The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance (1841)
Identity imperils authentic humanity.
What we identify with, we become, and often at great expense. The word ‘identity’ comes from the Latin idem, meaning “the same.”
In the taxonomic systems of biology, distinctions are made to separate this species from that species by several degrees of similarity and dissimilarity. Adolescents learn the gradations of category: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genius, Species, though even this is an oversimplification of the system actually used by professional biologists, who denote more classifications, subfamilies, subgenera, and so forth.
Yet even these formalities are reductions. Above the Kingdom there is what we might call the Empire of Carbon-Based Life, and we may exist in a multi-imperial universe whose non-carbon living systems await our discovery and classification, and who are collectively still subordinate to the Dominion of Matter, whose sovereign is perhaps Dark Matter, or Dark Energy, which in turned are likely governed by unobserved, unnamed phenomena, on and upward ad infinitum, whose totality will never be comprehended by humans, even if we should be so fortunate as to survive another billion years.
In the old comical fable of the Guru who tells his young interlocutor that the earth is supported by turtles “all the way down”, he might as well have said it is turtles all the way up, too. Such intentionally absurd stories reveal a difficult truth that is hard to swallow, even with the sugarcoating of humor: however much we know and can explain, there is always more that we cannot.
Henri Bergson and others believe what uniquely identified humans is our ability to invent and utilize tools — that is, our capacity for concrete objectification. In our own time, it is proposed that homo sapiens should give way to a homo novus called homo sapiens sapiens, which we could say implies a unique capacity for abstract objectification. Identifying with the objects we use, and even those we invent and make, paradoxically stultifies our creativity by reducing us to servants of those objects.
By contrast, Lewis Mumford argues that what makes humans unique is our capacity as interpreters, our ability to explain our own experience with language that transcends space and time in a way that tools cannot. Mumford’s view, one could say, begins with concrete subjectification (the interpretation of sensation and bodily experience), and ends with abstract subjectification (the interpretation of emotion and psychic experience). Identifying only with our inner subjective experience risks reducing us to our emotions and mental states, and enslaves us to our social customs and rituals established by our myth-making.
In Emerson’s words above, we read an implicit criticism of the advancement of both identities — the tools which weaken, and the interpretations that constrain. That we can even conceive of the division between the objective and the subjective, the concrete and the abstract, already suggests that all of these are essential and foundational to our human identity. We would not be able to discern the cause of the pain of blunt force trauma to the head if we could not interpret the pain within and delineate between the exterior objects that might have crashed against the skull.
To say “human consciousness is our ability to make tools” or “human consciousness is our ability to interpret experience” is in some sense to say the same thing. Our interpretations led to our tool-making, and our tool-making has frequently caused some new interpretation of human experience and existence.
The danger is when we attempt to identify ourselves with one or another particular aspect of ourselves we especially favor, whether at the individual or group level.
If I identify with my intellect because it is stronger than my biceps, how can I expect to appreciate and utilize the full potential of my whole self?
Few look upon the weakling super-nerd and aspire to imitate, except the weakling of slightly less intelligence. Few look upon the steroided vascularity of a muscle-headed gym beast with clear-headed envy.