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Monday, December 19, 2016

Existentialism and personal identity

Just over two years ago I wrote about my thoughts concerning a character in a Richard Ford novel and his concept of a "default self", that a person's identity is defined by what they do. This concept came back to me this semester in college during a philosophy course where among the readings was a selection from Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness.

Ford's character's default self is very similar to Sartre's idea of "facticity", a person's essential nature. Sartre believed humans could transcend their essential nature by their own decisions about their actions. An example would be a shy person who chose to become a public speaker. Choices such as this give humans what Sartre calls "radical freedom." I suspect Ford was familiar with these ideas because he stresses that the default self is a person's own creation. His character's musings seem a slightly different slant on Sartre's concept of transcending facticity. I remember Sartre's plays, novels, and writings on existentialism as popular when I reached my early teens. I read a little Sartre, but I think I was too young to fully understand what he was saying. Being a little older, Ford may have gotten it better.

Both Sartre and Ford were looking at personal identity, a subject of interest to me especially when I look back to when I was younger. The philosophy instructor is a young man who recalled that when he first left home for college people advised him to "be yourself, Andrew", but he didn't know what they meant. I understand his confusion. Many young people resolve their questions of personal identity by joining a group which gives them an identity and sense of belonging. Jock, nerds, sorority girls are all groups which provide roles and identities. The large identity group when I was young were the hippies, although we more commonly referred to ourselves as freaks, and everyone else was the straight world. After college when I began working jobs which required wearing suits and ties I felt a clash with my established identity.

By the late 1970's, some college-educated people I knew began referring to themselves as professionals which seemed to have a broader definition than the traditional one of doctor or lawyer, and young, urban, professional became "yuppie". I suspected this group self identity served to set them apart from those who were not college-educated.

I never completely understood the "hipster" identity of my children's generation, but I believe it's some combination of hippie and yuppie although maybe I'm wrong about that. I'm often wrong or fail to completely understand things about young people now that I'm old.

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