How do we know who we are?

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the question of how much of what we think/”know” about ourselves is a consequence of what others have said about us, and how much of it is from first principles. I was surprised when two of my classes this week touched on this question.

In my Attitudes and Persuasion seminar, we were discussing the difference between explicit and implicit attitudes, and which one is one’s “real” attitude. There is actually no consensus in the field about whether or not explicit and implicit attitudes are even internally represented separately. Explicit attitudes are ones that can be measured using surveys, like Likert scales, and are known to us. Implicit attitudes are commonly measured using the implicit association test, and use responses that are automatic/out of our control in some way (like muscle activity in the face, heart rate, etc.). There was one study on racial attitudes that examined body language as well as implicit and explicit attitudes to see if there was a correlation. A question that was brought up in class was how reliable body language was—should we trust what a person’s body says or what they say more?

In my World Drama class, a similar question came up (but of course in a different context!) while we were discussing The Camp, which is an Argentinian play that deals with fascism and the questions of who is a victim? and how does one become a victim?, among many other things. We were talking about a particular character and to what extent we should view him as a victim, since his actions and his words present different sides of him. In this class, we’ve talked about the question of credibility a lot—you can’t take everything that is said in a play at face value, so is there a character whose perspective we’re supposed to trust? And if there is, what aspects should we trust?

No conclusions were made in either case, but since I had both of these in-class experiences, it made me reflect more on this question of how we can know who we are, since there might not even be one thing that is who we are, even in a small way (like your attitude towards a particular object). All in all, I feel pretty stuck on this question for the moment, and I also wonder, after visiting the VIS open studios yesterday, if the best way to work through this question is by making art.

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