Identity and Change

Having established the importance of the qualities of an object, one may begin to understand the concept of identity.


In my penultimate post, before the thematic interruption through my comments on Islamic barbarians and their ignorant Western apologists, I discussed the importance of secondary qualities of objects and phenomena. I explained there why in order to understand an object we must also accept its secondary qualities as part of it, as indeed being qualities of the object rather than simply imaginary figments of our own projections. I also explained there why this issue is important, even for an everyday understanding and appreciation of the world.

This leads to the question of the actual identity of things. Traditionally, a distinction was often made in philosophy between substance and quality: the mass or actual bulk of an object was one thing, the qualities that structure and characterize it another. This distinction goes back to Aristotle’s Categories, but runs into the difficulty that once the qualities of an object are removed, there is absolutely nothing by which we can define the object, and it ceases to be what it is. I should say that substance without quality is quite literally unthinkable (fortunately, in the Metaphysics Aristotle seems to backtrack a bit and to argue that substance is the same as form). The mathematician and metaphysicist Alfred North Whitehead called the distinction between substance and quality, current since antiquity, the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (in his Process and Reality), and rightly so. And thus whereas the distinction between substance and quality is to be rejected, the importance of qualities in general, and certainly the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, still holds.

But if we make the identity of an object dependent on its qualities rather than its substance – its bulk – does that identity not change once there is an alteration in the qualities? It would seem to suggest that, as time takes its toll on an object and alters it, it is no longer identifiable as that which it previously was. That argument has in fact been made, both in philosophy and regular literature. It has been argued that time can only been understood as a process that alters identity. Time is therefore a series of concrete instances, rather than a continuum. Whitehead himself says this, but one finds traces of it in e.g. Heraclitus, in the famous expressions that “everything flows/goes and nothing stays”, and “you cannot step twice into the same river”, both quoted by Plato in the Cratylus 402a; and, much later, in Rilke, one of my favorite poets, in whose Malte Laurids Brigge the main character, a Danish youth residing in Paris, explains that he does not write letters home because he is constantly becoming a new person, and that he would not write letters to people who consequently do not know who he is. On this view, or something like it, entities cannot change but only be superseded by new entities. Objects in time, therefore, are not so much essences as they are events in a series. What we call an essence is really our abstraction from an event in time.

The lovely Mary Shelley, busily composing one of my favorite novels.

Nonetheless, it still seems obvious and a matter of common sense that, say, a human being belongs to a natural category of objects that remains constant. As such, he or she seems to last through time and to be identifiable as the same person at various points of existence. But how obvious is this really, and is common sense always right? The concept of a “person” is, in fact, a rather primitive concept and is anchored, as so many other beliefs, within the narrow confines of our language, which is generally not sufficient to express what we really mean (the constant struggle of the poet and thinker). One classic example of the vicissitudes of personhood is Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein, where the body and brain of the monster belong to other persons, but the behavioral pattern of the new entity arguably creates a different person – or even persons, considering how the entity goes from friendly, naïve, and childlike to a murderous, even if emotional, killing machine. The claims that the one person could lay on our sympathies are not the same as those of the other. Bodily continuity is not a sufficient condition for personhood.

Ultimately, our understanding of a person and of identity receives its sense simply from the assumption inherent in our language, such as the very words “person” and “identity”, which assume that there is one such thing, always capable of being individuated. There are times when we can no longer rely on that assumption, and our common understanding then becomes obsolete. There is no useful sense in which the son who was a model student in school and his mother’s greatest jewel and who then traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban is the same person, which is why, taking that notion to its logical conclusion, such an individual should be repudiated as having no further claim on motherly affection, making some parents’ continued defense of their children’s pathological behavior all the more nauseating. He no longer is the son.