views updated Jun 08 2018


The word is is multiply ambiguous. When it can be expanded to read "is the same thing as," or "is identical with," or (in numerical contexts) "is equal to," it expresses the relation of identity. The simplest identity statements contain the "is" of identity flanked by singular terms, either names or definite descriptions: "Samuel Clemens is Mark Twain"; "The U.S. president in 1996 was Bill Clinton"; "Four is the sum of two and two." A more complex identity statement might, for example, combine the "is" of identity with quantifiers: "Every even number is the sum of two primes."

Identity, on its face, is simple and unproblematic: It is that relation that everything bears to itself and to nothing else. Yet discussions of identity in contemporary philosophical logic and metaphysics are brimming with controversy. From where does this controversy arise? Some of it is not genuine, being based on confusion; and some of it, though genuine, is not genuinely about identity. However, a residue of controversy survives, owing to the view, perpetrated by Peter Geach, that identity statements are meaningless unless relativized, that there is no absolute relation of identity.

Sources of Confusion

One source of confusion is the ambiguity of "identical" in English. We do sometimes say that two things are identical, as when we speak of identical twins, or say that some coat is identical with some other. This is qualitative identity: Things are qualitatively identical if they resemble one another sufficiently in relevant qualitative respects. Numerical identity is different: Two things, no matter how closely they resemble one another, are never numerically identical. Numerical identity is the topic of this article.

A second source of confusion is English grammar, which allows, for example, "Clemens is identical with Twain" to be rewritten equivalently as "Clemens and Twain are identical" or as "they are identical." But then it seems that two persons (or two somethings ) are being said to be identical, which is absurd. A general response is familiar from other cases: Surface grammar often misrepresents the underlying logic: One must beware inferring logical from grammatical form. More specifically, it can be verified that plural noun phrases in English do not, in all contexts, entail or presuppose reference to a plurality.

A third source of confusion is Gottlob Frege's puzzle of informative identity statements, sometimes introduced by the following argument. To say of something that it is identical with itself is trivial, to say of something that it is identical with something else is false; therefore, identity statements are all either trivial or false, and there can be no point in asserting them. This conclusion is manifestly incorrect: Identity statements are often both true and informative, as witness, "the capital of Honduras is Tegucigalpa." The puzzle is to say where the argument goes wrong.

One response rejects the second premise by taking identity to be a relation between names or descriptions rather than between the objects named or described: Identity is then the relation of codesignation, the relation that holds between singular terms whenever those terms designate the same object. That would indeed allow identity statements to be both true and informative. But the response is not viable, for many reasons. For one, it fails to account for uses of identity that do not involve singular terms, such as: "Everything is identical with itself." For another, it fails to allow identity statements between different singular terms to be uninformative, as they are when the singular terms are synonymous. For another, it fails to provide a unified solution to analogous puzzles of informativeness, such as how "the capital of Honduras is in Honduras" and "Tegucigalpa is in Honduras" can differ in informativeness, even though both ascribe the same property to the same thing.

A better response is due to Frege. Identity is a relation between objects; a simple identity statement is true just in case the objects referred to by the singular terms stand in that relation. But singular terms have sense in addition to reference; a true identity statement is informative just in case its singular terms differ in sense. (Just what is included in the sense of a singular term varies from theory to theory; but note that senses must be rich enough to allow codesignative proper namessuch as "Mark Twain" and "Samuel Clemens"to differ in sense.) Now the puzzle may be solved by rejecting the argument's first premise: One can say informatively of an object that it is identical with itself by referring to the object twice over, using singular terms that differ in sense. That is how "The capital of Honduras is Tegucigalpa" manages to be both true and informative. Identity statements are useful in ordinary language because we often refer to the same object from different points of view, using terms with different senses. (Frege's statement of the puzzle, and his solution, is in Frege 1892; see also Kripke 1980, Salmon 1986.)

The Logic of Identity: Leibniz's Law

Relations may be classified according to their general, logical characteristics. The logical characteristics of the identity relation are easily enumerated. First, as already noted, identity is reflexive: Every object is identical with itself. Second, identity is symmetric: If an object x is identical with an object y, then y is identical with x. Third, identity is transitive: If an object x is identical with an object y, and y is identical with an object z, then x is identical with z. A relation that is reflexive, symmetric, and transitive is called an equivalence relation. Finally, identity is the strongest equivalence relation, entailing all other equivalence relations: If an object x is identical with an object y, then x bears R to y, for every equivalence relation R. Since being the strongest equivalence relation (or, equivalently, being the strongest reflexive relation) uniquely characterizes identity in purely logical terms, identity may properly be classified as a logical relation and the theory of identity as a branch of logic.

All of the logical characteristics of identity can be derived from a single principle, sometimes called Leibniz's law: An object x is identical with an object y if and only if every property of x is a property of y and vice versa. Leibniz's law is a biconditional and thus the conjunction of two conditionals, one giving a necessary, the other a sufficient, condition for identity to hold. Say that an object x is indiscernible from an object y just in case every property of x is a property of y and vice versa. The half of Leibniz's law that gives a necessary condition proclaims the indiscernibility of identicals: If x is identical with y, then x is indiscernible from y. This principle is useful for establishing nonidentity: To show that x is not identical with y, it suffices to find a property had by x but not by y or vice versa. Most famously, perhaps, the principle has been used to argue that persons are not identical with their bodies. The half of Leibniz's law that gives a sufficient condition proclaims the identity of indiscernibles: If x is indiscernible from y, then x is identical with y (more on this below).

(Note that Leibniz's law is stated within second-order logic: It involves quantification over properties. The first-order theory of identity substitutes for Leibniz's law an axiom schema containing, for each [monadic] predicate of the language, an axiom stating: If x is identical with y, then x satisfies the predicate if and only if y satisfies the predicate. This schema, together with an axiom of reflexivity, entails the entire first-order theory of identity. The first-order theory is weaker than the full second-order theory; in particular, no logically sufficient condition for identity is expressible within first-order logic.)

The indiscernibility of identicals is beyond dispute: If x and y are identical, then there is only one thing; how can that one thing both have and not have some property? Nonetheless, the principle has been disputed. Consider the following attempt at a counterexample (discussed in Quine, 1953). It is true that Giorgione was so called because of his size, let us suppose, and that Giorgione is identical with Barbarelli; yet, apparently contrary to the principle, it is not true that Barbarelli was so called because of his size. But to see this as a violation of the indiscernibility of identicals, one would have to hold that the predicate "is so called because of his size" expresses some genuine property of objects and expresses the same property when applied to "Giorgione" as when applied to "Barbarelli." On the contrary, when considered in isolation the predicate expresses no property at all but rather a relation between objects and names. When applied to "Giorgione" it expresses the property was-called-Giorgione-because-of-his-size; and that property is true of Barbarelli, in accord with the indiscernibility of identicals. Other attempts at counterexamples are more subtle than this: But all seem to involve naively reading subjectpredicate sentences as simple property-to-object attributions. (For examples involving modality see Cartwright 1971, Quine 1953).

Identity of Indiscernibles

The other half of Leibniz's law proclaims the identity of indiscernibles; but now one must be careful just what "indiscernible" means. If indiscernibles have all of their properties in common, where properties are conceived abundantly, then the identity of indiscernibles is trivially true. For, on an abundant conception of property, for any object y there is the property is-identical-with-y. Now suppose that x is indiscernible from y. Then, since y has the property is-identical-with-y, x must have this property too; that is, x is identical with y, as was to be shown.

If we interpret "indiscernible" instead in terms of properties more sparsely conceived, for example, as "indiscernible in all qualitative respects," then we arrive at a substantial metaphysical principle, the identity of qualitative indiscernibles; the trivial "proof" above is blocked because properties such as is-identical-with-a (where "a " names some object) are not (or, at any rate, are not trivially) qualitative. There are different versions of the principle, however, corresponding to different interpretations of "qualitatively indiscernible"; and for each version one might ask whether the principle is logically necessary, is contingently true, or neither. Let us consider three versions.

According to the strongest (and least plausible) version, objects that share all of their intrinsic qualitative propertiesintrinsic duplicatesare identical. This principle seems to be false even at the actual world: According to current physics, distinct elementary particles of the same kindfor example, distinct electronshave all of their intrinsic properties (charge, mass, etc.) in common.

According to the second (and most familiar) version, objects that share all of their intrinsic and extrinsic qualitative propertiesabsolute indiscerniblesare identical. Absolute indiscernibles must not only be intrinsic duplicates, they must be exactly similarly situated with respect to all of their surroundings. But, surely it is at least possible that there be distinct yet absolutely indiscernible objects; that is, the principle is not necessarily true. For, to take the standard counterexample (from Black 1952), it is logically possible that the world contains nothing but two perfectly round globes, exactly similar down to their smallest parts and separated, say, by one meter. The globes share all of their intrinsic qualitative properties, having the same mass, shape, and so on. And the globes share all of their extrinsic qualitative propertiesfor example, each is one meter from a globe of a certain mass, shape, and so on. (Note that properties that would only be expressible using names for the globes, such as is-one-meter-from-globe1, are not qualitative). In short, the globes are absolutely indiscernible; yet they are two, not one.

A defender of the identity of absolute indiscernibles might simply deny that there is any such possibility; but there is a substantial cost. The claim that it is logically possible that there be nothing but two absolutely indiscernible globes can be backed up by a subsidiary argument (Adams 1979). Surely, there could be nothing but two almost indiscernible globes, differing, say, only in the placement of a single atom. To hold that that atom could not have been shifted in a certain way (because, if it had, there would have been two absolutely indiscernible globes), but that any other atom could have been shifted in that way, would amount to an implausibly inegalitarian approach to what is and is not possible.

Perhaps an even weaker version of the principle should be considered: Objects that share all of their qualitative properties, and stand in the same qualitative relations to any given objectrelative indiscerniblesare identical. (On absolute vs. relative indiscernibility, see Quine 1960.) The possibility just considered of the two globes is not a counterexample to the necessity of this version: The globes are discerned by spatial relations; each globe is one meter from the other globe but not one meter from itself. A counterexample, however, is not far to seek. Consider the possibility that there be nothing but two absolutely indiscernible globes standing in no spatial relation (or other qualitative external relation) to one another, two absolutely indiscernible "island universes." (This possibility can be motivated, too, by first considering "almost" island universes, connected, say, by a single "wormhole.") Such globes would be relatively, as well as absolutely, indiscernible; they stand in no relations that could serve to discern them. So even this weakest version of the identity of qualitative indiscernibles seems not to be a necessary truth. (Indeed, it may not be contingently true: So-called identical particles in quantum mechanics are arguably distinct but absolutely and relatively indiscernible.)

Is Identity Definable?

Identity has been characterized many times over. Do any of these characterizations provide a (noncircular) definition of the identity relation? Can identity be understood in terms not involving identity? Our initial characterizationthat everything is identical with itself and with nothing elseclearly will not do as a definition: To be "else" is to be other, that is, nonidentical. Moreover, the characterization of identity as the strongest equivalence relation fares no better: Identity characterized by quantifying over all relations, identity included.

Leibniz's law gives a necessary and sufficient condition for identity by quantifying instead over properties. But among the quantified properties are haecceities, properties of being identical with some given object. The question whether an object x shares with an object y the property of being identical with y is just the question whether x is identical with y ; the purported definition takes one around in a circle. Similarly defective is the oft-heard definition "x is identical with y if and only if x and y belong to the same classes." The question whether x, like y, belongs to the class whose only member is y is just the question whether x is identical with y.

What if some version of the identity of qualitative indiscernibles were necessarily true (contrary to what was argued above)? That would indeed provide a noncircular criterion for the identity of objects. But the identity or distinctness of qualitative properties (and relations) would remain undefined. Indeed, any purported definition of identity would have to quantify over some sort of entity; the definition could not be understood without a prior understanding of the identity and distinctness of the entities quantified over. We must conclude, then, that identity, at least as applied to the most basic entities, must be taken as primitive and unanalyzable; there is no fully general (noncircular) definition of identity.

Questions remain, some of which might seem to pose problems for the classical conception of identity. We shall see, however, that in each case replies exist that leave classical identity unscathed. (Each of the issues raised below is discussed in Lewis 1993.)

Partial Identity

Classical identity is all or nothing; it never comes in degrees. Yet, when objects overlap, we may say they are "partially identical, partially distinct": And when objects extensively overlap, we may say they are "almost identical." Do we have here a challenge to classical identity? No, we have an ambiguity: Identity, in the sense that admits of degrees, is simply overlap; identity, in the classical sense, is equivalent to the extreme case of total overlap. The two notions of identity are not in conflict; they fit together as well as you please.

Vague Identity

Classical identity is determinate and admits of no borderline cases. That is not to say that identity statements cannot be vague or indeterminate in truth-value. If I say "that cloud in the sky is identical with A," where "A " names some precisely specified aggregate of water molecules, what I say may be neither determinately true nor false. But such vagueness resides in the reference of singular termsin this case, "that cloud in the sky"not in the identity relation itself.

Some philosophers, however, hold that there is vagueness, not only in our reference to objects, but in the objects themselves; not only in our language and thought, but in the world. Let us suppose, charitably, that such a view makes sense. Might not these vague objects be vaguely identical? That depends. If vague identity is understood so that vaguely identical objects are neither determinately identical nor determinately not identical, then the answer is no, as the following argument shows. (Versions are in Evans 1978, Salmon 1981). Suppose a and b are vaguely identical; then they differ in some property, namely, being vaguely identical with b. For although a has the property, b does not: Nothing is vaguely identical with itself. By the indiscernibility of identicals, then, a is (determinately) not identical with b. So, vaguely identical objects are (determinately) not identical! That sounds odd; but there is no contradiction if vague identity is understood in some way that detaches it from indeterminacy of truth-value. So understood, vague identity poses no challenge to classical identity.

Temporary Identity

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus argued that one cannot bathe in the same river twice, something as follows. Rivers flow. The stretch of water that comprises the river on Monday is not the same as the stretch of water that comprises the river on Tuesday. But a river is not something separate and distinct from the stretch of water that comprises it; be it on Monday or on Tuesday, the river and the stretch of water are one and the same. It follows, by a double application of the indiscernibility of identicals, that the river on Monday is not the same as the river on Tuesday. If one bathes in the river on Monday, and returns to bathe at the same place on Tuesday, one has not bathed in the same river twice.

One wants to say: On Monday, the river is identical with a certain stretch of water; on Tuesday, the same river is identical with a different stretch of water. More generally, identity can be temporary, holding at some times but not at others. Temporary identity, however, is disallowed by the above argument, not just for rivers, but for all entities whatsoever. Should we abandon the classical notion of identity that the argument presupposes?

There are at least two responses to Heraclitus's problem compatible with classical identity. According to the first response (inspired by Aristotle, when we say that a river is just a certain stretch of water, we are using not the "is" of identity but the "is" of constitution; and constitution is never identity (see Lowe 1989). On this view there are two fundamentally different kinds of entities that occupy space and persist through time. There are ordinary material objects, such as rivers, trees, statues, and tables; and there are portions of matter that may temporarily constitute the ordinary objects. At any time an ordinary object is constituted by some portion of matter or other; but at no time is it identical with that portion of matter, either wholly or in part. In particular, the very same river is constituted by one stretch of water on Monday and by a different stretch of water on Tuesday. No conflict arises with the laws of classical identity, and Heraclitus's problem is solved.

This response, however, is not without problems. A dualism of ordinary objects and the portions of matter that constitute them is neither necessary nor sufficient to solve the general problem of temporary identity. It is not sufficient, because some cases of temporary identity have nothing to do with constitution. Consider a tree that, at some bleak stage of its career, consists of nothing but a trunk. Later, however, the tree sprouts new branches and leaves. Then we have another prima facie case of temporary identity: The tree is identical with the trunk at the bleak time but not identical with the trunk at the happier time. In this case, however, invoking constitution is of no avail: Neither the trunk nor the tree constitutes the other, in the relevant sense. (This example is from Hirsch 1982.)

Nor is such a dualism necessary to solve the problem of temporary identity, because another response is available, one (arguably) more economical in its ontological commitments (see Hirsch 1982, Quine 1950). On this second response objects that persist through time are composed of (more-or-less) momentary stages, of temporal parts. A persisting river is a sum of stages unified in a way appropriate for rivers; a persisting aggregate of water molecules is a sum of stages unified in a way appropriate for portions of matter. A persisting river and a persisting aggregate of water molecules may overlap by having a stage in common; in that case a stage of the river and a contemporaneous stage of the aggregate of water molecules are identical. But the persisting river is not identical with the persisting aggregate of water molecules: Later stages of the river are in about the same place as earlier stages and are no less spatially continuous; later stages of the aggregate of water molecules are downstream of earlier stages and are spatially scattered. When we say that, at any time, a river is nothing separate and distinct from the water that comprises it, this must be understood as asserting not an identity between persisting objects but an identity between stages. Identity between stages, however, is all one needs to avoid the uneconomical dualism of the constitution view. All objects that occupy space and persist through time are composed of a single kind of entity: Stages of portions of matter. (The stage view of persistence is argued for in Lewis 1986.)

Heraclitus's problem is now easily solved. One cannot bathe in the same river stage twice; but one can bathe in the same river twice by bathing successively in two river stages belonging to a single persisting river. That these two stages are not stages of a single persisting aggregate of water molecules is irrelevant. There is no conflict with classical identity.

Contingent Identity

A change in example, however, makes trouble for the stage view of persistence. Consider a statue called Goliath that consists entirely of a lump of clay called Lumpl; and suppose that the statue and the lump came into being, and ceased to exist, at exactly the same times. Then, on the stage view, every stage of Goliath is identical with a stage of Lumpl and vice versa; Goliath and Lumpl are the same sum of stages and so are identical. But, surely, they are not necessarily identical. Goliath could have been destroyed without destroying Lumplsay, by being squashedin which case Goliath would have lacked Lumpl's final stages and would have been a distinct sum from Lumpl. So, Goliath and Lumpl are identical, but only contingently identical. (The example is from Gibbard 1975.)

Trouble arises because contingent identity, no less than temporary identity, is incompatible with identity, classically conceivedor so the following argument seems to show. Consider the property is-necessarily-identical-with-y, for some object y. Surely y has it: Everything is necessarily identical with itself. Now suppose an object x is identical with y. Then, by the indiscernibility of identicals, x has the property as well; that is, x is necessarily identical with y. Thus, objects are necessarily identical if identical at all; objects are never contingently identical.

Whether this argument is unassailable will depend upon one's interpretation of modal properties, of modality de re. If objects have their modal properties absolutely, in and of themselves, then the argument is sound. Since Goliath and Lumpl are not necessarily identical, they are not identical at all. Goliath and Lumpl are numerically distinct objects that occupy the same place at all times that they exist. Goliath is not identical with any sum of matter-stages, contradicting the stage view of persistence.

The stage view can be preserved, however, if one takes the view that modal predicates do not apply to objects absolutely, in and of themselves; their application is relative to how the objects are conceived, classified, or referred to. For example, could the lump of claythat is, the statuehave survived a squashing? Qua lump of clay, it could; qua statue, it could not. There is no violation of the indiscernibility of identicals because the modal predicate "could survive a squashing" expresses no property when considered out of context and expresses different properties when attached to "the lump of clay" (or "Lumpl") and to "the statue" (or Goliath ). In this way the stage view can accept the contingent identity of Lumpl and Goliath, without forfeiting classical identity. (For versions of this strategy, see Gibbard 1975, Lewis 1971.)

Relative Identity

Classical identity is absolute: Whether identity holds between objects does not depend upon how those objects are conceived, classified, or referred to. In ordinary language we often say "a is the same F as b," for some general term "F "; but this is naturally analyzed as a restriction of absolute identity: a is F, and b is F, and a is (absolutely) identical with b.

Geach has argued, on the contrary, that all identity statements are relative: "a is the same F as b " cannot be analyzed as restricted absolute identity, because there is no absolute identity; when we say simply "a is the same as b," some general term "F " must be supplied by context, or what we say is meaningless (Geach 1970). To support his claim, Geach has presented examples in which we would say: a and b are the same F, and a and b are G 's, but a and b are not the same G. Consider the word tot. It contains three letter tokens, two letter types. The first letter token and the last letter token are not the same letter token, but they are the same letter type. That contradicts the claim that "the same F " is to be analyzed as restricted absolute identity.

The defender of classical identity has a simple and natural reply: Sometimes the relation is-the-same-F -as is not restricted identity but rather some weaker equivalence relation; that is, sometimes it is a species of qualitative, rather than numerical, identity (see Perry 1970). For example: If I say that you are wearing the same coat as I am, I (probably) do not mean the numerically same coat. Similarly, letter tokens of the same type are qualitatively similarequiformnot numerically identical. To the extent that Geach's point is just that "the same F " cannot always be analyzed as restricted identity, it is a point no one should deny.

Any rejection of absolute identity, it seems, must be based upon arguments of a more abstract sort. Indeed. Geach explicitly rejects the standard characterization of identity through Leibniz's law on the grounds that second-order quantification over properties leads to paradox. And he rightly points out that, within first-order logic, characterizations of identity are inevitably relative to the predicates of the language. But how does this impugn the meaningfulness of absolute identity? Does Geach's argument simply amount to the demand, Define absolute identity, or count it as meaningless? That demand, certainly, is too strong. No fundamental notion of logic or metaphysics could meet it.

See also Aristotle; Frege, Gottlob; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Kripke, Saul; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Modality, Philosophy and Metaphysics of; Personal Identity; Properties; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Vagueness.


Adams, R. M. "Primitive Thisness and Primitive Identity." Journal of Philosophy 76 (1979): 526.

Black, M. "The Identity of Indiscernibles." In Problems of Analysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1954.

Cartwright, R. "Identity and Substitutivity." In Identity and Individuation, edited by M. Munitz. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

Evans, G. "Can There Be Vague Objects?" Analysis 38 (1978): 208.

Frege, G. "Uber Sinn und Bedeutung." Zeitschrift fur Philosophie und philosophische Kritik 100 (1892): 2550. Translated by P. Geach and M. Black as "On Sense and Reference." In Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege. Oxford: Blackwell, 1952.

Geach, P. T. "Identity." Review of Metaphysics 21 (1967): 312.

Gibbard, A. "Contingent Identity." Journal of Philosophical Logic 4 (1975): 187221.

Hirsch, E. The Concept of Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Kripke, S. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Lewis, D. "Counterparts of Persons and Their Bodies." Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971): 203211.

Lewis, D. "Many, but Almost One." In Ontology, Causality, and Mind: Essays in Honour of D. M. Armstrong, edited by K. Campbell, J. Bacon, and L. Reinhardt. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lewis, D. On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Lowe, E. J. Kinds of Being. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Perry, J. "The Same F." Philosophical Review (1970): 181200.

Quine, W. V. O. "Identity, Ostension, and Hypostasis." Journal of Philosophy (1950).

Quine, W. V. O. "Reference and Modality." In From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Quine, W. V. O. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

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Salmon, N. Reference and Essence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Phillip Bricker (1996)


views updated May 21 2018





Identity is a pervasive concept in popular culture. Broadly speaking, identity refers to the overall character or personality of an individual or group. For example, a young mother might define her identity as that which reflects the essence of who she is (such as being a woman, spouse, and parent) and how she got to be that way. A business can have its own identity, perhaps defined by its unique corporate culture or its advertising history. Significant historical events like wars, natural disasters, or surges in immigration can play important roles in helping to define a nations identity.

On the one hand, the defining features of identity frequently entail elements that must be found by an individual or group. For example, a musical group or the cast of a television show might have to work together for a long period of time before its performances flow smoothly and effortlessly and it is able to establish its own voice or overall character. Adolescents as well as adults can pass through identity crises that refer to periods of personal uncertainty or confusion. When a sports coach talks about his or her team finding its identity, this may refer to the development or recognition of a consistent way of playing or performing.

On the other hand, individuals or groups can also lose their identity through a variety of events or circumstances. For example, when politicians, celebrities, or other public figures engage in controversial behavior, those individuals must frequently work to reclaim or redefine their identities. A company that has made poor business decisions might be referred to as having lost its corporate identity. The modern phenomenon of identity theft is another example of identity loss, although it is more accurate to refer to this phenomenon as identification or ID theft. The popularity of the identity theft label suggests that an important part of lay definitions of individual identities are the public, demographic, and commercial means of identification.

As the previous examples illustrate, the popular boundaries of the identity concept are quite broad. This concept is similarly pervasive and broad in the theories and research of the social sciences and humanities. Self and identity are frequently used interchangeably by such theorists and researchers. In fact, sometimes writers will combine the terms into concepts such as self-identity or ego-identity. Within the social sciences and humanities, different disciplines emphasize different components of the concept. Thus, it is useful to consider how different fields define and operationalize identity.

Social science theorists and researchers distinguish a large number of different kinds of identity. Examples of identity types include racial, ethnic, group, social, religious, occupational, gender and sex role, cultural, physical and bodily, musical, athletic, academic, and so forth. Among these different identity types, a common distinction is made between personal and social identities. Personal identity usually refers to the unique characteristics of a person, including personality traits, personal values, opinions and preferences, physical characteristics, and career and lifestyle choices. In other words, these refer to aspects of a persons identity that are distinct and different from other people. Social identity usually refers to ones social roles, such as gender, racial, religious, political, ideological, and national group memberships. Typically, these roles involve ways that a persons identity is similar to others, such as sharing a physical characteristic, speaking a common language, having a similar social class or socioeconomic status, practicing the same religion, or living in a common region.

Regardless of whether one focuses on personal or social facets, identity development involves a sense of sameness, continuity, and unity. Philosophically speaking, personal identity refers to the extent that an individuals characteristics are the same over time. That is, identity establishes the conditions that define a persons stable uniqueness. This can refer to the physical, psychological, and social aspects of the person. Thus, most social scientists agree that identity is something that develops over time and requires organization and integration, often achieved through the resolution of personal or social conflicts or crises. The failure to achieve some degree of identity coherence is thought to be a symptom of psychological, social, or cultural problems.

Identity also entails an individual commitment to a set of values and goals associated with specific characteristics. For example, much of personal identity involves identifying ones unique features and determining the value of those features and how they relate to a persons short-term and long-term goals. Social identity supposes an awareness of ones group memberships, as well as some level of commitment, closeness, or emotional attachment to those groups. People who highly value their social identities are more likely to act in ways that are consistent with those roles than people who do not value their social identities. Identity development is, therefore, tied to how people think about themselves and how they decide which aspects of their experience are most important as they define themselves. In other words, the development of identity involves personal and social processes of definition, construction, and negotiation.


The pervasiveness of identity-related concerns is a relatively recent cultural and historical phenomenon. The psychologist Roy Baumeister (1986) described several influential social trends in European and American societies running from about 1500 to 1800. During these centuries, a variety of social, cultural, and economic changes corresponded with a shift in how philosophers, artists, writers, and the lay public viewed personhood and identity. Since the Middle Ages, there has been a weakening of the importance of a persons geographical home and of the institutions of marriage and job in defining ones identity. At the same time, the formerly important roles of ones family of ancestry, social rank, gender, and religion have been at least somewhat trivialized. Thus, traditions and institutions that had previously defined peoples identity lost importance and influence.

These changes corresponded with new views on what constituted a persons identity. For example, people began to consider the possibility that there is a hidden self; that individuality is important; that there is a separation of their public, social lives from their private lives; and that children develop and have their own potentialities worthy of attention. In other words, the boundaries of identity became increasingly broad and malleable. Baumeister (1986) argued that these trends continued through the twentieth century, reflecting an age of mass consumption, greater occupational choices, dramatic technological changes, and the marketing of both products and people. The net effect of these social, cultural, and economic changes is that people in industrialized societies are now plagued with difficulties in defining their identities. Because of the loss of traditional ways of knowing who one is, the more abstract, elusive sense of identity makes it increasingly difficult to define. Much more than was the case one hundred or two hundred years ago, people must work to find or uncover who they are, in order to resolve the dilemmas of modern personhood.

Contemporary identity requires choice, achievement, and frequent self-redefinitions as opposed to the passive assignment of identity of the past. With the widespread desire for establishing and determining ones individuality and uniqueness comes greater difficulty, choice, and effort in achieving this. For instance, modern identity can be constructed out of ones personality traits, material possessions, personal accomplishments, group memberships, and activities and organizations. For these reasons, various writers have labeled identity as empty, saturated, and overburdened, and as reflecting an epidemic of role distance (Hoyle et al. 1999, p. 49). Some writers argue that European and American cultures extreme preoccupation with an inner, independent identity leads to a devaluing or ignoring of the social world and the potential negative effects of contemporary social arrangements. This causes a seeking out of experiences and material possessions in order to avoid feelings of worthlessness or identity confusion.


Identity is a topic of extensive theory and research for many of the social sciences. Two disciplines that have devoted a great deal of attention to identity are sociology and psychology. Sociologists generally define the overall self as consisting of multiple identities tied to the different roles a person plays in the social world. Early twentieth-century sociologists such as Charles Horton Cooley (18641929) and George Herbert Mead (18631931) emphasized how other people provide reflected appraisals that encourage the understanding and establishment of a sense of identity. In his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman (19221982) brought a dramaturgical approach to social identity. Goffman theorized that people play social roles like actors on a stage, claiming and becoming committed to a particular public or group identity. Part of this identity includes a public face that a person claims and then defends in social interaction. In later writings, Goffman presented the idea of a spoiled identity, in which a person can be stigmatized as a result of deviant behaviors or personal characteristics.

More recently, the symbolic interactionist perspective has assumed a prominent role in the sociological approach to identity. Contemporary versions of symbolic interactionism examine how a persons identity is affected by the elements of social structure, in particular the social positions or roles that one plays and the meanings and expectations associated with those roles (Stets and Burke 2003). Role identities may differ in number, prominence, salience, and value to an individual, and sociologists have conducted a great deal of research on these aspects of role identity. For example, a greater number of role identities have been associated with greater resistance to stress and more positive mental health, particularly when those identities are voluntary or freely chosen ones rather than when they are conferred or obligatory.

The meaning of a role identity is something that a person must determine and negotiate. As such, it can be affected by the reactions of others. Over time, there can be changes in a role, as well as in the identity associated with that role. For example, when a person takes on a new role of being a spouse in a married couple, specific behaviors associated with that role must be defined and may change over time. In addition, the definition and boundaries of the spouse identity can change. Thus, the taking on, development, internalization, and changing of multiple roles comprise the most important features of identity from a sociological perspective.

Within psychology, the best-known treatment of identity comes from Erik Eriksons (19021994) psychosocial stages of development across the lifespan (Erikson 1968). When and how does a coherent sense of identity develop? Research suggests that identity concerns are especially prominent among late adolescents and early adults. This seems to be due to the fact that it is only by this time that young people become physically and sexually mature, are competent in abstract thought, show increased emotional stability, and have a certain amount of freedom from parental and peer constraints. Younger children are typically not assumed to have an identity (at least in the overall coherent and stable sense of the term). However, aspects of identity (e.g., age, sex, and race) have been shown to be important to the self-perceptions and self-definitions of younger, preadolescent children. Understanding how a person is similar to and different from others is an important part of identity formation. In this regard, significant others can help to define the developing sense of identity.

In Eriksons theory, adolescence is a time of increased power and responsibility and also a time when young adults must determine who they are and where they fit into their culture and society. Thus, the struggle for a sense of identity and the formation of a philosophy of life seems to be especially intense during this period. There are several different ways that young adults might deal with their identity struggles (Marcia 1980). For example, a person might show identity foreclosure. This can occur when people prematurely commit to and unquestioningly adopt the beliefs, values, or roles prescribed by parents rather than going through the process of developing their own beliefs, values, and career choices. Second, people may delay commitment in order to try out alternative identities, beliefs, roles, or behaviors. In this situation, called an identity moratorium, such people are actively caught up in the throes of the identity struggle and are striving to resolve it. However, they have yet to develop a coherent and stable identity.

A third possible outcome of the young adulthood identity crisis is called identity diffusion. This refers to an unwillingness to confront the challenge of charting a life course and a failure to achieve a stable and integrated sense of self. Unlike in the moratorium, such people show little concern or effort to resolve their self-doubt, apathy, and passivity. Finally, people can arrive at a sense of self and direction and form an integrated image of themselves as unique persons. This is called identity achievement. Such individuals have passed successfully through the identity crisis and are now able to make a commitment to a career objective and a personally meaningful set of beliefs and values. For Erikson and other identity theorists, adequate identity formation is the foundation of sound psychological health in adulthood. Identity confusion can interfere with important developmental transitions during the adult years.

More recent psychological approaches to identity include the idea that self-narratives or life stories serve as central features in the creation of a persons identity. Psychological research also shows that people engage in a wide variety of behaviors to construct, test, and confirm their identities. For example, social psychologists have studied the processes by which people present specific identity aspects to others and manage the impressions that others form of them. What makes particular identity characteristics salient is likely to be tied to the social setting or context. Psychologists are also interested in studying how organized cognitive structures (or schemata) serve to maintain a persons identity. For instance, cognitive structures can filter out competing or inconsistent information or lead to other forms of biased information processing that serves to protect or maintain ones identity.

Whereas sociologically based identity theories focus more on the different roles that constitute a persons identity, psychologically based social identity theory deals with how membership in groups is associated with self-categorization and social identities. For example, those who belong to the same group are seen as ingroup members, whereas nonmembers or those who belong to different groups are seen as outgroup members. A large amount of research has shown that such ingroup-outgroup categorization (sometimes based on arbitrarily defined group membership) results in ingroup favoritism and outgroup discrimination. Thus, it appears that merely belonging to a group can create meaningful social identities with strong attitudinal (e.g., prejudice) and behavioral (e.g., discrimination) implications.

Other disciplines within the social sciences and humanities also have utilized the identity concept in their theories and research. For example, political scientists are interested in the role of identity as a source of peoples political beliefs or political party affiliation. They are also interested in how identity is affected by isolation, alienation, anomie, and social injustices in modern society and how these problems impact social structure, political party affiliation, political action, and international relations. As such, the identity concept is one of many factors that can affect political actions and larger social conflicts.

Political scientists sometimes focus on how membership in particular groups is associated with a specific identity that may have implications for social movements, community mobilization, and other forms of collective behavior. That is, through the identification or construction of a collective identity, groups may be able to increase pride and consciousness, mobilize resources, and bring about societal changes. In other words, groups may strive to expand the range of a particular identity characteristic into a political force with accompanying social and legislative reforms. This process is referred to as identity politics. Examples of identities that fall into this category include religion, race, ethnicity, gender, and physical disability. Critics have argued that politicizing an identity component can be counterproductive to the goal of social change. For example, by calling attention to a specific identity, a group may find it more difficult to address the social injustices associated with it. Or there may be broader social or cultural backlashes directed toward a group identity.

Anthropologists and other social scientists have explored the processes of cultural identification and cultural variations in identity construction. A popular distinction relates to identity differences that are based on independent (or individualistic) and interdependent (or collectivistic) cultural construals. Educational researchers consider the development of academic identity and the relationship of various identity facets to academic achievement. Business and marketing researchers examine the mechanisms and processes associated with developing a corporate or brand identity in consumers. Within the humanities, a great deal of attention has been devoted to cultural and historical trends in the construction and management of identity (e.g., identity politics) and how identity is represented in and affected by works of art, music, theater, and literature.

Some of the current issues related to the identity concept include how to best measure the different kinds of identities and how multiple identities (and conflicts among these) affect behavior in specific situations. In addition, the development of different kinds of identities and how they interrelate from childhood through adulthood has received little research attention. How do multiple identities overlap and affect individual and group behavior? This is a particularly important question when considering broad social, cultural, or nationalistic actions, where several different identities may combine or conflict. For example, adopted or biracial children may experience unique issues as they attempt to develop their racial or cultural identity. More broadly speaking, one of the effects of an increasingly multicultural world is that the establishment of ones identity may become more difficult or complicated. One interesting domain for identity theorists and researchers concerns how technological changes, particularly those associated with the Internet, affect identity processes. For example, the social scientist Sherry Turkle (1995) has shown that exploration of new, alternative, and multiple identities has become significantly easier and more varied through online communities, multiuser domains, role-playing games, and fantasy worlds.

In summary, identity is a very broad and influential concept in the social sciences and humanities. It has proven to be remarkably fluid and malleable, with different disciplines able to define identity in ways that best suit their purposes and emphases. The cultural and historical trends that led to changes in identity over the past several centuries are likely to continue to provide new challenges to identity formation in the future. Increasing globalization, industrial development, scientific advances, and technological innovations will mean that difficulties in defining identity will be a worldwide phenomenon.

SEE ALSO Adolescent Psychology; Cyberspace; Economics, Behavioral; Economics, Stratification; Erikson, Erik; Ethnicity; Gender; Goffman, Erving; Groups; Hybridity; Identity Crisis; Identity Matrix; Identity, Social; Internet; Nation; Nationalism and Nationality; Performance; Personality; Politics, Gender; Politics, Identity; Popular Culture; Psychology; Race; Representation; Role Theory; Self-Classification; Self-Representation; Social Science; Sociology; Stages of Development; Values


Baumeister, Roy F. 1986. Identity: Cultural Change and the Struggle for Self. New York: Oxford University Press.

Erikson, Erik H. 1968. Identity, Youth, and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Hoyle, Rick H., Michael H. Kernis, Mark R. Leary, and Mark W. Baldwin. 1999. Selfhood: Identity, Esteem, Regulation. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Marcia, James E. 1980. Identity in Adolescence. In Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, ed. Joseph Adelson, 159187. New York: Wiley.

Stets, Jan E., and Peter J. Burke. 2003. A Sociological Approach to Self and Identity. In Handbook of Self and Identity, eds. Mark R. Leary and June Price Tangney, 128152. New York: Guilford.

Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Thomas M. Brinthaupt


views updated May 14 2018


Establishing the identity of spirit communicators has been a difficult problem for psychical researchers. Nineteenth-century Russian Spiritualist A. N. Aksakof conceded, "Absolute proof of spirit identity is impossible to obtain; we must be content with relative proof." Psychical researcher Charles Richet agreed, saying, "Subjective metapsychics will always be radically incapable of proving survival."

Sir Oliver Lodge suggested that the question of identity in spirit communication could be established (1) by gradually accumulated internal evidence based on thorough and meticulous records; (2) by cross correspondences, that is, the reception of unintelligible parts of one consistent and coherent message through different mediums; or (3) by information or criteria especially characteristic of the supposed communicating intelligence and, if possible, in some sense new to the world.

The role of the communicating spirit in a Spiritualist séance is somewhat complicated. The spirit acts like a prompter in the theater. The automatic script or trance speech delivered through the medium is seldom in his or her own hand or voice. The medium's organism acts like a freshly painted sieve; it tints whatever it lets through. Besides, communication is an art itself and has its own inherent difficulties. Direct voice séances, materialization in good light, lifelike personation of the departed, or the transfiguration of the medium, which afford more dramatic evidence with less opportunity for self-deception, are comparatively rare.

Many spirit entities claim to be ancient or historic personalities, and the problem of establishing the identity of such entities is almost impossible. Impersonation frequently occurs. According to the entity "Imperator," in a script of Rev. William Stainton Moses, "There is much insanity among lower spirits. The assumption of great names, when it is not the work of conscious deceivers, is the product of insanity. The spirit imagines itself to be some great one, fancies how he would act, and so projects his imaginings on the sphere of the medium's consciousness."

If the information claimed as proof of identity of famous personages is verifiable, it cannot be proved that such facts were not fraudulently gathered by the medium before the séance, that the information was inaccessible to the medium's subconscious mind, or that it was not obtained through clairvoyance. Furthermore, "Rector," another control of Stainton Moses, purportedly had the power to read books. Such power would open up a storehouse of pertinent information for so-called deceiving spirits.

Therefore, the difficulties of proof of spirit identity are almost insurmountable, a major reason why psychical research has largely abandoned the task. On a practical level, however, the human elementpersonal information embedded in the complexity of lifeoften provides convincing material to an individual who receives a communication through a medium.

One of the earliest cases of such convincing identity proof was registered by the Rev. J. B. Ferguson in his book Spirit Communion (1854). According to Ferguson's account, his cousin O. F. Parker died on August 5, 1854, in St. Louis. On the following day, in Maryville, Kentucky, Mrs. Ferguson was controlled by his spirit. Part of the communication was "My books I ordered to be sold to defray my funeral expenses, but it was not done. I am afraid, too, that there will be some flaw picked in my life policy, and if so I wish you to order my books to be sold to pay my debts, and if they fail, do not fail then from any delicacy of feeling to write to my mother, and she will have all properly settled. The policy is now in the hands of Mr. Hitchcock."

The Reverend Ferguson affirmed that until the communication the only account they had of his cousin's death was a short telegram. Because every detail was found correct, he considered the evidence of identity overwhelming.

C. H. Foster was visited in 1874 in San Francisco by the Honorable Charles E. de Long, a perfect stranger to him. Foster said he had a message for Ida and asked the visitor if this name meant anything to him. It was the name of de Long's wife. Foster asked him to bring her, and when she came he delivered the following message by means of automatic writing : "To my daughter, Ida. Ten years ago I entrusted a large sum to Thomas Madden to invest for me in certain lands. After my death he failed to account for the investment to my executors. The money was invested and 1,250 acres of land were bought, and one half of this land now belongs to you. I paid Madden on account of my share of the purchase 650 dollars. He must be made to make a settlement. Your father, Vineyard." This story proved to be true. Madden admitted it and made restitution.

An often-quoted case in Spiritualist literature is that of the steamroller suicide. The notes of Rev. Stainton Moses are as follows: "February 20, 1874. Dr. and Mrs. Speer and I dined with Mrs. Gregory, to meet the Baron du Potet, the celebrated magnetist and spiritualist. Mr. Percival was of the party. During dinner I was conscious of a strange influence in the room and mentioned the fact. The Baron had previously magnetised me very strongly, and had rendered me more than usually clairvoyant. He also recognised a spirit in the room, but thought it was the spirit of a living person. After dinner, when we got upstairs, I felt an uncontrollable inclination to write, and I asked the Baron to lay his hand upon my arm. It began to move very soon and I fell into a deep trance. As far as I can gather from the witnesses, the hand then wrote out 'I killed myself to-day.' This was preceded by a very rude drawing, and then 'Under steam-roller, Baker Street, medium passed,' (i.e., W. S. M.) was written. At the same time I spoke in the trance and rose and apparently motioned something away, saying 'Blood' several times. This was repeated and the spirit asked for prayer. Mrs. G. said a few words of prayer, and I came out of the trance at last, feeling very unwell.

"On the following day Dr. Speer and I walked down Baker Street and asked the policeman on duty if any accident had occurred there. He told us that a man had been killed by the steamroller at 9 A.M. and that he himself had helped to carry the body to Marylebone Workhouse."

The only flaw in this case is that the Pall Mall Gazette published a short account of the suicide the same evening and this might have been subconsciously seen by the medium. The name was not known, nor was it disclosed by Moses.

Dr. Isaac Funk, the New York editor, handed a letter to Lenora Piper containing the word mother. Piper gave the Christian name of Funk's mother, told him that she was walking on only one leg and asked, "Don't you remember that needle?" She had hurt herself by thrusting a needle into her foot. Piper also described a grandson, Chester, of whom Funk knew nothing. Upon inquiry, however, he found out that a grandson of that name had died 20 years earlier.

Dr. Joseph Vezzano established the identity of a materialized form in a séance given by Eusapia Palladino and describes it in Annals of Psychic Science (vol. 6, September 1907, p. 164) as follows: "In spite of the dimness of the light I could distinctly see Mme. Palladino and my fellow sitters. Suddenly I perceived that behind me was a form, fairly tall, which was leaning its head on my left shoulder and sobbing violently, so that those present could hear the sobs; it kissed me repeatedly. I clearly perceived the outlines of this face, which touched my own, and I felt the very fine and abundant hair in contact with my left cheek, so that I could be quite sure that it was a woman.

"The table then began to move, and typtology gave the name of a close family connection who was known to no-one present except myself. She had died some time before and on account of incompatability [sic] of temperament there had been serious disagreements with her. I was so far from expecting this typtological response that I at first thought this was a case of coincidence of name, but whilst I was mentally forming this reflection I felt a mouth, with warm breath, touch my left ear and whisper in a low voice in Genoese dialect, a succession of sentences, the murmur of which was audible to the sitters. These sentences were broken by bursts of weeping, and their gist was to repeatedly implore pardon for injuries done to me, with a fullness of detail connected with family affairs which could only be known to the person in question.

"The phenomenon seemed so real that I felt compelled to reply to the excuses offered me with expressions of affection, and to ask pardon in my turn if my resentment of the wrongs referred to had been excessive. But I had scarcely uttered the first syllables when two hands, with exquisite delicacy, applied themselves to my lips and prevented my continuing. The form then said to me: 'Thank you,' embraced me, kissed me, and disappeared."

According to Theodore Flournoy, this case was nothing more than the objectification of the emotional complex existing within the subconscious mind of Vezzano. There is food for thought, even for those who incline to differ, in his following remark: "The invasion or subjugation of the organism of the medium by a psychic complex belonging to a strange individual is not more easy to explain if that individuality be a spirit of the dead than if it is or belongs to one of the sitters in flesh and blood. And in this equally difficult question there is no reason to attribute to the discarnate or to the spirit world phenomena which can as readily be explained by the phenomena of our empirical world."

The pearl tie-pin case of Sir William Barrett has been frequently cited. Through the medium Hester Dowden, a Mrs. C. obtained a message spelled out on the Ouija board: "Tell mother to give my pearl tie-pin to the girl I was going to marry." The message allegedly came from a cousin of Mrs. C's, an officer who had been killed a month earlier. The name and address was returned and the whole message was thought ficitious. Six months later, however, it was discovered that the officer had been engaged to the lady. The war office returned his effectsa pearl tie-pin among themand it was found that he put the lady's name in his will as his beneficiary.

Ernesto Bozzano recorded that in a sitting held on July 23, 1928, with the Marquise Centurione Scotto in Millesimo Castle, a voice addressed him as follows: "O Ernesto Bozzano, O my dear, my dear, I sought you in London, I sought you in Genoa, at last I find you." He immediately recognized the voice; the words carried a strong southern accent like that of Eusapia Palladino. He later noted: "This, her first manifestation, was a great revelation to me from the point of view of personal identification of the communicating spirit; because, without the faintest shadow of doubt, I recognised the person who was speaking to me the moment she pronounced my name. In life she had her own particular way of enunciating my surname, for she pronounced the two z's in an inimitable manner. Not only so, for when she spoke to me in life, she never called me simply by my surname, but invariably added my Christian name, though she never used the word 'Mr.' These small but most important idiosyncrasies of language are really what constitute the best demonstration of the real presence of the agency which affirms that it is actually present. I must add that she spoke with the identical timbre of voice which she had in life and with the very marked accent of her Italianized Neapolitan dialect."

Many visions of deceased soldiers were recorded by clairvoyants during the world wars. Mrs. E. A. Cannock of London described at a Spiritualist meeting a novel and convincing method employed by the fallen soldiers to make their identity known. In her vision they advanced in single file up the aisle, led by a young lieutenant. Each man bore on his chest a large placard with his name and the place where he lived inscribed. Cannock read the names and the place. The audience identified them one after the other. After recognition the spirit form faded and made way for the next one.

There has been no shortage of evidence of communication from servicemen who died in World War II. One of the most distinguished champions of such communication was Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, who was head of fighter command in the Battle of Britain. He obtained convincing evidence of spirit communication from servicemen at sittings with such famous mediums as Estelle Roberts, which he later compiled in his books Many Mansions (1943) and Lychgate (1945).

Of course, such convincing personal evidence of identity in spirit communications does not reach the level demanded by scientific criteria. However, thousands of people from all walks of life have been assured of and based their affirmation of survival upon such impressive clairaudient and clairvoyant messages through a medium or psychic.


Baird, Alexander T. One Hundred Cases for Survival After Death. New York: Bernard Ackerman, 1944.

Christopher, Milbourne. Search for the Soul: An Insider's Report on the Continuing Quest by Psychics and Scientists for Evidence of Life After Death. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979.

Currie, Ian. You Cannot Die: The Incredible Findings of a Century of Research on Death. New York: Methuen; London: Hamlyn, 1978.

Ducasse, C. J. Paranormal Phenomena, Science, and Life After Death. New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 1969.

Garrett, Eileen J., ed. Does Man Survive Death? A Symposium. New York: Helix Press, 1957.

Hart, Hornell. The Enigma of Survival: The Case For and Against An After Life. Springfield, Ill.: Charles Thomas, 1959.

Hyslop, James H. Contact With the Other World: The Latest Evidence as to Communication with the Dead. New York: Century, 1919.

Kastenbaum, Robert, ed. Between Life and Death. New York: Springer, 1979.

Murphy, Gardner. Three Papers on the Survival Problem. New York: American Society for Psychical Research, 1945.

Richmond, Kenneth. Evidence of Identity. London: G. Bell, 1939.

Salter, W. H. Zoar; or, The Evidence of Psychical Research Concerning Survival. London: Sidwick & Jackson, 1961.


views updated May 29 2018

identity Although the term identity has a long history—deriving from the Latin root idem implying sameness and continuity—it was not until the twentieth century that the term came into popular usage. Discussions of identity take two major forms—psychodynamic and sociological. A central thrust of both traditions has been to challenge essentialist understandings of the concept. These assume a unique core or essence to identity—the ‘real me’—which is coherent and remains more or less the same throughout life. Against this the emphasis within both sociological and psychoanalytic theories has been, to varying degrees, the invented and constructed character of identity.

The psychodynamic tradition emerges with Freud's theory of identification, through which the child comes to assimilate (or introject) external persons or objects, usually the superego of the parent. Psychodynamic theory stresses the inner core of a psychic structure as having a continuous (though often conflicting) identity. The psycho-historian Erik Erikson saw identity as a process ‘located’ in the core of the individual, and yet also in the core of his or her communal culture, hence making a connection between community and individual. He developed the term identity crisis during the Second World War, in reference to patients who had ‘lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity’, and subsequently generalized it to a whole stage of life (as part of his epigenetic life-stage model of the eight life-stage of man). Here, youth is identified as a universal crisis period of potential identity confusion. Subsequently, the term ‘identity crisis’ has moved into common parlance.

The sociological tradition of identity theory is linked to symbolic interactionism and emerges from the pragmatic theory of the self discussed by William James and George Herbert Mead. The self is a distinctively human capacity which enables people to reflect on their nature and the social world through communication and language. Both James and Mead see the self as a process with two phases: the ‘I’, which is knower, inner, subjective, creative, determining, and unknowable; and the ‘Me’, which is the more known, outer, determined, and social phase. Identification, here, is a process of naming, of placing ourselves in socially constructed categories, with language holding a central position in this process. In the later works of Erving Goffman and Peter Berger, identity is stated clearly to be ‘socially bestowed, socially sustained and socially transformed’ (Berger, Invitation to Sociology, 1966).

Developments in social theory associated with structuralism and post–structuralism share the concern with language and representation more broadly which was integral to the symbolic interactionist approach to identity. Structuralism and post-structuralism, however, more assertively emphasize the constitutive or deeply formative role of language and representation in the making of identity. Underpinning both structuralism and post-structuralism are the insights of the Swiss structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (see The Course in General Linguistics, 1949
). Saussure's work emphasized the way meaning in language was produced, not through the intention of the speaking or writing subject, but by the interplay of signs. Language itself was a structured system which produced meaning. In a radical formulation, Saussure suggested that it was language which effectively spoke the individual by subjecting him or her to its rules, rather than the other way around. Saussure's account of language has been used to argue that all social and cultural meanings are produced within language or systems of representation more generally. In other words the world around us, and our place in it, is given meaning—made meaningful—within representation. In an important sense, therefore, who we are—our sense of identity—is shaped by the meanings attached to particular attributes, capacities, and forms of conduct.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault, building on the broad thrust of Saussure's arguments, took this account of identity further through his work on discourse or discursive formations. Discourse, for Foucault, shaped ways of talking about or representing or knowing a particular object. In his work on the growth of the modern prison, for example, he argued that penal discourses (such as criminology) produced a distinct set of ways of talking about and knowing the criminal and the criminal mind (see his Discipline and Punish, 1977
). Importantly, for Foucault, these discourses furnished positions for agency and identity. They did so both for the knowing subject (the expert criminologist) and for the known (the criminal). The raw material for identity, then, was formed within discourses, taken up and inhabited by an individual, shaping and forming a sense of identity in the process.

Foucault's work also introduces an element which has become central to recent accounts of identity. This is the insistence that we, as individuals, inhabit multiple identities. There are two key dimensions to this assertion. The first—and most important to Foucault himself—is that different discourses generate particular and often divergent positions for agency and identity. Discourses associated with religion, the state, sport, or consumption produce discrete and often contradictory versions of the self. We are, within this perspective, each addressed by a range of possible versions of ourselves: as devout believer, as taxpayer, football supporter, or hedonist. The second dimension is that the multiple identities we inhabit in relation to a range of social practices are themselves linked to larger structures of identity. What is usually cited here are structures like class, ethnicity, ‘race’, gender, and sexuality. It is important to note, however, that these different identities are not discrete—they interact with each other. As Catherine Hall has shown in relation to nineteenth-century middle-class men in Britain, their masculinity was dependent upon and secured not only through class-based dispositions, but also through particular kinds of ethnicity (‘Englishness’) and race (‘whiteness’) (see White, Male and Middle Class, 1993
). Gender, ethnicity, and race, as in this example, are not partitioned but interwoven.

A further development of this concern with the interfusing of identities has emphasized the hybridity of cultural identities. The notion of hybridity suggests—most importantly in relation to ‘racial’ and ethnic identities—that identities are not pure but the product of mixing, fusion, and creolization. Underlying this account of identity is an attention to the mixing and movement of cultures. Figuring prominently in this are the diverse forms of cultural traffic—from the slave trade to the contemporary circulation of media forms—which have helped to shape the modern world (see, for example, Paul Gilroy , Black Atlantic, 1993
). The resulting fusion or hybridity of identities is not the product of the assimilation of one culture or cultural tradition by another, but the production of something new. Studies of the hybridity of cultural identity are closely allied to accounts of diaspora identities. Diaspora is a term that was initially used to refer to the dispersal of Jewish people across the globe, but is now regularly used to describe a Black diaspora, the movement and trafficking of people of African origins across continents. Diaspora identities are shaped by this sense of having been, in Salman Rushdie's phrase, ‘borne across the world’ (see his Imaginary Homelands, 1991
); of being ‘in’ but not entirely (or only) ‘of’ the West.

A different conception of identity is stressed by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan developed Freud's work via the influence of Saussure and emphasized the split and alienated aspects of identity. In what is, in large degree, a rigorous reworking of Freud's writings on narcissism, Lacan defines the infant's first sense of itself (its first self-identification) as coming through its imaginary positioning by its own mirror-image (see his essay on ‘The Mirror Phase as Formative of the Function of the “I”’, 1968
). Looking at its own reflection, or literally reflected in its mother's eyes, Lacan argues that the infant misrecognizes itself as its mirror-image; and is taken in by its own image in a moment of gestalt. Lacan describes this as an instance of primary narcissistic identification, and it is for him the basis and prototype of all future identifications. The splitting or misrecognition at the heart of this process is exemplary for Lacan; it establishes the subject's enduring relation to the visual field as an alienated or decentred experience, a split between the external ‘ideal ego’ (the mirror-image) and the internalized ‘ego ideal’.

Discussions of identity have been prominent in sociology and have spawned a huge literature, including many plays and novels, in which the quest for identity or the breakdown of the self are primary themes. These accounts tend to divide into two main camps: an optimistic and a pessimistic version. For the optimists, the modern world has brought with it increasing individuality and choice over a wider range of identities. Thus, people are more likely to self-actualize: to discover an inner self which is not artificially imposed by tradition, culture or religion; and to embark upon quests for greater individuality, self-understanding, flexibility, and difference. By contrast, pessimists portray a mass society of estrangement: for example, the psychodynamic tradition highlights the loss of boundaries between self and culture, and the rise of the narcissistic personality; while the sociologists see a trend towards fragmentation, homelessness, and meaninglessness, and bemoan the loss of authority in the public world through the growth of self-absorption and selfishness.

There is, therefore, no clear concept of identity in modern sociology. It is used widely and loosely in reference to one's sense of self, and one's feelings and ideas about oneself, as for example in the terms ‘gender identity’ or ‘class identity’. It is sometimes assumed that our identity comes from the expectations attached to the social roles that we occupy, and which we then internalize, so that it is formed through the process of socialization. Alternatively, it is elsewhere assumed that we construct our identities more actively out of the materials presented to us during socialization, or in our various roles. However, Goffman's work (in particular The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), which looks at the complex ways in which we present ourselves to other people, a process which might be termed identity management) raises a crucial issue that is unresolved in all camps: namely, the question of whether or not there is an authentic self or identity behind the various masks which we present to others. See also PERSONALITY; PSYCHOANALYSIS; REFLEXIVE MODERNIZATION.


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Identity is not a Freudian concept. Theoreticians have defined it in very different ways: as a structure that accounts for narcissism and is part of the ego; as the ability to remain the same despite changes; as a feeling of continuity; or as the sum of representations of the self.

The importance of the notion of identity in the United States is related to its use in ego-psychology, which considers the ego as a relatively autonomous and potentially conflict-free structure. Many theories of identity adapt a portion of Freud's view of the ego. Alongside the Freudian ego, which is a structure defined by its functions, another egoor identity related to identificationsis posited (whether inside or outside ego-psychology) and conceived of as the outcome of a process of individuation.

The first mentions of the importance of the concept of identity for clinical practice and psychopathology date from the nineteen-fifties. When it first appeared in psychoanalytic discourse, the concept of identity was associated with two approaches. The first was an attempt to extend the Freudian perspective to a general psychology that would include the ego's relationships with the surrounding world and guide research on child development. The second sought to apply psychoanalysis to pathologies, more serious than neurosis, characterized by disturbances of identity. Phyllis Greenacre evoked the internal and external faces of identity, and described their favorable and unfavorable aspects. Ralph Greenson isolated a screen-identity syndrome. Margaret Mahler viewed identity as a facet of development connected with object-relations, symbiosis, and the possibility of separation-individuation.

Two major psychoanalytical theorists have focused on identity. In 1956 Erik Erikson introduced the concept of an ego identity formed during adolescence, which served as a gauge of psychopathology. In 1961 Heinz Lichtenstein proposed giving identity the priority that the libido had for Freud. He considered it the keystone of psychopathology and eventually reframed Freudian metapsychology within a monist perspective that challenged the dualistic concept of identification.

Erikson hoped to explain human development epigenetically; the various stages of his model could not be reduced to the psychosexual level. The ego was not propelled by drives alone but must confront the challenges posed by the environment. Ego identity was the adolescent stage; it took over from various identifications and its successful establishment depended on the resolution of earlier developmental crises. Erikson's ego identity was defined by the unconscious quest for personal continuity, by the synthesis of the ego, and by group loyalties. It reflected an existential dimension of the ego. It was formed through a succession of syntheses of the ego whereby the conflicts of earlier stages were integrated. The opposite of ego identity was a diffusion of identity, a pathological syndrome in which representations of self and object are fluid and unintegrated, and oppositionalism and acting out are manifested. Otto Kernberg used this model as a diagnostic criterion for borderline states.

Lichtenstein looked upon human identity as a permanent dilemma because of the absence of any form of guarantee. The theme of an invariable identity arose from an unconscious imprint derived from the mother thanks to a process of mirror reflection. Variations on this theme constituted the feeling of identity, a creation unique to the child. Pathological developments occurred when themes emerged that were impossible to satisfy yet necessary for the maintenance of identity. In such case a subject could be caught in a paradoxical oscillation between the search for an annihilating other and an isolating autonomy. The principle of identity was the central motivation for the human individual, who was obliged to maintain an identity under more or less continual threat. This principle replaced the reality principle in Lichtenstein's account, and the drives as well as the repetition compulsion were subservient to it. Identity was assimilated to narcissism, described as a primary thematic with secondary variants. It left room for the self, the fourth metapsychological dimension and third paradigm of psychoanalysis. Identity was part of an evolutionist view that rejected dualism of any kind.

Historically speaking, theories of identity were replaced by theories of the self and by the "self psychology" of Heinz Kohut.

These are psychological theories in which the unconscious and libido are secondary. As Freud pointed out, however, unity and synthesis are superficial concepts. Drawing on such criticism, Kohut characterized Erikson's identity as a descriptive psychosocial concept. Edith Jacobson questioned the relevance and universality of so-called disturbances of identity, which she considered exaggerated. Roy Schafer interpreted the emergence of the concept of identity as symptomatic of a subjectivity stripped of a mechanistic and reifying metapsychology and hence in need of reformulation. Merely descriptive theories of identity may be said to belong to the sphere of phenomenology. When the conceptual focus is on identity, the ego is cut off from its libidinal roots. Furthermore, the view that underpins these theories is exclusively developmental and completely rejects any causality based on deferred effects.

AgnÈs Oppenheimer

See also: Adhesive identification; Adolescent crisis; Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Double, the; Ego (ego psychology); Ego-identity; Identification; Imposter; Object relations theory; Principle of identity preservation; Projection and "paticipation mystique" (analytical psychology); Self-consciousness; Self-image; Self representation; Sexual identity; Symbiosis/symbiotic relation.


Erikson, Erik. (1956). The problem of ego identity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 56-121.

Greenacre, Phyllis. (1958). Early physical determinants in the development of the sense of identity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 6, 612-627.

Greenson, Roger. (1958). Variations in classical psychoanalytic technique. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 29, 200-201.

Lichtenstein, Heinz. (1983). Identity and sexuality. The dilemma of human identity. New York: Jason Aronson.

Mahler, Margaret. (1958). Problems of identity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 6, 131-142.


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A relation distinct from all others in its being the most fundamental both in thought and in reality. All others in one way or another are reducible to it. It is both mental and real. As mental it is the essential relation in judgment and in the proposition. When the subject and the predicate of the proposition are in no way different either in extension or in comprehension, then their identity makes the proposition a tautology. When both of these differ as aspects of one and the same reality, then the proposition is held to be formal. Many philosophers hold that only the latter is the valid type of proposition. If its real identity is substantial, then it points to the most fundamental ontological unity. Accidental identity according to quantity or form is less fundamental. The real existence of this relation is much disputed. In some schools of philosophy it is categorically denied.

The sort of pluralism implied by the logical atomism of B. russell is an example of this. For him, reality is an absolute plurality to which the relation of identity is brought by the mind. This alone creates the unity of experience. Other philosophers deny this. parmenides thought that all being is identically one in number and that diversity is an illusion of the mind caused by sense knowledge. B. spinoza held the same doctrine, attributing the appearance of multiplicity to the fracturing effect of imagination exercised upon the continuum of sense experience. F. W. J. schelling, G. W. F. hegel and F. H. bradley taught a somewhat similar doctrine, holding that the beginning of experience is in an un-differentiated being, which is then rendered multiple and structured through the insertion of the relation of identity. Identity therefore was a relation immanent in being and in experience.

Many other philosophers, such as St. thomas aqui nas, take a mediating position between these two extremes. They therefore admit of an ontological structure in things by reason of which they are partly diverse and partly identical. Things that are identical in form but different in number are thereby similar and come under one genus or species. The identity, in this case, is real since it has a real grounding. But it can also be purely mental, as happens when it binds together different concepts of one and the same thing. Modern mathematical logic has been much concerned with this relation, but less from the point of view of its nature than from the point of view of its application in particular cases.

See Also: identity, principle of.

Bibliography: s. vanni-rovighi, Enciclopedia filosofica 2:121415. b. spinoza, Ethics, pt. 1, props. 18, 25, 28; pt. 2, definitions and prop. 10. g. w. leibniz, "Primae veritates," in his Opuscules et fragments inédits de Leibniz, ed. l. couturat (Paris 1903) 518-. f. h. bradley, Essays on Truth and Reality (Oxford 1914); Appearance and Reality (2d ed. London 1902). b. stevens, The Identity Theory (2d ed. London 1936). h. glockner, Identität und Individualität (Willhelmshaven 1952).

[k. a. wall]


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i·den·ti·ty / īˈdentitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the fact of being who or what a person or thing is: he knows the identity of the bombers | she believes she is the victim of mistaken identity. ∎  the characteristics determining this: attempts to define a distinct Canadian identity. ∎  [as adj.] chiefly Brit. (of an object) serving to establish who the holder, owner, or wearer is by bearing their name and often other details such as a signature or photograph: an identity card.2. a close similarity or affinity: the initiative created an identity between the city and the suburbs.3. Math. (also identity operation) a transformation that leaves an object unchanged. ∎  (also identity element) an element of a set that, if combined with another element by a specified binary operation, leaves that element unchanged.4. Math. the equality of two expressions for all values of the quantities expressed by letters, or an equation expressing this, e.g., (x + 1)2 = x2 + 2x + 1.ORIGIN: late 16th cent. (in the sense ‘quality of being identical’): from late Latin identitas, from Latin idem ‘same.’


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Identity ★★½ 2003 (R)

See if this premise sounds familiar—ten strangers, an ex-cop turned chauffeur; his movie star passenger; a family with a wounded wife; a newlywed couple; a cop transporting a prisoner; and an ex-hooker are brought together (because of a severe rainstorm) at a desolate motel run by a creepy clerk. One by one they start to die in various icky and/or disturbing ways. A possibly-connected subplot involves a man on death row getting a last-minute, latenight hearing. Well-executed, if unspectacular, suspenser provides a satisfyingly twisty thrill. 90m/C VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc . US John Cusack, Rebecca De Mornay, Ray Liotta, Jake Busey, Amanda Peet, Clea DuVall, William Lee Scott, John C. McGinley, Leila Kenzle, Bret Loehr, John Hawkes, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Alfred Molina, Matt Letscher, Carmen Argenziano, Marshall Bell, Holmes Osborne, Frederick Coffin; D: James Mangold; W: Michael Cooney; C: Phedon Papamichael; M: Alan Silvestri.


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identity quality of being the same. XVI. — late L. identitās, f. L. idem same.
So identic(al), identify XVII. — medL.


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This entry includes two subentries.

Identity of Persons
Personal and Social Identity

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