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Identity: A History of an Idea

Identity: Issue One

Angela Franks

The closing episode of the Disney show “WandaVision” no doubt triggered a storm of internet-searching when a main character, in the middle of a classic comic-book battle, suddenly pivoted to discussing “identity metaphysics.” The character, a sentient android facing off with an apparent identical copy of himself, references the ancient Ship of Theseus. The ship was preserved, but each plank was eventually replaced by new planks. Was it the same ship or a different one?

This example works perfectly for an android, given that androids are artifacts, like the ship, and have parts (as machines). Human beings, by contrast, are not artifacts. Nevertheless, we have an oddly mixed status as spiritual-material beings, the matter of which is constantly regenerating (except for the neurons of the cerebral cortex, interestingly). The question can then fairly be asked: where is our “identity”? What answers the question “Who am I”?

As psychologist Erik Homburger Erikson notes, identity was the problem of the twentieth century: “If the relation of father and son dominated the last century, then this one is concerned with the self-made man asking himself what he is making of himself.” And, indeed, Erikson was perfectly situated to observe this: a Freudian by training, the son of an unknown Danish man and a Jewish woman, adopted by a German stepfather who was presented to him as his natural father until he was a teen, Erik changed his surname to Erikson as a young man. He was so self-made, he was his own father.[1]

A related question was taken up in the closing decades of the twentieth century, in which much ink was spilled on the question of the “death of the subject.” Closely connected to this dying subject, and of even more recent coinage, is the term “identity.” In his book Puzzling Identities, French philosopher Vincent Descombes points out that the use of the word “identity” in the possessive or “identitarian” sense—“my identity,” “France’s identity”—was born in the twentieth century. Late-seventeenth-century editions of French dictionaries take “identité” to refer (and then only rarely) to logical problems of sameness, while this is still the primary meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary under “identity.” This meaning has faded in importance. Helping the process along, Wittgenstein ridiculed this logical sense of “identity”: “‘A thing is identical with itself.’—There is no finer example of a meaningless sentence …”

Almost simultaneously, beginning in the 1960s, a revolt against identity began to be fought by post-modern French philosophers. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same,” implored Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge, “leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.” He was, he was certain, not “the only one who writes in order to have no face.” Accordingly, he and fellow philosopher Gilles Deleuze pushed for “the liquidation of the principle of identity.”[2]

So how is it that identity went from being marginal to essential to ambivalent? I will trace that history here.

Sources of the Modern Self

“Identity as such is a modern invention,” sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues, “It was a ‘problem’ from its birth—was born as a problem (that is, as something one needs do something about—as a task), could exist only as a problem ….”[3] This task-nature of identity—as something to be achieved—is quintessentially modern.

Philosophers in the Platonic school tended to find human identity in a transcendent One. Early modern empiricists, by contrast, were not interested in finding the unity of the self in transcendence but instead sought it in immanent matter and experiences.[4] The move from the logical sense of identity to a personal, “identitarian” one begins in English, according to the OED, in the seventeenth century. John Locke insisted, “The Identity of the same Man consists … in nothing but a participation of the same continued Life, by constantly fleeting Particles of Matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized Body.”

Lockean personal identity is rooted in consciousness: “Consciousness makes personal identity.” As Descombes says, this radical proposal contends that “it is not necessary to be the same man as Jacques to be the same person as Jacques. One need only be the same self, i.e., be constituted as a person by the same self-consciousness—in other words, to have the same memories.”

With Jean-Jacques Rousseau comes a specification of the necessary content of one’s consciousness, namely, authenticity as the means to locating one’s identity. For Rousseau, the exterior and the communal is seen to be an impediment to the authentic interior. This was part of a larger “disembedding,” as Charles Taylor calls it, of the authentic self out of the inauthentic social environment.

The Man Who Was His Own Father

This abbreviated genealogy of the modern self shows how the way was paved for the recent ascendancy of “identity.” A sea-change happened in the twentieth century, when Freudian-trained psychologist Erik H. Erikson proposed a new understanding of “identity” in his 1950 book Childhood and Society. The timing was propitious. As Erikson stated, “We begin to conceptualize matters of identity at the very time in history when they become a problem.”

Erikson’s chapter “Reflections on the American Identity” is, historian Philip Gleason argues, the first time the term national “identity” substituted for national “character” in Anglophone psychology and sociology. Erikson later explained the link between America and identity crises.

If something like an identity crisis gradually appeared to be a normative problem in adolescence and youth, there also seemed to be enough of an adolescent in every American … [because of] a strangely adolescent style of adulthood—that is, one remaining expansively open for new roles and stances … But this also means that problems of identity become urgent wherever Americanization spreads …

Along these lines, Erikson commented on the rise of what is now called the RV, permitting elderly Americans “to settle down to perpetual traveling and to die on wheels.” Indeed, the American nature of the book’s thesis was expressed iconically in a sketch by Norman Rockwell of Tom Sawyer absorbed in reading Childhood and Society.

The idea of an identity crisis was based on both clinical observation and autobiography. “I am not implying that ‘identity crisis’ is a symptom of mine that I simply assumed everybody else had also—although there is, of course, something to that too. …” Erikson had lived his first three years alone with his mother before she married Theodor Homburger and told Erikson that Homburger was in fact his father. But this never sat well with Erikson, who remembered some of his early days alone with her. As he would later poignantly reflect, “[I] felt all along … doubt in my identity … all through my childhood years.”

His proposal depends on two meanings of “identity”: first, the subjective, Rousseauian sense of authenticity, as expressed by William James: “This is the real me!” The second feature is one’s personal connection with the wider culture and society. Identity is the mostly unconscious process of making authentic judgments about oneself in “a kind of psychosocial relativity.”

While notoriously vague about his central term, Erikson still hit a nerve. Gleason argues that “identity” was such a successful reboot of the older problem of the unity of the self because of the peculiar situation in the 1950s. “Identity” aptly expressed the concern for the existence of the alienated individual against the backdrop of “mass society.” Spurring this along was the arrival of the Frankfurt School thinkers in the United States, who brought a Marxist-Freudian treatment of alienation and authoritarianism to a wider American audience.

The term took off in the 1960s, when “identity” was modulated into more personal terms. Everyone had to have an identity crisis; Gleason notes that “American Catholics fairly luxuriated in them.” Religiously, the post-conciliar situation seemed, to revisionists at least, to require the interrogation of ecclesial roles. True to type, this revisionist theological stance contracted a shotgun wedding with the larger Zeitgeist of identity-questioning. The situation demanded parody, and Harvard Catholic students took up the challenge, posting invitations to a scheduled “Identity Crisis,” Thursday evening at 8 p.m. sharp.

To his credit, Erikson recognized the “faddish” and mimetic aspects of identity confusion: “[W]ould some of our youth act so openly confused and confusing if they did not know they were supposed to have an identity crisis?” What was already clear in 1968 has become even more clear since then in cases such as imitative eating disorders, as well as the recent spate of rapid-onset gender dysphoria. In the latter case, groups of “super cheerful, giggly” girls are showing up at Planned Parenthood clinics to request (and invariably receive) cross-sex hormones.[5] The difference between developmentally appropriate and performative crises, Erikson insisted, is that true identity crises were “silent, inner, and unconscious” rather than “flamboyantly” performed.

“Would some of our youth act so openly confused and confusing if they did not know they were supposed to have an identity crisis?” ~E. Erikson

Around the same time, and supplementing but also diverging from Erikson’s psychoanalytic sense of identity, there arose a sociological approach that focused only on exterior identification. As I have noted, Erikson was deeply concerned with the interrelation between social conditions and interior drives and structures. Sociology, in contrast, neglected the latter to focus on the former. These sociological approaches went in one of two directions: identity found in roles or identity found in group membership.

I Am What I Do

Most researchers staking out the midcentury sociological position explicitly refused to grant an internal personal reality enduring through change, a reality that we might call “the self.” In 1963, at the cusp of the philosophical embrace of the “death of the subject” in France, Peter Berger argued, “Looked at sociologically, the self is no longer a solid, given entity.... It is rather a process, continuously created and re-created in each social situation that one enters, held together by the slender thread of memory.” Later Berger, with Thomas Luckmann, would argue in the influential book The Social Construction of Reality that personal identity’s social construction is distinguished from other social construction solely by being connected to a body.

In all of these approaches, esse sequitur operare; the traditional primacy of being over action is reversed. As one sociologist put it, “Identity refers to the individual’s sequence of acts …” Here identity can only come about retroactively, through the sum-total of actions, and a sense of self is merely the consciousness of this reality.

One variant of the sociological approach was proposed by Erving Goffman, whose 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life continues to be influential. Goffman finessed role theory by proposing an analogy from theater: the “self” is an actor who is always playing different dramatic roles “onstage” while curating the scenery, costumes, and plot. This “dramaturgical analysis” led its readers, according to one reviewer, to be “traumatized by the realization … of how phony we all are.” For obvious reasons, Goffman’s book has been utilized extensively by those researching online life, especially the social-media experience.

Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that Goffman played with the enduring “dualism … between what I represent and what I am in reality ….”[6] But the role-approach, which throws roles “over a colorless ‘I’ like some coat that happened to be at hand and could at any time be exchanged for another,” cannot arrive at “an ‘I’ that [is] irreplaceable as such.”[7]

I Am What I Belong To

A second sociological attempt to find the “I” in the “exterior” also gained steam in the 1950s. Increasingly, questions such as religion and immigration began to be viewed through the lens of identity, as the importance of belonging to a group in order to answer the “Who am I?” question was reasserted.

In many ways, the sociological approach is a return of the old, “solid” way of self-identification via social status and family. But there is also something new, in that group-membership began to be defined in more “liquid” ways. With race now the one remaining hold-out, all the other important categories—religion, nationality, even sex—have today become a matter of shifting preference rather than pre-existing realities that define the person prior to choice.

In her recent book, Primal Screams, Mary Eberstadt calls attention to the beginning of “identity politics” in the 1970s. Eberstadt argues that identity politics, tied to the sexual revolution (and, I argue, the centuries-long development of secularization), is the expression of emotionally fragile people who do not know where they belong.

Identity politics make the personal political in a wholly new way. As one feminist critic writes of gender theorist Judith Butler’s queer theory, “[W]hat was once ‘the personal is political’ has become ‘the political need only be personal.’” Or even more: the political is merely the most public forum to force recognition of the personal. Francis Fukuyama contends that “demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today.” This emotional and human aspect of identity helps to explain why, according to Eberstadt, “it’s all panic, all the time.” This irrational aspect of identity politics, as well as its tribalism, have been criticized on the left as well as the right. But such criticisms have not done much to put out the fire, because they have no better method of identity-formation to offer.

Let us take stock of this history up to now. Both the interior, identity-formation approach (Erikson) and the exterior, role- or group-based proposals (Goffman, identity politics) fail to account sufficiently for the ephemeral nature of the identity achieved by either or both approaches. They are often correct, as far as they go. But they do not go far enough. Rather than anchoring identity solely in the beyond (the neo-Platonic approach), they root it solely in the ephemeral here-and-now: either my achievement of a sense of self, or in the groups and roles with which I identify myself. We are not yet at Balthasar’s “‘I’ that is irreplaceable as such.”

Identity for the Non-Identical

What all these solutions are circling around but never quite name is the irreducible non-identity at the heart of the human person. Our identity-instability points to this metaphysical aporia, namely, that we are, as Erich Przywara puts it, marked by “the illimitable openness of the movement of becoming.” It is, in other words, “a creaturely principle” that we are non-identical. We are, and yet we change. Further, we are, and we appear, and these two aspects of ourselves are not simply identical. Non-identity fractures the person. These aporias are one reason why post-moderns chose simply to embrace this non-identity in a literal way, à la Foucault: we do not have a face.

For all that, however, we are also marked by identity. This is the value in the primary, logical meaning of identity. The metaphysical bases for this identity are multiple. First, human beings are substances, that is, individually existing persons that exist on their own. Substances “stand under” (as the term literally states) the features that mark our lives, namely, the qualities, relations, and locations that can come and go (these are also called metaphysical “accidents”). I may undergo dementia and not remember my family and friends, but I would be still the same human being who once remembered and then does not.

Second, as persons, human beings are a particular kind of substance: we have a rational and embodied nature. This nature does not change as I change; I am still the kind of thing that I was as a girl. Through all my non-identity, that is, through all my changes, I am still as human as ever and the same person as ever.

Third, individual human persons have souls, which are intimately related to our changing bodies. A human soul, as the form of a living body, organizes its material flux (Locke’s “constantly fleeting Particles of Matter”) around a unifying and governing center. My body, despite all its change, is still my body, because my soul ensures its continuity.

For all that, human beings do not find this metaphysical identity, which gives us a perduring structure underlying change, to be enough. As both Balthasar and John Paul II point out, this continuity is necessary but still not sufficient to answer the question “Who am I?” How can we account for each person’s irreducible uniqueness, which sets me apart from all other human persons?

I Am As I Am Sent

This stalemate highlights the importance of a transcendent solution to our identity problems, because any purely creaturely solution is riven by non-identity. But the neo-Platonic absorption of the self by the divine cannot be the way to go.

In the first volume of his Theo-Drama, Balthasar concurs that worldly attempts to answer the “Who am I?” question end in this impasse. He finds a way forward in the one case of a perfect union of person and mission, in Jesus Christ, who serves as a template and cause of our true identity. In Christ, man’s non-identity, his “duality of ‘being’ and ‘seeming’ … is absolutely overcome in the identity of person and mission in Christ.”[8]

In TD 1 and in many other places, Balthasar credits this insight to the Thomistic doctrine of the divine missions of the Son and Spirit as the extensions, into time, of their eternal processions from the Father (ST, Ia, q. 43). “This mission … is nothing but the ‘timeward’ side of his eternal procession from the Father.” The Son, who is eternally his being generated by the Father, is this procession from the Father into the world. “Jesus Christ dedicates his whole self to his mission; he is entirely one with it. He is the ‘one sent.’” Jesus’s identity is his mission, which is the procession that he is but now extended into the world.

We are not capable of such metaphysical simplicity, but Balthasar emphasizes that, “while the personal mission of Jesus is unique, it is also capable of ‘imitation’ by those who are called, in him, to participate in his drama.” This Christian existence is “existence as mission.”[9] Our identity is ultimately a question of the particular saint God intends each person to be, in the exitus and reditus that marks our existence.[10] Roles, family, race, citizenship, and the other crucial aspects of a life are a mere pile of qualities, like iron filings, that require the magnet of our mission to be given order—to achieve identity.[11]

A mission does not obliterate the iron filings, nor does it remove our fundamental non-identity. Instead, it stabilizes the “I” in the midst of its life-history and even in its non-identity. Our metaphysical incompleteness is also a gift, in that it orders us beyond ourselves. Mission-identity takes up this ordering, without destroying our non-identity to the God who is both identical (homoousios) and non-identical (really distinct Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

And so, in the end, the concern of the twenty-first century is oddly resonant with the preoccupation with fathers in the nineteenth. The debunking of a divine Father left only flawed human fathers to fill the void. But not family nor one’s own actions nor group membership can create a self. What an irony of biography that Erik Erikson’s biological father was probably in fact a man named … Erik. Thus do our best efforts at self-construction fail to outstrip the givens of family and biology. Even more fundamentally, what grounds all of these is the person whom God made us to be. “Thus, in the very discipleship in which the Christian ‘loses his soul,’ he can attain his true identity.”

[1] After citing Wordsworth’s line “The Child is the Father of the Man,” Erikson wrote about Gandhi that “[i]t makes particular sense for special men: they, indeed, strive to become their own fathers” (quoted in Lawrence J. Friedman, Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson [New York: Scribner, 1999], 147). Friedman gives the larger background to the name-change at 143‒47.

[2] According to Pierre Klossowski, “Digression à partir d’un portrait apocryphe,” L’Arc 49 (1990): 11‒22 at 11, cited in David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault: A Biography, xv. Of course, the contemporary search for identity occurs against the backdrop of “liquid modernity,” which validates flux over stability. Identity serves both as a resting-place from the flux and as something isomorphic to the flux. In other words, often the chosen identity is the experience of flux itself. The most sophisticated expression of this contemporary Dionysianism is found in Gilles Deleuze; see Angela Franks, “The Blood of Dionysius or the Vineyard of the Lord?”

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, “From Pilgrim to Tourist—or a Short History of Identity,” eds. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, Questions of Cultural Identity (London: SAGE, 1996), 18‒36 at 18‒19.

[4] See the related approaches by analytic “identity theorists,” summarized by J. J. C. Smart, “The Mind/Brain Identity Theory” .

[5] I have argued that the sexual revolution is primarily a matter of solving the identity-problem via sexuality in “The Body as Totem in the Asexual Revolution.” See Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, for a more detailed genealogy of the sexual revolution as it applies to the self.

[6] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 1: Prolegomena , first U.S. edition (Ignatius, 2004), 481. Making identity deeply dependent on socially defined roles and interactions creates the problem that “the individual who has submerged himself in a role must lose his identity” when the social expectations change (535, attributing the insight to Jürgen Habermas).

[7] Ibid, 645.

[8] Ibid., 646. I develop Balthasar’s proposal in “The Mission and Person of Christ and the Christian in Hans Urs von Balthasar,” in The Center is Jesus Christ Himself: Essays on Revelation, Salvation, and Evangelization in Honor of Robert P. Imbelli, ed. Andrew Meszaros (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021), 272‒299.

[9] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Existenz als Sendung: Christus und seine Nachfolge,” Christliche Innerlichkeit 18 (1984): 274‒78. In Who is a Christian? Balthasar dedicates a section to “Existenz aus der Sendung” (in the German: Wer ist ein Christ?, Herder-Bücherei, vol. 335 [Einsiedeln: Benziger Verlag, 1965], 90‒95; rendered “The Mission Gives Life” in the English translation by John Cumming [New York: Newman Press, 1965], 86-91).

[10] See Angela Franks, “Liquidity: Man, the Triune God, and the Eucharistic Christ,” Communio, vol. 46, no. 3-4 (Fall–Winter 2019): 585‒619.

[11] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, trans. Sr. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1977), 74. Is this now just a Christian redux of the esse sequitur operari sociological conviction? Joshua R. Brotherton is concerned that Balthasar is so moved by Barthian actualism that he desires to overturn the Scholastic axiom operari sequitur esse, such that now esse sequitur operari (One of the Trinity Has Suffered: Balthasar’s Theology of Divine Suffering in Dialogue [Steubenville, OH.: Emmaus Academic Press, 2019], 247, nt. 137). I cannot treat this question at length, but I would argue, first, that Brotherton’s concern comes back to how he reads mission and identity: “Hence, similarly, identifying mission with identity can only be taken so far—such cannot involve denial of the logical priority of the latter” (120). Here Brotherton seems to equate mission with operari and identity with esse. Yet, as he elsewhere realizes, mission is a trinitarian and personal category, which is rooted in the being (processio) of the Son primarily and only secondarily his economic action (operari). Brotherton’s mistake could be avoided by recognizing that mission pertains first and foremost to the divine idea God has of each individual, thereby anchoring mission in God’s being and not in worldly doing. Second, it should be noted that there is a sense in which one can propose that esse sequitur operari, but only if one works within the horizons of a metaphysically informed virtue-ethics. Karol Wojtyła named this a “bilateral system” of being and action, each forming the other, yet with a priority given to being; see Angela Franks, “A Body of Work: Labor and Culture in Karol Wojtyła,” in Leisure and Labor, ed. Anthony Coleman (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 127‒140. I draw on Karol Wojtyła, “Teoria e Prassi nella Filosofia della Persona Humana,” Sapienza 29 (1977): 377‒84; Karol Wojtyła, “Teoria—Prassi: Un Tema Umano e Christiano,” in vol. 1 of Teoria e Prassi: Atti del VI Congresso Internazionale, eds. Benedetto D’Amore and Agostino Giordano (Napoli: Edizione Dominicane Italiane, 1976): 31‒41 at 33‒35; and Karol Wojtyła, “The Problem of the Constitution of Culture through Human Praxis,” in Person and Community, trans. Theresa Sandok, OSM, in vol. 4 of Catholic Thought from Lublin (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 265‒67.

Angela Franks, Ph.D., is a theologian, speaker, writer, and mother of six. She serves as Professor of Theology at the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization at St. John's Seminary in Boston.

Posted on August 26, 2021

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