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Friday, March 03, 2006

Comments on Steven Davies: Social/Political/Psychological Identity




Presented at the Workshop on Social Cognition, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 3-4 March 2006



In W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, when the thirteen years old Dafydd Elias is told by his teacher that he has to put the name « Jacques Austerlitz » on his examination papers, because that is his real name, something changes in his identity. He grew up in the little town of Bala in Wales, son of the Calvinist preacher Emyr Elias and now he discovers that the preacher is not his real father, but just took him into his house at the beginning of the Second World War. The first reaction he has to this news is that the new name doesn’t evoke anything to him: he cannot connect it to any reality. All his world until that moment is Wales, and if “Jacques” evokes to him a French song he heard once, “Austerlitz” is completely opaque and mute. Still, his identity won’t ever be the same and the rest of the book is a long journey of memory in order to reconstruct his past identity of Czech Jewish child.
Does something change in Austerlitz’s identity when he acquires this information? From an objective point of view, he was already Jacques Austerlitz, before coming to know that this is his name. What’s special in this name that has the power to change his identity once that he comes to know it?
According to Steven, for someone’s to have an identity, the following conditions should be met:

•she possesses one or more properties;
•she reflectively and self-consciously thinks of herself as having these properties
•she poses to herself questions about who or what she is for which her possessing the properties is an answer; and
•she believes that the possession of the properties plays important roles in her life.

Steven distinguishes also between a person’s identity and her self-conception. A person’s identity is what or who she is; a person’s self-conception concerns her beliefs about what or who she is.
People may be mistaken about their identities (believing of having a property that actually they don’t have) or mistaken about their self-conceptions (I can believe that I am the most beautiful woman in Paris while being sadly mistaken about this).
Steven opts for a “externalist” notion of identity: My believing of having certain properties is not sufficient for having those properties as part of my identity: I have to objectively possess these properties. On the other hand, if these properties are inert in my mental life (as the fact of being a Czech Jewish for Austerlitz), they don’t count either as part of my identity. So, according to Steven, we cannot completely “make up” an identity and cannot be imposed an identity from “outside” (as in the famous British novel by Nigel Dennis Cards of Identity in which a bunch of psychologists who are members of an identity club, meet once a year in a country house to “create” some psychological profiles, and then impose them to some people in the village) if we do not represent what is imposed to us as relevant for our self-understanding.
Still, Steven contrasts a first-person perspective and a third-person perspective on identity: As the Christian Mary of Steven’s example, I never thought of myself as an Italian when I was in Italy. I had to emigrate to understand that being Italian was part of my identity. I acquired the self-consciousness of this trait because other people started to look at me and making sense of my behaviour by using this characteristic.
My question is thus: Is it really possible to separate a first-person perspective and a third person perspective on cultural identity? Isn’t it precisely the contact between our own perspective on ourselves and that of the others the endroit charnière in which our cultural identity becomes an intresting notion? This may sound a bit Sartrian, and lead us to conclude that “Hell is other people”. But the way in which “I see myself seen” seems to be irreducible to a first-person perspective only or a third-person perspective only. The notion of cultural identity seems to me so central in thinking about social cognition because it is neither just a trait of our folk-psychology, nor just a social, legal or cultural notion. It’s my awareness of the gaze of the others on me as an Italian, a woman, or a French resident that makes these traits play a role in the way in which they contribute to my making sense of who I am.