Dr. Richard Bourke’s article (Identity? Mine’s knottier than yourshere) is highly critical of our current use of “identity”. He states that: From the beginning the idea of identity was clumsy, and it has scarcely gained in subtlety through repeated usage.

Dr. Richard Bourke’s highly critical of our current use of “identity”

Ancient Conundrum

The word itself originates from the Latin identitas meaning “sameness”. Yet most intellectuals continue to use it as if it meant anything but “sameness”. A legitimate excuse for the departure is that a succinct definition of the term is not possible to derive. This is explained on the basis of an ancient conundrum (consider the Ship of Theseus). In other words, the humanities cannot explain what is meant by “sameness” in a person, thus “identity” is undefinable.

As a result, strict definitions were abandoned, and the term became unbridled. Although widely acknowledged that it has both an individual and a group dimension, it is regarded as not static and does not contain any strict “essence”. Furthermore, it may have many different facets and can change continually; it might even contain contradictions. Under these influences, it began to be applied to describe subjective understandings of “self” and the “group”.

Guardians of Rationality

In 1975, Russian-American writer and philosopher Any Rand claimed that: Definitions are the guardians of rationality.[1] The truth of this statement is seen in the chaos that has ensued from our inability to define “identity”. Today its meanings continue to proliferate. It could even be used to describe the strategy of a football team (as in an offensive or defensive identity). As a result of being used subjectively, identity is in runaway mode gathering a plethora of meanings to itself, thus becoming overused and misused, rendering it no longer beneficial. Clearly, the guardians of rationality have vanished.

If “identity” cannot be defined then any composite word—like Irish-identity—is, by implication, also undefinable. So, it is not surprising that Dr. Bourke in his article concludes that: In portraits of Irish history, culture and society, the concept has been incessantly invoked as a method of explanation even though it appears to explain so little

An Alternative

Thankfully, we don’t have to accept this untenable situation. There is an alternative. In April 2003 the Human Genome Project gave us, for the first time, the ability to read humanity’s complete genetic blueprint. It is not necessary to go into details about the new approach at this point; these are given here and here on this website. Suffice to say that “sameness” can be identified in an individual’s genome and at the species level in humanity.

We now have succinct, measurable and objective ways to define personal identity, communal identity, or both together. Identity is the sameness of the individual or group at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that the individual or group is itself and not something else.[2] The late 16th century origin of the word “identity” (in the sense quality of being identical or the same) is conserved in the definition.

A Futile Exercise

Unfortunately, there is a downside too that becomes apparent when applying the new perspective to the Irish situation. Problems always arise when those who belong to a nation, like Ireland, try to find some unchanging or common characteristics (“sameness”) that identify the whole group within its synthetic borders. It is a futile exercise because according to the objective definition, we share our basic communality or group identity exclusively at the species level.

For this reason, the case is made by some that subjective approaches to identity are more palatable. Making sense of ourselves and society commonly involves processes such as classification (recognising different social categories) and identification (determining where we fit in). From an analysis of this type emerges self-understanding, which is one’s sense of who one is and of one’s social location in terms of intersecting categories.

Self-understanding is often closely linked to belonging (i.e. felt solidarity, connectedness or oneness with fellow group members). Belonging, in turn, is closely associated with one’s perceived culture and nation. The warm-bloodedness of subjective notions is, therefore, more acceptable than the semi-abstract and apparently distant concept of the human genome. And nowhere is the divide more pronounced than when we try to define “national identity”.

Complementary Concepts

The accusation that the objective concept of identity is counter intuitive generally carries with it the suggests that alternative notions are superior because they are instinctive. An intimate understanding of who we are is supposedly not possible by simply stating that our identity resides in our underlying genome. 

On the other hand, confining the word “identity” to its objective meaning will have far-reaching and overwhelmingly positive benefits which include:

  • Its superiority in defining identity in a succinct manner
  • Linguistic precision, simplification and standardisation of meaning
  • Overcoming anomalies that have built up over centuries around the term
  • Knowledge that every person has a unique unchanging identity that cannot be removed despite the vicissitudes of life (we may experience difficult times, but we cannot have an “identity crisis” or lose our identity)
  • Intimate linking of personal identity and communal identity; and
  • The reinforcement of the notion of oneness in the entire human family

The overwhelming benefits accruing from the objective definition are compelling arguments in its favour, but they don’t overcome the warm-bloodedness of subjective notions. Without doubt, we do belong to a fascinating nation; we do have feelings towards it; we sense belonging with our fellow creaturesotherwise how we explain being stirred when reading Irish history; or being aroused when the Irish achieve success? What deep emotions inspire Irish poets, painters, musicians and our numerous writers of distinction? Should we cast all of this aside? To do so runs counter to our fundamental human instincts; it runs counter to feelings of the heart. And it runs counter to our psychological wants and desires. We are logical beings but have souls too.

Dr. Bourke comments that: In the Irish case Roy Foster in effect turbocharged the notion. Irish identity was rechristened “Irishness” and placed at the centre of cultural and political debate. I take the liberty of extending this idea in order to derive a solution to the conundrum outlined in the last paragraph. The answer is not “either/or” (i.e. either we define identity in objective terms, or we opt for subjective perspectives of “Irishness”). Identity is objective. “Irishness” is subjective. They are not the same. By recognising this separation, we realise that there are no contradictions between them. In fact, they are complementary concepts.

References & Acknowledgements

[1] Rand, A. 1975. The Romantic Manifesto. 4. Art and Cognition. A Signet Book; p. 77.

[2] Based on Oxford English Dictionary; 2nd edition, 1989.

Photos 1. Dr. Bourke Wikimedia Commons here 2. St. Patrick’s Day R. M. Keogh

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