One philosopher who I’ve never really understood is Judith Butler. I’ve only read two or three of her articles, and I got literally nothing from them. I’d pretty much dismissed her work as at least unintelligible, if not nonsense. I’m not the only one who has had this kind of experience of Butler: she was awarded 1st place in Philosophy and Literature magazine’s somewhat mean spirited but funny ‘bad writing contest’ in 1998. Recently I came across an article that purported to explain Judith Butler in more understandable language (read here). I have no idea whether this is an accurate representation of Butler or not, but I found that which the writer interpreted as Butler’s central claim quite interesting. She said (that Butler said) that A) sex does not exist outside of gender, and B) that gender is something done. This is a notion that I am quite sympathetic to – it actually seems like it would be rather difficult for me to reject given what I have previously said about epistemology. Our identity is as much something we constitute within experience as anything else. I do have the minor caveat that I probably attribute less of how we constitute reality to society then Butler does, but overall I think we stand on similar epistemic grounds on the matter. The dichotomy of male/female is something to which we subscribe (by some combination of genetic inclination and social teaching), and, at least when it comes to our own identity, it seems like it can have little reality beyond the way in which it effects our actions.
This got me thinking about identity in general. I would say (in a very Aristotelian fashion) that you are what you do. If I say that someone is a doctor, I mean that she doctor’s people – if I say that someone is a good person, I am referring to a general trend in their behaviors. The reality of these labels are not as simple as we sometimes treat them though. One interesting aspect I think is how it seems to quite naturally follow from this that we are different people in different environments. I act (and feel) substantially different when I’m working at my retail job and when I’m writing my blog posts, for example.
One of my friend’s once made an interesting observation: it is important to have an identity within a friend group. A mutual friend of ours had recently been extremely depressed because she felt that she didn’t have any kind of identity within the group – that she had no skill or expertise that she could claim as her own. We are, I think, quite driven to find uniqueness in ourselves – we seek identity markers to set ourselves apart (though we also seek other markers to bond over as groups).
So, just some thoughts on identity. Let me know what you think,