Vincent Descombes talks to Tim Black about identity, autonomy and the need to look outside of oneself.
Who am I? As French philosopher Vincent Descombes explains in his newly translated book, Puzzling Identities, this is a distinctly modern question. Of course, it looks simple enough. And so familiar are we today with the question of identity, the question of my identity, that we barely interrogate the meaning of the question.
But that is precisely what Descombes does in the first part of Puzzling Identities. He looks at how the question of identity – ‘who is he?’ – was originally little more than a third-person inquiry. It is the type of question the reader might well be asking now: who is Vincent Descombes? We can say that he was born in 1943. We can say he is a professor of philosophy at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. We can say, too, that he is an author of several prized works, beginning with Le Même et l’Autre, which was published in English in 1980 asModern French Philosophy. There are other biographical details which further identify Vincent Descombes as that Vincent Descombes. He studied philosophy and sociology at the Sorbonne in the 1960s, for instance, and, while there, he was a member of the anti-Stalinist Marxist group, Socialisme ou Barbarie.
So far, so Wikipedia. But the question of identity, the question of who someone is, has acquired a deeper, first-person sense. It is no longer simply the elementary question of us establishing who he or she is, from their name and date of birth, to their occupation and interests; it is also a moral-psychological question for me or you to attempt to answer for ourselves, a subjective project, an individual quest for that identity for which we want to be recognised, valued and esteemed. And as such, it is often a difficult, vexed question, one experienced by adolescents, for instance, as a problem as they struggle between the values of their parents and those, perhaps, of their peers, or better still, an ‘identity crisis’ to use the famous formulation of Erik Erikson, who plays such a prominent role in Puzzling Identities.
What happened?, I ask Descombes over email. How did ‘who am I?’, a question that, as he argues, wouldn’t have made any sense to an Ancient Athenian or, indeed a Medieval peasant, come to be a defining question of the modern age, generating endless self-presentation on social media, and fuelling the ceaseless demand for recognition of who I am? What was it that prompted Oscar Wilde to predict that, while ‘“Know thyself” was written over the portal of the Antique world, over the portal of the new world, “Be thyself” shall be written’. Descombes’ initial answer is pithy: ‘Between Pericles and us, something took place: Christianity has been active. It has extended to all human beings without exception the concern for personal salvation.’
What distinguishes modern man from traditional man is his refusal to invest his literal identity with a normative function
Descombes is right, of course. Christianity did make the question of one’s salvation or, indeed, damnation, a personal concern, a matter of outward devotion and inward faith. In Puzzling Identities, he cites Hegel from Outlines of the Philosophy of Right (1820): ‘The right of the subject’s particularity, his right to be satisfied, or in other words the right of subjective freedom, is the pivot and centre of the difference between antiquity and modern times. This right in its infinity is given expression in Christianity and it has become the universal effective principle of a new form of the world.’
Hegel’s ‘right of subjective freedom’ is roughly equivalent to what we might think of today as individualism. It is the right of the individual to formulate and act upon his or her own conception of what he deems to be good - his ‘right to be satisfied’. But the question of identity is more than that. It is a form of subjective freedom, but its object is not salvation, or even the good; its object is the self itself. In other words, it is the right of the individual to formulate his or her own conception of his or her self.