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Who Do You Think You Are? Personal Identity Theory Personal identity is an elusive concept which no person has ever managed to fully describe. So many different facets of a human being must be considered when thinking about the subject, and the very word “identity” carries various different meanings. However, when most people define identity, they refer to their names, or they attempt to name their own traits which they deem most significant. Yet, the man who, in his youth, describes himself in a certain way would undoubtedly supply a different answer later in life. It seems that who we are changes constantly; to admit anything else would lead to personal problems. It is important to specify what exactly I mean by “identity”. The word is closely linked with the related term “identify;” it is sensible to say that when we “identify” a thing (or person), we apply an “identity” to it (or him/her). Therefore, “identity” is the result of “identifying” major noticeable traits of a thing or person. Then, when applied to the self, it follows that what I call my identity is the sum of my self-described noticeable traits.
Consider a young man, Jerry, for an example. He mopes out of the First Union

bank on South Street, dejected and melancholy, in a rumpled navy blazer and red tie. After barely catching the bus, he is surprised to find a narrow seat between a wanna-be mobster and an attractive young waitress, and as he sits he begins to wonder where the
job interview went wrong. Pulling out the folded application he had filled out only just

before the interview, on the bus ride downtown, he glances over the questions and wonders if he would have been hired had he supplied different answers. He had easily filled in his name, address, gender, and similar objective questions, but his progress had

“I sometimes am easily distracted. he did not really see a new person. I wish that all of this information could be conveyed in a name. as we apply labels of identification in order to communicate easily and to construct the manner in which we see the world. Jerry had scribbled. I only know the title. a name does not contain enough information to capture the entirety of what a person is. Jerry gets off at the NWU campus stop. Vasquez is to Jerry changes. At a loss for what to write. As they continue to talk. If only my name. “What are your weak points?” These were only a few of the deeply personal questions posed on the application.” for the second.” for the first question and. a sort of label for everything within the book’s binding. Mr. he immediately defined Mr. Vasquez. The two find common ground on the topic of baseball. to accept him as somewhat like himself. False labels. “What are your strong points?” he had read.slowed when he had reached the second page. Jerry begins to relate to Mr. Jerry thinks subconsciously. labels are in inefficient as well. Vasquez. Vasquez in relation to labels that he already knew. and for the first time since they met minutes ago. For instance. . It is true that names are labels. feeling worthless at his failure to secure the job. my height.” I still do not know anything of the book’s content (assuming I have not read it). they help us to identify the world around us. Jerry Stevens. He is balding. could tell them how great an asset I could have been. However. If a friend recommends Catcher in the Rye as my next “easy read. what Mr. he thinks. appears to be an outgoing person. when Jerry first met his interviewer. “I am a hard worker. Names are just labels. older than I am. and in other respects. The concept of “labeling” is relevant to the discussion of identity. though. This man is Hispanic.

whereby individuals persuade others. them. from Quigley’s definition. and true meaning of words. important qualities in common. who died in 1993. His theories on rhetoric were vastly different than any others that preceded him. was a critically acclaimed writer and nonconformist thinker who meditated extensively on the power. we see that the idea Burke calls “identification” .” which is easily summed up in Brooke L.. use. act upon ourselves” (Lindsay 7). and realized that this in itself is a kind of rhetoric (Mecklenburg-Faenger. or do not share. and often unconsciously. intuitively. he won the 1981 National Medal for Literature (Brock 1).” is centrally concerned with how we identify ourselves. which causes us to immediately judge other people as either “with us” or “against us. the construction of the two groups us vs. . In the words of the practiced master of rhetoric Kenneth Burke. “.. Burke examined the way people present themselves to one another.“Identification” as a Key Term in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetorical Theory (Lindsay 7) And so. Quigley’s essay on the topic. …Identification involves at least three types of processes or states: 1) the process of naming something (or someone) according to specific properties. 2) the process of associating with and [dissociating] from others—suggesting that persons (and ideas or things) share. Kenneth Burke.This phenomenon of Jerry’s mind is a result of binary thinking. This mindset. that they share important qualities in common…. and because of his unique and original ideas. and 3) the product or end result of identifying—the state of being consubstantial with others. It is the associating process.Even without being subjected to… deliberate persuasion. we spontaneously identify with some groups or other…we spontaneously.) Much of Burke’s ideology revolves around the concept he calls “identification. or themselves. Constantly “attack[ing] the conventional wisdom of his time as he reflected a concern for both micro.and macroscopic issues” (Brock 1).

Todd underwent a strictly regimented exercise program. It is amazing how easily people ignore these subtle. Consider the case of Todd Marinovich. as well as Jerry’s thought process as he filled out the application. which end up being so significant for our interactions with others and even for our very existences. but it is when we try to establish our behavior as an unchangeable code that we encounter problems. is concerned with self identification. Todd developed serious psychological problems and a drug problem later in life (Curry 98). former Los Angeles Raiders quarterback. given any occurrence. his subconscious progression of thought concerned questions like. It is foolish to define ourselves in a certain way. and to expect to be able to adhere to that persona in any situation. at the center of this process is the act of self identification. His father was the driving force behind this aspiration. when Jerry first met Mr. and his life was completely pervaded by the goal of becoming a professional athlete. However. it is the failure to recognize the importance of these questions that leads to most of our existential and social crises. Furthermore. Here we see the danger of a stagnant view of identity. Vasquez’s office. This is not to say that there is no good in knowing what our morals are and attempting to abide by them at all times. Almost from the moment of his birth. The subconscious questions each passed through Jerry’s mind as he sat in Mr. but he did not notice. and this became what he thought of as his identity. but in the exact thing that occurred between Jerry and Mr. Needless to say. “What things does this man have in common with me?” In order to answer that question. he first answered. Vasquez. “What are the things that I use to describe myself?” This latter question. Vasquez. personal questions. Todd’s entire frame of reference for the world was based solely on athletics. A stagnant .

Most importantly.” Who else could they be? And when advised to “just be myself. However. at which developing humans experience the learning of trust. a person is undeniably always “himself” or “herself. it would be ludicrous to expect to carry on far past this phase. the previously described model reveals a number of truths. The theory recognizes that people are concerned with different issues at different times in their lives and that a personality develops over the entire course of a lifetime. . instead.sense of personal identity leads us to say things like. which describes eight stages of personality development through which all people pass. living in accordance with what one once believed to be the most significant aspect of oneself. Erikson describes a one’s effort to define himself or herself as a person. “I just don’t feel like myself anymore. both intended and implicit. “Almost all teens experience some confusion as they struggle to establish an identity. integrity. and a myriad of other virtues and emotions. There is also another issue with the model: if identity is defined between the ages of 12 and 20. For one thing. and this challenge can be very stressful” (Curry 82). at Stage 5.” But what does that mean? And when Jerry experienced a seemingly causeless breakdown a few weeks ago. age 12 to 20. The concept includes various age-determined phases of life. “Just be yourself.” how does that mean I should act? WHAT IS MYSELF? Is it my set of morals? My persona which I take on around certain people? My personality? Sociologist Erik Erikson developed a theory called the epigenic principle. Now. he simply said. what Erikson does not put together is that this development is actually the evolution of the personal identity.” But both sayings are devoid of meaning. guilt. he places “gaining identity” within Stage 5. when it really encompasses the whole process he describes.

Buddhist thought recognizes this truth as well. but later. unchangeable way. and that is what they are: faces we put on for other people. different and again different waters flow” (Cohen 30). A myriad of parts make up the chariot. only if we think of the river as a metaphor for a human being do we understand the philosopher’s full message. What he means is that the world around us changes at every moment. stereotyping.It scatters and again comes together. the waters that constitute it are always shifting. Binary thinking (the “us vs. but only when the wheels. even though we may believe ourselves to be constant entities. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus cryptically describes a related idea in his most famous observation. it is extremely stressful to try to maintain our personas. opening the door for generalization. and because of outside forces.As I have previously described. He is attempting to capture the idea that the world and the universe are both constantly in flux. only the waters that constitute it truly exist. Even though the river may seem to be the same. and prejudice. it is constantly changing. This is not really identity. Erikson’s model implies one indisputable truth: individual human identity is constructed over an entire lifetime. and approaches and recedes” (Cohen 30). them” sentiment) leads to social division. he puts the same concept into different words. However. when we think of ourselves in this stagnant. harness. The ancient Indian philosopher Nagasena presents a different metaphor: a chariot. But the false persona is never truly reflective of the person. but goes even further to deny that the river itself is even a real thing. “[It is not possible to step twice into the same river]…. Additionally. spindle. never the same. and the other . we encounter problems. applying it more to human beings. “Upon those who step into the same rivers.

the relevance of the concept to the discussion here is that I refer to all of my skandhas as “myself” or “Sam. Similarly. These traits are referred to in the ancient Sanskrit as skandhas.innumerable pieces are arranged in a certain way. “What was the most defining moment of your life?” He had probed . after all. However.” that is.” both convenient designators. This metaphor is extended also to humans. However.previous jobs he has held. concerning appearance. it is humbling and somewhat troubling to consider the idea that I am nothing more than my attributes at this very question even asked. and even the actions being committed by an individual. Jerry feels that his whole life is part of his identity. personality. Buddhism insists that a person exists only in terms of the traits they possess at a specific moment. only then do we call it a chariot. In a very scientific manner. This concept seems a bit extreme. when Jerry wished that his name alone could reveal all of his potential. and encompass all describable attributes. an easy way of referring to the conglomeration of parts arranged in working order (Siderits 54-55). However. it is destroyed. he was meditating on the fact that his name is just a convenient designator for his entire existence. as soon as it comes into being. Each of these skandhas is momentary. Buddhist philosophers recognize that a person is far more complicated than a chariot. contrary to the Buddhist conception that only momentary states constitute a person. state of mind. much of his application was concerned with his past experience. Nagasena deems the word “chariot” a “convenient designator. besides using the convenient designator “human body” in order to refer to the collection of arranged organs. and the only way in which a person exists is in terms of these fleeting states of being (Siderits 35-36). and experience.

he could not help but feel that each one had been vital to his life. we are free to choose any course of action in this moment. and how he had sulked in his room for days after her denial. no matter how mundane. all his experiences had led him to the current moment. but he could remember what had happened. the night after his unsuccessful job interview. indeed. He remembered asking his tenth grade girlfriend to marry him. he had realized that in each of his memories. It is true that memories are recollected in terms of action: what we did and what others did. watching the same schizophrenic man swing around every single lamp post lining each side of the square. He realizes that the person he is only consists of the actions he has taken. Americans do not tend to think of their personal identities in terms of their actions. F. but as he sifted through fond memories. what he was able to remember years later were the things he had done. Jerry thinks of his life in terms of the choices he has made. he would wait for his older sister everyday on the bench outside her job. Jerry had remembered his father’s funeral. or even at his father’s funeral. holding an umbrella to cover his mother as she mindlessly stepped from a black limousine right into a mud puddle. by our daily choices. he viewed himself in action. Scott Fitzgerald offers the same idea in The Great Gatsby. He even thought about how when he was ten years old. despite past actions and decisions. This is how we construct our identities. As he thought.deep into his brain to answer. . the Buddhist view of a person becomes uplifting. even considering the opinion we hold of ourselves. He could not recall his exact feelings at his girlfriend’s rejection. Lying in bed. At this point. as narrator Nick Carraway suggests that “personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures” (Fitzgerald 7).

and even literature shape the way we think of ourselves. neither will occur without some effort on our part. limiting ourselves in our potential courses of action. without worrying about maintaining a mode of behavior that others expect of me (and even. with the motive of improving the world. does not. when we think of ourselves as characters. Pop-culture. our identities spring from benevolence and justice. Additionally. Movies are popular because the story has a discrete beginning and end. and even now. As a result of frequent movie-viewing. or mine. To be free from existential crises. we assume a certain method of behavior. . This mindset and the feeling that the world is as structured as that of the cinema are very dangerous. so to speak. as our lives will seem meaningless at times. “All of my teachings can be summed up in one sentence. real life however.though. Buddhist logic also recognizes a similar phenomenon. if I free myself from everything around me. many Americans (and others) fall into what I call the protagonist delusion . celebrity worship.’” This one sentence perfectly reflects the ultimate truth of the entire discussion here presented. ‘Cling to nothing as my. one must abandon notions of lasting self identity. even aspects that belong to my own past. and will undoubtedly stray from the balanced progression of a screenplay. the choice to act in this way. As much as we long for a “happy ending” or expect that luck will turn around for us eventually. I can truly experience freedom of choice. If we act morally and honestly. this concept is best described as the feeling of being a character on the big-screen. but the most influential medium is film. of someone. And [he] learns to think of [him]self as the central figure in that narrative” (Siderits 76). “think[ing] of his life as a kind of narrative. we have. me. You are always yourself. that I expect of myself). in every moment. The Buddha once pointed out. because of its sheer popularity.

and that is the only fact that persists. .accountable for all of your actions.

Curry. Cambridge UP. Third edition.. 1991. Fitzgerald. 1998. Lanham. Fourth edition. eds. Inc. Marc.. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. Mecklenburg-Faenger. Reeves. 2005.. Inc. The Great Gatsby. Scott. . Mark..1999. Stan A. Albany: State University of New York Press. Bernard L. NJ: Pearson Education. Inc. S. 2007.C. Kenneth Burke and the 21 st Century. Reaadings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: from Thales to Aristotle. Cohen. eds. Amy. F. MD: University Press of America. Implicit Rhetoric: Kenneth Burke’s Extension of Aristotle’s Concept of Entelechy. Siderits. Sociology for the Twenty-First Century. Tim. 2005. Lindsay.D. New York. Buddhism as Philosophy: and Introduction .Works Cited Brock. Patricia Curd and C. From a conversation held on 4/21/08. Upper Saddle River. Inc. Robert Jiobu and Kent Schwirian. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

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