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Identity as an Infinite and Paradoxical Process (1 Viewer)


The assignment was to use at least three of the pieces we read in class to support your conception of what the Identity is. Needless to say, this is quite an impossible task, especially for the 5 page limit so i decided to focus on two main points that really are just different angles of the same idea.

c ya
Identity as an Infinite and Paradoxical Process
Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher, once said that “Our achievements of today are but the sum total of our thoughts of yesterday. You are today where the thoughts of yesterday have brought you and you will be tomorrow where the thoughts of today take you.” Though this may seem overly simplistic, Pascal touches upon most of the major attributes of the identity. The identity is a reflection of a person’s life and is constituted by one’s existential status; experiences, emotions, and deliberations—their thoughts; the unity of these traits—the entire “you” of a person; and the interpersonal interaction between individual identities. It must be noted, as it will be discussed in detail, that these traits of identity interact with each other so as to create a strikingly paradoxical situation composed of five “sub-paradoxes.”

It would seem that the most effective path to discovering the nature of the identity is to look at the causal foundations of ever increasingly fundamental principles, similar to the way in which astrophysicists categorize existence as universe, galaxy, solar system, planet, etc…. The identity is not organized in such a methodical manner and therefore must be explored using a method that admits paradox. This method begins by describing the situations and consequent results of the identity in question. One’s identity is first and foremost influenced by the unavoidable events that present themselves. In Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried, he describes the death of a fellow soldier: “It was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something—just boom, then down” (O’Brien 640). In the precise circumstance they were in, this was an unavoidable event and affected not only the dead soldier but his comrades as well. Because the other soldiers were near by to observe this event—and observation is a form of interaction—they formed from it an experience. Thus far, the situation is circumstantial insofar as the observing identity has played no active part in the situation itself. In the next “step” the identity takes hold of the situation and with it forms memories and emotions. O’Brien eloquently illustrates the importance of emotions with regard to the personality when he describes “Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (O’Brien 650). This “tangible weight” of emotion affects the identity in that it acts as an additional experiential situation, and herein lies the first paradox. The emotion of a situation can itself be the situation: it can be both itself and the action upon itself. For example, if one is generally full of joy, their experiences will be affected by this and may also act to augment the joy that first influenced it. This paradox is embodied most obviously in the existential human situation itself in regards to an individual who is part of a functional society.

The most fundamental role that any person plays is that of a human being. This includes the incredibly complex subject areas of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, love, compassion, and a myriad of other traits, all which contribute enormously to the formation of the identity. Unfortunately, it would not be appropriate to elaborate on each individual trait as the focus of this paper is elsewhere, but the importance of these traits should be recognized. O’Brien does, however, submit a tragically beautiful account of one of the more inspiring of human traits: resilience. He describes the scene after an intense battle: “They would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hiding it. They would force themselves to stand. As if in slow motion, frame by frame, the world would take on the old logic—absolutely silence, then the wind, then the sunlight, then voices. It was the burden of being alive” (O’Brien 649). Resilience is one of the key traits of the role of humans as human. It is the chief perpetuator of the continued struggle for realization of identity. In this excerpt, even after a horrifying battle the men pulled themselves back up and continued on. In addition to this role as a human being, each individual who participates in society has many roles: the mother, the daughter, the wife, the boss, etc… and with these roles comes responsibility. Because these roles are all external, the responsibility is present in regards to those with whom the mother, the daughter, the wife interact. This is painfully demonstrated when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s daydreaming of his love at home indirectly causes the death of one of his men: “He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war” (O’Brien 647). Responsibility is an unavoidable burden to any human playing a role, that is, the responsibility of carrying out what is demanded of the role.

The second paradox is the human quality of self-transcendence. The identity interacts both with and in the situation but also has the ability to analyze it as an overseer. This paradoxical reflection connects our experiences into a personality, rather than leaving them as arbitrary occurrences. Johnson eloquently introduces the concept as he says, “Every one of us is continually about the vital business of weaving together the threads of our lives” (Johnson 152). Now the individual characteristics of the personality are beginning to relate to one another, from events to experiences, to memories and emotions, they each create and influence each other forming an incredibly complex system of personality.

In his work, Moral Imagination – Implications of Cognitive science for Ethics, Mark Johnson expands on this notion of personality. He says that, “While I cannot now avoid being a father, there is a great deal of latitude in how I can live out or take up that role” (Johnson 151). His point here is that the previously discussed attributes determine the roles we play and that there is a degree of choice regarding what next becomes of the identity. This “freedom,” though, is not a magical, untouchable substance but is the narrow freedom with regard to a situation. He explains this by pointing out that humans are “Constituted by forces, institutions, and historical circumstances beyond [our] control, and [we] simultaneously constitute [our] identity by certain sorts of restrictedly free acts” (Johnson 162). That is to say that we are neither reducible to nor independent of these roles. We cannot be reduced to the roles because, as previously discussed, the ability to oversee the roles supposes a form of self-transcendence. For more obvious reasons, we are not independent of these roles because without them, there would be no subject to transcend. This is the third paradox. The roles and quantifiable characteristics of the personality depend on the identity’s act of transcendence in order to be considered a personality, but at the same time, the transcendent quality depends entirely upon the roles and quantifiable characteristics.

The final broad characteristic of the identity is the interpersonal relationships of individual identities. This statement seems to contradict itself if “identity” is understood as belonging to a single entity, as in the common understanding. In this model, individual identities exist and arbitrarily interact with other individual identities. This understanding of the relationship between multiple identities is over-simplified and leads to an incomplete understanding of the entire concept. In this final “stage,” the identity-itself belongs to as many individual personalities as are interacting with one another. In his, Five Kinds of Self Knowledge, referring to interaction among individuals, Ulric Neisser says, “The mutuality of their behavior exists in fact and can be perceived by outside observers; more importantly, it is perceived by the participants themselves” (Neisser 391). This act of observation is the same concept as the second paradox—individual self-transcendence—and can be thought of as the fourth paradox of the identity. The interactive behaviors of the individuals (fourth paradox) are comparable to the arbitrary occurrences of the second paradox—they differ in that the interactive behaviors are not arbitrary: the participating personalities are already employing the second paradox of individual self-transcendence. The individual personalities’ acts of perceiving their participation in interpersonal interaction is comparable to the ability to act as an overseer in the second paradox. Neisser summarizes this idea quite nicely: “The interpersonal self is specified by the orientation and flow of the other individual’s expressive gestures” (Neisser 393). To briefly outline, the interpersonal self is constituted by multiple identities, the interpersonal self exists because the individuals have the ability to recognize that it exists, and because the identity-itself includes the interpersonal self, the concept of identity-itself must refer to more than a single entity—this is the fifth paradox.

The five paradoxes of the identity have now been identified. The first, that emotion can be both itself and the action upon itself. The second, the quality of individual self-transcendence. The third, that the quantifiable characteristics of the personality and the individual’s act of transcendence depend wholly on each other. The fourth, the individual’s observation of interpersonal interaction—interpersonal transcendence. The fifth, that “identity,” a seemingly singular term, necessarily refers to plural entities. These five paradoxes, in appropriate fashion, interact with one another to form the final, whole paradox of identity-itself. These paradoxes, as paradoxes, cannot be resolved as the form of a paradox is such that it is essentially irresolvable. The identity is therefore infinitely complex. Infinite not quantitatively in terms of empirical characteristics, but qualitatively in terms of the self-referential quality of all of its components.