Getting clear about identity and why it matters

Laurance Joseph SPLITTER

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


In this presentation I offer a somewhat novel rationale for valuing the environment we know as “community of inquiry”. While my primary concern is not with philosophy in schools or p4c as such, my thinking is strongly oriented around the idea that curriculum and pedagogy – and, more generally, the entire enterprise of formal education – need to be viewed through the lens of philosophy, all the more so in a time when societies everywhere are becoming ever more pragmatic and utilitarian in their outlook. A key point I wish to emphasise, one both familiar and deceptively simple to state, is that education itself is nothing more or less than an ongoing process of personal development. Still, as they say, “the devil lies in the details”, and such details include what we mean by “person” and how the everyday practices that constitute teaching and learning can be “reduced” to what appears to be a one dimensional form of development. I defend the following theses in relation to personhood: Personhood is fundamentally relational; each of us must be, and see her/himself as one among others; Ontologically or existentially, persons do not form their own natural category or kind. Rather, the persons we most commonly recognize are simply human beings (or, more broadly, natural organisms) with certain specific properties (there could be other kinds of persons as well); Human persons, then, are physical objects subject to natural laws and contingencies; accordingly, all properties of persons are also, in some sense, physical. Notwithstanding the indispensability and irreducibility of our mentalistic concepts, the feature that most centrally characterizes personhood is one that is scientifically quite manageable, viz language – and spoken language in particular; Our identities, viewed as answers to the question “Who are we?”, are ambiguous between a quantitative and a qualitative perspective – a distinction understood in logic but ignored in the social sciences (at the cost of creating a number of alleged problems where none actually exist). Quantitative or numerical identity provides the most literal answer to this question and, as such, the very idea that we also possess qualitative identities must be treated with care. This idea supports the illusion that the groups and collectives that arise from relations of qualitative identity (e.g. nations, religions, cultures, gangs and roles) have both an ontological and a moral status which places them above that of the individual persons who comprise them; With these points in mind, I critique the well meaning but ultimately incoherent claim, (stated in the conference description), that “the ideals of democratic citizenship, global sensitivity, and multiculturalism call for a dialogic and empathetic ideal of the self; a self that is dynamic and continuously constructing identity in relation to its diverse environments”. While dialogue, seen as both the application and the enabler of thought, is vital both in education and to our personal development, it does not contribute to any ongoing construction of the self or its identity; our identities – as persons (there are no “selves” as such) – are fixed by the circumstances of our birth, our path through life and our ultimate demise; it does not need to be constructed. The diverse environments we encounter contribute, rather, to our development as persons. Further, if and only if these environments include that of the community of inquiry, can we feel confident that this development is both morally and intellectually well grounded. As we readily see from observing the world in its present state of uncertainty, some of the diverse environments in which we (and our children) find ourselves are hardly conducive to a healthy sense of self. We cannot, in the short term, hope to eliminate these; still, if we take seriously the normative ideal of the community of inquiry, we may hope for greater success in the long term, and this for one simple reason: we will have taught young people to think for themselves. The familiar distinction between numerical and qualitative identity may be viewed semantically in terms of subjects and predicates. One and the same (numerically) subject (e.g. a person) may change its predicates (qualities) over time, and analytic philosophers are interested in establishing criteria against which judgements of identity can be made in such cases. Conversely, any number of distinct subjects may be grouped or collected under a common predicate which bestows a qualitative identity among them. When social scientists (in fact, everyone except analytic philosophers ) refer to the problem of identity, identity politics, a crisis of identity, etc., it is the latter, qualitative, sense that they have in mind. But qualitative identity is irrelevant to the more basic question of what makes me me: the entity that I literally am cannot be defined qualitatively. Seeking, in vain to find oneself as a member of some group or collective (nation, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gang, tribe, tradition, culture…) has had consequences ranging from the bizarre (e.g. “They have to decide: are they British or Muslim?”) to the tragic (e.g. so called “honor” killings, allowing one’s children to be sacrificed in the name of a greater “cause”, casting out from a religious or family community the son or daughter who dares to “come out” as gay…). Are we left, then, with the equally unsatisfying notion of Individualism, which reduces each one of us to the isolated status of a competitor in a hostile market place? Fortunately not. Our own literal (i.e. numerical) identity depends on each person viewing her/himself as one among others. I endorse this relational conception of personhood, and argue that developing the kind of self awareness that constitutes our becoming persons is precisely the business of the classroom community of inquiry.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


Splitter, L. J. (2015, June). Getting clear about identity and why it matters. Paper presented at The International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC) 2015 Conference: Identity and Philosophical Inquiry in an Age of Diversity, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.


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