I see references to arguments against the concept of identity itself (Hegel, Wittgenstein) here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_(philosophy). But based on discussions under my question here: How does mediation inherent in the senses not refute Searle's "direct realism"?, I'm wondering if there is any branch of philosophy that is, for lack of a better term, anti-identitarian. That is, rejects that what we naturally consider a single object is in fact singular. Rather as if the moral of the blind-men-elephant story is that there is not a single elephant there, but rather multiple (non-mental) objects. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant

I'm not interested in any multiple-worlds type branches for this.

The obvious next question seems to be, if there are multiple objects where we naturally/naively thought there was only one, how do they relate, combine, interact etc. to produce our perception of a unitary identity.

  • Does this have to apply to all objects we can detect or even conceive including fundamental particles, or would you accept an atomistic philosophy which rejects the idea of any natural kinds in groups of fundamental particles, so that any word we may have for a macro-object like an "elephant" is understood as a purely conventional grouping of particles, in much the same way that the way we group stars into "constellations" is generally understood as purely a matter of convention?
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 21:42
  • “to produce our perception of a unitary identity.”. Very good question. See Hegel on “Force”. marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phconten.htm You may want to read other commentaries too.
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 23:28
  • This may help too. bat020.com/2011/05/20/… I checked out a library book once unhelpfully titled “Metaphysics” I cant remember the author’s name. Probably from the 70 -80s that put this in context. I will search around a little for it see if I can find author.
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 23:39
  • I think the book could have been “The Elements of Metaphysics” W R Carter
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 0:16
  • If you are skeptical that what we consider to be an object is, why stop there and assume that there are multiple objects in its place? Why not no objects at all? "Bundle theory, originated by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, is the ontological theory about objecthood in which an object consists only of a collection (bundle) of properties, relations or tropes". See also mereological nihilism: there are no tables, only "simples arranged tablewise".
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 9:40

1 Answer 1


If there is any branch of Western philosophy that is considered "anti-identitarian" as you name it, then it would rely on mereology which is the study of parts to wholes and systems thinking like it's practiced by the Santa Fe Institute. In essence, no object is a single thing, and all things are really composites. There have been influential thinkers in the West such as:

  1. Heraclitus who emphasized in the constant changing nature of things from opposite to opposite emphasizing the illusory nature of identity.
  2. Georg Hegel with his take on the dialectic which stated that the thesis-antithesis interplay leading to synthesis means that things are created by opposites and then clash with their opposites.
  3. Ludwig Beralanffy's General System Theory which emphasized that all things are systems and started the move towards modern systems thinking in terms of math and science.

In the East, it should be noted that Zen Buddhism more strongly rejects identity by rejecting duality. It is the case that Zen practitioners often use language in strange way to demonstrate the contradictory nature of labels and identity.

Accordingly, Zen demands that the practitioner overcome the dualism operative in the everyday standpoint, which it speaks of by using the phrase “not two.” The use of the phrase “not two” expresses Zen’s proclivity to favor the simple and the concrete, such that it is not expressed as a negation of dualism. This overcoming is an existential, practical project, a goal for the Zen practitioner, although it is paradoxically stated as “if you face it, it goes away.” This is because “facing” presupposes a dualistic stance.

Fascinating is the concept of the non-concept mu.

A monk asked Master Chao-chou, "Has a dog the Buddha Nature or not?" Chao-chou said, "Mu!

The general problem with fully rejecting identity is that we use it naturally when we think and reason. Definitions and explications in language are identities. Equations and congruences in math are identities. The entire analytical philosophical project is to recognize the value of language and science in using identities and equivalences to determine truth. As such, the moment one says I am an "anti-identitarian" one has engaged in the contradiction by identifying!

  • Thanks. While none of this is an exact match, I suppose my current thinking could be described as “a systems theory of reified interpretations” as either a refutation of identity or as the route to construction of identity, depending on outcome. As for “interpretations of what?”, I’d start with (what we consider) physical objects, and only move on from there if the project shows promise.
    – Jeff Y
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 12:14
  • I think a lot about the central semantic imperative of the brain, and I believe it to be the establishment of identity; the intuitional ability to be aware of entities, attributes, and relationships is largely an exercise in the creation and manipulation of identity.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 16:44

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