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#Notes on Akeel Bilgrami’s Provocative Essay “Toward the Definition of ‘Identity'”

In his essay, “Notes Towards the Definition of ‘Identity’”, Akeel Bilgrami examines identity and its different connotations in light of the rise of identity politics globally.

According to Bilgrami, identity is intricate and complex, frequently interpreted differently depending on the situation.

Akeel Bilgrami argues that identity could be treated as a social construction. Our identities are not only inherent or natural characteristics of ourselves but are shaped by the social and cultural environments in which we live.

Further, Bilgrami argues that identity is frequently used to group and divide people, which may result in prejudice and inequity.

Additionally, Bilgrami examines the concept of identity as a means of self-knowledge or self-narration. He contends that the narratives we tell ourselves about our origins and selves help to shape our identities.

This can encompass our social and cultural upbringing, pasts, connections with others, and more.

Therefore, Bilgrami’s essay emphasises the intricacy of identity and challenges us to re-evaluate how we interpret and use it.

He notes that rather than categorising people based solely on their identification, we should pay attention to the variety of experiences and viewpoints that make up our social environment.

In this essay, Akeel Bilgrami contends that he seeks to clarify a reading about identity.

Subjective Identity vs Objective Identity

Bilgrami, at the outset, presents a critical distinction between a subjective and objective identity.

The concept of subjective identity describes how a person perceives and feels about themselves. It is a unique and individualised sense of self-created by a person’s experiences, viewpoints, and beliefs.

On the other hand, objective identity describes how people categorise and identify people based on their social, cultural, and demographic traits like race, gender, nationality, and religion.

Imposing an objective identity on people by external social systems can result in social inequality and discrimination.

Your subjective identity is what you conceive yourself to be, whereas your objective identity is how you might be viewed independently of how you see yourself. In other words, your objective identity is who you are in light of certain biological or social facts about you.  

(Bilgrami 2006, p. 5)

While the two terms may seem interrelated, Bilgrami notes a certain asymmetry exists between them.

Intensely Held Self-Conceptions and Akeel Bilgrami

An essential element of subjective identity is “intensely held self-conceptions”—for instance, strongly held commitments to being a Muslim, a Hindu, a British, etc.

However, this intensity is not enough to define identity. A mere intense feeling cannot fully describe an individual’s identity.

For instance, a person with cocaine addiction “may have a very intense desire for cocaine but not want to have those cravings.

That is, he may be alienated from, rather than identified with, his desire for cocaine”. If so, that person may not conceive himself to be addicted to cocaine, even when he is.

This example presents a complex puzzle emanating out of “self-conceptions”. You may be aware of yourself as a Muslim or an Indian, but you may not always value both the same.

You may value one identity over the other, depending on different circumstances. Bilgrami notes that a subjective identity “requires identification with one’s own tendencies”.

First-Order vs Second-Order States of Mind

First-order desires to focus on specific objects and experiences—for instance, a desire to eat ice cream or go to Malaysia for a vacation.

Second-order desires relate to how we want ourselves to be, what we want from our lives, and what we value.

Akeel Bilgrami contends that second-order desires are those connected with our sense of identity. They are aspirational in the sense that they reflect what we want to be and what we value.

Therefore, identity is not just what we desire but is shaped by our long-term goals and aspirations.

Put differently, “We need to have some kind of reflective endorsement of first-order states of mind before we identify with them” (p. 7).

akeel bilgrami
Akeel Bilgrami at World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations”, 2002-2012 Photo Album | Wikimedia Commons

Bilgrami notes that if one were to disapprove of their identity tendencies, they would be alienated from their mental, moral and political tendencies.

Therefore, an initial working definition of identity would be “politically relevant and intensely held desires that their possessors reflectively endorse” (p. 7).

But such a definition may invariably give an impression that identities in politics are only instrumental—and can only help mobilize others (such as for the freedom movement, for racial equality, etc.).

It also posits that these identities exist for as long as they have a particular utility.

Again, use the same logic; you can argue that the moment something envisioned is achieved (say, independence of an erstwhile colony), the identity ceases to exist. However, identity is much more complex.

Identity as a source of dignity and self-respect

Bilgrami speaks of identity as a sense of dignity and self-respect, especially when one feels vulnerable.

Identity may act as a source of solidarity and belonging. In this regard, identity is not instrumental but intrinsic to the individual.

Therefore, “in their own minds, the identities are conceived as something they ought to hold permanently and without being vulnerable to revision” (p. 8).

Bilgrami asks: How should one capture this element in our understanding of subjective identity?

Ulysses and the Sirens

Bilgrami introduces the “Ulysses and the Sirens” analogy to answer this question.

In Greek mythology, Ulysses was a hero who came into contact with the Sirens, mythical beings who used their seductive songs to entice sailors to their demise. Ulysses ordered his men to wax-socket their ears and tie him to the ship’s mast to prevent him from being seduced by the Sirens’ songs.

Bilgrami uses this story metaphorically to talk about how desire and logic clash while forming identities.

He argues that Muslim and liberal identities result from a struggle between conflicting impulses and values and that this struggle is a crucial component of creating a sense of self.

For Bilgrami, there is a conflict in the case of Muslim identity between the need to uphold one’s religious and cultural identity and the desire to embrace modernity and liberal principles.

Similar conflicts exist between the need to confirm one’s commitment to individual autonomy and reason and the desire to acknowledge the significance of cultural and social identities in the case of the liberal identity.

Therefore, it is possible to interpret Muslim and liberal identities as adhering to the “Ulysses and the Sirens” model, in which people must resolve the conflict between opposing impulses and values to form a consistent sense of self.

Objective Identity and Bilgrami’s Critique

According to Bilgrami, objective identity assumes that people may be grouped together into stable, homogeneous groupings based on their objective traits.

However, he contends that people are also characterised by their distinctive experiences and viewpoints, which are shaped by the cultural and social environments in which they live rather than only by their objective features.

Furthermore, Bilgrami contends that objective identity can support inequality and prejudice by upholding that people can be categorised in crude ways based on their objective traits.

This can therefore fail to recognise the variety of experiences and viewpoints that comprise our social world.

Bilgrami notes that we should concentrate on the subjective and narrative components of identity rather than depending on the idea of objective identity.

He contends that people create their sense of self through their narratives about themselves.

These narratives are influenced by the cultural and social contexts in which they are told and by the individuals’ particular experiences and viewpoints.

Bilgrami’s critique of objective identity emphasises the significance of appreciating the complexity and diversity of human identity as well as the necessity to move past overly straightforward classifications based on objective traits.

Bilgrami on Identity

Here are some of the key arguments presented in the above-mentioned essay on identity:

  • Identity is a complex and multifaceted concept.
  • Identity is a social construction.
  • Identity is often used to categorise and divide people.
  • Identity can be understood as self-narration and self-understanding.
  • We must think critically about identity rather than simply reducing identity to one category or another.
  • We should focus on the diverse experiences and perspectives of our social world.

Akeel Bilgrami notes that identity is influenced by many elements, such as cultural, social, and personal experiences, rather than being a simple or fixed idea.

Therefore, depending on the context in which it is used and the viewpoints of the people involved, identity can be construed in various ways.

He contends that identity is a social construction influenced by the cultural and social situations we live in rather than an inherent or natural component of who we are.

This suggests that our identities are fluid and constantly changing due to our experiences and relationships with others rather than being permanent or predetermined.

Bilgrami notes that identity may also be viewed as a form of self-knowledge or self-narration created through our narratives about our origins and identities.

Our experiences, cultural and social circumstances, and local narratives can modify these tales. They can influence our perception of the outside world, relationships with others, and sense of self.

Conclusion: Bilgrami and Identity

To avoid lumping people into categorical stereotypes based solely on their identities, Bilgrami contends that it is necessary to consider how we comprehend and apply the concept of identity.

This is because such classifications may be restrictive and not ultimately reflect various unique experiences and viewpoints.

Furthermore, categorising people based on their identity can result in stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, all of which are bad for individuals and society.

To create a more complex and inclusive view of identity that recognises the range of human experiences and perspectives, it is crucial to be aware of how identity is utilised in social and cultural contexts.

Concentrating on various diverse experiences and viewpoints that make up our social environment is also essential.

We must learn to appreciate human complexity and the range of socio-cultural parameters that make us up.


To access the full essay, click here on this link


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2 thoughts on “#Notes on Akeel Bilgrami’s Provocative Essay “Toward the Definition of ‘Identity'””

  1. Adarsh, I feel that it is best to identify people as they identify themselves. To do that we have to get to know them. Stereotyping divides people. This was an interesting post, and I enjoyed reading it. 🙂

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