If you asked me to introduce myself, I would probably tell you the following: My name is Elisabeth. I am 24 years old, originally from Germany and now living in Israel. If you asked for more information about myself, I would add that I am a student, currently writing my MA thesis.
Yes, that’s me in a nutshell. But is this really me? Are those aspects really what define me? Am I who I am because I am a student, or because I am 24 years old, or because I currently live in Israel? If so, I have to assume that who I really am is extradited to change depending on my circumstances. But is this really the case, am I at last defined by instances?
As you most likely now, the question of “who I really am” is concentrated in the term identity. Now, if one only knew what identity was, one could use it as kind of a manual to discover the answer to the question of who I really am. And indeed, the human thirst for answering this question and defining identityis not a novel one. Already ancient philosophy tried to answer to this question and since then many other thinkers and masterminds have dedicated themselves to the topic of identity. As a natural consequence, a tremendous corpus of literature dealing with the question of how to define identity has accumulated over the years. In recent decades, identity has in addition to that become an interest not only in the field of philosophy and psychology, but in other academic disciplines as well, such as sociology, anthropology or history. Hence, trying to give an adequate definition of identity is not as easy as it may seem – if not impossible.
Yet, there are some definitions which are more established than others. One of the definitions I personally like the most, is the definition (or shall I rather say a comment on the topic’s complexity) of the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson’s (1902-1994):
“At one time, then, it [identity] will appear to refer to a conscious sense of individual identity; at another to an unconscious striving for a continuity of personal character; at a third, as a criterion for the silent doings of ego synthesis; and, finally, as a maintenance of inner solidaritywith a group’s ideals and identity.” (Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle, 1959, p.102)
In other words, identity refers the psychological sense of continuity, the personal characteristics that distinguish an individual from another, and the social role of an individual. Using these criteria as a manual, we could – theoretically – discover our identity and thereby the answer to who we really are. Doing this, we would discover that we are indeed defined by our instances, but also by something much deeper, by characteristics which only we inhere. And, we would discover that the answer to the question “who I really am” is extremely complex. That’s why we leave the theory to the theorizers and introduce ourselves by our age, our profession and our nationality. That’s who we are, that’s what defines us – and, in a sense, it is the truth.