In college, when I was doing an extremely rewarding and valuable liberal arts degree, I took a number of classes in the Philosophy of Identity taught by a former Finnish opera singer. Many of the texts assigned for these classes employed the classic brain-in-a-vat thought experiment to test out various theories of self-perception. They were all, without exception, stultifyingly boring, but the former opera singer was a very nice lady, and her classes fulfilled a requirement that allowed me to graduate a semester early and save my parents a half a metric ton of money.
My take away from those classes was that identity is a complicated mess of misperceptions and half-truths, much like the value proposition of a liberal arts degree.
Given the opportunity to talk about ourselves, we make bold statements like, “I am a cyclist” or “I am a writer,” as if those temporary actions derive from some deeper sense of purpose or intention. The bicycle is always a bicycle, unless it is destroyed, but is the cyclist still a cyclist when he stops cycling?
See, these are the sorts of annoying questions you get all day, once you’ve committed to the liberal arts.
In practical terms, we perpetuate the parts of temporary identity we like and want to project to other people. We are cyclists. You can tell by our shaven legs, bicycle-related t-shirts and funny tan lines. This part of identity is a creation, painting ourselves onto other people’s eyeballs. We spend obnoxious amounts of time (and money) on this. When it becomes too obvious that this is what we are doing, we are called vain, and we retreat into more covert ways to get our story across, like writing a blog.
The sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “Looking Glass Self” to describe the complicated ballet of projected identity. “I am not what I think I am,” he said. ” and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think you think I am.” By wearing this cool t-shirt, I give you the clues you need to form the right idea of me. Look at my funny, little hat. I am pretending I don’t look silly, because as a cyclist, this is what I do.
In the suburban milieu I move in, “what do you do?” is a common question, a way to figure out who someone is and how they fit into the world. Unless the person standing next to you at your kid’s soccer game has a white coat and stethoscope around their neck, what are you going to do?
What I usually say is, “I sell custom bicycles,” which invariably occasions looks of strained credulity and some mention of a bike hanging in a garage somewhere, rusting. When push comes to shove, I tell a more complete story, which often results in the same reaction. Sometimes, as it turns out, we give the world clues it fails to use to solve our personal mystery. My interlocutors look at me askance. “Custom bicycles,” their eyes say, “is that a real thing?”
It is, but it is probably not WHO I am.
What I would like to say, even to this vocational question, is “I am a cyclist,” but that implies one of two things. I am unemployed and riding my bike is the most worthwhile thing I can come up with to tell you about, or I get paid to ride a bike. I am a professional. Neither of those things is true, and they just make the conversation more complicated, so…
Maybe, if we accept Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” (tidbits like this are the province of the liberally educated) then the corollary, “I am what I think,” is also true. In that case, I really am a cyclist. In those moments when I ought to have been paying attention to Finnish opera singers, I was probably, at least mentally, riding my bike. Even now, as I’m typing, I’m up a hillside, rocking in the pedals, the wind stroking my helmetless hair (I eschew safety in my daydreams), the effort costing me nothing. I was breaking finish lines, kissing podium girls. I was busy.
As I said last week, I am easily distracted, even from my distractions.
And I like this idea of spontaneous identity, the one that comes from my daydreams and my passions. If I had paid closer attention, I might be able to tell you something about yourself as a brain-in-a-vat, something logically true but not altogether comforting. Unfortunately, that’s not how I roll (athankyouverymuch), even though I managed to graduate cum laude from an esteemed institution. The hard parts of academia escaped me. Call me liberally artistic.
In my mind, it all comes back to the stories we tell ourselves and others, personal myth-making. That these things may not, strictly-speaking, be true, or at least gross over-simplifications of who we really are, I find them comfortable and comforting.
Tell them all you’re a cyclist. Keep a straight face. Skip class/work/jury duty. Ride your bike. It’s who you are.
Illustration from L’homme de René Descartes, et la formation du foetus…. Paris: Compagnie des Libraires, 1729.
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