This paper tackles the concepts of identity and meaning as relational entities that are never fixed. To accomplish this, the essay first provides a brief description on the terms identity and meaning, then eventually includes references to the views, beliefs, and works of two renowned philosophers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Michel Foucault.
In the field of philosophy, identity is defined as anything that makes an entity identifiable and recognizable through the possession of certain characteristics and traits that make it different from entities that are of dissimilar types (2006). Simply put, identity is what makes objects different or the same.
In recent years, there have been a number of debates with regard to the concept of identity, and these concern an array of different areas—personal identity, identity of objects of other types, and the like (2006). In connection to this, other interrelated topics have also been discussed and debated upon, but recent works and studies by various researchers gave strong emphasis on these areas: the accurate evaluation of identity over time, the idea of a decisive factor of identity; the difference between individuals who advocate per durance and individuals who promote endurance examination of identity over time; the concept of conditional identity; the perception of vague identity; and the notion of identity across probable worlds (2006).
Also in connection to the field of philosophy, the Law of Identity is a traditional law of thought that states that “everything is what it is, or that if something is true, it is true (1996).” For instance, a proposition that is an example of this law—“A cat is a cat”—or one that can be changed into such example through the utilization of the rules of logic—“If Garfield is a cat, Garfield does not fail to be a cat”—can be termed as identically true. Hence its negation is identically false (1996).
Issues with regard to the concept of meaning, in the context of philosophy, could be divided into two fundamental and interconnected groups—what meaning is, in the sense in which words and sentences posses meaning, and the different types of meaning and how they are linked to other notions.
Furthermore, in the field of philosophy and linguistics, meaning is defined as the “sense of a linguistic expression, sometimes understood in contrast to its referent (2006).” For instance, the terms, “the evening star” and “the morning star” have diverse meanings, although the referent of these expressions, which is Venus, is the same.
Moreover, the conventional meaning of a term or expression may vary from what the speaker means, by saying it on a certain occasion. In addition, meaning also has non-literal aspects and these comprise of different speech acts that are said in the correct instances ( 2006). For example, when a person utters the sentence, “I am cold,” this could represent a request to close the door from which the cold air passes through.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty: An Introduction
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenologist who is often considered as an existentialist philosopher because of his beliefs and ideas on the concept of Being that are strongly influenced by
Through Merleau-Ponty’s works, he was able to establish the concept of the “body-subject.” In connection to this, the aforementioned philosopher views the essences of the world existentially. Likewise, Merleau-Ponty also believed that the world, consciousness, and the human body are elements capable of perception and are complexly interconnected and reciprocally linked ( 2006).
Merleau-Ponty also believes that the essential prejudice of human beings’ perception of things does not reduce their reality, but rather, even confirms it. The object perceived goes beyond people’s views, and yet is inherent in it. Through a pre-conscious action of “original faith” individuals instantly position this phenomenal object in the world, wherein it is able to blend in with other objects ( 2006).
Furthermore, according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968), the flesh is neither mind nor matter; in fact, one may perceive it as something akin to the ancient elements of earth, wind, and fire—that is, as “an ‘element’ of Being (1997).”
Moreover, Merleau-Ponty (1968) also believes that vision itself is innately narcissistic, whereby human beings are interconnected with what these individuals actually see in the outside world (1997). Hence, the person who sees as well as the things and people that he or she sees are connected to each other, in a mutual and binding relationship.
Additionally, the mentioned philosopher also states that human beings’ manner of being in the world, or the flesh, is a “texture”—a tissue of visibility wherein the world and the self intersect and adhere to each other. Therefore, the flesh is the “controlling over of the visible upon the seeing body, the tangible upon the touching body (1997).”
Such philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, in relation to the assumption that identity and meaning are relational entities, could be connected in the context of the slavery that occurred in the past between the African Americans and the Whites. The African Americans, during that time, were implicitly aware that they were not the negative poles by which the whites could know themselves a superior and distinct (1997). Moreover, they were also tacitly aware that they were not the objects by which white prejudice described or differentiated itself.
Such is the case because for an African American slave to be considered as an object like any other thing in the world or environment of a white man would mean that he or she would have had to experience his or her own body as any other objects in that world. This is humanly impossible because for a person to perceive himself or herself as a thing or an object among other entities would entail that person to evacuate his or her own body. And such event could only happen imaginatively and would only be brought about by psychosis or death.
In connection to this, Olafson (1995) further stated that “my body is not something I come upon in my world, as it would be if it were an object. Instead, it is a condition of my coming upon anything at all (1997). Therefore, enslaved and eventually emancipated African Americans might certainly have had a double-consciousness, even if they were not capable to realize a completely objective perception of their own bodies. On the other hand, it is only the whites—while held, trapped, and taking advantage of the Western metaphysical custom of liberal humanism—who believed that they could perceive a black body as an object identical to a ploughshare (1997).
Flesh and Chiasm
Another important contribution by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in relation to the assumption that identity and meaning are relational entities, is the interconnected concepts of flesh and chiasm. Based from his work, “Le visible et l’invisible” (1968), there is no precise differentiation between being and ways of appearing (2006).
For Merleau-Ponty, the question of meaning cannot be derived from the dualist ontology of appearance and being; what this philosopher believes in, and wants the readers to understand, is the reversibility of the invisible and the visible—that the visible is the replication or “profondeur charnelle” of the invisible and not its equivalent contradiction ( 2003).
In fact, the essential issue is an emphasis on the interconnection of signs and meanings—meanings are not subordinated to signs, and signs are not subordinated to meanings (2006).
For further illustration, one may consider this instance, derived from Merleau-Ponty’s work, “L’œil et l’esprit”—if a certain painting is fragmented or torn apart, it would no longer have meaning and would return to a state of beings strips of canvas. Therefore, the concept of meaning cannot be completely ascribed to ideas, for there is also an intrinsic materiality in meaning (2003).
Michel Foucault: An Introduction
Michel Foucault was a French philosopher that was celebrated for his writings and viewpoints in the fields of humanities and social sciences. More specifically, he conducted a number of studies that concern power and its connection to knowledge. In addition, he also focused his research on social institutions, specifically in the aspects of medicine, psychiatry, parameters of educational timeframes, the prison system, and even the field of sexuality (2006).
The Concept of Panopticism
Foucault’s work entitled “Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison” (1975) provides a history of penal systems from the Middle Ages up to the 1970s. In his book, he presented his belief that penal systems’ regulations and policies, maximum inspection and control, exclusive prison cells, and other forms of strict rules, are a reflection of how command and power have the capacity to control human beings and institute norms in society (Finburgh, 2006). With this, certain people who do not conform to these standards are therefore excluded from the society in which they belong to.
In connection to this, Foucault’s works likewise included the historical development of the prison systems throughout the years, up to the 1970s. One example of such prison is the Panopticon, a prison design created by English jurist and philosopher, (2006).
With regard to design, the panopticon was a tower that was located in central position within the prison ( 20003). From such tower, the guards would be capable to watch and monitor each and every cell of every prisoner; however, the panopticon was created in a manner by which these prisoners would have no idea on whether they are being observed or not. Therefore, the prisoners would presume that they would be watched at any moment and would thus adjust their behaviour appropriately (2000).
The concept of the panopticon tower could evidently and easily be connected to the present conditions in today’s society. Nowadays, certain norms and standards have been created in our society, most of which were brought about by past occurrences and others are generated through current instances.
These norms should be followed by people accordingly, so as to maintain order and stability in the society; for if people refuse to follow specific norms in the community wherein they live, other individuals in that society would enact ways by which such individuals would conform to the societal norms; either through forceful acts or peaceful behaviours.
In addition to this, individuals in societies also make every effort to conform to societies norms because not only will this bring about harmony in the community, but it would also prevent them from being isolated in the society. Therefore, one could easily perceive the relationship of the panopticon prison design, generated years ago, to the conditions in our present society.
More importantly, the panopticon tower could likewise be related to the assumption that the concepts of identity and meaning as relational entities that are never fixed. As was earlier mentioned, the prisoners are constantly scrutinized by the guards in the panopticon tower, without them knowing the specific instance wherein they are watched. Because of this, the prisoner would act positively, if he believes that he is already being observed by the prison guards.
if prisoners act in such specific manners, the police would attach meanings to those behaviours. To be more specific, once a prisoner thinks that he is being observed through the panopticon tower, he would act in a way that would make the prison guards believe that he is not a natural criminal and therefore has the ability to change his ways. If done repeatedly, the prisoner would form a habit of projecting such an image to the prison guards and would eventually acquire this identity. On the other hand, the police would likewise formulate an identity of the prisoner on his mind, based on the actions that he is able to observe. This, therefore, this is a concrete example of the relational characteristic of meaning and identity, as was presented by Michel Foucault.
It could therefore be construed, based from the works of recognized philosophers, that the concepts of identity and meaning are relational identities that are not independent of each other.