Persons and Identity

Persons and Identity

Dennis Bradford

388 Posts



Are we persons?

If so, what does that mean?  If not, what, really, are we?

I argue in this post that, if you think you’re a person, you’re deluded!

The Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharshi praised the value of continually asking “Who am I?” as a means to spiritual awakening.

It’s also helpful in that context to ask “What am I?”

This is the third blog post in which I discuss identity judgments.  It will be much less interesting and convincing if you are unfamiliar with the contents of the first two.  Please permit me a quick review.

In the post “Identity Judgments” I attempt to expose the importance of identity judgments by arguing that they are “the most fundamental conceptualizations.”

The notion of fundamentality is a logical one:  the answer to question A is more fundamental than the answer to question B if and only if B’s answer takes for granted or presupposes A’s answer.

For example, “What is a being?” is more fundamental than “What is a human being?”  It’s impossible to understand the answer to the latter without presupposing an answer to the former.

Logical identity judgments of the form “a is a” that assert than an object is the same as itself and different from all other objects are less interesting and important than material identity judgments of the form “a is b” that assert that two objects are really one.

Suppose there is a maple leaf before me now.  I see it; it’s an object in my visual field that I’m attending or paying attention to.  It’s an object (a form, something “singleoutable”, something limited).  It’s separable from its visual background.  It has a shape, a color, a size, a weight, and so on.

There’s no issue about whether or not “this leaf is this leaf”.  That’s not only true but usually uninteresting.  We could say that this leaf is a “pure” object when considered in abstraction from its background and all other objects.

What about the judgment that “the visual leaf is the tactile leaf”?  If that visual object is identified with that tactile object, then it’s real; in other words, it’s an entity, an existent.  That’s not a matter of mere logic; instead, it’s a judgment about the world.  What appear to be two different (pure) objects are really one entity.

If that judgment is true, then that entity is part of the world.  If that judgment is false, then, although we could say that that leaf is part of your world or surreality, it’s false that it’s part of reality, part of the world.  The visual leaf and the tactile leaves would be nonentities, nonexistent objects.  In other words, if it’s false, then the two pure objects really are two and not one.

(When primitive identity judgments are made, then consistency requires making suitable secondary identity judgments.  If so, those secondary ones are much less interesting and important than the primitive ones.)

A critical idea is that, once we make an identity judgment, we are able to enforce it.  This is one of Butchvarov’s original and important arguments in Being Qua Being.  No reason or justification can budge us if we don’t want to be budged.  This shows the limitation of discursive rationality.

In the post “Primitive Identity Judgments” I invited you to wonder about the answer to the question, “How did you begin to understand or conceptualize?”

You’re thinking as you read this.  To think is to conceptualize (categorize, sort, discriminate, classify).  Since you’re now doing that, you must have begun doing it. 

How?  Presumably, you were born with the ability to conceptualize, but you had to learn concepts, which are the principles used for conceptualizing.  How?  What’s their logical origin? 

In other words, what’s the origin of your world, your surreality?  The answer is the logically first or primitive identity judgments that constitute it.  When we go fundamental enough, the spade turns.  That’s rock bottom.

If there were no primitive identity judgments that you take to be true, there would be no surreality whatsoever.  You would not inhabit a world at all.

A critical idea is that the function of identity judgments is simplification.  Once two pure objects are taken to be one entity, then what-is is simpler.  What appear to be two are really one.

For example, the visual leaf is the tactile leaf.  The visual leaf is a pure object.  The tactile leaf is a pure object.  If “they” are one, its different qualities fit together to constitute it.  Again, it has a shape, a color, a size, a weight, and so on.

In this way, the concept of material identity “unpacks” the concept of existence.  (Cf. my The Concept of Existence.)

So far, so good.  Why keep discussing identity judgments?

I’d like you to wonder more about them.  Who or what is doing the simplification?  Who or what is doing the enforcing of primitive identity judgments?

It’s true that they’re getting made.  As we’ve seen, there’d be no intelligibility and no world without them.

It’s insufficient just to answer, “Well, I’m making them.”  Who or what are you? 

I’m challenging your understanding of yourself as a person.  Are you a person?  Are you a separate entity standing outside the otherwise confusing flux of pure objects creating coherence from them by making primitive identity judgments?

If so, what criteria do you use to make them?  Making them haphazardly won’t yield coherence.

If you’re using criteria to make them, how could you possibly have learned those criteria?  How could they be justified?

Suppose, for example, that a skeptic asked you to justify your claim that the visual leaf is the tactile leaf.  How could you reply?

You couldn’t.  You’d be left in dumbfounded silence.  How could you possibly prove that the visual leaf is the same as the tactile leaf?

If you’re not using criteria to make them, then the skeptic wins by default because then there’d be no connection whatsoever between your surreality created by your primitive identity judgments and reality.  There’d be no coherence.

Something’s wrong here.  We are at such a fundamental level that that’s a serious indication that something very interesting is at stake.  There’s little conceptual room in which to maneuver.

The problem is with the assumption that we are persons making judgments.  We’re not.


You’re not, in fact, a person.  Ultimately, nothing is personal

If it were just me suggesting this, you could easily ignore it.  I’m a nobody.

However, it’s not just me suggesting it.  For example, recent sages such as David R. Hawkins and contemporary sages such as Eckhart Tolle also have said it.

Is it conceptually challenging?  You bet! 

Does it shake your self-understanding to the core?  I hope so!

If you’re not a person, what are you?  Ultimately, what is your true nature?

Excellent question. 

My suggestion?  Assuming that you don’t have an answer to the question concerning the justification of primitive identity judgments, you should ask and keep asking:  Who am I?  What am I?

SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:  Panayot Butchvarov, Being Qua Being and Skepticism About the External World.

thinking hard

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