Consider monism. The Ethics of Identity page 143-4.

Many theorists – among them William Galston, John Gray, Bhikhu Parekh, and Uday Singh Meta – hold the great enemy to be monism, and, in particular, the philosophical monism they associate with the classic texts of liberalism, not excluding Mill himself. The monist tradition that Parekh has painstakingly traced, in his Rethinking Multiculturalism, starts with Plato and haunts us still; it is characterized by a belief in the universality of human nature…Raz is faulted for his bigoted insistence on autonomy; Kymlicka is faulted for the requirement that national minorities must, at least in some measure, respect liberal principles of individual liberty. The trail of the monist serpent is over them all.

But the trail of the monist serpent is over a lot of things, including a lot of identity-thought. We’re never just one thing – and the things we are are never just identity. The categories we label ‘identity’ always have some sort of content or meaning (which is why they’re not just identities – if they were, they wouldn’t be, because who wants an empty identity?). The categories have some kind of aboutness, and they are always, because of this aboutness, multiple and in competition or conversation with others. We have more than one interest, more than one thought, more than one idea, more than one desire, even more than one project, so we can’t sum ourselves up in one word. We are women or men, American or Indian, Muslim or atheist – but we’re also poet, runner, walker, friend, knitter, hang-glider, cook, wit (Appiah says that’s not an available identity now, but I’m not so sure), gardener, movie buff, expert on sitcoms, musician, birder – and so on. We’re plaid, or paisley, not red or blue.

And identity is both internal and external, which complicates it further. In that sense one could say that nearly everything, or everything that matters to us, is an identity claim of sorts. Take truth for instance. Truth matters to me – because it matters outside me. I take it to matter in the world, and therefore it matters to me: I don’t want to be the kind of person who assents to a lie. Internal and external are all mixed up in that thought. What we think matters in the world, what we think is good or bad, feeds into how we think of ourselves, and how we want to think of ourselves. Truth or compassion matter to us, we care about them, we think they matter – but that is because we do think they do matter externally, independent of us. The two are hooked up.

So – identity matters, but it’s not a pure thing or a single thing or a clear unmixed uncontaminated limpid crystalline thing. It’s something like the back of a rug, with all the knots sticking out.

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