Skip Site Menu



So, who am I?

That's a question that has occupied philosophers and theologicians (and later psychologists, behaviourists and cognition researchers) for a very long time, without reaching a generally accepted answer, so I don't think that I (who?) will be able to pin down a catchy definition here. On the other hand, maybe the important thing isn't to phrase a definition that's true to everyone, but to look at the question from a few different angles and let people think for themselves. We'll see. There is an answer, in the end.

Here, the internet is a handy filter, since it can strip away irrelevant details, like gender, age, dress sense, cultural background and tone of voice. Only my words are left. Without facial expression, body language or choice of clothes I can only use my words to express myself, to show who I am.

I've said before that a human is the sum of its prejudices. That what distinguishes me from you, what makes me recognisable in a conversation, is my prejudices.

For instance, I think the world as a hole would have been better off without the last Iraq war, but I can't prove it. I can't press fast forward to see where it leads, or rewind and press play again with the difference that Bush and Blair left the decision to the UN Security Council. I think, I believe, I judge without knowing.

If you collect all concievable questions and things on which I could take a stand and hold an opinion - brown sauce or mayonaise on the french fries, high or low tax/social security, abortion, fidelity, quorn, Celine Dion or the iceberg - and plot my opionion on some sort of scale for each, you'd get a profile of me that was unique. Provided the questions were narrow enough, since general questions are ambiguos, and that I could indicate its importance. I consider the matter of social security and taxes to be more important than Celine Dion, for instance.

That profile would be unique, describing my opinions, prejudices and beliefs.

For the moment. There's nothing to prevent me from changing my mind. I can't change the second law of thermodynamics, but I can begin to think that Dickens is an overvalued author.

But in the end, it is a description.

The important thing is to remember that a description is not the described, just a representation.

There are those who say that a human is the sum of its experiences. That's an extension of what I said about prejudices above. In this case, you look at the prejudices to see where they came from. You're looking at cause and effect. "Tell me about your mother..."

Very well, I'll put myself on the couch. Let's see... I've got an archaic view of women. I don't doubt their abilities to be as good or bad at doing anything as men can be, but I believe that women should be respected, protected and honoured. You know, the old gentleman.

And that leads to a conflict, since I know that women should be treated like everyone else. And I can often disregard that prejudice and be a thoroughly modern man.

But where does it come from? Well, that's when you look back at your experiences and try to find things that have affected my thoughts and beliefs. I used to read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse when I was young, and his books are full of upper-class gentlemen. When I was younger I read about Biggles, who was a gentleman. I grew up in a village with only boys to play with until I was eight, after which we moved to a village with almost only girls. I've always known that "you don't hit girls".

You can keep digging like that, going from the cow to the cat to the mouse to the rope to the hemp grower to the drug maffia...

And if you keep digging you'll find that everything depends on something else that depends on something else for ever and ever amen. That's when you become determinist, fatalist or insane.

Because it doesn't really matter. Sure, if you want to change, if you want to break out of an attitude, it helps knowing where it came from. It makes it easier to, as the phrase goes, handle it.

But it's still the same mistake. You think that because you "know" why you have this opinion, or that phobia, you also know who "you", who have them, are, when it's all, still, nothing more than a description. You extend the prejudice profile with annotations explaining why you prefer black clothes, or whiskey ahead of bourbon, or why you dislike uncle Albert.

So. Just another way to describe a person, another representation.

We can describe someone using prejudices, experiences, habits.

I can't say "I'm a gentleman" and think it means anything in any fundamental sense. It's an attitude, a prejudice, a habit, a result of my experiences. Just like everything else. So?

We still don't have an answer to that question: who am I?

There is an answer, actually. Depending on your attitudes, prejudices and experiences you will find it to be either a trite platitude, or a profound insight. Ready?

"I" am the one asking the question.


What do you think?
Name (optional)
Email (optional)