An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2006

Notes toward a definition of ‘identity’

Akeel Bilgrami

Akeel Bilgrami is Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. He is the author of “Belief and Meaning” (1992), “Self-Knowledge and Resentment” (2006), and the forthcoming “Politics and the Moral Psychology of Identity.”

The extremity of ‘identity’ politics in many parts of the globe during the last few decades has given rise to widespread use of the term ‘identity’ as well as to a glamorous theoretical interest in the concept. However, there has been little clarity or rigor in its theoretical deployment. This brief essay will make a very small effort at correcting that.

My main concern will be how we use ‘identity’ in the context of identity politics, not how the word surfaces in discussions of metaphysics, about which philosophers have already produced a flourishing and interesting literature. In politics, when we say an individual has a certain identity, we mean that he belongs to a certain type relevant to what we commonly call ‘identity politics.’

For some years now, in various essays, I have tried to impose some theoretical order on the concept by distinguishing at the outset between the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ aspects of identity.1 Your subjective identity is what you conceive yourself to be, whereas your objective identity is how you might be viewed independently of how you see yourself. In other words, your objective identity is who you are in light of certain biological or social facts about you.

Of course, subjective identity and objective identity are often closely related. It is neither routine nor plausible, at least in a political sense, to conceive of yourself as something you manifestly are not. Could I, born of Indian parents, think of myself as an African American? I suppose I could. One can imagine all sorts of things that go beyond reality. But since we are interested in the notion of identity in the realm of identity politics, we would be sensible to put aside self-conceptions that amount to fantasies.2

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  • 1I spell out the distinction in detail in Akeel Bilgrami, “Identity,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (New York: Elsevier, 2001). Before that I had written about the distinction in a slightly different vocabulary, as the ‘first person’ point of view and the ‘third person,’ or detached, point of view, in Akeel Bilgrami, “What Is a Muslim?” Critical Inquiry 18 (4) (Summer 1992).
  • 2I don’t want to push this too far, however. People do imagine themselves to have various identities, and mobilize themselves politically on that basis. Thus, some group may thoroughly exaggerate its victimhood in the present in order to mobilize an identity in politics. But even here it is presupposed that at some stage they were victims, so it is not entirely made-up and fantastical. I suppose it is also possible that some group completely fabricates an identity in order to make some political capital out of it. I am not saying that one cannot have an identity politics that has only a subjective element with no objective basis whatsoever. I only really want to say that if this happened, we could dismiss the subjective identity much more easily than if it were based on something objective. At the very least I want to say that fantasies are not an interesting basis for identity–or perhaps they are too interesting to be of relevance to identity politics. Still, I grant that such a politics could arise. It cannot be ruled out by mere a priori analysis.
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