Identity -- some philosophical musings

Here are some interesting words taken from the link. Follow the link for more. Following, I'll sketch what I am thinking. This is a bit disjoint, but, I think, necessary. It seems that our topic maps are becoming sophisticated enough that we are now able to push the boundaries of subject identities that motivated Bernard to start this blog in the first place. Maybe someone else, or something else (hubjects?) will help resolve some things dealing with subject identity. Possibly longish.

Crystals appear (on the scene of Reality) -- just like organisms -- always as individuals. Such an individual has a definite Identity that remains constant during its existence. It is, say, A, it is not B, not C, etc. A developing crystal of Salt (growing in a solution) can change its shape while its Identity remains the same. For organisms this applies even stronger. We ourselves (being an organism) seem to have direct experience of our Identity staying the same during all of our life in spite of the fact of the many changes we constantly undergo. Some insects undergo a strong metamorphosis (for example from caterpillar to butterfly) but nevertheless their Identity stays the same. So it seems for every entity, which is an intrinsic whole, that there is something that remains the same, and something else not remaining the same, but always changing. In Philosophy such changes are called "accidental" or "per accidens" in relation to the persistent Identity. This Identity is called the "intrinsic Essence" of the thing, so every real uniform being has such an Essence.


But what then is this Essence?
Where does it abide?
Does it abide outside the thing (as Plato assumed), or inside the thing (as his famous pupil Aristotle assumed)?
And if the Essence is located inside the thing (meaning that the Essence of every being abides in "our world", and not in some external immaterial world transcending the material world), which I consider the most probable position, where in the thing is it located and in what way? Could this Essence be a concrete part of the thing, the "heart" or "soul" of the thing, which implies that the Essence itself would also be a thing (and this thing should of course also have an Essence of its own........Oh my god, where are we going???), or is it in the thing in an abstract way (whatever that means), like a principle?

A background sketch: together with Joshua Levy, I am building a subject mapped social bookmarking application. We call it Tagomizer (tm). It's being fun. But, it's also causing (moi) brain pain. What is a subject? Let me translate. Someone bookmarks a webpage. This means that the URL of that page, and the page title, are sent to Tagomizer, which then paints a form in which the user can add tags (words or phrases for now, images and other objects later), and a body of text taken as a comment. A user can come in later and add more comments or more tags, or remove tags. Tags are a large part of Web 2.0, where folksonomies are breaking out everywhere.

What is a subject? When Tagomizer creates a bookmark, it creates several subject proxies in the subject map where those objects don't already exist. Tagomizer is a kind of TMA (topic maps application -- or SMA in the newspeak of the TMRM), so it is responsible for identification of its subjects, some of which might already have subject identity granted by other TMAs. What, then, is a subject? Consider the webpage itself. Tagomizer asks the core TMA to create a subject proxy for a webpage with a given URL. If that subject proxy already exists, it is returned. Otherwise, a new one is created and granted subject identity by way of a PSI associated with the core TMA. Tagomizer, as a different TMA then grants that subject proxy subject identity with a different PSI, one that says "this is a subject identified by Tagomizer." Other TMAs might grant an SIP (psi) of their own. This is necessary because each individual TMA will be adding other properties to the proxy, mostly assertions.

So, a webpage has granted to it subject identity. What is the subject? In this case, subject identity has been granted to a particular resource, a webpage. Nothing more than that. The resource exists, it is located on the web at a particular URL, and it has been granted subject identity based on that URL by one or more TMAs. Each TMA is going to confer other properties on that subject. We know from nothing about the subject itself other than those properties of location and object type. What is contained/presented at that webpage will be the subject(s) of other subject proxies, for which that resource becomes an instance of an occurrence.

Brain pain, for me (warning: admission of ignorance forthcoming), stems from notions of essence. Essence is mentioned in the quote above as an intrinsic issue. Now, we're deep into the same issues that come up from time to time in the OODB community, intrinsic vs. extrinsic properties. There's an interesting thread on web resource identity, not dissimilar to Bernard's previous post on URI ambiguity. That xml-dev thread starts here.
Intrinsice-extrinsic properties are discussed here.

Closure? Is closure possible? I post this because I am interested in looking for concensus reality related to interoperable ways in which subject identity can/should be conferred on the subjects of future topic/subject maps. My sense is that the inquiry I reveal in this post represents the, um, essense of this entire blog and of Bernard's inquiry. I'll take my answers anywhere I can find them.


  1. Mark Szpakowski10.2.06

    Gee, and I thought I was the last of the medieval philosophers :-)

    Aquinas' On Being and Essence is the work of a young man (Orange is young, full of daring,
    But very unsteady for the first go round
    [*]), feels like Beethoven's second piano concerto (actually the first one he wrote), full of confidence and brimming in its powers.

    I'll have to re-examine "essence" and its relation to identity. I think the "analogy of proper proportionality" also has something to offer here, as a way to describe how to generate potential categorizing subjects.

    For Aquinas, existence (actually, esse, "to be"), was primary, and found in the judgement (not concept), while essence was "debile esse", a cutting off of esse's potential. My college professor William Carlo spoke of esse as the thesaurus of the perfections of existence. Essence (and perhaps identity?) is where esse stops: it has no "existence" of its own.

    There could be a useful dialogue between this and the Buddhist Madyamika philosophy of emptiness (and by the way one of the meanings for sunya, the root of sunyata = emptiness, is "swollen", "pregnant") found in codependent origination (although the dialogue is usually confused by the fact that buddhists use the term existence in exactly the same was as Thomists use the term essence). Ie, they say that there is no own-being or intrinsic essence, but that it arises in conjunction with and is only viewable from relative causes and conditions. Which means that any identity or characteristic attribution should be stated relative to a context.

    So it would seem all subject maps are provisional, but provisional things can last a long time and be quite useful.

  2. Before you go looking for the essence of anything for use in determining identity, remember your Pre-Socratic Philososphers.

    Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice.

    In TM lingo, I think that means that from one point of view, say local geography within one person's lifetime, the river has a constant identity.

    But from the standpoint of the water, perhaps the quality of the water, chemical pollution, etc., the river today may not be the same river as it was ten years ago.

    It really depends upon the point of view, or purpose for which we are attributing identity. All major rivers change their locations over thousands of years, hence the formation of deltas. Is is still the same river as it was before? Depends on the purpose behing attributing identity doesn't it?

    For practical reasons we tend to gloss over the myriad changes in identity for any number of purposes. If we are searching for school records on some wrong doer, we are likely to say it is the same person as we have in custody. But it isn't really. The school child was never married, had not served in the military, had not tortured prisoners on orders of his leaders, etc. Not really the same person in any meaningful sense of the word. But as I said, for some purposes we gloss over the myriad of changes in identity and settle for something that is close enough.

    I think an awareness that identity is constantly changing rather than searching for an essence of identity is far more useful, at least in constructing topic maps. There are consequences to classification as well as identification, see Sorting Things Out by Bowker and Star. An awareness of what we are glossing over in assigning a single identity may help in designing topic map systems as well as understanding their consequences.

  3. Heraclitus had two major themes: change, and logos. Logos, word, had a number of different meanings in 5th century Greece, among them "truth of the matter", "definition or formula expressing essential nature", and "faculty of reason". Heraclitus applies the term logos to the world, as the tension in strife and change which maintains the integrity of things ("the kykeon ('mixed drink') also separates if it is not stirred"). This usage is close to that of physis, the generative real constitution of things.

    He also uses the term logos to describe the human and its knowing: "the soul has its own logos which increases itself" and "you could not in your goings find the ends of the soul... so deep is its logos".

    Both usages relate to the root of the word "logos" in legein, to bind (Heidegger really picked up on this). Language is the true ring of power. With a word we can bind perception: my sister knows the names of plants, and walking with her in the woods is a different perceptual experience. Plants can also be in further contexts: nutritional, medicinal, ecological, artistic...

    Subject identity applies to an inherently dynamic field: "the world is an ever living fire", though for most things and under reasonable conditions it's stable enough so there can be satisfycing identity. Identity also seems relative, implying an at least implicit acknowledgment of context (me, you, this project, that concern). And identity might also be seen as the binding spell which both distinguishes elements (selects relevant objects) and joins them together in a system, in what topic maps would call a "subject".

    What I find mysterious is how the process of creating new identity happens; ie, how the binding problem is solved. That we do it all the time in our language and perception is the existence proof that it is solvable. Will our software need to be able to solve it if it is to subject map our personal and shared knowledge and perception? Will an essential part of this solution be software's calling on us and our tacit ability to solve it? Is such a human interface a core feature of an adequate software language?

  4. I realize I'm coming into this discussion somewhat at the tail end, but to me, if there's anything within the world of Knowledge Representation, Ontological Engineering (or whatever high-falutin' name is the current vogue), that is the current vogue — though largely ignored by "Semantic Web" types — it's the sub-discipline of context. As noted here previously, context is the key to many of the problems surrounding identity. This where a lot of the more ground-breaking work is being done.

    For anyone who's bothered to follow the recent discussion on topicmapmail (a thread that starts here), this is a very complicated logic, a long way from DL. Perhaps in implementation it'll be simply represented by <scope>, but I remain skeptical.

    Back in about 2002, after being pointed to him by one of the forefathers of AI who was speaking at KMi, I checked out the work of Patrick Brézillion, who has since 1997 been organizing a conference on context, compiling bibliographies, writing papers, etc., and if anything, I think that this is where we'll find a possible solution. Brézillion has something he's calling Contextual Graphs, which sounds curiously like a few other things.

    I don't think this represents an epistemological breakthrough. I expect what is actually happening in the world of contemporary philosophy will take years to find its way to the world of KR/OE, but it's a start.


Comments welcome