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March 6, 2020 / Congau

The Question of Identity

Who are you? Ask different people, and you’ll get different questions. Not only different answers, that’s obvious, but different questions. The meaning of what was asked is open to interpretation, and normally when that happens the person asking needs to clarify. In this case, however, any interpretation seems to be appropriate to the question since presumably only you can know who you are. Whatever you choose to reply with, whether it’s your name, nationality, sexual orientation or favorite dish, is equally acceptable. It’s up to you to form your own identity, they say. Or is it?

Any question must have a specific meaning, or else it is nothing, and the question of identity is no exception. Who are you? A policeman and a psychologist probably have different intentions when asking; they are looking for particular kinds of answers limited to a certain range, and if you don’t know what is intended, you must request a specification.

Who are you? What makes you the person you are? That’s what I want to know, and you are still not free to answer just anything. There is an objective answer to it; none of us knows it, although you are obviously much more likely to know yourself than I am to know you, but I’m still not going to accept anything for an answer.

Something necessarily has a deeper significance than other things for what is uniquely you. You share your nationality with millions of people, so that can’t be it. You have your gender in common with half of humankind, so that’s even less likely to be a candidate of significance. Still, those two items often figure on the top of the identity list when any answer is accepted. “I’m an American woman,” someone says. “I am a Frenchman, and that is me.” No, I think you are a lot more than that, so I can’t accept your answer. Therefore, I ask you again: Who are you?

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