Can I Stop Being Who I Am? Philosophy, Peacebuilding and the Suspension of Identity.

27 09 2013

[On Wednesday 18th September, the third workshop in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network took place at Liverpool Hope University: Peace and Peacebuilding: Philosophical and Religious Reflections on Social Flourishing. Steven Shakespeare here reflects on themes raised at the workshop.]

Two things struck me about the Network’s excellent Peace and Peacebuilding workshop, which took place on Wednesday 18th September.

The first was this: some speakers and participants identified themselves primarily as practitioners and denied any claim to be a philosopher. Despite these protests, these people were clearly doing recognisably philosophical work, not least by carefully analysing concepts and distinguishing them from one another. So, for instance, Barbara Glasson was careful to differentiate peacebuilding from tolerance.

Of course, for someone like Glasson, these distinctions have a practical aim: moving beyond what she called the ‘curry-and-quiche’ mentality of polite interreligious dialogue, to a real engagement with the other. But far from making her distinction non-philosophical, to my mind, this link with transformative practice is crucial to renewing philosophy as a lived discipline. Philosophy itself is always a critical practice which transforms its subjects. Glasson gave us an excellent insight into how that is worked through in real situations of encounter. Rather than shutting down philosophy, the link to practice should enlarge our conception of what philosophy is and can do.

This connects with a second fascinating point of tension in the day. One question facing the roundtable was whether participants in a peacebuilding process needed to suspend their faith identity for the process to work. The reaction of the panel was largely dismissive: how could we ask people to deny such an intrinsic part of who they were and expect peacebuilding and relationships to be genuine?

However, after an intervention from the floor by Mikel Burley, we had to think again. Surely, in any situation of hostility, where part of my ‘identity’ consists in defining myself negatively against someone else, I will have to ‘suspend’ that identity, at least in part, if there is to be any hope of dialogue. And if I am to be self-critical – really to examine my own presuppositions – then, again, there has to be the possibility of stepping back from one or more of my ‘identities’, of bracketing them in order to ask questions and expose preconceptions.

The more I thought about this, the more I was convinced that this ability to suspend an identity was a crucial aspect of our freedom, our capacity for relationship, and our capacity for critical thought. It is a philosophical moment, but also the most everyday, lived experience, without which we become automata.

I know Katharine Sarah Moody of the Network is working closely on the whole idea of suspended identities in worship communities. For me, it offers a challenge to our ideas of what identity is. Identity is, despite its name, not simple. I am not just one, undifferentiated thing. Identity is, to a large extent, a matter of identifying oneself with different roles, narratives, traditions, habits, institutions and so on. Those identifications are never complete. We never get to tell the whole of even our own individual life story. Part of it must remain hidden to us, as finite, flesh and blood beings. But it is that very incompleteness of identity which allows us to shift and to open to new experiences, thoughts and relationships.

And this was the insight the workshop left me with:  philosophy, like practice, works best when it has a dynamic and liberating relationship with what must remain unthought in all our claims to identity.

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