Identity is complex and there are several different ways of looking at the subject. We further complicate the issues involved by arguing about aspects of identity which have little practical application in the physical world. But then for lots of people that isn’t a problem, but makes things more interesting.
Some philosophers have argued there is no such thing as ‘absolute’ identity. There is only relative identity, that is an identity which is formed depending on the social structure, culture and view of the world one is born into. When someone goes travelling, to ‘find themselves’ they are limited in the choices, or building blocks, which make up their identity. There is a finite choice, and these choices vary depending on time and location. Identity is derived from the external world: from the way others view you. And for many this is the beginning and end of identity. What my peers think I am is what I am.
For many more this is just the beginning, and a shallow one at that. There must be something else going on, mustn’t there? I’m more than just what they think of me, aren’t I? At some stage in their lives most people seek to identify the core of themselves. Call it a mid-life crisis, self actualisation or self awareness we are actually searching for the answer to the question ‘who am I?’ Many of us are happy to claim we have found an ‘identity’ and the phrase ‘I know who I am’ is spoken with much confidence. Bookshops overflow with tomes on the subject matter and many web sites report that their content will help people find themselves. But there is a nagging doubt: Identity is not something to be found in the market place.
Back to those professional thinkers: the philosophers. What do they have to say? Quite a lot actually. Much of it is inaccessible, thus fairly useless, but there are also some good points to be consumed.
For all of them it is important to define what it is we are actually talking about. There would seem to be two types of identity: i. Precise (numerical) identity and ii. Group (qualitative) identity. A man may belong to the human race but he does not share precise, or numerical, identity with another. That is he shares vague characteristics or properties, like having eyes and ears, but he does not have exactly the same makeup on a molecule to molecule basis. Philosophers have tended to concentrate on ‘numerical’ identity and have come up with some extremely complicated ways of looking at it. Leibniz’s law is a good example. Several questions of interest are raised however: What does it mean for an object to be the same as itself?;If x and y are identical (are the same thing), must they always be identical?; What does it mean for an object to be the same, if it changes over time? If an object’s parts are entirely replaced over time, as in the human body, in what way is it the same?
Yet in short when philosophers speak of identity the term refers more to mathematical substitutions (X=Y) than it does people, to you and me. For a more relevant understanding of identity, for what is knowledge without understanding, one must turn to the psychologists and anthropologists.