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#Identity: Philosophical Perspectives of #Heidegger, #Arendt, #Nancy, #Agamben, and #Mouffe

posted May 15, 2014, 3:50 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

Philosophical Perspectives of Heidegger, Arendt, Nancy, Agamben, and Mouffe

By Peter Moons

     The concept of identity is embedded in the human psyche. Once they become aware of themselves, human beings develop an idea of who they are followed by who they are not. This idea also delves into likes, dislikes, favorites, and avoidances. In the development of an individual identity are the nascent ideas of family, tribe, community, and nation. All of these bounded entities, like the individual, define themselves as much by their beliefs by their dislikes. In the current age, technology has a role in self- awareness, as well. Five philosophers, Heidegger, Arendt, Nancy, Agamben, and Mouffe comment on identity, though each diverges in their focus; in their opinions, they posit some positives about identity while also discussing the aspects that can lead to problems in societies.

     In his Memorial Address, Martin Heidegger posited a clear identity of a person being rooted in their land. One could say that Heidegger’s concept of Dasein is applicable in the development and structure of identity: the presence of the self and the community that individuals inhabit are linked. In the Memorial Address, Heidegger argued that humans are becoming separated from their original culture, which alienates them from their original identity that was connected to nature, to their land.1 Of course, Heidegger wrote at a time when the effects of the Industrial Revolution were being experienced by the multiple generations of families.

     This alienation occurs for many reasons. First, workers have become deracinated and left their homes and native land to find work in far away, dehumanizing urban environments. Second, the technology that creates employment in urban areas further debases the workers and turns them into mere cogs in industrial machines. Though Heidegger wrote this essay in the 20th century, the paradigm he described still exists today in factories in the developing world. Third, there are factors of modernity that degrade “the heavens and the spirit,” as Heidegger wrote: “planning and calculation...organization and automation.”2 These can be called the ‘four horsemen of modernization’ that contribute to the alienation of an individual from his or her identity.

     Certainly, in context, the Germans, and other Europeans whose cultures are more anchored and less mobile, relate to the identity factor of origin. The Germans particularly promoted this idea for years with their Heimat culture of films, music, and dance, harkening back to an ideal relationship of people rooted in their land, families, and even nation. Heidegger’s caveat is this: without a sense of “autochthony,” humanity will lose the ability to dream, to engage in “meditative thinking.”3 These activities are what humans need to create a sense of self. Thus without them, humanity moves away from land, home, family. The facilitator of this deracination is technology; without “rootedness” to land, Heidegger saw that humanity could become rooted to an artifact, especially a technological one.4

      Finally, the salient point Heidegger made about the controlling effects of technology is this: “modern techniques of communication stimulate, assail, and drive man” away from his native land to an unknown space.5 The implication is that owing to modernity’s nature,6 humans may no longer be so rooted in land but in data, causing one to drift through cyberspace, living vicariously through online lives. While he noted the march of “progress” is unstoppable, Heidegger also wondered if humanity’s addiction to technology will eventually to the technology controlling humans.7 If technology can dominate humankind, then technology can also take away or alter a person’s identity. The only escape, then, is through the Heideggerian process of “Die Gelassenheit” -- a “releasement” of technology,8 wherein humanity frees itself from technology’s control and one can find their own identity.

      Hannah Arendt took another view of identity in her book, The Human Condition. For Arendt, one’s homeland is not as important as one’s actions. She noted that “men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.”9 In her view, behavior and verbal actions are the discriminators of identity, not someone’s “qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings.”10 This is a very curious turn and Arendt resolved this conundrum in a Heideggerian style of revelation: A person’s “who” is hidden from them and is only revealed through “speech and action.”11 Even more important than the action that an individual performs is the “who” that is doing the action.12 For Arendt, the actor must reveal herself or himself. Without an identity, the action is nothing.13

      Since the individual has primacy for Arendt, she was not interested in the beginning of history, but the beginning of man.14 Clearly, Arendt saw the story of the world as also the story of man, because man is the “agent” or the “hero...of the story.”15 Of course, telling a personal story changes the perspective on/about someone; a modification takes place.16 However, Arendt said that man, being the hero of the story of the world, cannot also be the “author.”17 This reasoning appears in line with her ideas, as noted above, that humans are recognized by their action. In literature, a valid comparison is that of the title character in Hamlet: his qualities, gifts, and talents, as Arendt would say, are great, but his inaction is not that of a hero archetype.

     For Arendt, there is a major difference between the history of the world and the history fashioned by man: the former occurs effortlessly while the second is both a happenstance and a construct. People seek “immortal fame in the polis,” which shows humans as vainglorious;18 however, death ends this fame-seeking by the individual though perpetuated by those with self-interest who remain behind. Since the final reality is death, humanity could spend less time in technological activities and more time in “contemplative thinking,” as Heidegger argued in his Memorial Address.

     A great question Arendt had here is this: who authored this story of history?19 Really, either God or man is the author of the story, though a person would not know the world if he were not in the world, until his or her identity is revealed. In this regard, Arendt discounted the idea that humanity made the history of the world. Instead, the history of the world could not be made by a collective but by an individual. Arendt’s view is not completely dissimilar to Ayn Rand’s, as she advocated the primacy of individual persons.

     The reality is that man cannot escape his desire for recognition, as an individual or a vain person or even just to have one’s own identity. Arendt noted that “the aspiration toward worldly immortality” is perhaps uniquely linked to “political activity,” which is also “equated with vainglory.”20 Finally, Arendt theorized that the end of humanity might mean the end of the modern age21 as she was concerned about the fate of the individual and the identity she or he possessed. No wonder, then, that humanity experienced an existential crisis concerning the world, wondering if “it was real.”22 If people had more sense of their own identity, they would not feel that the world around them has consumed them as individuals.

     Jean-Luc Nancy discusses identity, identity groups, and violence committed on their behalf, especially ones at the national level, in his chapter titled “Eulogy for the Mêlée.” In the post-Cold War era, identity has trumped the ‘-isms;’ these were, of course, capitalism, totalitarianism, socialism, totalitarianism, and communism -- all prevalent throughout the 1900’s. In the current era, there is a “reduction to identity”23 likely owing to the movement away from the bipolar political structure that spawned global competition between two political camps and their off-shoots. This change, from the international to the local, results in the supremacy of identity.

      While not focusing on the structure of inter-identity group violence, Nancy is concerned with the Serbian-Croat-Bosnian conflict as a paradigm, likely owing to the violence he saw on European TV daily in the early 1990’s. His over-arching theory appears to be that identities are lost to both sides in such a conflict. Nancy describes names of cities, countries, and people as being disassociated from their essence, thereby avoiding the “proper name.”24 The name of the identity, not the individual thing itself, is what matters, especially with ‘the other’ painted as an enemy.25 Perhaps this relates to Dasein from Heidegger: both the transgressor and the victim have their identities concealed during acts of violence.

     Though he goes into deep discussion about mélange and mêlée, more important is his idea that what drives identity violence is the same thing that drove violence with the ‘-isms’ noted above: Group-belonging at the expense of the individual. Nancy notes that the individual is subordinated to the “identity”26 of the wider group, and, concurrently, the individual is devalued in order to grow the construct surrounding the identity. Certainly, national identity is not static but dynamic, particularly over time.27 Due to changes in fortune, demography, war, famine, strife, economic success or failure, etc., a peoples’ identity will morph. In other words, history shapes identity, from the individual to the national level. Nancy’s observation is thus similar to Arendt’s warning about the individual’s subordination to a higher identity group.

     Nancy also describes how violence between different identity groups denies a belief in community; such acts also negate “relation,”28 in many forms. Moreover, the mêlée Nancy describes, “spreads everywhere and kills, violates, irradiates,” affecting neighbors and countries alike. Nancy likely could not fathom the neighbor versus neighbor hate borne out of the Balkan conflict and, unless one lived there, comprehending the conflict was difficult. Essentially, violence negates the identity of the transgressor himself.29 State–sponsored support of identity group violence, like Slobodan Milosevic generated, has the capacity for escalating national aggression, leading to deracination, pogroms, and genocide -- exactly the course of action the Serbians followed in Bosnia.

     Lastly, the outcome of identity group mixing, Nancy’s mélange, can be “an apocalypse” owing to the clash of extremes,30 but is inherently “disruptive.”31 The catalyst is not the difference in identities but the concept of differences people see, particularly racism, which Nancy describes as “stupid, obtuse, and fearful.”32 Thus, while differences receive highlight between groups, the members of the groups seek to increase their own identity, particularly the idea that their group is pure, and ‘the other’ impure. Nancy counters this disparaging mechanism by noting a “pure identity” never exists.33 Because of a lack of purity, the individual and community identities are an mélange themselves. Purity of identity is only in theory: beautiful and undiluted, as well as promoted and exploited for political purposes. The reality is much more messy. Essentially all identity is syncretic and accretive; Nancy saw this and was thus disillusioned at the violence he witnessed in Europe’s backyard.

      Giorgio Agamben has an interesting discussion about ethics, morality, and original sin, which relate to the identity of the individual in light of her or his community. In original sin, he says humans are locked in, or bound by “shackles,”34 implying there is no respite from the emotional and religious history embedded in these concepts. For believers, this imagery is reality, which is inescapable; if there had been no original sin, then they would behave differently, at least in a moral sense. Original sin is also something of a crutch: when humans fail, they fall back on original sin saying they are this way because of a ‘fallen’ nature. As Agamben writes, our “potentiality” is thus handicapped.35

     Also interesting is that humanity recognizes, ontologically, its virtues and vices are oppositional, like yin and yang. So many aspects of humanity have a Manichean nature: love and hate, good and bad, day and night, even life and death. These are the conflicts that make up identity, when considered in totality. Religion, in this regard, provides a semblance of hope – to relieve suffering or explain life’s vicissitudes. Though for some, religion can ‘reveal’ a deeper purpose, or at least attempts to do this, Agamben notes that in “potentiality,” he thinks this must be “repressed.”36

     Agamben also uses the idea of “foundation,” and this is what provides an ethical base for many in the development of identity.37 This basis for ethics becomes skewed when viewed through the lens of class, though; another layer or filter is added, through which we see our “social identity”38 especially when observed in contrast to the ‘other.’ Social class can illuminate (or identify) our ethical ideal, particularly when contrasted; one can call the catalyst ‘inequality.’ The contrast between classes thus shatters ‘concern for the other’ and damages morality.

     This point about identity exemplifies the real fragility in both our moral and political systems: in any revolution, there is a heightened, even extreme sense of vengeance and justice. A time of struggle causes man to not focus as much on potential but how to destroy, as Agamben writes, that which “shackles their potentiality.”39 Therefore, while ethics provide the “potentiality,” a class struggle sees how a segment of society exploits others,40 hoisting a flag of justice and ethics for the few to oppress the majority, until the masses reach a tipping point of tolerance. The cycle continues: A revolution will break the extant paradigm, throwing off the their bindings, freeing the individuals who are members of that community.

     Chantal Mouffe argues for a “pluri-verse”41 solution to the existing individual identity politics in play, particularly in Europe. Mouffe employs concepts of Claude Levi- Strauss labeled “coexistence,” “diversity,” and “originality.”42 There is a dichotomy of thought: a wider “community” identity43 versus the uniqueness of the smallest nation- state of ethnic enclave. In place of the individual and his or her own identity, based on one or more of the multiple factors available, Mouffe advocates for a “collective identity...that creates a strong identification among the members of a community.”44

     Mouffe touches on many different themes: economics, political unification strategies, identity politics, as well as the “insider” and “outsider” perspective.45 In this last concept, Mouffe suggests that Europeans define themselves by who they are not: ‘who are we’ versus ‘who are not us,’ which itself harkens back to the Cold War, but allows for the development of the collective sense of identity she promotes. The ‘us versus them’ model bodes well for international politics, in terms of building consensus among the dozens of EU states. For this reason, Mouffe proposes a “federal union” to politically manage the “homogenous demos.”46 The federal union model would also aid in allowing for the small political, ethnic, and cultural groups to have their voices heard, which Mouffe desires.47 She believes these smaller groups have fallen under the control of larger political, thus preventing their identities from flourishing.

     Importantly, she states that the EU model is not working48 and that Europe needs to move away from the economic policies of capitalism49 in order that Europeans become less like “consumers” and more like “citizens.”50 Mouffe, from her economically socialist perspective, sees the economics of the EU as a catalyst for conflict vice the glue that binds the disparate EU countries together. Consumers do not need identities, essentially; what they require is purchasing power. Thus, Mouffe senses a loss when consumerism reigns at the expense of both citizenship and its concomitant cultural capital. Mouffe disfavors the “Westernization” of economic structures as well as democracies, as this favors consumerism over an individual’s participation in a wider community.51

     Another point Mouffe proposes is in relation to power centers within Europe: she advocates for the development of regional power centers, called “multi-centered forms of governance.”52 Such loci of power would be spread throughout Europe, aiding her agonistic approach to politics -- essentially augmenting the bureaucracy and hierarchy already extant in EU politics. Mouffe’s proposal is encapsulated in the idea of a “pluri- verse,”53 where countries agonistically “engage with each other without any one of them having the pretence (sic) of being the superior one.”54 Mouffe here identifies the culprit: the EU dominated by the large economic states, which bully the smaller ones, causing them to lose their cultural identities, and assume a lower rung on the political power ladder.

     Mouffe also defines democracy in several ways, which is important owing to the value of the individual in such a political system. First, doctrinally, her agonist- antagonist dynamic points her to see competition as evident, but desirable to be maintained, at a low level; thus, she promotes regional power centers versus a strong central government. Mouffe appears to follow the zeitgeist of non-traditional political viewpoints as she promotes what can be called ‘inclusive democracy.’ This structure ensures that all voices in a political debate have the opportunity for speaking, to be heard. For this reason, she endorses the concept of “common” and “collective” identity.55

     In conclusion, there is a difference of focus on identity among the philosophers. Heidegger firmly wishes for a retrenchment by the itinerant workers slaving away in cities; for Arendt, behavior and verbal actions are the markers of identity.56 Nancy sees identity as promotion of the group, to which the individual is subordinated.57 As well, Nancy identifies group-belonging at the expense of the individual as the cause of group violence, which is further exacerbated by a lack of community.58 Agamben proposes the idea of “foundation” as an ethical base for many in the development of identity.59 Lastly, Mouffe wants to hold onto identities within countries so they are not lost to a larger political entity; doing so will permit the creation of a larger “pluri-verse.”60

     There is value in each of these philosophers’ concepts on identity. Heidegger’s concept of connection with the land and the threats to individual identity from the pervasiveness of technology are still valid. Likewise, Mouffe’s valuation of the individual within a “common” and “collective” identity61 promotes inclusiveness. Arendt and Nancy, too, value the individual; the latter sees men and women as individuals, not as “simple, homogeneous” beings.62 Finally, Agamben seems to take a different approach as he sees identity preventing the coming together of larger communities. The issue of identity and how people are part of a political, economic, or demographic community obviously still matters.


1 Martin Heidegger, Memorial Address, from Discourse on Thinking, (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 48. 2 Ibid., 49.
3 Ibid., 46-49.
4 Ibid., 53.

5 Ibid., 48.
6 Ibid., 53.
7 Ibid., 52-53.
8 Ibid., 54. This German word can also mean the beautiful ‘serenity,’ as translated by Google, and is applicable in the sense that to be serene means to not be captured or controlled by technology.
9 Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 179.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., 179-180.
12 Ibid., 180-181.
13 Ibid., 180-181.
14 Ibid., 184.
15 Ibid., 185.
16 Ibid., 184.

17 Ibid., 185.
18 Ibid., 197.
19 Ibid, 185.
20 Ibid., 314.
21 Ibid., 322.
22 Ibid., 320.
23 Nancy, Being Singular Plural, (Standford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 145. 24 Ibid., 146.

25 Ibid., 146-7.
26 Ibid., 147.
27 Ibid., 153.
28 Ibid., 155.
29 Ibid., 155.
30 Ibid., 150.
31 Ibid., 149.
32 Ibid., 148-149. 33 Ibid., 153.

34 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 44. 35 Ibid.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid., 43.

38 Ibid., 63.
39 Ibid., 44.
40 Ibid., 64-65.
41 Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically, (Brooklyn: Verso, 2013), 64. 42 Ibid., 39.
43 Ibid., 46.
44 Ibid., 45-46.
45 Ibid., 49-50.
46 Ibid., 50.
47 Ibid., 49.
48 Ibid., 58.
49 Ibid., 60.
50 Ibid., 59.
51 Ibid., 39.
52 Ibid., 51.
53 Ibid., 39.
54 Ibid., 42.
55 Ibid., 51-53.
56 Arendt, 179.
57 Nancy, 146-147.
58 Nancy, 155.
59 Agamben, 43.
60 Mouffe, 64.
61 Ibid., 51-53.
62 Nancy, 147.