A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 7): Identity

“To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes…A is A. A thing is itself…Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.” –Ayn Rand

As stated previously, gender is both spurious and unstable. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, let’s start with the law of identity, one of the three laws of thought (most commonly called the laws of logic): A is A, i.e., a thing is identical with itself, or each object is composed of its own set of qualities or properties–its essence.

This is known as the law of identity and is the first of the three laws that define coherent thought. Some thinkers have taken the law of identity to imply that to be existant is to have properties. Some would take it further and assert that in order for a thing to exist it must have a set of essential properties, properties that make a thing what it is. We can distinguish essential properties from what some have called accidental properties, properties that objects have that are not essential to what it is. For example, one might assert that in order for a chair to be a chair, it must have four legs, have a back rest, and must be man-made. Those are it’s essential properties. Chairs can come in different colors or be composed of different materials. Those are accidental properties.

This sounds intuitively obvious to most of us and as such, has a lot of appeal. However, upon further inspection, what we consider essential properties could be considered accidental properties by others. For example, might it still be a chair if it has fewer than four legs? How many legs differentiates chairs from non-chairs? What about back rests? Well, we call those things stools, but might the deciding factor in distinguishing chairs from stools be, at least to some degree, a matter of choice?

This apparent element of choice is present in all of our categories. Our decisions regarding what is essential for something to be a particular thing are not 100% objective. This is further complicated by the fact that things constantly change. For example, consider the life and death of a particular tree. It first starts out as a little seed, and over its lifespan, grows, gets chopped down and is then processed into paper. At what point in its lifespan did it become a tree? At what point did it lose its treeness?

Now lets consider the paradox of the heap. If 1 grain does not make a heap, then neither do two grains since one additional grain cannot make the difference between a grain and a heap. Following this rule, if 2 grains do not make a heap, then adding one more does not make a heap. If 3 grains do not make a heap than neither do 4 and so on so that we can say if n does not make a heap, neither does n+1. However, if this continues to hold, then 1,000,000 grains do not make a heap. Neither do 10,000,000 grains nor do 1,000,000,000 grains all the way to infinity. The problem is this seems absurd. Obviously we can say that 1,000,000,000 grains is a heap. So how many grains does it take for a heap to be a heap? Where is the line dividing heapness from non-heapness?

These examples illustrate some critical problems for the ideas of identity and essential properties, and suggest certain limits of language and logic. If objects are not necessarily what they appear to be and if they are constantly changing, what does that say about us and our personal identities? Might we also be spurious and unstable?



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