I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you there!

After much delay, here is the second human problem that I think sorely lacks the input of philosophy.

2. Spreading Recognition.

Identity is a minefield. The philosopher arrogantly saunters in, convinced that she knows a safe path to the other side. Sooner or later she becomes disoriented and loses her way. Unable to advance and uncertain of how to retrace her steps, she quickly finds herself trapped by dangers below the surface. She is forced to choose between advancing at great risk and remaining paralyzed where she stands, unable to make any further progress. Invariably her daring venture is unsuccessful. Her only consolation is that her ill-fated attempt has demarcated a small pocket of relative safety amid a vast landscape of hidden dangers.

Or perhaps identity is a pit of quicksand. The unremarkable surface appears safe and stable. The philosopher lowers his guard as he advances on his exploratory mission. Eager to hurry onward, he ignores the hidden workings of this powerful phenomenon. With just a few careless steps his fate is sealed. As he finds himself slowly sinking into the sand, he becomes all too aware of the severity of his plight. The philosopher knows that to survive he must remain calm and that any movement will only worsen his situation. But his Reason and Instinct clash. What begin as self-controlled attempts to salvage his predicament quickly devolve into a panicked – even frenzied – struggle. He knows that without help he is doomed and that his only hope is to wait for a better-equipped rescue party. But it is starting to get dark and cold. Instinct is gaining on Reason. Against his self-interest, he begins to struggle and scream for help. His last acts of desperation ensure that he will never be heard from again.

Or maybe identity is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The passing philosopher is tantalized by an alluring sign that promises unlimited gratification tailored to her own design – all for a reasonable one-time fee. She begins her meal boldly, self-assured of her boundless appetite. But she sets out at an unsustainable pace, taking in too much, too early. As she eats all of her favourite foods by the plateful, she hits a wall. Her initial zeal quickly gives way to a far different feeling – she soon finds herself bloated, sweaty and struggling to breathe. As she sits amongst the debris of her feast, she remorsefully questions the wisdom of her undertaking. Only after it is too late does she see the folly of her greed and the carefully-crafted deception of all-you-can eat!

I suspect that these three metaphors have conveyed to you, dear reader, my general impressions of a philosophy of identity; at this stage of maturity, philosophical wrangling with identity doesn’t produce much of use. If anything, one becomes quickly trapped and overwhelmed – any tentative answer seems only to multiply the unanswered questions. One’s initial enthusiasm crumbles beneath the weight of multiple fundamental unresolved dilemmas. But why is this? I suspect the grim short-term outlook for a philosophy of identity is partly due to how new the idea really is. Granted, the nature of the self in society has been a staple of philosophy for centuries. But our secular, democratic, egalitarian, multi-cultural society is relatively unique in history. In fact, by almost any measure, it is new in the extreme. These defining ideals of my generation are barely a few decades old. An obvious consequence is that we need a new concept of identity that is compatible with our way of life. We need a strong departure from past thinkers who were unable to foresee the multiplicity of human natures in an age like our own.

As with any emerging philosophical problem, the early stages can be quite messy. But still I can’t shake the feeling that the novelty of the problem is not the only factor delaying identity from emerging as a disciplined, coherent philosophical problem in its own right. I think a further wrench in the works is that identity is a quintessential interdisciplinary concept. Almost anyone from any area of expertise can throw some ideology into the mix. This has the further unpleasant implication that pretty much anyone can toss in some freshly-invented vocabulary and concepts. It doesn’t take long for one to get caught in the crossfire of the multi-dimensional battles between various schools of thought and disciplines. Psychology, sociology, philosophy, law, biology, anthropology and many other disciplines all have something to offer. Perhaps the problem is that they all have something to lose as well. If there is one thing consistent across the sciences, it is that they don’t like to cede traditionally-held territory to ‘rival’ disciplines!

So if this concept of modern identity is as badly plagued with academic despair as I claim, why do I bother to bring it up in my fledgling blog’s third post? Because I think that at its core there is a nugget of relative simplicity that can be salvaged and put to good use: recognition. A bare-bones definition of recognition is straightforward; identities that are legitimate deserve to be recognized, tolerated and accepted by society at large. A generic recognition theory says that we ought to mutually understand one another and accept the plurality of human natures. Like many good ideas, it makes sense, it seems fair, and it is practically impossible to hammer down in any conceptual way. In that regard, recognition is a lot like utilitarianism. They both sound great until someone starts pitching curve balls at you – exceptions, extremes and loopholes that sour the whole picture. But like utility, recognition is probably as good a heuristic as any for most of our conduct on an individual level. ‘Live and let live’ is about as good a maxim as ‘do the most good’ in our day-to-day lives.

The problems I alluded to above come when recognition is extrapolated to the institutional or massively collective level. When we are talking about the principles that should organise and govern society, we must address those curve balls, exceptions and extremes head-on. And there certainly are a lot of them. Determining what constitutes an “identity”, what makes it “legitimate”, and how exactly it is to be “recognized” by “society at large” is no simple task. But fear not, dear reader! I too become alarmed whenever I encounter a pair of scare quotes in philosophy. That is their purpose, after all. But four sets in one sentence is enough to make one clench and brace for impact! I hope to show that another way of thinking is possible, one that does not lend itself to imagery of dying or over-eating philosophers and that eliminates the need for scare quotes at every turn.

I think that to clarify our thinking about identity and society, we need to make our thinking fuzzier. We need to admit that a concept does not have to be rigidly defined to be useful.* Simply put, we do not need hard and fast rules about what constitutes an identity, nor what constitutes legitimacy.

Instead, we might profitably focus on the basic process by which those who feel unrecognized by society can come together as a collective identity and achieve some form of recognition. In short, we should determine the steps by which a group can acquire meaningful social acceptance, legal protection from discrimination and that ephemeral sense of worth and belonging.

The reason I think that philosophers can become so entangled in their own reasoning is that there is pressure to establish absolute, universal logic of recognition. This is a pervasive problem in philosophy more generally. As Amartya Sen nicely argues in his latest book The Idea of Justice, the temptation to define the ideal solution to a problem is an impossible and not necessarily helpful task in matters of moral philosophy. So when many thinkers contemplate identity, they become distracted with the burning question of what identity struggles would look like in a “perfect democratic society,” or what “universal, total recognition” would amount to.

If we view recognition as an expanding process, we can say quite a bit without saying too much. Recognition might be profitably seen as an algorithm for social diversification. It is the process by which a critical mass of like-minded people can come to be understood and accepted by the larger group to which they belong. It is a mechanism for the extension of empathy in democratic society. It is a way for subsets of human behaviour to coalesce and create community within a larger, accepting community. It is a pathway for groups with particular interests to achieve a sense that they are stakeholders in society and that their particular interest is a matter of importance in the social discourse. There are many turns of phrase that essentially amount to the same thing: recognition is a seat at the grown-ups’ table. Peter Singer’s image of the “expanding circle” of morally relevant considerations is very apt. He was also notable for including animals and other non-human concerns in this growing field of moral worth, but we will leave that for another time!

There is a glaring problem of relativism. How are we to determine which groups deserve legitimacy and which do not? Many hot-button issues today are of this exact nature. Are bans on Muslim head-coverings for women acceptable in an egalitarian democracy? Are we to allow trans-gendered people to hold any position in society that a gay or even straight person might? Are we to allow cults that don’t physically harm their members? Polygamy? A common response is to enumerate the principles of a democratic society and then ostensibly allow the identities that do not contravene them. Given this, it could very plausibly be argued that headscarves are permissible, all non-violent religious affiliations are acceptable, all forms of marriage between consenting adults are to be allowed, and the exact configuration of one’s genitals is unimportant in the context of (almost all!) employment. Simple, right?

Of course this is a terribly artificial point of view. Recognition is as much about protecting differences as it is about building cohesive, accepting, civil society. It is about diversity within a unity. E pluribus unum is not a realistic possibility if individual rights are enforced at the expense of an open discourse. There are uncountable unrecognized identities that are indeed logically consistent with democratic rights. But ramming all of these through the courts is not the solution. To be sustainable and desirable, recognition must be anchored in the will and the capacity of a people to accept an idiosyncratic type of behaviour or existence. This is a highly complex and diffuse statement, but it is not incomprehensible. It is just very fuzzy.

And this brings us to my central argument, which I hope to revisit in later posts. My point is that fuzzy thinking is necessary when we concern ourselves with social matters like recognition. The tendency to speak in terms of axioms and logical arguments has limited use. Certainly it is an effective method of persuasion in the discourse; the appeal for gay rights, say, via clear syllogism is a crucial component of the democratic process. But it is hopelessly idealistic to view the struggle for recognition as a process conforming to this form of logic. Social forces, historical accidents, political climate, economic patterns and so forth all have effects that commingle in vastly complex ways.

In our Enlightened era we have been spoiled with clear thinking about the natural world. And while I certainly aspire for a naturalistic account of social forces, I admit readily that such explanations are distant realities. I have little doubt that our theories of social movements will be looked back on as positively quaint by future generations. I hope it is not too disparaging to the social sciences to say that our current wrangling with recognition is reminiscent of past struggles to understand the motion of the planets and the configurations of the stars. Pioneers are persecuted and ridiculously simplistic explanations, though perhaps clever in their historical context, prevail almost unquestioned.

To conclude I will say that recognition has its core imaginative empathy. As I argued in my second post, the humanist framework is particularly well-suited to accepting new ways of life because it recognizes that traditionally maligned groups and behaviours are today wholeheartedly accepted, much to the delight of those who might otherwise find themselves living excluded, dismal existences. The humanist framework nicely couples with a loosely articulated fuzzy theory of recognition. This social concept is highly complex, and a hearty dose of philosophical humility is badly needed. Our ignorance of this matter is not permanent nor necessary, but it is real.

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*This is certainly not a new insight; Wittgenstein famously made this point with the concept of ‘game’. Hammering down the specifics of an adequate definition is fraught with difficulty, yet we are nonetheless able to use the concept effectively.

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