Losing Our Identity: The Pandemic Should Shine a Light on the Philosophy of James Marsh | Angus Gillan


Rearranging furniture, I moved several pairs of shoes from where they have been stored. Dust lightly coated the shoelaces. 

Only a year ago those shoes were worn about the town or in an office, situation and audience depending. Like various choices we made daily, by picking our shoes we gave a signal to those who saw us walking down the street or rushing to the tube. New acquaintances, colleagues, and friends would consider our dress and manner, their opinions about who we are as individuals evolving upon every encounter. In fact, shoes are the first thing people subconsciously notice about you when meeting for the first time, impressing in our minds the personality traits of the wearer.

A reflection on the daily choices, such as picking shoes, shows us clearly that the American philosopher James Marsh, not John Locke or Georg Hegel, is correct in theorising human nature and social interaction.

Locke saw society made of autonomous individuals. While appealing to our own innate desire to feel self-worth, the theory of liberal individualism hinges on empiricism. Locke argues that each of us becomes fully realized as people by being a part of the world beyond ourselves. We view and consume empirical evidence, we hear the news, we see an Instagram story or a tweet, and through such sensory experiences we gain knowledge that defines who we are. As individuals beholden to ourselves, we would then coalesce to form governments to protect our innate rights. In Locke’s view we are atomistic.

Alternatively, Hegel argued that we come to know ourselves through the Other or the Absolute. In nature and history, the Absolute reveals itself to us, but it is only visible to humans collectively. In other words, we all need to reach enlightenment concurrently.  Therefore, scientific education, the art, humanities, and a general pleasure for learning must be cultivated through society. At the core however, we are reliant on this separate and elusive Absolute. Hegel’s idea is monotheistic. 

Marsh put forward a far more human idea, compatible with lived experiences. Marsh’s conception of the world has each of us come to know ourselves and each other naturally through engagement. We are our own individuals because when we are together each of us can showcase our distinctive features. Moreover, overtime, as our actions change, as we change our shoes, the way we are seen changes and we come to know ourselves in a new way as friends and acquaintances react. It is as part of a group that we can be unique. While similar views may be held, as part of political organisations, or clothes worn, such as a leather jacket with a biker patch for a chapter, we have our subtitles that stand us out. Six years later, amidst students discovering their identity, my friends recall me being the guy who wore shirts to lectures. 

Aptly put by Louis Menand: “What individuates individuals, what enables them to realize themselves as individuals, is their role within a group. Outside of the group they have no identity.”

The isolation of the coronavirus (Covid-19) restrictions highlights the validity of Marsh’s idea over the far more famous Locke and Hegel. 

Isolation erodes our identity. As social creatures who are unable to socialise, we are removed from the group. This transplant from our usual setting, to one of varying degrees of isolation, robs us of the chance to showcase who we are. The inability to explore one’s identity or to showcase it, has horrendous ramifications for us all. Whether shown in mental health challenges being exacerbated, or a general feeling of despondency and lethargy amongst the population, the fact that millions of social interactions are not occurring drives a malaise.

The desire to live is a testament to Marsh. When it is safe for restrictions to lift, we will see the jubilant activities of life undertaken by millions. Whatever activity you undertake, there is a desire to be in a community. Exercising at home and running alone is not equal to a sports club.  Locke’s conception of the ‘individuals’ and the ‘state’ is therefore dissatisfying, for the entity that makes the nation cannot be separate if the nation is made of each of us existing through groups and communities.

The case above was inspired by and drawn from the outstanding book The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. It was recommended to me by a stranger who undertook the same online course that I was completing. From bonding over the book, to me texting numerous friends that it was imperative they also read it, I see Marsh once more confirmed. Ideas are social, we want to share them and discuss them. By being brought into a new community through the message of a stranger, to talking with old friends, I sustain and evolve my own individuality from acting in a group setting.Now, when we dust off our shoelaces and step outside to be together, we can regain our identity and remember James Marsh.


Photo Credit.

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