethnicity, linguistic, and religious allegiances beyond anything warranted by or echoed in the actual moral-psychological economies of ordinary citizens. There is some point to this qualm, a point in fact that needs much nuanced development in longer discussions of the subject. But it can also be a point that is too glibly made. For, it does seem, at first sight anyway, to be quite accurately descriptive of at least a small, vocal, and influential body of citizens in many polities that they display a strong identification with these very characteristics and allow themselves to be mobilized on its basis. And of them at least, some notion of identification must be given, which shows why these characteristics are valued more distinctively than the many others that are also coherently and rationally valued by them.

We are therefore still lacking a sufficient account of subjective identity. To repeat: what we need is not merely endorsement (of one’s own valuing of some characteristic of ours) by some higher order values or by coherence with other values, but some further element that makes the value endorsed more central and distinctive in our psychological economies.

An obvious thought here might be to say that the values which are more central are those that are more intense than other values, especially since it does seem as if Muslims, Quebecois, Serbians, etc., who seem most visible in identity politics value their Muslimness, etc., very intensely, more intensely than other things they value. It is a question, however, how theoretically useful it is to plonk down ‘intensity’ as a primitive and unanalyzable property that values have, but even apart from this problem, the thought is wrong, for in some cases of weakness of will, we act on values that are very intense but which we do not endorse.

A better thought at getting at the required further element is to say that the endorsement of the value must be such that it makes the value concerned, in some sense, more unrevisable (rather than more intense) relative to the other values one holds. For it is surely intuitive that a Muslim or Quebecois whose identity is caught up with his valuing these characteristics of his, is less likely to give up valuing them than the other values he holds, or perhapsa more subtle variation of the intuition, one that will be developed briefly belowis less likely to conceive of himself as giving up the value.

For this thought to be genuinely promising, we need (1) to show what sort of endorsement of a value makes the value relatively unrevisable, and we need (2) to ground the idea of unrevisability in something which would not show the reluctance to revise to be irrational by the lights of the agent herself (in the way cases of weakness of will show that acting on or even holding some of our most intense values is irrational by the agent’s own lights).

The first is the most significant task: which among all the values that equally cohere with one another are the more unrevisable? As we said, it is only if we answer this question that we would have captured what is distinctively identity-imparting about valuing being a Muslim or Quebecois, for the sort of agent we are concerned with. Here is a way of bringing out why that should be so. Any answer to the question would have an analogous effect to what Quine intended when he argued that some beliefs or propositions are in the very centre rather than further out toward the periphery in our physical theory. The idea behind this metaphor was intended to replace misguided traditional ideas of ‘analytic’ propositions. His point was that for the theory to be the theory it is, is given by the beliefs or propositions which are at the centre of our physical theory (e.g., our belief in the transitivity of length), since they are more immune to revision than the ones further out on the periphery which are more exposed to what Quine called the “tribunal of experience.” If those central beliefs do get revised, then it is not clear whether the theory has been changed or whether we have changed the subject because the meanings have changed. So also, analogously, we might say that a person’s identity is given by his or her relatively unrevisable valueshowever we characterize themand if those are given up, then it is not clear whether it is a change in the ordinary sense where the overall identity remains constant, but a change in value takes place, or whether the overall identity itself is changed. This analogy, though inexact, is all the same roughly intuitive and reflects our ordinary talk, when in a fit of nationalist sentiment, we say things such as “I will lose my sense of self, of who I am, if I betray my country” (or, as in Forster’s British schoolboy morality, “I will lose my sense of self, I will not recognize who I am, if I betray my friend”), the sorts of things we are not likely to say of other things we value. Compare these to, “I will lose my sense of self, if I give up my love of desserts,” which because of its implausibility, shows such first-order values to be more analogous to beliefs or propositions at the periphery for Quine. (These are mere examples intended to convey the structural point of the analogy intuitively. Of course it is possible, though perhaps not routine, that someone may value his sweet tooth in the way a stereotypical nationalist or British public schoolboy values country or friendship, that is, analogously to Quine’s centre of the web rather than the periphery. The possibility in no way spoils the analogy; it merely shows that identities might be eccentric or bizarre on occasion.)

So much for the significance of unrevisability. But first was the task of defining it. We are seeking to define a way of endorsing one’s valuing of some characteristic one possesses, which shows that value to be relatively unrevisable compared to other values one holds. Since we have already seen that coherence cannot provide such a special way of endorsement, let us return to the idea of second-order valuing of a first-order value to explore the sort of endorsement needed. What do we need to add to a second-order value to make the first-order value endorsed (relatively) unrevisable in one’s psychological economy? An example may help to make the question and an answer to it less abstract.

Let us take some of the more absolutist Muslims in Iran over the last two decades. They have often urged something that approximates unrevisability of their Islamic values. One way they have done so is to argue that Iran needs to protect itself, in fact not just others in Iran, but even they the absolutists themselves, should protect themselves against their own ‘moral’ weakening and corruption in the face of the inevitable spread of the pernicious values of modernity in general and the West in particular. And they have argued (like Ulysses did, anticipating the sirens) that this protection should be ensured by entrenching Islamic values so deeply now that were Muslims even to be so weakened, the social, political, and legal institutions would not make it easy for them to shed their Islamic ways of life. Such a form of endorsement of one’s Islamic values vividly shows it to be more unrevisable (in a very special sense) than other values one has and endorses having. Consider that the endorsement takes a counterfactual form: we value something in a way that we want ourselves to be living by the value, even if we (counter to present fact) do not value it, anymore. At the time of valuing it, then, such a value stands out as very distinctive. The sort of unrevisability here is quite special because it is not so much that the value (at the first-order level) itself is permanent or immutable, but even though we may revise things later and cease to value it, the fact is that at the time of valuing it in this way, one (at the second-order level) yearns for the value to be unrevisable and relatively permanent, unlike all the other values which we endorse in the more ordinary way. That surely makes it part of one’s deepest self-conception since one would so utterly disapprove of oneself if we did not have the value at some future point, that we now try and make sure that one’s self, at that future point, will live according to the value. ‘Identity-imparting’, ‘self-constituting’, etc., seem apt descriptions for values held and endorsed with such deep commitment.

Task two remains. Not all values which are unrevisable in this way are rational. What needs to be added is that these unrevisable values must also cohere with our other values. Coherence of a value, conceived as unrevisable in this special sense, with one’s other values, allows for the rationality of this form of unrevisability since reluctance to revise could only be irrational if the value one does not revise is one that does not have rational support from one’s other values.

Before closing, I should make one important cautionary remark to protect against a misunderstanding of the notion of subjective identity as just defined. One should not be put off by the specific example given above, to think that the sort of endorsement that generates identity in this way, is a sign of fanaticism or illiberalism, just because we have become used to thinking of Islamic absolutism to be fanatical and illiberal. That would be to allow substantive opinions to blind us to the merits of the theoretical analysis we have come to, that is to say, blind us to the structural feature of the endorsement of a value that generates subjective identity. After all, the special way we value our own basic constitutional rights reflects just such an endorsement of our own identity-generating values as liberals, since all it does is reflect the same structure as the Iranian absolutists in the earlier example. We elevate a very few of the many values we more-or-less coherently hold to fundamental constitutional ‘rights’for example, free speech precisely because we want to protect our future selves from giving in to any weakening of those values, as when in the face of strong dislike of another’s substantive views, we might in the future find ourselves wanting to censor him. What our elevating these values into fundamental rights does is express the fact that we now want that we cannot later censor someone we strongly disagree with, if we later have indeed weakened enough to wish to censor him. A liberal’s deepest self-conception, i.e., a liberal’s identity, and a Muslim’s identity, therefore, whatever the differences between them on other matters may be, is given by the same counterfactual structures of endorsing and identifying with their cherished values that our theoretical analysis has proposed. Neither is any more fanatical than the other, at least in matters of subjective identity.

Objective Identity

When we turn to the objective aspects of identity, identification on the part of the subject in question with the identity-imparting characteristic(s), is not a necessary condition. Thus, for instance, identities when they are thought to be given by characteristics of descent, such as ‘race’ is sometimes said to be, are objective in this sense. Chromosome-based ways of defining gender identity are similarly objective. But biological criteria are not the only criteria that are routinely invoked. Intersubjective and social criteria are also much favoured. Thus, for instance, Marxists often claim that one’s identity is given by one’s place and role in a particular economic formation in a given period of history, that is to say, one’s class identity as ‘class’ is defined by Marx.1

Many oppose the purely biological ways of thinking of various kinds of identity, such as racial and gender identity, claiming that these identities are ‘socially constructed’ by the perceptions and attitudes of one’s fellows, by the zeitgeist of a particular period, by the conceptual categories and social institutions at a given time. Foucault and those influenced by him have made much of this and Foucault himself gave detailed historical and social accounts of particular concepts and institutions in Europe as determining identities. In fact, it is interesting that Foucault and his followers claim that it is not only the biological and other scientific criteria that are caught up in social factors of this kind, but the subjective ones we discussed in the last section as well. These too are shaped by conceptual and institutional formations far removed and hidden from the exercise of our reflective self-understanding, thereby showing the ideals of individual autonomy that we assume to reside in the idea of identification, to be illusory.2 This entry will not take up these issues raised by Foucault’s influence.

It will look instead briefly at the motivations for looking at objective factors of identity at all, over and above the subjective ones.

Many subjects may identify with some characteristic they possess which is not what is most salient about them to others. And it is thought important by many political philosophers that nevertheless, it is these latter, the ones that others think are more salient that often define the identity of these subjects, no matter what the subjects may conceive themselves to be. A good example of this can be seen in Stalin’s well-known definition of a ‘nation’, which stresses the importance of historical and economic criteria for national identity, with a view to providing a corrective to what were seen as somewhat premature and ungrounded subjective identifications of ‘nationality’ found in many secessionist demands in different parts of the world.3 Here the motivation for objectivist criteria of identity is (at least implicitly) political.

But underlying these is a more interesting theoretical rationale that points to important issues of a more philosophical nature. The claim that agents may have a certain identity even if they do not take themselves to do so, implies that what one takes oneself to be can be mistaken, a kind of self-deception, or at least a self-myopia. (The latter does not involve the motivated element often associated with self-deception, but involves instead the idea that one may sometimes simply be too deep for oneselfwhere ‘deep’ is not intended as a bit of eulogy.)

It would be philosophically clarifying to make a distinction between two different sorts of appeal to objectivist identities which are said to be (possibly) hidden from a subject’s own self-conception. a) One claimthe weaker oneis that subjects often betray signs of a certain identity in much of their behavior, even if they do not endorse and identify with what is reflected in their behavior. b) The other, stronger, claim does not even require that something in the subjects’ behavior reflect the identity given by the unendorsed characteristic; rather the characteristic and the identity is given by the deliverances of some (social, political, economic, or biological) theory regarding these subjects.

a) The weaker claim, not surprisingly, is less controversial since it requires that the characteristics of a subject which are going to define his identity are something that he at least reveals in his behavior. The subject may not endorse them, he may not even acknowledge them, but if the only good explanation of his behavior is that he has those characteristics, and if those characteristics are salient compared to others, then some claim can be made regarding how they impart his identity. Within this view, the more extreme cases will be where the subject does not even acknowledge the characteristics as being revealed in the behavior. Many of the identities that surface in Freudian and psychoanalytic theories make much of this sort of case (Oedipal, narcissistic, etc. identities). The less extreme cases will be those where there is acknowledgement of the characteristics, but no endorsement of them on the part of the subject. These are likely to be more common. What may be called “silent” identities, as in “silent majorities,” often consist of subjects who are not self-identified with a certain pattern of behavior, but will not be in any particular state of denial (as they are in the more extreme cases) about whether their behavior reveals the characteristics they are seen to have. It is very likely, for example, that many ordinary Muslims, who do not identify with absolutist or fundamentalist Islam, may all the same admit that much in their behavior mutedly plays along with these Islamist elements in their societies.

b) The stronger claim very often appeals to biological criteria, but is most interesting when it does not. Since the biological criteria are in any case usually caught up with social factors (see the point made about them above during the brief discussion of ‘social construction’ of identity), they will be ignored here. Perhaps the most well known, well worked out, and widely discussed of the stronger objectivist version of identity, which is not biologically based, is due to Marx and those influenced by him. What makes for having a class identity, say, a proletarian identity, is not any kind of self-identification with the working class, not even any behavior that suggests certain unacknowledged or unendorsed allegiances to that class, but simply the objective fact of having a certain place and function in the relations of production during the modern capitalist period of economic history. What is remarkable and controversial about this view, more so than anything found in a) above, is that something regarding the self and its identity is being attributed, without any basis or manifestation required in the conscious or unconscious behavior of the selves or agents concerned. A working class person, who exhibits no proletarian consciousness nor any of the solidarity and forms of behavior appropriate to the class, and none of whose behavior reflects an unconscious betrayal of such solidarity or consciousness, is nevertheless said to have proletarian class identity, albeit with a ‘false consciousness’. It is only because he has this identity that there can be cause to call such a subject’s consciousness ‘false’. It is false precisely because he fails to conceive himself aright, fails to see his deepest self, which is determined by objective historical and material relations.

It is such a view of self and identity (where self and self-conception can come so radically apart) which filled Isaiah Berlin with anxiety in his discussion of ‘positive liberty’, since what it encourages is the idea that the achievement of self-realization of individual citizens, that is the achievement of their own autonomy and liberty (in the positive sense), is now left to states or to the ‘vanguards’ of political parties, which lay claim to greater understanding of what some subject’s self really and objectively is.4 On such a view, according to those alarmed by the view, there is no paradox in the expression ‘forcing someone to be free’. (Leninist ‘vanguardism’ was sometimes frank about denying any such paradox.)

Underlying political anxieties of this kind is a more philosophical issue, which is much discussed in contemporary moral psychology, the issue of external as opposed to internal reasons. An internal reason is a reason for one to do or believe or value something, which appeals to some other evaluative element in one’s moral-psychological economy. An external reason makes no such appeal to an internal element; it requires only some objective fact that need not even be recognized by the subject for whom it provides a reason. Thus in the orthodox Marxist tradition, a proletarian, given his historically determined identity, has (an external) reason to be a revolutionary even if there is no element in his moral-psychological economy which values it. Berlin’s anxieties about statist tyranny carried out in the name of self-realization, autonomy, and positive liberty, were thus implicitly and more deeply about the very idea of external reasons, even though he never quite articulated them as having that underlying target; however, it becomes very explicit in a denial of the cogency of the very idea of external reasons in a brilliant essay by Bernard Williams (a philosopher much influenced by Berlin), though the point is marred in that essay by a somewhat confused equation of internal reasons with a Humean notion of value and motivation.5

This last set of points provides a good resting point for this entry on identity, which has distinguished fundamentally between the subjective and objective aspects of the concept. To a considerable extent, which of these two aspects we emphasize in our study of the concept will be a matter of theoretical decision, a decision which, in turn, depends on non-arbitrary philosophical considerations having to do, as we have just seen, with themes at some distance from identity, such as autonomy and moral reasons. In itself, this is to be expected since self, freedom, and reason have been closely connected themes in philosophy ever since Kant, both in the analytical and the European traditions of the discipline. Though much more needs to be said in detail to make the links between these themes perspicuous and explicit, it is safe to say that the more inclined we are to be uneasy about the idea of ‘external reasons’, the more likely we are to stress the subjective rather than the objective aspects of identity.


Akeel Bilgrami is Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.


Published Winter 2012

1. Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978).

2. Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972); Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

3. Joseph Stalin, Marxism and The National Question (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1953).

4. Isaiah Berlin,“Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

5. Bernard Williams, “Internal and External Reasons,” in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).