Lesson 20

A mind like a chameleon

The problem of personal identity occupies a great importance in the life of the individual. We all grew up in a particular society identifying ourselves with a particular essence, operating under the assumption that there is an essence which defines our self as an individual. This is a way of separating ourselves from the other members of a given community and a way of ascribing a particular nature to our individuality. Society and those around us daily remind us that we have an individual nature when we are told to remain true to ourselves, or to be ourselves. But what is our sense of self in the first place? Do we even have a sense of personal identity to start with? As beings that exist in history, who encounter different affairs and circumstances, do we even have a personal sense of identity to start with? Since our day-to-day existence - and life in general - is full of different moments, which moment is going to define our essence, and do we even have an identity that is not subject to change?

What made me delve into such a discussion of the question of the self and personal identity is an encounter I had with Amara. I was about to put her to sleep. My wife usually reads her a story. I must admit I do not have the patience for that. I let her fall asleep to pop songs while staying with her. Her favorite goodnight song these days is "Pink Moon" by Nick Drake; she made it her own, because she thinks it was tailor-made for her, because she loves the color pink, and she is a big fan of the moon. It is kind of important for me to introduce her to what I think is good music. It could be anything from Brahms and Calexico. Funny enough, her favorite song for a long time was "Last Train to London" by the Electric Light Orchestra. I think there is a reason behind it. We live in Switzerland, but we speak English at home, because I met my wife abroad and English stayed our family language, even after moving to Switzerland before Amara was born.

When Amara went to kindergarten, she found out that other kids here do not speak English. Before kindergarten she mostly had contact with kids who spoke English or wanted to learn it from her. I tried my very best to create some sort of interest in German or Swiss German, but I failed. I could say that Amara flatly refused. She saw no point in learning German, but I also liked the intimacy it created when we spoke English to each other. Even though I am Swiss-German, I prefer to speak English. Most things can be said much easier in English than in German. Paradoxically, I read most of Heidegger and Hegel in English. So, Amara's first weeks in the kindergarten were hard, but I knew she would come around and learn German quickly because she wanted to interact with the other children. But then the question came from her, why do I speak English? She answered the question herself by believing she was born in London. For her, London was the center of the world (because Mr. Bean, Paddington and the Queen lived there). So I asked Amara that night, "do you want to listen to Last Train to London?" Amara responded by saying no and so I asked her, "How come? Two years ago, this was your favorite song!" Amara then said that she did not remember the song because her mind is like a chameleon. This I thought was not just a simple response to an ordinary question but an invitation into a philosophical inquiry into the nature of personal identity.

In the conversation that I had with Amara, two sets of assumptions about the nature of personal identity are being developed. The first one is the view that is predominantly developed in our community, and this is a position that sees personal identity in fixed terms. So when I asked Amara about the song, I was working under such a static concept of identity that assumes that human beings have a particular nature that essentially defines them. The second one is the view that Amara developed, and serves as the refutation of the very existence of personal identity. It involves an element of choice and autonomy and shows that there is no single characterization of the identity of the individual that is not capable of change within the passage of time.

In asking why she does not remember the song that she used to like, I am assuming that although Amara exists in time, still there are no significant differences of her personal identity that dictate the way she experiences the world. This is an essentialist position that contends that human beings have a fixed nature unaffected by the changes that happen over time. Throughout the history of philosophy, various thinkers tried to understand the nature and meaning of personal identity. The most explicit statement was developed by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He argued that there is no such a thing as a fixed truth and that the only real thing in the world is constant change. The challenge presented by him is, if everything else in the world is subject to change then what qualities are going to remain permanent and true, and can therefore be used to understand the nature of truth, reality and even the nature of the individual?

If we are to accept the views of Heraclitus, then it would mean that the self, just like everything else in the world, exists in time and does not have a fixed nature, since everything is subject to constant change. This is the view that we find in Amara's assessment of her identity as a kind of chameleon. She is not fixed on a particular moment in time and admits that her sense of self is one that is always going through a process of change. In saying that her mind is like a chameleon, she is showing that human beings have the capacity to adapt to their environment and that there is no fixed sense of self which remains true in each and every situation. Her chameleon-like mind is not focused on only a specific point in time; rather, it is involved in a process of gradual overcoming.

Amara's declaration that her mind is like a chameleon invites us to analyze the relationship between individual nature and the passage of time. Human beings who exist in time in their day-to-day lives enter meaningful relationships in their quest for meaning. The question that must be posed here is, do we remain the same in our lives and is there a fundamental quality of the individual that is always the same throughout the path of day-to-day existence? If we have a fixed human nature and a sense of personal identity, then does it means that no matter what kind of experience we are subjected to, still there is an essence that radically defines us? Amara does not agree with such a position since she conceives herself as a being that is always evolving and living towards the future. What has happened in the past is a crucial experience, although it is not entirely constitutive of each and every action that she takes throughout her life. This would lead to the assertion that personal identity is not fixed and that it is always in a process of changing toward something new.

Derek Parfit, a British philosopher who specialized in personal identity, strengthened the idea that there is no fixed sense of self and personal identity when he argued that although the human self is a thing that exists in different moments, there is no sense of identity which glues together the different moments the individual has experienced. Based on this, Parfit contends that the only way we could understand the nature of the individual is with the path of the relational. Human beings, in their desperate search for meaning, relate to other human beings and the physical world they live in. Still, in this quest for truth and meaning, there is no essence that defines the individual out of the web of day-to-day human relationships. The idea that there is no fixed sense of personal identity is what is clearly developed in Amara's position.

When I asked her if she could remember the song, I was assuming that since there is a personal sense of identity, that sense of purpose could subsequently be used to ask whether Amara still remembers the song. The answers that she provided by stating that her mind is like a chameleon shows that human beings have the ability to adapt to any environment. What ultimately dictates their essence is not a sense of personal identity that they hold but the environment into which they are thrown. When human beings shift from one space into another, one sees that their sense of identity changes as well. This is the reason Amara, in the current context, is not able to establish a strict relationship with what has happened in the past.

Having a chameleon-like mind is a state of mind which allows us to easily adapt to a changing environment. In her statement, Amara has chosen to develop two sets of identities. The first one is from two years back when she was captivated by the song; the second one is where Amara does not even remember the song. We cannot say that in both moments there was a single person that is the same and united in nature. Amara clearly shows us that the idea of having a personal sense of identity is an unattainable task. Whereas other objects in the world have a material and fixed nature, human beings are just beings that exist in time, and because of this they do not have a permanent future that is spelled out in rational forms.

The question of the self and personal identity is one that is explored in detail by British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. He believed that there is a need to identify the limitations of the view that states the self is a kind of a substance. If the self is a substance, then that would mean that it has a fixed nature and essence that could be identified. What Whitehead tries to accomplish is a non-substantive concept of the self. On the contrary, he emphasizes the fact that the self can be seen as something that is constituted within a temporal world of societal relations. There are two major issues that are emphasized here. The first one is the idea that there is no fixed self and that it is something that always evolves since human beings exist in time. There is nothing that can remain true and the same in different aspects of the life of the individual, and because of this, there is no sense of fixed personal identity. The second point that must be emphasized is the idea that human beings as individuals are always involved in a set of relationships in their society. Our individual existence does not take place in a vacuum, but within the horizon of time and the kinds of relationships we establish with other individuals. This view is significant as it shows that there is no underlying nature of the person apart from the specific relationships that we get into with other members of our society.

Whitehead's view seems to be fitting to Amara's understanding of her mind as a chameleon in a few ways: First, Amara is not identifying herself with any nature apart from the assertion that she has a chameleon-like quality which allows her to adapt to the different aspects of day-to-day life. Secondly, we should also see that even the chameleon-like quality of her mind is not to be associated with either rationality or emotions. She understands her existence within the horizon of time, and her flexible mind is adapting itself with whatever experience she is trying to make sense of. She as an individual has different sets of choices and preferences. Those choices are not absolutely related with one another but take place within the horizons of space and time. This shows that what is important in Amara's existence is not the fixed nature of the individual but the kinds of interactions we embark on through the continuum of time.

As we see in Amara's choices, and in her assertion that she does not even remember the song that she used to love in the past, human beings and their sense of the self are always evolving. This helps us to make sense of the relationship between the self, identity and choices. Whereas the existing view was predicated on the assumption that we have a fixed self and that this sense of identity does not change over time, Amara's statement shows us that the self is always evolving, and that what has happened in the past cannot be used to grasp the nature of the individual.

The ideas of French process philosopher Henri Bergson could also be used to have a unique grasp into the question of personal identity. Bergson believed that human existence is characterized by a temporal experience. In such a context, it is the world of culture that is the most decisive force in the life of the individual. The individual does not have any fixed nature apart from the system of cultural values that the individual's existence is embedded in. Since culture shapes our identity, the analysis Bergson developed does not operate with the assumption that human beings have a nature understood in an autonomous way at an individual level. Their sense of the self is necessarily bound in nature and its parameters are to be understood in relation to the world of others or the sense of communal life and existence.

While dominant concepts of the self concentrated on trying to find the essence of the individual's existence, Bergson focused on the process of becoming. Perceived this way, individual human beings are always participating in the process of becoming. This is what is revealed in Amara's concept of her mind as a chameleon. She is always evolving towards the future and because of this, does not have any fixed nature. Her sense of the self from the past does not hold an absolute value over the temporal existence she is leading in the present moment. This is seen in the fact that she does not remember the song she used to like in the past. This is a testament to the fact that there is no fixed human individual nature, and that we are always in the process of evolving and becoming and assuming a new sense of identity in living towards the future.

The question of personal identity occupies a huge importance, since it is used as a way of ascribing meaning to ourselves and those we interact with. When I asked Amara if she remembered the song that she used to love two years ago, I was subjecting her existence to a theory of personal identity that says human beings have a fixed personal nature. This view assumes that although there is a great deal of change in the world, human beings have a specific essence. The response that she developed shows that human beings adapt to changing circumstances and that as beings who are existing in the world of other people and the word of constant change, they have the ability to adapt, and they do not have a fixed nature. A chameleon-like mind, above all, focuses on adaptation, temporality and the changing nature of the individual self through time.

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To be human is to become human, Japsers rightly remarked. Philosophy deserves to become an integral part in our daily life, no matter what conditions and circumstances we find ourselves in. Philosophy is here for us to embrace our diversity and our unity. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Every child and every grown-up should have access to love and wisdom.


© Marcel Emmenegger, CH-9100 Herisau
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