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Who Am I? (in 2 x 400 words)

by Bill Meacham on June 12th, 2011

Philosophy Now magazine runs an occasional contest: Write an answer to a philosophical question in 400 words or fewer. The winning essays are printed in the magazine. It is an interesting exercise to condense one’s thought to 400 words. My essay in answer to the question “Who or What Am I?” was selected(1), and I am pleased to present it here, along with another winning essay by my colleague Robert “Little Bobby” Tables.(2)

 

by Bill Meacham
Philosophy is about generalities, universals, but the question “Who” demands particularity: who am I, a particular person in a particular time and place, related in particular ways to others? The usual answers are not of much philosophical interest: Bill, Patricia’s husband, Katy’s father. In each of these identities, however, I find two things: a state of interiority: feelings, thoughts, beliefs and desires with which only I am directly acquainted; and a social role, a relatedness to other human beings, whom I recognize as having their own interiority, like my own. The question is two-fold:

  • How does it feel to be me?
  • How do I function in a social context?

Each of us must answer these questions for ourselves, but we can share our answers with others. In doing so we find commonality, further insight into ourselves, wisdom. Philosophy being the love of wisdom, this is an important starting point: the first-person point of view.

We each have a life-story, what has been and continues to be of importance to us, what the pivotal events were that brought us to the present moment. By comparing stories we find such timeless human themes as love and hate, honor and degradation, loyalty and betrayal, inspiration and despair; and we learn how others have handled themselves in various situations without ourselves having to undergo them. In this way human culture advances far more rapidly than biological evolution.

We also learn what it is to be a self-aware being. The ability to examine our own experience is itself something that distinguishes us from other animals. By taking an “objective” point of view toward our own subjectivity we can transcend ourselves. We are not bound by chains of habit or instinct; we can see who we are and choose to change it. We have, in some measure, the ability to create ourselves.

This ability is not unbounded. There are limits, imposed by evolution, biology and culture, to what we can make of ourselves. But the ability to know those limits and to find ways to work within them gives us the unique ability not only to discover but to decide and create the answer to the question “Who am I?”

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by Robert Tables
The question “Who am I?” can be answered only in the concrete. Anything else would be an abstraction that would liken me to others who share such characteristics. That’s not who I am, that is what I am. So here is a description of who I am in a particular context, walking in the park.

When I walk in the park, I am Friendly Human. I adopt a stance toward others of smiling, looking at them rather than averting my eyes, nodding and saying “hello,” and so forth. Doing so helps me feel safe and connected with them. Friendly Human is a strategy for being in the world that avoids hostility and harm. It includes deference and yielding. I step aside when encountering someone on a narrow path. By letting them pass, I avoid confrontation and disharmony. Friendly Human inhibits territoriality; I get more enjoyment from the path by letting others have it. They pass, and I get to continue to meander as I wish.

I feel different when I am Friendly Human. I am not Worker, focused on accomplishing a task. I am not Competitor, focused on getting somewhere ahead of someone else. I am not Acquisitor, focused on getting what I want. Nor am I Intimate, focused on loving, understanding and enjoying my mate. I am just Friendly Human, a bit like a dog but with more autonomy.

Worker has a sense of self-importance, pleasure at doing something others find worthwhile, sometimes angry at obstacles, sometimes pleased at accomplishment. Competitor feels tense, anxious and angry. Acquisitor feels much like Worker; but when combined with Competitor, it feels hostile. Intimate feels best of all. When I am Intimate, my guard is down; I delight in things my mate does; I let my thoughts and words flow freely; I bask in the warmth of love.

Friendly Human, by contrast, is peaceful and relaxed, but a bit reserved. I am not focused, anxious, angry or hostile, but nor am I completely unguarded. I keep to myself, engaging others briefly if they wish or not at all. Remembering to adopt the strategy is part of its distinctive interiority.

There is philosophical interest in this only to the extent that it illustrates a human capacity: that we can adopt strategies for being in the world and thereby define our own answers to the question “Who am I?”

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(1) Philosophy Now magazine, “Who or What Am I?” Issue 84 May/June 2011, pp. 33-35.  London: Anya Publications, 2011.  Also online publication, URL = http://www.philosophynow.org/issue84/Who_Or_What_Am_I as of 6 June 2011.

(2) A pseudonym inspired by the XKCD webcomic. “Exploits of a Mom.” Online publication, URL = http://xkcd.com/327/ as of 6 June 2011. The author wishes to remain anonymous.

From → Philosophy

One Comment
  1. Kim permalink

    Thank you for posting this essay which made me ponder the difference between numerical and qualitative identity.

    I agree that evolution, biology and culture provide the necessary scaffoldings, for human existence, with both limiting and enhancing effects. Overcoming limitations require innovations or imitation of innovations. :-)

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