Reflections on our individual and collective identities as persons in the world

Laurance Joseph SPLITTER

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapters

1 Citation (Scopus)


The concepts of identity and identification have an interesting intellectual history, not least because they have been understood in quite different ways across different disciplines and traditions. In this chapter, I argue that a widespread failure among scholars to appreciate what is actually a familiar ambiguity in these concepts has resulted in considerable confusion when it comes to understanding and responding to so-called problems of identity. While we may construe our own identities as providing an answer to the core question “Who am I?”, there is a difference between numerical or quantitative identity and qualitative identity (similarity) which appears to have gone unnoticed in the social sciences literature. Analytic philosophy has long been interested in the problem of personal identity, typically viewed in terms of how it is possible for one and the same object (in this case a person) to retain its numerical identity, given that this object will inevitably undergo many qualitative changes over time. But postmodernist thinkers, including philosophers and social scientists, are more interested in the complementary question of what it is that connects or unites numerically distinct persons so that they come to identify not merely with one another but also with some larger entity – nation, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, tribe, gang, tradition – to which they belong. These entities may become what I term “supra-persons”: collectives or associations of qualitatively similar individuals that lay claim to providing, not merely the answer to the “Who am I?” question but an ethical framework for regulating the behavior of their members. Thus, a nation, culture, religion, or gang is regarded as morally superior to those who belong or subscribe to it (who, in turn, regard themselves as morally superior to those who belong to other nations, cultures, religions, or gangs). There are several serious mistakes here, including the doomed attempt to find our basic identities within one or more such supra-persons and the moral relativism which results. As an alternative, I track our literal identities to the natural kind of entity that we are and ground both our ethical and our epistemological status in that more fundamental concept which groups all of us: that of being a person. I offer several illustrations of how this concept may help to shed light on contemporary problems of identity and identification, including a critical perspective on the contemporary meaning and moral significance of Confucianism. And I appeal to the relational nature of personhood to defend the central place of community and dialogue in formal education. Copyright © 2016 Springer Science+Business Media Singapore.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSociological and philosophical perspectives on education in the Asia-Pacific region
EditorsChi-Ming LAM, Jae PARK
Place of PublicationSingapore
ISBN (Electronic)9789812879400
ISBN (Print)9789812879387
Publication statusPublished - 2016


Splitter, L. (2016). Reflections on our individual and collective identities as persons in the world. In C.-M. Lam, & J. Park (Eds.), Sociological and philosophical perspectives on education in the Asia-Pacific region (pp. 91-109). Singapore: Springer.


  • Migration
  • Assure
  • Sine
  • Defend
  • Stake


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