- The extremity of Identity' politics in many parts of the globe during the last few decades has given rise to widespread use of the term 'identity' as well as to a glamorous theoretical interest in the concept. However, there has been little clarity or rigor in its theoretical deployment. This brief essay will make a very small effort at correcting that.
- My main concern will be how we use 'identity' in the context of identity politics, not how the word surfaces in discussions of metaphysics, about which philosophers have already produced a flourishing and interesting literature. In politics, when we say an individual has a certain identity, we mean that he be longs to a certain type relevant to what we commonly call 'identity politics.'
- For some years now, in various essays, I have tried to impose some theoretical order on the concept by distinguishing at the outset between the 'subjective' and 'objective' aspects of identity. Your subjective identity is what you conceive yourself to be, whereas your objective identity is how you might be viewed in dependently of how you see yourself. In other words, your objective identity is who you are in light of certain biological or social facts about you.
- Of course, subjective identity and objective identity are often closely related. It is neither routine nor plausible, at least in a political sense, to conceive of yourself as something you manifestly are not. Could I, born of Indian parents, think of myself as an African American? I suppose I could. One can imagine all sorts of things that go beyond reality. But since we are interested in the notion of identity in the realm of identity politics, we would be sensible to put aside self-conceptions that amount to fantasies.
- But while the two aspects of identity are closely linked, there can be asymmetry between them. Subjective identity - when it is not mere fantasy - presupposes some proximate objective version of that identity, but not vice versa. For instance, one might be a Jew or an Indian objectively - born to a Jewish mother or to Indian parents - but not identify subjectively as a Jew or an Indian.
- It is worth spending time discussing both subjective and objective identities, since they raise very different philosophical issues and ought to be analyzed in very different ways. But before doing so let me quickly register another distinction.
- On the question of political identity, one can take either a normative angle or a descriptive one. A normative perspective asks if it is good to have identity or to engage in a politics based on one's cultural, national, racial, or other forms of identity. Much writing about identity politics takes this perspective, with a view to arguing either that identities should not be left out of politics or that infecting politics with identitarian issues is dangerous and wrong.
- By contrast, a descriptive treatment of the subject merely tries to analyze what it means to have an identity in the con text of identity politics. Of course, a descriptive angle on identity can observe that those who have a certain subjective identity themselves often think that it is a good thing. However, the theorist of identity, in taking a descriptive approach to the subject, does not take a position either way. This distinction between the normative and the descriptive is important. Too often, an author's normative stance drives his description of identity, skewing the analysis in one direction or the other. Rather than taking a normative approach to identity politics, this brief essay merely tries to examine 'identity' descriptively.
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