On Identities and Individuality

In a world where one’s social identity seems to be in the front and center of most political and ethical considerations, one has to wonder about the impact this thought might have. This trend in thinking about identity as a central question is met both with apostolic fervor and vitriolic hatred of the worst degree. Yet, something that can initiate such emotion must be in some sense interesting, or even profound. Of course, much of identity today is concerned with who a person is and what a person can actually be; that is, discussions of identity seem to be concerned with questions that ask whether a biological man can be a woman, or whether Rachel Dolezal can. be a black person. These, however, are not the questions I will be directly dealing with in this discussion. Although relevant, these considerations will be largely tangential to my argument. I aim to answer a slightly different question; namely, what can identity contribute, if anything, to one’s ability to exercise individuality? There are numerous preliminary considerations, including what we mean by an identity and individuality, that need to be noted; all of which will be addressed in due course. At this point, I would like to present my fundamental claim of the paper. My claim is this: Identity does not contribute to one’s individuality and, in fact, takes away one’s ability to fully exercise individuality. I will make no moral claims regarding this claim in this paper (although identities themselves move us into the realm of ethical claims), but merely aim to present an account of how social identities operate in their relationship with individuality. I will begin with addressing a common misconception of identity, provide an account of identity and individuality, and present its relationship with individuality.


A common misconception of identity

There is a tendency when discussing identity to think about them as descriptions of what a person essentially is. That is, to suggest identities are not merely an appellation, but in fact signifiers that point to an essential quality of a person such that an individual is merely a conglomeration of distinct and intersecting identities. That is, a person is not merely a Sikh by name; the identity Sikh points to the part of the person that is actually, essentially a Sikh. Likewise, any given person may have a part that is essentially European, homosexual, and Catholic, each with their corresponding identities. This view is incorrect.

Identities can not be signifiers of essential qualities, as they are taken on after the fact, and are largely determined by the existence of a referential collective (you can not be “Catholic” without reference to the Catholic Church) and social conditions (you can not take on the identity of a mother without having children), and not by any prior essential qualities in a person. Moreover, an identity entails a set of social expectations that one conforms to after one takes on an identity; no one is born with the distinct qualities of a Muslim or a veteran. Thus, it can not be that identities are signifiers of essential qualities, as there would then be no expectations to conform to. I realize this claim might need some defense and I will posit some responses to a possible objection; however, as this is not the focus of our discussion, it will only be momentary digression.

One may object, in defense of this essentialist view, that there could be an individual who acts according to the expectations of a given identity (whatever they may be) before taking on that given identity. For instance, could it not be true that one acts in accordance with the expectations of a heterosexual (male) without taking on the identity of a heterosexual? Although this is an interesting objection, my original point still stands. Even if it is the case that an individual acts in accordance with the expectations of a given identity, this is a mere coincidence, and the individual may not even realize that he is operating in accordance with that identity. Consider the self-identified homosexual male who, in fact, acts in accordance with what is normally expected from a heterosexual (for. good or for bad). This individual does not identify with what he acts according to, such that it is coincidental that he shares behavior with heterosexual expectations. Moreover, it is likely many identities have overlapping expectations such that the distinctions are only highlighted by the fact that someone identifies with a particular set of those expectations (e.g., the Catholic and Muslim are both expected to pray, attend religious service, believe in God; yet, the identification with one or the other entails particular expectations such as belief in Jesus or Allah). It might not even occur to a person that what they are doing requires a name. In a word, the fact that one happens to act in accordance with expectations of an identity without identifying it as such does not show they signify essential qualities, but instead chance occurrences with expectation overlap.

It is also worth noting another absurd consequence of this view; namely, that it suggests that individuals would be able to identify incorrectly. That is, because they signify essential qualities of a person, there must be a “correct” set of identities such that it is possible that a person, should she diverge from this set, incorrectly identify. Of course, it would be absurd to say that someone who identifies as a Buddhist or a socialist is epistemically misinformed or wrong because they are actually, essentially a Protestant libertarian. That is not to say there are not limits on identities also (e.g., I can not identify as part of another species or even of a different ancestry), but this is largely due to particular epistemologies and social conditions. There is more to say on this, but at the moment it is enough to note that we have established that identities are not signifiers of essential qualities.

How do identities function?

So far, we have only shown how identities do not function by way of considering a common misconception. Now, we must answer in the affirmative: how do identities function? We can begin with a preliminary account. Identity can be understood as a tripartite system of intention, incorporation, and reference. That is, one must intend to have an identity such that reference to the term instantiates a property one intends to have; one must incorporate the expectations entailed by that property; and, lastly, one must have reference back to a group such that the patterns of that group affirm the meaningfulness of the identity. Thus, in my account of how identities function, we can say an identity is an appellation that is intentional, incorporated, and referential such that no single aspect is sufficient, but all are necessary. In an aim to give as full account as possible, we will turn our attention to considering each aspect on its own.

To begin, we will consider intentionality. I am indebted largely to Franz Brentano’s and Anthony Appiah’s work for my conception of intentionality here, and will pull many of my ideas on this topic from them. Intention is largely dependent on what one thinks they are doing. Consider what Appiah says in a discussion on philosopher Elizabeth Anscomb:

“To use a simple example, I have to have a wide range of concepts for signing my name in a certain way to count specifically as “signing a contract”. It follows that what I do intentionally depends on what concepts I have available to me; and among the concepts that may shape my action is the concept of a certain kind of person and behavior appropriate to a person of that kind.”

It is the nature of these concepts to be applicable; i.e., able to apply to a person as an identity. This conceptual knowledge informs an individual of a particular kind of person by way of the properties that kind of person might have. If it is an identity one takes on, its reference instantiates the properties of that concept-formed identity in oneself. Consider a person of the lower-middle class who has recently won a significant amount of money by way of a lottery ticket. This person has just moved up in the tax bracket and may now decide to identify as a member of the upper class. This entails identifying with at least some of the properties of a person of the upper class such that they are now instantiated in the person identifying (having a certain amount of money, living in a certain neighborhood, having little to no financial concern, going on expensive vacations, etc.). It would be impossible to take on an identity without conceptual knowledge of the properties that accompany it, and even more absurd to take on the appellation without instantiating the properties (this may only be possible through irony or sarcasm and would thus not represent what one actually thinks she is doing, but it’s opposite).

The second aspect of a functioning identity, as you may recall, is incorporation. This seems to be the next step — phenomenologically understood — in a functioning identity. This aspect follows from the properties instantiated from the identity as the intentional object. That is, at this point, one not only thinks of themselves as examples of someone that is a certain kind of person with a set of accompanying properties, but they conform (behaviorally) to what is expected of that certain kind of person. This could be as simple as a self-identified homosexual going to a gay bar, or historically wealthy families (e.g. the Rockefeller family heirs) marrying only within their socio-economic strata to keep up appearences. This incorporation, then, obviously impacts your actions; an orthodox Jewish person will not eat pork, a “manly” man will dress a certain way, a legacy family will attend Harvard. These behavioral expectations force one to tend to a certain pattern (which we will touch on in a moment) such that the pattern is consistently associated with a certain kind of person, a certain identity.

There is also a psychological element to this aspect of identity. When a person takes on an identity, they want to be genuinely taking on the identity. That is, I do not merely want to say I am x, I want to be x such that I am taken seriously as an x. If I were to identify as an atheist, but attend church services and consistently take note of liturgical activity such that my actions did not differ from that of a religioso outside of my own sincere disbelief in God, I might not be taken seriously as an atheist, and that might bother me. If this is true, it seems I would have strong motivation to stop attending church services and orthodox religious activity. Therefore, it can be said that part of a functioning identity is incorporation of some social expectations that accompany that identity, such that you are taken seriously as that identity.

The last part of a functioning identity is reference. This aspect of identity is described as the referential point found in a certain group by which your instantiation and incorporation is patterned off of. For example, the Catholic Church, the African-American community, the LGBT community, and even, to a certain extent, the broad category of heterosexuality would all serve as referential points for a corresponding identity. This account tells us that a person is following a type of model that informs one about people of this identity and how they tend to behave and think about things.

Of course, to say I am a Native American does not mean that I necessarily hold a particular view about a particular historical event that is shared by all Native Americans such that without it, I would no longer be taken seriously as a Native American. There is room for unique thought. However, what there is not room for is divergence from culture. That is, to take on the identity of Ibo while rejecting the language and traditions of Ibo people would be a meaningless appellation. Of course, becoming an expert on, and in fact accepting, Ibo culture does not necessitate you will be taken seriously as Ibo either, even if you aim to take on this identity; you could lack the ancestral background for the group to let you in. You would then have no referential point within the group to place your identity, which would result in disallowing you from participating (or being recognized as one who is participating) in the identity group’s pattern or model. You can see, then, how this is not a functioning identity. Even if you have intentionality and incorporate expectations, if you can not reference back to a group which establishes a pattern or model, you will not have a functioning identity.

At this point we have given an account of a functioning identity such that it requires three parts or qualities: intentionality, incorporation, and referentiality. Here we may now turn to the second part of this discussion; namely, how a functioning identity contributes to one’s individuality.


A conception of individuality

To understand how a functioning identity contributes or restricts one’s individuality, we must first establish a conception of individuality. Although I will not provide a complete account of individuality, I will attempt to provide an overview of individuality — largely taken from the Millean (as this is quite widespread) conception of individuality — with a focus on the aspects that are relevant to identity. I claim that the establishment of a life plan in combination with the qualities of volitionality, rationally calculating, and difference are requirements in exercising individuality.

Mill found what I take to be a truism: to be an individual is to carve out your own path. What this carving looks like will depend on, in large part, the tools one has at her disposal. For example, one born into wealth might have a different set of tools available than one born into a lower-class family; likewise, one who is born with certain talents have different tools (by way of those talents!) than others with different talents. Of course, things might differ with degrees of wealth, talent, and any other category that might serve as a qualifier on the set of tools one might have access to in creating and completing life plans or projects. One thing we can say for certain, however, is that the establishment of a life plan is necessary in exercising individuality.

However, merely establishing a life plan or projects is not enough; one must establish such things both volitionally and through rational calculation such that you actually established it and no one established it for you. That is, one can not merely listen to one’s parents or take the advice of an elder without deciding that it was the best thing to do for one’s particular life plan; that would not be exercising individuality, but something zombie-like. Yet, this does not mean traditions and advice can not be followed and heeded. On the contrary, it might be the case that taking the advice of a parent is the decision you want to make and have rationally calculated that this was the correct move in terms of your tools, projects, plan, and worldview.

However, even establishing a life plan through volition and rational calculation is not sufficient for exercising individuality. One must establish a life plan and carry it on in their own way; that is, achieve it with the principle of difference in mind. Why might this quality be important? If one were to establish a life plan or project that was similar to another’s (which is highly likely considering the amount of people that exist with the freedom to do such a thing), we would probably not want to call a person whose aim was volitional and rationally calculated, but merely a copy of another person’s project, a person who exercises individuality. In fact, we might be inclined to say the opposite. This was the great insight of Nietzsche and the Romantic self; one ought not copy nor be copied. Of course, Nietzsche also sought for a way in which a person could live unselfconsciously while maintaining a unique perspective — a combination that is muddled with inconsistencies and thus something that is not part of the picture I am endorsing. Yet, the point still holds: the person who decides, after due consideration, to become an academic, but does it in precisely or in nearly the same manner in which her mentor did, we would hardly consider her an example of exercising individuality. This might be for a number of reasons, but it certainly seems to be due to the fact that to call someone an individual presupposes that they are individuated, which requires being unique in some way other than your seperate body. This is a good intuition to follow, as accomplishing a goal in a different way instantiates a certain level of creativity that can be attributed uniquely to the person who accomplished differently. Thus it can be said that difference is an instantiation of a certain type of creativity that is important to exercising individuality.

With these three qualities — volitional, rationally calculating, and difference — in combination with the establishment of a life plan framing our conception of individuality, we can now begin to see how identity might contribute or restrict one’s individuality.

On whether identity contributes or restricts individuality

Here we can reach an answer regarding the way in which identities interact with a person’s individuality. As I stated at the beginning of this discussion, I will be forwarding a thesis that claims identities generally restrict one’s ability to exercise individuality. With the groundwork we have done establishing both a conception of a functioning identity and of individuality, we are now able to show why identity has this restrictive nature. I argue that when one takes on a functioning identity, it restricts one’s individuality in two ways: it necessitates communitarian dependency and prevents genuine self-reflection by way of forcing one’s references outside of oneself. Both of these ways require further explanation and thus we will consider each in greater depth. To clarify a basic point about the trend of my argument, it might be helpful to consider me as opposing the types of arguments found in Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka. I do not think mere sociability with collectives assists in discovering an individual self. This type of claim seems confused in my estimation, as social interactions do not operate by way of recognizing which collective a person belongs to; you say you are speaking to Michael, not a Spaniard or even Michael the Spaniard. Moreover, learning about collectives does not teach anything about the genealogy of the individual, merely how a group of people collaborate or take part in modeled systems. This, however, is not the focus of our aim, of which we will return to at present.

To begin, we need to better explain what we mean by communitarian dependency. In a word, there are serious trade-offs between individuality and communitarianism. When one takes on a functioning identity, as we have said, one takes on an intentional endeavor to become an example of certain properties of a certain kind of person and incorporates the corresponding social-behavioral expectations associated with that kind of person. This requires one to do away with at least the quality of difference (and creativity) we discussed in our conception of individuality.

Taking on expectations because the vast majority of the collective requires it of you, should you want to be taken seriously as the identity you want to take on, is definitionally a life of dependency; that is, to be that identity depends on, in some sense, you satisfying both the people who share that identity with you such that you are considered part of that collective, and those who do not share that identity such that they take you seriously and identify you as part of that collective. In this way, taking on an identity brings about dependency and requires you to become less of an individual, as expressed through the quality of difference, such that you are not seen as too far outside of the expectations of the identity you aim to take on. Thus, one who takes on an identity is dependent on the community (and their expectations) being satisfied, which ultimately restricts one’s ability to exercise one’s individuality.

The second way in which identity restricts individuality is more subtle. This second way is what I call the problem of self-reflection. That is, taking on a functioning identity requires a person to think of oneself as always located outside of oneself. In a word, if a functioning identity requires a group to reference to, as we have said, then to reflect upon oneself as an x is to reflect outwardly towards a collective. Now, one may ask, how does this affect one’s ability to exercise individuality? The answer is this: without an ability to reflect inwardly, one can not establish a life plan or continue down the path of a previously established life plan. If one finds oneself always outside of oneself, as an x, within a collective, one can not have a project beyond the scope of the collective. What would it even mean to continue a life project as an x? It would mean that the project or plan would have to be approached by way of the expectations of the given identity; that is, the personal life plan would have to be reshaped to fit the standards of the identity, not the standards of the unique you. Thus, in this way, we can say that identity restricts one’s ability to exercise one’s individuality.

We have now shown that a functioning identity restricts individuality in two ways: by expectations which restrict one’s ability to display the quality of difference, and through the problem of self-reflection, which restricts one’s ability to establish a life project. It is worth noting that this is not necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, identities serve many valuable and useful purposes in social life. However, taking on a functioning identity requires some serious trade-offs in exercising individuality.


In this discussion, after an account of a functioning identity and an overview of an account of individuality, I have argued that taking on a functioning identity restricts one’s ability to exercise one’s individuality. I did this through arguing a functioning identity requires three parts: intentionality, incorporation, and referentiality to a group. After discussing all three in detail, I presented a framework of an account of individuality. In this account I argued that the establishment of a life plan combined with the qualities of volitionality, rationally calculating, and difference were all required to exercise one’s individuality. At this point, I considered how a functioning identity and individuality interact, and whether a functioning identity contributes or restricts one’s ability to exercise one’s individuality and concluded that a functioning identity restricts individuality in two ways; namely by way of disallowing fully realizing the quality of difference and the problem of self-reflection, which disrupts the establishment of a life project. After considering both in detail, I reaffirmed my conclusion.

There is much more to discuss in an essay of this kind. There are particularly many facets of a full conception of individuality left not mentioned; e.g., how does the notion of authenticity play into all of this? Is it a good or bad thing that a functioning identity is restrictive upon individuality? If bad, should we avoid identities? Is this even possible? All of these questions are relevant and urgently require answers if one is to have a full understanding of identity, individuality, their interactions, and their ethical implications. However, these are sufficient for a separate discussion, of which I aim to contribute to at some later point.

Anthony DiMauro is a freelance writer in New York City. J.D. Candidate. NYU philosophy alum. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro