“Identity”: a fiction?

Japanese point at their nose to indicate themselves. (source)

Japanese point at their nose to indicate “me”. In the West, “self” lies in the chest — we point to our heart.  No one points to their brain or their feet!   Is there a self?(photo source)

Philosophy of Language

Unshared language is a common conversation-obstacle. But unshared philosophy-of-language is the largest barrier I find when discussing any philosophical ideas.  People are often tricked by words. People don’t really understand how language works. But like sex, politics and religion, people are indignant to be accused of not understanding language. “After all,” they think, “I do it, so I obviously understand it!”

The largest language confusions center on definitions and “abstract nouns” – in contrast to “concrete nouns”. Today I will start a conversation about the abstract noun “Identity”. After the discussion, I’d love to hear if I changed how you think about the word “identity” — or if I made you reconsider language in general.

“Identity” : a recent concept

Indentity ConanOBrien_PointingToSelf“Identity” is a relatively newly constructed abstraction. Yet people use the word like it is just plain ‘ole common sense — a word that has existed forever. “Identity” has snuck into our culture pretty unnoticed with people thinking it has been with us as long as clothing. Yet Ngram shows us that “identity”, as a word, only started to became popular in the 1960s.

Yeah, I know, this ngram thing is sloppy of course. “identity” is used in mathematics, computer science,  criminal investigations, sexual politics and many more ways.  So I can’t assume I am looking up what I imagine I am investigating with ngram. I wish I could weed out those other uses from the ngram stats.  But there you go — until I get funding for research, you’ll have to put up with this amateur, arm-chair blogging. 🙂

Here is some more evidence for identity’s recent incarnation. See this wiki article on “Social Identity Theory“. Tajfel and Turner introduced the concept in the 70s and 80s.

And to add weight to this low-level evidence, here are ngram take-off dates of other Identity phrases and their wiki links:

    • “identity”: 1960s (ngram)(wiki)
    • “Identity”: mid-1980s (ngram)
    • “collective identity”: 1960-1990 (ngram)(wiki)
    • “Collective Identity”: 1970-1990 (ngram)
    • “social identity”: 1960s  (ngram) (wiki)
    • “Social Identity”: 1970s (ngram)

Capitalizing Abstractions

Note the lag time for abstractions.  It takes time for an abstraction to be honored with capitalization. But if you want to make an abstract noun look even more real — more substantial — give it a capital letter. And sure enough, ngram shows us here that “Identity” really took off in the mid-1980s (a twenty year lag).  Capitalizing is so powerful in English.  Look at the word “god”, for instance.

All about Me!  (source)

All about Me!


I have had arguments with theists and atheists alike that center on the issue of “identity”. And both groups assume they understand exactly what identity is — just like they understand what a car, a dog, a table and a tree are. But with only a little inspection, we see that people use the word very differently. And that should not be surprising — it is a made up concept — an abstract noun. But it is a useful concept — well, until you are fooled by it. Remember, abstractions are just tools, not real objects.

Fact-or-FictionSo, is “Identity” real or fiction? To head off any reader who will only read the title of this post and fill the comments with reactive defenses, let me show you my conclusion: “Identity” is neither real or fiction. Well, it is fiction if you think it is real, and it is real if you don’t understand how people are invested in protecting ideas, words and belongings. But we have the word “invested” and it doesn’t have that soul-like essentialist illusion of existence — it carries a more transient understanding. I like that word.  But that is another post.

Anyway, use any word you’d like but don’t let the words fool you. I  will be posting more on “Identity” later — I just needed this intro.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

6 responses to ““Identity”: a fiction?

  1. Ian

    I’m not sure I’ve ever had a conversation about Identity, except in the sense of the ‘identity’ of a mysterious person. Which presumably isn’t what you mean, as I’m not sure in that context I can imagine any disagreement about meaning.

    I’ve read it from time to time in academic sources, but again it didn’t strike me as particularly ambiguous, or carrying undue weight.

    I’ve had conversations about identifying as something, but again, I can’t think of a situation that a difference in understanding of the word caused a problem. I tend to use ‘identify’ to remove some of the ambiguity about what (e.g.) a Christian or an Atheist, or other tribal designator means.

    Of course, I agree that all words are defined by their use, and concepts are highly culturally dependent, both in their nuance and the reason for their existence.

    So, there may be cultural stuff I’m missing here. Can you be more concrete about what or why you think Identity is a significant word? What situations have you come across where mismatches in the idea of identity has been a problem for you?

  2. Ian

    (incidentally, love the bit of info about how Japanese indicate themselves)

  3. @ Ian,
    I am planning a follow-up post where I hope to partially answer some of your questions. Great questions and they help me consider more of what to write.

    Both Christians and Atheists have written me telling me I lie when I say that being an “Atheist” is not part of my identity.

    To address this properly, I felt that addressing “Identity” itself is the first step. It is not important that I address their accusations, but the issue is interesting. I think it is linked with the essentialism notion of a stable self or soul.

    Hope that helps

  4. Ian

    It does, thanks. I’ve not had that happen to me, so that’s interesting. I look forward to more about what they’re trying to do with that.

  5. (Tribal) Identity is a social construct used to create cohesion in society and organize us into a hierarchy…

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