As I mentioned a few months ago in my post “Idealism and Identity“, personal identity is, paradoxically, often a social construct. Here I’d like to dig more deeply into why that’s the case, but without straying too far into theoretical matters because I like to provide practical insights in my blog posts.
For many years now I’ve been intrigued by the ecological account of perception developed by the husband-and-wife team of J.J. Gibson and Eleanor Gibson. One of their key concepts was that of affordances, which Donald Norman and others have popularized in the field of human-computer interaction. As my friend Jackie Ralston summarized it in a recent blog post, “Affordances are perceivable opportunities for action in an environment that are specific to an organism.”
In English, perceptual affordances are often expressed with words ending in -able or -ible: this path is walkable, those berries are edible, that water is potable, etc. With greater experience of life, concepts like this start to extend to the social aspects of human life in all its variety: this product is marketable, that bachelor is eligible, bribery is a fireable offense, etc. As the phenomena involved become more complex, rational explanation becomes more crucial (exactly why is this product marketable?) and values come into play, leading to English words ending in -worthy (this boat is seaworthy, that person is trustworthy, etc.).
Much of the glue of human interaction comes from the sorts of personal evaluations we make every day: this employee is reliable, that child is likeable, etc. Because human beings are social animals (as Aristotle observed long ago), one’s self-conception is often bound up with one’s perception of how one is evaluated by others. Terms for the relevant traits are common in personality theory and folk psychology: someone can be agreeable, likeable, dependable, excitable, incorrigible, incorruptible, etc. Such words all have social significance. (At the same time, some character traits are not primarily social: consider qualities like curiosity, vitality, spirituality, or wisdom.)
It strikes me that one of the challenges of life is not allowing social affordances and perceptions to completely swamp your personal identity. Yes, we are social creatures, so social interactions are inevitably significant in your family, friendships, workplace, and community; but they are not everything and it’s essential to discover a beautifully right balance between pleasing others and pleasing yourself, as it were.