This isn't a riddle, it's a question I've genuinely been grappling with recently. Let me back up a little. I've been suffering from depression over the last month or so. I've found this quite hard to accept - I get seasonal depression, I can't be depressed in the summer! - or even recognise. When the sun is shining, spring flowers are out and the birds are singing, it can be quite hard to see that underneath my appreciation of all this, there are still some serious problems. However, it got bad enough to force me to face up to it when I just couldn't face going to an event that I'd usually enjoy a lot. I've been talking to my dear friend Sarah, who is a counsellor and has been helping me figure out what's going on in my head.
There are a couple of obvious things, like money worries and the general election result, but we've turned up some less obvious things too. One of these is loss of identity. I used to be a scientist, but I don't do science any more. It's been very hard to let go of; to accept that I no longer know what's going on in my field of research (or anyone else's, for that matter), that I'm no longer in a position to conduct experiments. If I'm not doing science any more, I'm not really a scientist, am I? I talked to Sarah about the difference between
human being and
human doing and, although I've come across the conceptual distinction before and it has intuitive appeal, if I'm honest, I just don't get it.
I am wedded to the idea that what one is is defined by what one does simply because I can't envisage a human who is not doing anything. If you take away all activity, what is left? If anything is left, I can't see that it differentiates between one human and another. I'll try another tack. Suppose we take a quality such as,
kindness. It might be true to say that someone is a kind person even when they're not doing very much at the time. But isn't
kindness just a disposition to act kindly? I can't find any meaningful qualities that don't come back to action in the end. I am a human doing.
So, what do I do? This a question that is often asked in social situations, when meeting new people. It's one I have trouble with; I don't really know what the answer is. It's not a bad question, and the person asking it is simply trying to find out a bit more about me. When I had a job that I felt reflected my personal identity (even, formed a big part of my identity), I had no problem with this question. Answering it would be a very concise way of conveying a lot of information about myself. Now, I don't have that kind of job. The occupation I've chosen is unpaid, but that's not the main problem. I'm not sure that
self-sufficient is a very good representation of who I am, not least because I'm not very good at it. Competence is a big deal for me, but I'll leave that for another time.
I now have a disconnect. I accept the identification of a person with what they do, yet what I've chosen to do with my life doesn't feel like who I really am. What am I, then? I think I've found an answer that might work for me. I used to think of myself as a scientist, but if I go back a little further, to my undergraduate days, I had a dual identity. I studied both philosophy and psychology and at the time, was equally happy identifying with either. I pursued psychology as a career mainly because it seemed like a more realistic option. Now I've stopped doing that, perhaps I can re-identify with the other branch of my studies? I never really left philosophy behind. Look at this blog post: It's all about picking ideas apart. Human being vs human doing? What does that really mean? What's the point of asking,
What do you do?
This is what I do: I think about things. I am a philosopher. That's not an answer I'll give when people ask,
What do you do? It sounds pretentious and is also misleading. I'm not doing philosophy at the highest level, and I'm not getting paid to do it. However, it is an answer that gives me an identity I'm comfortable with. An intellectual life has value, at least in my world view. I need no longer feel that I'm trying and failing to be self sufficient. This answer is for me. I still need to find an answer for other people, for use in casual social situations, but I hope that now the question won't be poking at an open wound. If I'm happy with my own view of myself, I don't mind too much what other people think of me.