Protecting Identity

scienceWe don’t just live in our minds.  We also don’t just live in a world with other people.  We live with the need to have the world in our mind fit with the world of other people, and the shape our life takes is determined by how these two mesh.

At one level, this need to intergrate our subjective perception with the perceptions of others involves having our “factual” view about the world accord with the views others have of the facts.  The sense that we inhabit the same “real” world establishes a norm to which our personal views must answer, and the perspectives others have (especially others who have devoted careful attention to gathering and analyzing the evidence) thus offer a “check” on our opinions.

At another, ultimately more intimate level, the need for the integration of perspectives means having our sense of ourselves accord with the views others have of us.

elbows on tableIn any given encounter, it is possible to interact smoothly with another who thinks of you differently from the way you think of yourself.  It may be irritating, for example, to go to a restaurant or bar where you are a “regular,” and be treated by a newly hired server as a stranger to the place.  But many of us (not all!) can brush off such a slight, especially because we know that, in a short time, the server’s perspective will be corrected as she or he comes to learn from others of our long involvement with the place.  Or, again, it may be amusing to be lectured to by someone with far less experience in a matter with respect to which you are Sailoran expert, especially if you will soon return to a world where your expertise is recognized such that your sense of yourself is not significantly threatened by this minor case of misapprehension.  Finally, such a situation of misrecognition can even be strategic, that is, you might rely on being misunderstood so that you can subsequently win praise through revealing your unrecognized greatness.  I have a friend who used to do just that: at a young age, he had sailed both across the equator and through the arctic circle, thereby earning the privilege of resting both of his elbows upon the dinner table while at sea; he would regularly put his elbows on the table nonchalantly, counting upon being challenged by an older sailor who would presume from his youth that he had not earned the right to do so, only so that he could have the pleasure of proving that sailor wrong.

Reading Plato’s Apology of Socrates, however, is a good reminder that not all such situations of misrecognition are so easy to accommodate.

At the age of 70, Socrates was accused of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens.  Those who accused him and most of those who tried him were significantly younger than he was; they were not there when, as a young man, he spoke with Parmenides and Zeno, or when he learned the art of love from Diotima, or when he A philosopher amongst the youngreturned to Athens from a long absence and spoke with the young Charmides.  Indeed, a number of Plato’s writings that portray Socrates in dialogue with others are framed by the conversations of the individuals who are relaying the dialogue, and those followers, like the jurors at his trial, are also often at a great distance from the original conversation, reporting on something long past that they have only heard about from others.  Both at his trial and with his later followers, Socrates exists primarily as a reputation that he has acquired in the eyes of others–a reputation that may be quite at odds with the identity he actually lived through in the events of his life.  It is hard not to think that both his accusers and many of his followers significantly misrecognized him; in the case of his trial, that misrecognition cost him his life.

Gordon Russon M.D.Most of us will not be tried in court at the age of 70 and forced to justify our lives to the younger generation.  But it seems to be nearly a necessity that with age will come misrecognition.  Your children will not know you as the “life of the party” that you were when you were 25.  Since no one turns to you now for help, no one will recognize how much you know about mechanics, finance, or medicine.  Though for you your love affairs were many and meaningful, no one around you even knows of the existence of your former partners, let alone of your passionate, erotic style.

One need not be 70 or 80 to face such misrecognition.  We can all surely turn to those around us and notice how short and narrow is the history of our acquaintance with them.  But this issue seems especially pronounced for the very old.  When we are younger, we have resources to turn to with which to counter the force of misrecognition: we can turn to a more intimate community of peers and old friends where we feel better recognized, or we can demonstrate through our actions those aspects of our identity that others are failing to notice.  For the very old, though, there typically is no other community to turn to for recognition, and typically it is no longer realistically possible to re-enact an earlier identity.

We should take care that we remember that the old were once young, and that it is up to those of us who are now young to ensure the continuing recognition and remembrance of their true identity.


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One Comment

  1. Jill Gilbert
    Posted February 3, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    John, I wanted to say that this post really affected me. In my teenage years I was kind of obsessed with old people and the passage of time – I worked at an old-age home for this very reason at age 16. I was fascinated – and that word doesn’t do it justice – I was insanely drawn to their old photos and stories and wanted to know who they “were”. There was a sadness related to this, and a confusion about time. At any rate, I see the lack of recognition that is faced on so many levels in older age. I’m beginning to see it in my mom, even. I see her seek within herself memory and identity with her past self, almost to believe it was true and real, and I wish I had offered it first, or had a better way of making her feel herself already.

    Anyway, I wanted to say thanks for the post, on a number of levels it is meaningful for me, and I hope to think more about how to remember and continue the identity of others. I’m glad you write this blog.


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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).