When the Word “Identity” Means “Persona,” Don’t Fear The Verb “Is” … You Probably Need It!


In continuing the line of thinking from my prior post, the word “identity” has some ambiguity (multi-meaning, that is) in everyday speaking and writing that doesn’t always match the korzybskian use of the term. As a result, any time someone invokes the term “identity” in the context of general semantics, it tends to come under attack. This should not be the case, because non-korzybskian meanings of the word “identity” don’t cause problems, and in fact aid the movement of general semantics.

If we look at popular uses of the term “identity,” and we look at their synonyms, we find that these synonyms differ drastically from Korzybski’s meaning for the word. When Korzybski spoke of identity, he spoke of “absolute sameness in all respects.”

Identity is defined as ‘absolute sameness in all respects’, and it is this ‘all’ which makes identity impossible. If we eliminate this ‘all’ from the definition, then the word ‘absolute’ loses its meaning, we have ‘sameness in some respects’, but we have no ‘identity’, and only ‘similarity’, ‘equivalence’, ‘equality’, etc.

quoted from Korzybski’s Science and Sanity,
“Preface to the First Edition,” page xcvi

But note the other meanings of the term as listed in the Thesaurus.com entry, particularly this one:

Definition: person’s individuality

Synonyms: character, circumstances, coherence, distinctiveness, existence, identification, integrity, ipseity, name, oneness, particularity, personality, self, selfdom, selfhood, selfness, singleness, singularity, status, uniqueness

One word distinctly missing from this list is “persona.” That is, one’s identity is one’s persona. Or put another way, “When I say ‘your identity,’ I mean your persona.”

The simplified definition for this version of identity is a “person’s individuality.” It is a starkly different one from the korzybskian meaning. It is also starkly different from the simplified definition of the other meaning listed in the entry for the term on Thesaurus.com:

Definition: similarity, correspondence

Synonyms: accord, agreement, congruence, congruity, empathy, equality, equivalence, identicalness, likeness, oneness, rapport, resemblance, sameness, selfsameness, semblance, similitude, unanimity, uniformity, unity

This definition is closer to the korzybskian meaning for the term “identity.” But the lesson should now be clear: When someone in regular parlance uses the word “identity,” we shouldn’t automatically have a problem with it.1 It may have the korzybskian meaning of “absolute sameness in all respects,” i.e., “similarity,” but it might instead take on the non-korzybskian meaning of “persona,” i.e., “person’s individuality.”

Note the ambiguity, then, when Korzybski makes war with “the is of idenity.” That’s the name for the “is” in statements like these:

  • Man is man.
  • Man is a man.
  • I am a man.
  • All people are men or women.
  • I’m a doctor.
  • You’re a doctor.
  • You’re a criminal.
  • You’re an idiot.
  • You’re a gentleman and a scholar.

Essentially, to Korzybski, it seemed that any statement with the structure of “noun + be-verb + noun” contained “the is of identity.”

But in these statements, does the speaker intend to communicate that the thing represented by the first noun is identical in all respects to the thing represented by the second noun? Could it be instead that the speaker is assigning a persona to the thing represented by the first noun?

I think at many times, the answer is yes.

For the first kind of behavior, I will rename the “is of identity” to “the is of identification.” Essentially that is the behavior going on when believing in absolute sameness in all respects.2 And that is the kind of “is” that Korzybski has a problem with.

I will then make the case that Korzybski didn’t necessarily war against the other kind of “is”–“the is of characterization” (to use a theatrical term).3 General semantics needs this “is of characterization.” We have become wrongly and unwisely afraid of the word “is,” thinking signally and absolutely that it is always an “is of identity” suggesting “absolute sameness in all respects.” Sometimes it just doesn’t mean that. Dictionaries will back this up. Thesauri will give further support. General semantics needs “the is of characterization” because we in the field are often enough confronted with the simple passing question, “What’s general semantics?” We need to have a characterization. And in my opinion, we need a characterization that is not befuddling. General semantics needs to return to sounding like familiar things.

Recently, at a basic level I’ve taken to referring to general semantics as a field. (“General semantics is a field.”) Sometimes I characterize it as a study, other times as a therapeutic system, and I have ways and reasoning for to characterizing it as a science, a discipline, and or maybe even a theory. In light of an interest in keeping it from becoming marginalized or forgotten, and in light the interest in repopularizing it, I’ve come to believe that whatever suits those two goals lends toward the kind of definition (characterization) of general semantics we should promote. I feel the Institute of General Semantics sits in the most influential position to influence thinking about general semantics. And in my opinion, it’s been in an amorphous state at least popularly for some time, maybe 10-20 years. It would be nice to bring back form to general semantics.

1. (Doing so would probably be termed a negative signal reaction.)

2. Korzybski wisely found fault with the practice of identification, and it receives much of his attention and attack.

3. If you prefer, we could call it “the is of persona” (in keeping with our line of discussion) or “the is of positioning” (to use a marketing term).

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