You are what you do

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,


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10 thoughts on “You are what you do

  1. I think identity depends on what we know. Memory and knowledge are what make up our identity. For example I know we are different because you know about Judith Butler and I don’t, but now that you have introduced her to me that means we might eventually have something in common with each other. I think that that piece of knowledge brings us potentially closer than, for example, both being authors of blogs.

    • So you would say that identity is knowledge as opposed to activity? I’d say the fact that we both blog says a great deal more about who we are (and how we might be similar) then the fact that we both share knowledge of Butler.

      • Imagine two people meet for the first time at a party and make small talk. It comes up that both of them are bloggers, but one is a Tea Party Christian whilst the other is a Marxist. Neither seem to have anything in common and the act of blogging is not enough to stimulate conversation. However, it turns out that both have read the complete works of Plato, or grew up watching Bugs Bunny. the common knowledge acquired from either of the latter experiences is more binding than the fact that they carry out the same activity. The work place, for example, can be a very alienating place if you can’t find people who share fields of knowledge with you. Of course if your work is very stimulating and the workers all love their job they will have the shared knowledge of that work but talking shop will only go so far. Then it depends on finding other shared interests that come out of what you know or can learn from each other. So, I stick by my point, I think it’s what we know which colours our identity and even determines our real culture.

      • I can see where you’re coming from. If I understand correctly, you’re saying that its what we’ve done that gives us an identity. I think that’s a fair point, and it is a very different way of looking at identity then mine. I’m pretty much discounting memory as an aspect of identity in favour of a much more flowing account. My account is more about the general labels that we put upon ourselves and exploring where these labels arise from (i.e. our activities). I would also say I favour a less consistent idea of identity – my account has us putting on a lot more hats then yours does.

      • No, not what we’v done, what we “know”, which is different. What we know gives us an amazing array of hats: I know Beethoven, Beatles, Shakespeare, Kundera, Japan, my family, how to play guitar, etc.. I don’t know Butler, Dan Brown, Lady Gaga, your family, or anything about you other than that you’ve written a blog. It’s through the array of what we know and don’t know that we identify ourselves and are identified and classified by others. Nevertheless, we are also given meaningless labels according to what we “are” – nationality, religion, race, language, class, ideology – and what we “do” – job, hobby, mistakes, achievements – but what is really important and should be defining is what we know and don’t know, yet it is not normally ever seriously put into the equation of identity. If we judged people by what they know rather than by what they are or do, we would find a lot more common points of interests and ways of communication than if we simply label them according to what they are and do.

      • I stand corrected about your position. I have a clarifying question: are all memories ‘things known’? Would you characterize identity as a list objects in the world (music, people, art, books, etc), or as a collection of memories (which would encapsulate where you’ve been and what you’ve done under the umbrella of things known)?

      • I would say both. Experiences turn into knowledge, or are forgotten. Those that are not forgotten become part of ourselves and our identity. In this way what we know embraces what we do, but also sifts through our experience relegating what we don’t like or is irrelevant about ourselves to the limbo of the forgotten. Of course this raises new questions concerning memory disorders and reasons why we forget: how does identity work in pathological criminals, or people with bipolar disorders, or amnesia victims? But I think the positive side of this point of view is that it tells us that if we want to get to know someone we must find out what they “know”. Which may sound like common sense but, more often than not, people take very little interest in discovering what others know, preferring to judge people superficially. That is why I’m adding my own pinch of salt so passionately to the ideas in your blog. But my apologies for being so insistent and verbose.

      • I find myself rather perplexed, because I entirely disagree about the importance of knowledge for identity. If two people ‘knew’ very different things but behaved in similar ways (they act friendly, they both snowboard, have a similar attitude, etc), I would say they are much more similar then two people who know similar things but act very differently. I think that if someone suffers amnesia but retains much the same demeanor then they are to me much the same person as they were before, while if they somehow suffered brain damage that changed their behavior but left their memories intact I would say that is a much more drastic change in identity.

      • Yes, yours is the normal perception of identity and social relationships normally work that way. However, it creates more superficial relationships than knowledge would. Just by making the switch from “what do you do?”to “what do you know?” would make social relationship and society itself deeper. But such a shift would be resisted by a consumer society which needs us to be what we do, buy, carry and wear.

  2. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a great deal about the notion that all you are is what you do. He calls what we are our ‘facticity’ and says that at times we try to transcend our facticity by telling ourselves that we are something other than our actions, in what he calls ‘bad faith’. We tell ourselves that we are better than how we act, such as, for example, treating a sibling unkindly, but maintaining that in spite of this I am a good brother. Sartre posits that the look of the other, that is, knowing that other people witness our actions because our actions are in the world, acts as a damper on our bad faith, and as a result, we despise the look of the other for telling us who we really are. Nevertheless, we need the look of the other in order to know for sure who we really are, because for Sartre, the eyes of the other see only our actions, and as we are nothing more than our actions, the other knows us as we really are. This ties in with what you noted was the social aspect of identity.

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