who is the ‘real me’?

Natalie and I (and Dan and Dave) went to a fascinating lecture last night on ‘Knowledge and Prejudice’ by Dr. Miranda Fricker at the State Library. It’s given me lots to mull over. And my experience of listening to such an eloquent lecture — delivered with such excellent diction — helped me realise how far I’ve come from my undergrad days as a knee-jerk anti-liberal (philosophically).

For now there’s one thing in particular I’d like to reflect upon. Dr. Fricker sensitively explored the possible mechanisms of ‘institutional racism’ (in relation to the 1999 Macpherson Report on the police handling of a racially-motivated murder in metropolitan London).

Crucial to her account was a contrast between the beliefs and commitments we hold relative our practical-identities — e.g., our roles as parents, children, students, local music society members — with the beliefs and commitments we hold as private individuals. The commitments attached to the ‘hats’ I wear (as someone with various roles in a range of institutional and family systems) as opposed to the commitments I hold as the ‘real me’.


I can sympathise with this contrast. I know what it feels like to have an underlying ‘real me’ that’s different from — or playing catch-up with — the hats I happen to wear. For instance, I sometimes find myself not only not wanting to fulfil some of my commitments as a student but seriously questioning their claim on me — not wanting to be someone who’s always tied down by deadlines or whatever.

Now my finely-honed postmodernist instincts instruct me that it’s quite probable that this sense of the ‘real me’ — despite its seemingly intuitive reality and authority (not to mention convenience as a way of shirking various ‘merely institutional’ commitments) — is illusory. When it comes to my identity, that is, I suspect it’s hats all the way down.

But I’d like to press further. What is it that generates this sense of having a ‘real me’ beneath — or over against — my role-specific identities? Why does it seem so intuitively obvious, undeniable, and even authoritative?

In short, who (or what) is this ‘real me’, and where does it come from?


  1. Answers so far:
    (a) persistence through change? Is this an interesting sociological version of the problem of universals?

    (b) Is it a phenomenon generated by our moral psychology: a postulate required (and therefore experienced) in order to hold individuals responsible for their actions when they are no longer acting within a particular role-specific identity?

    (c) outer-space?

  2. Suggestions / possibilities:
    1) Psychologically, the sense of a unitary me comes at least partly from memory. I remember putting on all those hats. Genuine multiple personalities don’t remember each others’ actions.

    2) What makes the hats hats and the “real me” not a hat is that I explain what I do/feel/think while wearing a hat in terms related to the hat, eg my training as a teacher. Ie it is seen as heteronomous. Whereas for the “real me” what I do/feel/think stems from within, ie is autonomous. It’s this idea of autonomy, that there is a real me that is, as it were, ontologically indepent of others, that you’re suspicious of. Isn’t it just as conditioned by some kind of social context as the hat mes?

    3) This would open the way nicely to explaining genuine personhood not as an illusory autonomy but in relation to God. This hat being of divine origin it makes sense to privilege it over others.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, guys. I can’t get away from this nagging sense that this ‘real me’ might be a result of internalising values and commitments from our ‘hats’. So you’re right Andrew that ‘It’s this idea of autonomy, that there is a real me that is, as it were, ontologically indepent of others, that {I’m] suspicious of’.

      But I’m not sure the way is open quite so directly to move from there to a stable, authoritative identity in relation to God (ie. in Christ) that ‘it makes sense to privilege … over others’. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Rowan Williams, but I’m starting to wonder whether it might be as least as true of our identity in Christ that it is unstable, de-centred and susceptible to being broken open as it is a sure and certain anchor for our souls…

  3. I haven’t read any Rowan Williams (have I actually just admitted that on the internet?), but I get the impression that many are allergic to any transcendent grounding of self (presumably not RW himself). If we seek to find our identity in our choices, it will of course be unstable. If our identity is grounded in being in Christ, in our past being the Cross and our future the resurrection, then that’s secure.
    What won’t be so secure is our sense and grasp of that identity. Now, if identity is my achievement or my project, then to distinguish my fixed identity in Christ and my sense of my identity sounds like an idealist escape from reality. But if we accept personhood as gift it makes sense. God has determined what is most fundamentally real about me in Christ, and that’s the context in which I fumble around trying to work out who I am in my various hats, including the alone-with-myself hat. Fortunately, the fumbling around is under grace. Is this any different to what Williams is suggesting?

    1. Thanks, I think that’s really helpful — gift is definitely a big emphasis of the ABC; but he also emphasises the way the gift is never a given, never our possession to be presumed upon but continually summons us to thankful reception and transformation. I’m not sure how this squares with what you’re suggesting.

      I guess I’m probably one of those with a mild allergy to appealing to transcendent grounding. It just feels a little too Platonic. I don’t know if it’s cash value is all that different, but I think I’d prefer to talk about an ‘eschatological’ grounding of our identity — especially in light of the very concrete and particular place in which our God-given identity is forged in the cross of Jesus…

  4. Actually, I’d prefer to talk about eschatological grounding too, and that fits better with my language of ‘past’ and ‘future’. The cash value in either case is that it’s not purely immanent, from within ourselves. What (you’re reporting) Williams is saying about identity sounds like what we’d want to say about marriage or Christian unity too–the God givenness of the bond is the very reason for both enjoying and working hard at something that is empirically very fragile. Apart from Williams’ formulation being clearer in its implications and more profound, I think we’re saying the same thing. 🙂

    1. Yes. Yes. Yes! ‘[T]he God givenness of the bond is the very reason for both enjoying and working hard at something that is empirically very fragile’. That, Andrew, is a beautiful — and incredibly generative — formulation (whether or not I’ve accurately represented Rowan Williams).

  5. Since last November Medicare and I (thank you to all taxpayers reading this) have spent $200 a week, other than a few holidays, exploring my sense of self – via a psychiatrist. As I recounted 30 years of choices and their motivations I was horrified to realise that very few were autonomous. My self, as reflected in those choices, was an amalgam of suggestions by other people and expectations placed on me. Even my coming to faith story was initiated by a suggestion, not a sense of my own seeking.

    Last August an event happened in which I found myself gazing into a mirror and something ‘clicked’. I saw myself. Not the detail as such, but the starting point for who am I. That basic self that God knits in our mum’s womb; the one that either remains flawed and broken by sin if we ignore Jesus or which is infused by our salvation.

    Subsequently I’ve begun exploring and living the detail, and God seems to be guiding and blessing the outcome. Who am I? The real me? Whatever its origin and nature, our perception of it is powerful and real. It’s lack is the source of much misery. God described himself as “I AM”, and we are made in his image.

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