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Against identity: 1
1  Introduction

What I mean to criticize here is a cluster of ways of talking about human beings that have existed for a long time, but have typically made use of the word "identity" since that usage was popularized in the 1950s by a psychologist who called himself Erik Erikson and who I think was a crackpot.  That word has legitimate uses, but as the pernicious pseudoconcept I am concerned with here, it is often expanded as "who you are".  Other expressions that have been used instead of or in association with it are "essence", "self", "core", and "heart".  Of these, "essence" is the oldest.  Bertrand Russell (A History of Western Philosophy, Ch. XXII) says:

...The notion of essence is an intimate part of every philosophy subsequent to Aristotle, until we come to modern times.  It is, in my opinion, a hopelessly muddle-headed notion, but its historical importance requires us to say something about it.

The "essence" of a thing appears to have meant "those of its properties which it cannot change without losing its identity."  Socrates may be sometimes happy, sometimes sad; sometimes well, sometimes ill.  Since he can change these properties without ceasing to be Socrates, they are no part of his essence.  But it is supposed to be of the essence of Socrates that he is a man, though a Pythagorean, who believes in transmigration, will not admit this.  In fact, the question of "essence" is one as to the use of words.  We apply the same name, on different occasions, to somewhat different occurrences, which regard as manifestations of a single "thing" or "person."  In fact, however, this is only a verbal convenience.  The "essence" of Socrates thus consists of those properties in the absence of which we should not use the name "Socrates."...


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