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If you want to know more: Ricoeur's idem and ipse

What is explained in easily understandable terms in the main webpage can also be expressed in academically more complex terms. Any cultural expression, be it a literary work or a movie, represents something, and any representation is always already an abstraction. The concept of uniqueness, however, on which Riemann’s notion of the I depends, is by definition inimical to abstraction:

individualisation may be broadly characterized as the  inverse of classification, which eliminates the singular under the name of the concept. But if we simply stress the adjective ‘inverse’, we then underscore two purely negative features of the individual, namely that it is a type that is neither repeatable nor divisible without alteration. These negations do indeed carry us to the side of the ineffable. (Ricoeur 1992: 28)

In Oneself as Another, Ricoeur distinguishes between two fundamental aspects of the self, or of identity, i.e. our I. Ricoeur refers to these two aspects as ipse and idem: ipse is identity understood as selfhood, close to our individuality, that kind of inner inexpressible core that marks us out as what we really are. Idem, on the other hand, is identity understood as sameness, as a more external possibility of identifying the self as self despite loss or mutability of the attributions of that self in time. Ipse identifies “who” the self is, idem “what” the self consists of.

Representation of the self can tend towards the self’s “who” or towards its “what”. Representation may refer to the who, to the uniqueness of the self, through tautological reference to uniqueness and individuality. Such reference can appear under a positive or negative sign; if the I is experienced as a plus, then individuality will appear as precious and may well be under threat from forces – the other dimensions - opposing this individuality. A negative experience of individuality will result in presentations of willfulness, moodiness, unwarranted change of opinions, behaviour, judgement, likings, etc.

Representation may, on the other hand, also make reference to the what, the attributions of the self, and in that sense, a gap seems to open wide between the different conceptions of the I as who or what. To a certain extent, that gap closes again when we see how it is uniqueness itself, so fundamental for the who, which leads us to the what. The uniqueness of the individual is firmly tied to its freedom, and freedom is not an absolute, but a relational concept, just as black cannot exist without white. Freedom exists only as freedom from something, to do something, as Woodrow Wilson well knew when he claimed that “The history of liberty is the history of resistance” (1912).  

However, once defined in such terms, such a freedom will probably align itself at least with one, at least against another one of the remaining three dimensions. Add to this the thought that “on many occasions we recognize what is wrong with something without having a clear idea, or any idea at all, about what is right with it” (Margalit 2002: 113), and we will find individuality defined in terms of what the I is not, i.e. as anti-social, anti-natural, or anti-metaphysical. If defined in anti-social terms, the I will probably take on natural or metaphysical traits, if anti-natural, it will take on social or metaphysical traits, and so on. The (unfree and not unique) I thus tends to be on friendly terms with dimensions other than those it opposes. The exact character of the I’s uniqueness will thus often be driven by the freedom from oppression coming from other dimensions.

works cited

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Chicago: The U of Chicago P,  1992.

Margalit, Avishai. The Ethics of Memory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.

Wilson, Woodrow. Address, New York Press Club, 30 May 2007. May 9, 1912.


daniel.candel@uah.es ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann