Saturday, January 3, 2009

Identity: Who are you? What do you want?

As my theophilosophy has progressed, it has not pretended to be comprehensive. While comprehensiveness is a goal of mine here, it will clearly remain an unreachable goal. However, one of the critical nexuses for the network I am constructing has yet to even be hinted at. Who are these creatures that hold values? What does it mean to say "I am"?

One of the disastrous problems for much of existentialism and postmodern philosophy/theology is that it centers the foundation upon the individual. As though reaching back toward Descartes, it is often assumed that the individual, at least, can be assumed and be taken as common and obvious truth. The individual is sacrosanct.

However, what is the individual? Do individuals have essences that are distinct and self-foundational? Is there such a thing as an independent individual? Process Philosophy (as well as a lot of New Age philosophy) has pressed the importance of our relationships for who we are as individuals. Ask yourself who you are, and you will find yourself describing yourself in relationships (a son, a friend, a philosopher, etc.) It is difficult to find a firm foundation for the "I" as individual. Individualism is primarily a product of the Enlightenment and the birth of capitalism - before the notion of the free market, the notion of just self-interest made little sense. There was no such thing as self-interest, no such thing as a foundational end for any particular individual apart from relationship. Those very relationships destabilize any self-foundation. After all, our relationships are always changing, always in flux. We are never the same.

Of course, prior to the Enlightenment, philosophers had attempted to give a derivative notion to the self based off of other foundational concepts. Perhaps the most famous is Aristotle's attempt to derive the nature of the individual from the nature of humankind as a whole. One of the severe problems with Aristotle's biology is that it assumed a given teleology, a given end, a given goal for humans as a species. To Aristotle, humans had a nature that was a distinct part of their biological essence which, if unimpeded, would lead them in the direction of the good. What it meant to be an individual was to be a part of the human species as it sought its biological end. That foundational teleology would be the source of the soul, the source of the individual.

Despite a recent disinterring of Aristotle's ethics, Aristotle's ethics and biology were rightly rejected. Most of the reasons for this have already been implicitly laid out in prior posts. While we may reach for a unitary whole, a unitary value, as humans we are a pluralistic jumble of contradictory values. Our values do not pull us toward one singular end. Our values change all the time. While tragedy and hope might be rightly described as being part of the human condition, they do not make a unitary whole. After all, our tragedies and hopes are nothing if they hold nothing - my hope matters because I hope about certain ends, that I hope about an actualization and my tragedy matters because my values remain unfulfilled (or broken). Just as we cannot find foundational meaning for the individual in individuality itself, we cannot derive meaning for the individual from a concept like humankind.

Which, of course, brings us back to the original question - who am I? Perhaps, after recognizing the insight of process philosophy, we should first rephrase the question - who do I become? We are nothing apart from the locality we exist in, after all, since we are (at least in part) relationships. The localities we exist in, that we are part of, are defined by change. We stand on shifting sands, looking out into blinding dust storms. Following such - who do I become - is also, in part - where am I (or where do I go?) - and - when am I (or when do I become?).

Proceeding from the insights about localities and potential from previous posts, it has become clear that our location is inseparable from the potential we envision. The teleology we have, the potential we see, the values we have, are all part of where and when we are/become. Because of this, it is impossible to ask our previous questions without asking - what do I want? For what we desire and value has been presented as our unstable foundation, and while it might be unstable, it has become clear that we simply cannot exist apart from our values. Contra Aristotle, our values, our teleology might have no foundation, might be completely unstable, but ultimately it is all we have. We live upon ethics.

Of course, asking all these questions brings us to an important precipice. If the questions "Who are you?" and "What do you want" are inseparable, the portrait we must paint of identity must be broader than any flat painting. I am reminded of a contrast in the science fiction show "Babylon 5." Through out the show, two powerful, godlike alien species ask their defining questions to different characters in the show. The Vorlons, the paragons of order ask "Who are you?" The Shadows, the agents of chaos ask "What do you want?" The questions are designed to reveal the essence of each character, to help the viewer discover what the identity, the role of each character is on the show. The show clearly favors the question "who are you?" as the defining question of identity and value, and echoes traditional sentiments from the Enlightenment, through Existentialism to Postmodernism (and beyond). Western history can be seen as the eternal return, the eternal acting/asking of the question "who are you?" If there is any truth in what has been presented up to this point, however, that question has been needlessly shallow. Living behind the Vorlon in each of us is a Shadow - "what do you want?" Living behind our identity is a ghost. Vorlons and Shadows reveals themselves to be two sides of the same coin. A coin with no substance.

Babylon 5 ends with a character (Lorien) asking Sheridan four questions. Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going? If we are to find any value in individuality, we will find it here, in pluralistic/unitary/inseperable questions like these. The questions are not rhetorical, and yet they have no answer. We are ghosts living with ghostly values. Whatever we are, we are haunted. Let us live in that haunting.

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