Psychology and Philosophy of Identity

Plato talks about eudaimonia. Aristotle discusses practicing virtues as a way to achieve a complete character. Emile formulates an optimal way (in his opinion) to educate children. All philosophers have their unique ideas about particular concepts. However, these ideas share a common theme: identity. 

Everything that we do contributes to our own stories of who we are. How hard is it to figure out our identity? From what I learn from my psychology class, it involves a lot of struggle and confusion that can be explained psychologically. If you are in college, you are most likely in the fifth stage of Erikson’s 8 Stages of Development, which is Identity vs. Role Confusion. So, as a college student, we often try to find who we are by meditation (Plato – enriching your soul), community service (Aristotle- practicing virtues), studying (Emile- following your study habits developed in early age), and many other ways college offers.

A problem that we might encounter is identity foreclosure. It means taking on moralistic and conventional identity without knowing why. The source is our desire for security (which majors associate with which jobs that pay a certain level of salary). Yet, when someone asks you about your intrinsic motivation (ignoring the external circumstances and societal beliefs), you cannot explain the rationale behind your beliefs. A common solution is moratorium, which is taking time to explore options before committing to an identity. Exploring options here means trying to seek inner clarity (conversation with your unconscious) and figuring out your intrinsic motivations for life in general. Chances are that you will not find it during your college career because it is a characteristic of self-actualized people (about 1% of the entire population. An example is the Dalai Lama). However, the importance is “YOU are STILL in college”. Thus, you still have time to make mistakes, so make mistakes and live! That’s how you can actually find your identity.


3 responses to “Psychology and Philosophy of Identity

  1. Believe me, I have a lot of questions about identity too! It’s comforting to know that philosophically and psychologically, I’m not the only one.

    On motivations, I don’t think external motivations should be less important that intrinsic motivations. After all, most people live surrounded by people. Aristotle has described humans as “social animals.” Even if they don’t have any friends or family, they probably still interact with people, and with those interactions come certain peer/societal pressures that can’t be ignored. So I think external motivations do have a lot of impact on an individual’s identity.

  2. The description of the search for identity in college rang a bell for me. I, however, came in to college without knowing a major. While many around me were pre-this and pre-that, I felt as though I was doing something wrong. Part of what appeased my worry was the number of times I heard the refrain “don’t worry, you have time” from upperclassmen, professors, and advisors. The set up of the liberal arts education also caters to students (like me) who have not fully worked out this aspect of their identity. I have been able to take classes just because they sound interesting to me.

    Emory gives students the time and availability you suggested to help students explore options. Hopefully, this system will result in more people making intrinsically motivated decisions about their career paths.

  3. Caroline, I totally see what you mean with external motivations. In fact, I just had that discussion with some of my friends today. External motivations are the rewards that we help us build good habits as children, for children couldn’t think at a high level as adults do. However, I still believe that intrinsic motivation helps one discover one’s true passion, rather than the external rewards that come with it.
    Orli, it is a dilemma that everyone has to face. Liberal arts is one of the unique things about American college. Many other countries require students to know what they want to major before applying to colleges. Thus, many people might miss opportunities to explore their passion.

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