On Identity, via Kwame Appiah


Issues of identity are front and center in our time. Old certainties are, for some, antique; and for others, they represent the one thing to hold on to for dear life as essences become contingent or fragmented.

I am deeply interested in the matter, and some years ago, for a thesis project, I poked around research on identity. I was ultimately dissuaded by one of my professors who said — and rightly so — that work on identity theory was just too fuzzy. I did write about the subject but in a very specific sense involving cricket and Indian identity (a different story for another time).

Reading Kwame Appiah’s “Lies that Bind”, earlier this week, served as a catalyst to reflect on how my own sense of identity has evolved.


It is fair to say that as one gets older, based on what I see in my peer group (and older), identities tend to get more fixed — after all you now have the weight of years behind the labels that have defined you.

But this has not been the case for me — “obvious” certainties that once seemed central to my being are now fading, and labels that might not have been so obvious are more central.

As one simple example, I find that my work — and I have been doing essentially the same thing for virtually all of my adult life — and my country of origin appear to be far less relevant to my sense of self than was once the case.

Now these “labels”, identities, remain rather central in how other people engage with me; and of course I play along as you do not have the luxury of unilaterally determining your own identity (as some of the quotes below highlight).


The book itself is flawed because Appiah has a larger agenda involving mutual understanding (and, no doubt, world peace). I am not at odds with that agenda, but this book was never going to solve that problem. It could have been profitably used to provide a toolset or frameworks.

No such luck, but sprinkled throughout are snippets that can be used not as tools but as starting points for new ways of thinking. I provide a few without editorial commentary — they triggered a reflection or two in me, and might do so for you.


Entering the 21st century

“We are living with the legacies of ways of thinking (about identity) that took their modern shape in the nineteenth century, and that it is high time to subject them to the best thinking of the twenty-first.”

What IS an identity, anyway?

“In sum, identities come, first, with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should be applied. Second, your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and, third, it affects the way other people treat you.”

“Each of us has what he called a habitus: a set of dispositions to respond more or less spontaneously to the world in particular ways, without much thought.”

“Our third psychological truth, then, is just that we humans ascribe a great deal of significance to the distinction between those who share our identities and those who don’t, the insiders and the outsiders, and that we do this with identities new (like Rattlers or Eagles) and long-established, large and small, superficial and profound.”

What is your/my/his identity?

“There is a liberal fantasy in which identities are merely chosen, so we are all free to be what we choose to be. But identities without demands would be useless to us.”

Bonus quote

“I have called this the Medusa Syndrome: what the state gazes upon, it tends to turn to stone.”


I love that last quote as it pithily captures a central truth of modernity — one that academics understand really well, but 99.99% of humanity does not think about. As an example, many of the labels that make up our identities are artifacts of state-conducted censuses — not eternal truths.


I’ll end with an orthogonal example of how identities can be very odd and counterintuitive things.

The university I attended, and remain closely engaged with, has been around (in some form) for longer than any of the three nation states that I have spent virtually my entire life in. It will likely outlive all three.

This university — like many similar ones — has a micro-culture that is as deep and as rich, in its own way, as any of those nation states; it has a higher mission that is inarguable; and it gives me an imagined community that stretches around the world. It is also the place where I effectively became an adult, and my engagement with it sustains me in important ways today, deep in middle age.

Does this mean this university affiliation is now an intrinsic identity of mine in some deep sense, absurd though that may seem?

Who knows? But it is interesting to think about, and I am grateful to Appiah for provoking these thoughts in the first place.