Skip to main content

Tackling the Identity Question

Everyone’s got one, but what does it really mean to have an identity? Is identity something we choose or something we possess naturally? The answer is more complex than you might think.

Am I in the right major? Should I marry that person? Am I qualified to get that job? Should I drop everything and move to Mexico? Questions like these might keep us up at night or nag at us when our minds wander. Underlying these types of questions is perhaps the key question of human existence: who am I?


It’s a question that almost seems too big for us to answer. Philosophers, however, love this kind of question; what might provoke existential anxiety in us is their bread and butter. They'll take any chance they can to dive into the thorny nuances of human identity and self.  

For Dr. Justin White, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, it's an especially intriguing topic, and he’s taken it as a challenge to find an answer to the timeless question. He discussed three concepts of identity during his January 13, 2022, Humanities Center Colloquium—the reflective view of identity, the phenomenological view of identity, and a third which combined and expanded upon the previous two.

The Reflective View of Identity. On one side of the debate is the notion of reflective practical identity. As Dr. White explained, under this view, “identity is self-oriented and depends on how one sees and values oneself.” How we see ourselves is the primary factor in shaping our identity under the reflective view. For example, if you consider yourself a carpenter, regardless of whether you have carpentry skills that you regularly use, you are a carpenter.

The Phenomenological View of Identity. On the other side, Dr. White explained that “phenomenological practical identity depends less on how you see yourself and more on how the world appears to you.” For example, if the world appears to you as it would to a carpenter—if you see a pile of wood planks and nails as a potential cabinet—then you are a carpenter.

So Which View? Which view takes priority in determining what sort of person you are, how you see yourself, or how you see the world? Dr. White argued that these two notions of practical identity are not opposed but complementary; you are at the same time the person you consider yourself to be and a product of how the world appears to you. But even combined, these two notions leave us with an incomplete idea of identity.

A Solution: Residual Practical Identities. Dr. White proposed a concept filling the gap left by the two above concepts of identity: residual practical identities: “Sometimes we change how we think about ourselves in hopes of changing our actions. But change is hard. And even when we try to change, we might find ourselves still seeing the world in light of an identity we are trying to leave behind.”

To illustrate this, Dr. White drew on an example we might see in ourselves: the pathological apologizer. He posed a situation for the audience to consider: Have you ever found yourself apologizing for something you didn’t need to apologize for? Say you had this tendency, and you promised to yourself that you would stop saying sorry when you didn’t need to. Yet from time to time, you still found yourself needlessly apologizing. What would that mean about your identity?

Dr. White explains that you can have a sincere desire to change a behavior, but residual traits cause you to continue to slip up in your resolution. That doesn’t mean you are back to square one. Residual traits do not entirely define who we are because we are always changing. 

Here’s another example which might put things in perspective: You set a New Year’s resolution to stop eating junk food, but find yourself snacking on a bag of chips a week into the year. Have you reassumed your old identity as a junk food fanatic? Under a Residual Practical Identities perspective, all is not lost—a single indulgence might simply be the result of a residual practical identity. As long as you consciously and reflectively adopt an identity as a clean eater, small lapses in your dedication to change do not entirely determine your identity. However, this does not exonerate bad-faith backsliders: if you lie to others and to yourself about becoming a clean eater while sneaking snacks on the sly, you remain a junk food junkie because you are not genuinely seeking to change. 

So who are we? The answer was always going to be complex, and these are just three of a number of dimensions of identity, but as Dr. White explained, we have control over our identity. We don’t need to let our identity be defined by past mistakes; as long as we are consciously and earnestly striving, we can become a better version of ourselves.