Ships, Persons, and Hegelian Selves
What is it for something to be itself? How do we know that something is the same thing when it changes little or changes much? How do we know we are the same person from moment to moment and decade to decade? These bizarre and seemingly pointless questions keep philosophers up at night, but lay people are at first surprised when faced with such questions. After all, isn’t it obvious to everyone?
Following some of the greats, perhaps a question on the origin of the very question is in order. What makes a person doubt that something is identical to the point of worrying about it? It is most often because a discrepancy occurs in cognition between what is expected and what is encountered. Perhaps we don’t trust that smooth talking pawn shop owner who is trying to sell us a supposed original sketch by Picasso. Perhaps one day we are all of a sudden caught off guard and ponder ‘Who or what am I?’ In the first question what is sought is a correspondence of an object and our conception or representation of it — in the case of Picasso, of a supposed expert’s conception of it. In the second, however, what is sought is often the very conception of the object. When one doubts their own identity one ends up walking into a metaphysical maze about qualities and essences, memories and souls, and the very question of what it is to be a self. What is it that endures in me? These problems are odd, yet it is no easy task to point out just what is odd about them when it is detailed in the usual way.
The problems of identity appear in various forms, but here I shall focus on two famous forms: the ship of Theseus, and the problem of personal identity. Hegel, I think, offers an interesting set of concepts with which to reformulate the issue and dissolve some of the most troublesome conceptual knots. The issue of identity, as I shall treat it here, shall meld strongly into the issue of the self as subject and substance and I shall mostly deal with it along these related concepts. I shall lay out the issues in their general form, and afterward I shall show how Hegel’s concept of the self can and must dissolve the issues of the ship of Theseus, and how the issues of personal identity are transformed in it.
The Problems of Identity
In very simple terms by identity we often mean some enduring unifying principle which serves as a telling mark that an object is the same through change. Were things unchanging and unalterable, we would have no question of recognizing identity, but alas the natural world denies us this ease of satisfaction. Depending on the object being inquired about, if identity is taken as externally posited by us upon it, the unifying principle may differ based on the complexity of the object’s total constitution as a unity. Certain objects have multiple determinations of unity which can at one moment or another be privileged as the connecting link and mark of the bearer of identity.
The problem of identity is seemingly about the criterion of identity. What is the definitive enduring principle of unity, the essential determination, that ultimately marks an object as the same over time, space, and bodily transformations? In determining the enduring principle, however, we are necessarily led to the question of the self of things, or the very question of what things truly are. If the question of identity were independent of the self of things, then we should throw the issue in the dustbin of history and admit to a simply arbitrary notion for utilitarian ends. If the question of identity was simply about an empty tautology of A=A such that whatever exists is itself necessarily, that’s of little interest on the face of it. Likewise, the real interest in the question is nothing so superficial as the mere conception that identities are merely relative differences. The question as it is posed already shows its concreteness, for it is about how things are identical through difference not against other things, but in relation to themselves.
What, then, is the ultimate principle of identity? We shall see it makes a big difference if we ask this question about a a lifeless object or living subject.
The Ship of Theseus
“The Ship of Theseus” is an example given as an introduction to the problem of identity in philosophy 101 classes. If the ship of Theseus is crafted and over time every piece is replaced eventually no original physical piece of the ship of Theseus remains. Can we say, then, that this ship is still the ship of Theseus, or can we not? This example forces one to question the body identity theory at the very least, but it is quite different to the personal identity question, for in the case of the ship the object in question is itself an arbitrary artificial being. The ship is not a ship of its own account, but rather through our own external work on its materials, i.e. we relate to it as an artifact which originates as a concept in our minds and which is realized through an activity of crafting.
The problem of reduction to material or formal identity
The ship of Theseus has an identity at first through its historical becoming in connection to Theseus and its stable material form. As it moves across time and space it remains unified as an entity, carrying the marks of its slow wear and tear on its material body. It is what it is as the historical body that it is, and it is not difficult to identify it. Now, to the first issue: What happens when this body’s material substance — its individual parts — is changed over time such that none of the original material remains while the form remains the same? Is it still the same ship?
I think we would under normal conditions be inclined to unreflectively affirm that it is the same ship despite the complete material alteration. The reason we wish to affirm it is the same ship is because of the direct historical and material relation around a definite locus of identity (the body), i.e. we have some direct historical record that gives us a way to link the object in our minds. There is no definite measure we seem to have as to how much of an original body is necessary to count as the material locus of identity which can grant to new parts its own formal identity; it is a completely arbitrary metric. This new material, as extension of the original, in due time is treated as if it were but a naturally generated growth replacement from the original itself.
Now, what if we change the problem around a bit: Suppose we maintained the material substance of the ship of Theseus, but Theseus decides to change the form of the ship slowly over time up to such an extent that after a certain point no formal structure of the ship remains the same except that it still functions as a ship? Is it still the same ship? Here again we are faced with a similar position in which with slow changes over time we are inclined to grant that it is indeed the same ship despite its unrecognizable form. Once again we see that temporal rate of change is important for arbitrary reasons. It only remains the same ship if it changes bit by bit, but not if it changes all at once, and if we don’t personally witness this small change and encounter the difference we only accept it on trust of those who were there to see the change. The material and form may change, and yet we consider these the same ship.
In the end it is neither form nor material alone which are intuitively what we grasp as the unifying principle, but it is rather the historical process that links the original to its changes. This link exists by virtue of an external determiner that works with the original form and modifies it just enough such that the identifying mark of the original is considered to be extended to the modifications of the matter and form. Each iteration of change is not big enough at once to create the shock which overbears on the privileged power of the original identity to extend itself into the new and assimilate it, and just as with the material identity we are left to wonder what justifies the assumption that the identity is extended into replacements or modifications.
Inanimate contingent objects have no identity for themselves, and the only identity they have for us is an arbitrary criterion we project onto them: a mark, a memory, or a history of claims linking it. We see the truth in the attempts to appraise genuine objects made by or belonging to so and so. These are ultimately what we think they are only insofar as we convince ourselves that they are so. Someone comes forth claiming to have an unknown painting by Picasso, and what do the appraisers do? They check records, registries, inspect the object and attempt to determine its physical characteristics: is it the kind of canvas he used, the paint, does it have his signature, does it have his style. After much hubbub some say it’s most likely genuine and some are ambivalent. In the end the whole issue is only for our own self-assured satisfaction.
When we shift away from artifacts or mere contingent objects which have identities only through and for us, we shift to a new ontological realm — the realm of life.
With a living body we are not left to question whether the body really is a unity and what unifies it — the living body itself enacts and shows its own unity against any skepticism we may have. The organism actively relates itself to itself as an act of self-identity as a whole through parts and thus affirms its individual and species unity. With the changes of the body in material and form over time we have (usually) no question as to whether it is the same being or not. With organisms we have no problem accepting it is an identical being that is different, for with the biological we have concepts which require it to remain identical in difference: growth, maturation, aging, et cetera. This identity, however, fails to be ascertained in any one moment or part of the living being and is only grasped in the link of the generating process. The fetus that becomes a baby that becomes an adult person is one and the same not because we deem it so, but because as an organism it has posited itself so.
The locus of identity remains problematic, however, if we misunderstand what the unifying principle is. When the unifying principle is considered static and in the form of a mere marker — such as a genome code — problems arise. The genome as such is not the identity of the entire being. The body and its various parts and functions cannot be reduced to mere genes. If this was so it would be like an investigator claiming they have caught the criminal and presenting the culprit in court as a vile of DNA. Genes are but one part that is privileged as marker merely because it is more generally pervasive and enduring than other parts of the biological being, however, our own DNA does not exhaust our own biological existence. With DNA all that can be ascertained is merely A=A, the abstract comparative identity for us of two objects marked by it. Mere DNA cannot even point to the type of cell it comes from, and with the possibility of cloning the uniqueness of a sequence of genes no longer identifies our concrete individuality. Further, not everything that constitutes a complex living being is immanently produced. More and more people are becoming aware that our own bodies are an ecosystem of bacteria and micro organisms without which we cannot live — most known these days are the gut bacteria which are vital to our health. Symbiotic relations allow for a relation of different beings which constitute each other in some way.
One does not need to go into the vicissitudes of biological minutia, however, to grasp that DNA cannot suffice as identity. The animal, as active, is not reducible in any way to mere genetic material. The living being is not unified merely in being a genetically informed entity, but as an active one. It must feed, it must move, it must breath, it must maintain homeostasis, it must survive. Death is the dissolution of the most important identity of the living being: the unity of self-maintaining activity. With the organism the concept of identity is opened to shifting from static to dynamic if one acknowledges the process of life, for in this process a multiplicity of differences is explicitly united as one identical being.
The identity of a person is most complex. As a living being, it overcomes problems of the ship of Theseus, but it has its own new problems: a person is a conscious being with memory and a conception of itself as well as a conception which others have of them. With memory and thought the subject itself does the work of linking itself to itself over time and space in an explicit concept. With body and memory a person identifies themselves to themselves, yet there are problems with ascertaining an unquestionable marker of identity even with such capacities.
The individual’s subjective evaluation of themselves suffers from a private arbitrary privileging of one determination of themselves above all others. Issues of personal identity have to do not only with subjective whim, but they come under public scrutiny as well. Whether it be a particular lifestyle, a belief, a physical capacity, a mental capacity, et cetera, a person may be privately and publicly identified with certain dominant determinations. Who and what a person is is a jumbled mess of both internal/private and external/public determinations, and because of this discrepancy incoherent notions arise concerning a person’s ‘real’ identity. Can one have a true identity which is hidden under masks like many believe, or is it the case that in truth there are nothing but masks? Could it be that the masks are themselves the truth? Are all of these masks consciously recognized?
One may, for example, strongly identify one’s essential marker with engaging certain lifestyles, of having a certain sexual preference, of having a certain gender, of having a certain hobby, skill, et cetera. Over time and space, however, the identification with these determinations may change, and yet one can recognize oneself as the same person enduring over time despite having changed what may once have seemed an essential determination of who one is. “I wouldn’t consider myself the same person if I lacked x” is a not too uncommon utterance. However, one is also capable of conceiving a fundamental discontinuity with a prior identity and though it is rare there are some that would claim a complete disconnect with a past identity and consider themselves a completely different person. Further, there is an extremely small minority who would deny identity with anything physically or mentally experiential. We see this with some mystics and other spiritual individuals. We see in the range of human experience a panoply of criteria of identity to answer the question “Who or what am I?”
It should jump out that on an empirical individual level we have not just arbitrary notions of what makes us who we are, but that who we are is not simply a private determination. There is a lot that goes into making up our identity which is, even if denied in our private conception of ourselves, nonetheless part of us as a public marker. Even when we don’t care about our physical aspects or our unconscious gestures — aspects we may consider inessential to our self — these are part of our public identity. Our own private conception may be matched by public conception, and yet there can be a radical disconnect between what we recognize about ourselves and what others recognize about us as definitive of who we are. A whole wide range of real and hypothetical scenarios can be put forward, realistic or not, which can show this.
Nothing shows us the limits of our private identification more than when public identification denies our self-conception. The government is one of the easiest to make this example with: who you are as an identity is often tied to a giant pile of legal records which function to be the public connection of a few determinations: your signature, your ID photo, your fingerprints, and perhaps your DNA. Without the chain of records, even personal acquaintance with whoever is working your case is not enough to get you through without the papers that certify your identity. Another example is gender. One may identify with a gender which in public mind is connected to the other sex, and regardless of one’s subjective identification the public identification may remain unchanged to one’s dismay. One may consider their skin color of no importance to one’s essential self, and yet the public identification can completely deny this and impose such an identity as the overbearing determination. One may also consider one specific determination as the essential identity which can maintain us in accordance to our conception of self while all else can change, yet the public may see all the other changes and consider one a significantly different person against one’s protest. Ultimately, who we are is not entirely up to us, public perception is important.
Now, what of memory? Are we the same person if we suddenly forget everything? Are we the same person if we remember everything, but are in a different body? Perhaps I don’t think I am much different in a robotic body than in a flesh one, but does my family agree? What if my memory changes radically yet I maintain the same body? The idea of the doppelganger, an impostor that materially is identical yet is different is nothing new. Though rare, people sometimes have the impression that people they know are somehow not the same person regardless of how physically similar they seem. Body and memory themselves alone are not enough to certify a person’s identity to the closest around them. Though we are rarely aware, we are to others an ensemble of many determinations which are more telling of us than we recognize. Too radical a change even in just one determination often causes suspicions of derangement or some kind of tampering such as so called ‘brain washing’. Historical memory in the public sphere is not something we can just let go of either, and for good or ill public history sometimes dies hard and people refuse to stop associating and treating us according to that past regardless of who we are in the present.
In the Hegelian conception a self is something which precisely maintains itself by being different to itself through itself. Identity as such finds itself in an immanent relationship with its opposite, difference, and neither identity nor difference can be themselves without incorporating each other. Given this, however, Hegelian selves can find themselves to not be what we may immediately think they are. The self that is the body and the self that is the mental and conceptual individual person are not necessarily one and the same, for each can have their own unifying process which may be indifferent if not opposed in certain cases.
The Hegelian Self
Concepts are for Hegel structures of developmental unities, and to be a self necessitates the form of such a unity. Let us see what Hegel says of the self as subject (Hegel uses the terms interchangeably in many places) in the brilliant and famous Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit.
“Reason is purposive activity. . . . Purpose is what is immediate and at rest, the unmoved which is also self-moving, and as such is Subject. Its power to move, taken abstractly, is being-for-self or pure negativity. The result is the same as the beginning, only because the beginning is the purpose ; in other words, the actual is the same as its Notion only because the immediate, as purpose, contains the self or pure actuality within itself. The realized purpose, or the existent actuality, is movement and unfolded becoming; but it is just this unrest that is the self; and the self is like that immediacy and simplicity of the beginning because it is the result, that which has returned into itself, the latter being similarly just the self. And the self is the sameness and simplicity that relates itself to itself.”— §22, Miller trns.
“What is posited is not a being [i.e. something that merely is] , or essence, or a universal in general, but rather something that is reﬂected into itself, a Subject.”— §23
It is undoubtedly one of the most — if not the most — famous of Hegel’s claims that “Substance is subject.” One must take the meaning of both terms here in a manner not much different, yet not identical, to their common meaning. If one has heard the general idea of the so called ‘subject-object dichotomy’, substance is often identified with enduring inert objects which are acted upon, and subjects are often tied with activity upon objects. The self is pure negativity in that it is the self-moving power of substance, and this power is immanent in substance from the very beginning in the mere being of substance. For a thing to reflect into itself, i.e. to have inner substantiality as content, is to have the structure of interiority. However, for Hegel this mere structure is not good enough. A subject proves itself as subject by positing for itself this inner reflection, and this requires the subject to be a movement or activity which can generate this reflection.
It must not be mistaken — and this is important — that selves are only existent as conscious beings. For Hegel, to be is to be a self — conscious or not. If Fichte could claim:
“What does not exist for itself is not a self.” — Science of Knowledge, I. 97, Heath & Lachs trns.
Hegel’s response was to finish the statement with its speculative opposite: What is not a self does not exist for itself, i.e. what is not a subject cannot be a substance.
It is the self which is the subject of a substance forming process. It is subject not as that which is appended predicates as one appends an ornament on a tree, but as that which engages process and thus acts to produce its own substantive being as its many predicates. The substantiality is the totality of a concept in its full self-development, for only the whole endures unchanged in the progression of moments which are its parts, and as this enduring unity it is its self-identity. In this conception nothing the likes of a ship or any other arbitrary object is worthy of the question of concrete self-hood or identity.
To tie back to the theme of identity, Hegel has this to say:
“The subsistence or substance of anything that exists is its self-identity; for a failure of self-identity would be its dissolution. Self-identity, however, is pure abstraction; but this is thinking.” — Phenomenology of Spirit, §54
Self-identity also understood as self-related unity is substance. The structure of self-relatedness is abstraction, i.e. the structure of self-enclosing partedness within a whole. That which comes into unity with itself is like a line which has come full circle and connected to itself and created a boundary determining something against an other. This limiting line is the negativity of things. This process of abstraction generates a necessary differentiation, an otherness, in any substantive subject. In an indeterminate absolute the first self is the self that negates the other and thus maintains itself through holding this other outside itself, and as such an identity is generated by the split of this difference as a distinct otherness. It is in and through this necessary difference that we find that all identity statements have real content through inner difference. To identify A with itself in mere abstraction is meaningless and empty, it as if to answer the question, “Who are you?” with, “I am I.” When we identify ourselves to others we do not simply respond with an abstract tautology, we provide differences of and within ourselves: our unique physicality, our distinct voice, and our mannerisms. Beyond that we provide a history, a set of descriptions of what we are or what we do, what we are interested in, et cetera. We give content to who we are by showing differences.
“For Spirit is the knowledge of oneself in the externalization of oneself; the being that is the movement of retaining its self-identity in its otherness. This, however, is Substance, in so far as Substance is, in its accidents, at the same time reﬂected into itself, not indiﬀerent to them as to something unessential or present in them as in an alien element, but in them it is within itself, i.e. in so far as it is Subject or Self.” — §759
Here is the truly unique self of Hegelianism, this is the dynamic conception of the principle of unity which brings together an identity on its own account. The self as process necessarily is a self-differentiating developmental unity, thus it produces itself as an otherness which is different from it and yet through which its own identity is attained. Things are, and in merely being themselves they are other to themselves. Wholes in themselves turn into parts and parts in themselves turn into wholes, form turns into content and content turns into form, and in the completion of their being they are an identity generated and maintained through differences.
For that which is a conscious self, the only way to come to awareness of itself is to objectify itself, to behold itself as other to itself while being fully aware that it is its own innerness before it. This is, it must be made clear, no mere subjective conception. To be self-conscious is not a mere concept of myself in my mind, it is not simply about me as an individual, but is in the Hegelian conception an objectification of myself as a real existent relation to my kind of being. Self-consciousness beholds itself only when it faces something that is truly like itself, and only in this manner is it individual and gains an identity on the ontological level of consciousness itself. To know what and who I am I cannot simply look at myself, but I must look at someone else, for only in someone else can I become aware of two of the most important aspects of my self-hood: what I am and the social nature of my self. For Hegel we only know ourselves when we interact with others and find out who we really are through how we appear to them. Regardless of how detached we think we are, we cannot behold ourselves objectively like we behold our image in a mirror, for the mirror of the self is not a material thing, it is a concept in another mind. Our identity as person is only really determined when we encounter ourselves through other persons, our identity as such is only determined in contact with other identities which are different to us.
The question of the identity of things is ultimately not whether they are the same today as they were last Tuesday — whether atoms or cells have changed a little or a lot. The question of things being identical is not that their matter or their shape is the same, rather, it is whether things are the very process which is embodied in these changes. A process is in its becoming and not in being dead parts.
The Process of Personal Identity
The identity of personality is of a complex nature far beyond any mere reduction to a single or even few determinations. As already stated before, identity is through difference. Hegel says:
“We do not indeed say of our feelings, impulses, interests, that they serve us; on the contrary, they count as independent forces and powers, so that to have this particular feeling, to desire and to will this particular thing, to make this our interest — just this, is what we are.” — Science of Logic, §21.14
Indeed, we experience our most intimate aspects of identity and natural self as a distinct otherness and difference to us. This is the case not just with mere feeling, but our ways of thinking — our concepts — are likewise experienced as this constitutive otherness. I am what I experience myself to be and yet I am always capable of stepping back and being different. I am my body and yet my body’s being can on reflection seem to be alien, to simply happen without my willing. I am identified by these aspects of myself, and yet I am not any of them entirely though without them I would not be the individual person I am.
In the common conception identity and self are understood as static and unchanging. They are principles of unity chosen for their seeming endurance against so called accidents or secondary properties which can change without changing the essential identity, however, Hegel exceeds anything the common understanding can even conceive. The self is itself through change and difference, for this difference is its real content. To be myself is to other myself in various ways, and thus I am always different to myself in many ways. In the most abstract sense I am the “I”, the universal container of my determinations, but in my most concrete sense I am the totality of these determinations which are only on the face of it something different and other to this universality.
I am othered and sundered in my very internal self-consciousness, where I objectify myself as an abstraction of myself. I am othered in my conception and practical being, where who and what I want to be is different to who or what I am. I am even more fundamentally split with my very material and social constitution: who and what I am is due in much part to an external world of nature, and even more due to a world of other social beings — my identity comes to me through difference from these. Who I am and finally comprehend myself to be is only objectively possible if I take into account my relations to others and how they perceive me. It does not matter that I think I am different if in fact I am not, and it does not matter what I intend to be if in fact what I am to others does not accord with my intentions or the concept of what I wish to embody. I may want to be a certain kind of person, such as a doctor, but if the response others give me is that I am doing nothing to help at best and harming them at worst, then I must adjust myself to actualize what I want to be or accept that I am not what I think I am. Even further, I must properly conceive what ‘doctoring’ is in truth rather than merely what society tells me or what I subjectively believe, thus the dimension of objective truths comes into my own determination.
My identity as person is through a world of differences I inhabit in the socially private, public, and material sphere. As individual I do not have the privilege of making the final judgment of who and what I am, nor does the public have such a privilege. I am a private person, a public person, a body, a mind, a temper, and a will, yet I am reducible to none at the same moment that I am concretely real only through all of them. I could not be anyone without a body, without a social world, without a worldview, without my peculiarities of emotion, and without my capacities of free rationality. To be different in myself as well as to others is the way I can be an individual identity. As a personality I am individualized through my many ways of appearing no matter how indifferent and irrelevant to each other these aspects seem, and with each new contact with others and the world I am engaged in a process of further individualization and concretization. When we engage new qualitative experiences, true differences, we are forced to engage a process of coming to know and determine ourselves anew by how we deal with such. Sometimes one moment can redetermine everything, and sometimes it is merely a further refinement on an established basis.
To be a person, to be a self, and to be identical is to be a process of being unified through difference and otherness.