What Makes a Person: The Seven Layers of Identity in Literature and Life

by Maria Popova

“It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person.”

What Makes a Person: The Seven Layers of Identity in Literature and Life

“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul“is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” And yet we are increasingly pressured to parcel ourselves out in various social contexts, lacerating the parchment of our identity in the process. As Courtney Martin observed in her insightful On Beingconversation with Parker Palmer and Krista Tippett, “It’s never been more asked of us to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.” Today, as Whitman’s multitudes no longer compose an inner wholeness but are being wrested out of us fragment by fragment, what does it really mean to be a person? And how many types of personhood do we each contain?

In the variedly stimulating 1976 volume The Identities of Persons (public library), philosopher Amelie Rorty considers the seven layers of personhood, rooted in literature but extensible to life. She writes:

Humans are just the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves. This is a complicated biological fact about us.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Rorty offers a brief taxonomy of those conceptions before exploring each in turn:

Characters are delineated; their traits are sketched; they are not presumed to be strictly unified. They appear in novels by Dickens, not those by Kafka. Figures appear in cautionary tales, exemplary novels and hagiography. They present narratives of types of lives to be imitated. Selves are possessors of their properties. Individuals are centers of integrity; their rights are inalienable. Presences are descendants of souls; they are evoked rather than presented, to be found in novels by Dostoyevsky, not those by Jane Austen.

Depending on which of these we adopt, Rorty argues, we become radically different entities, with different powers and proprieties, different notions of success and failure, different freedoms and liabilities, different expectations of and relations to one another, and most of all a different orientation toward ourselves in the emotional, intellectual, and social spaces we inhabit.

And yet we ought to be able to interpolate between these various modalities of being:

Worldliness consists of [the] ability to enact, with grace and aplomb, a great variety of roles.

Rorty begins with the character, tracing its origin to Ancient Greek drama:

Since the elements out of which characters are composed are repeatable and their configurations can be reproduced, a society of characters is in principle a society of repeatable and indeed replaceable individuals.

Characters, Rorty points out, don’t have identity crises because they aren’t expected to have a core unity beneath their assemblage of traits. What defines them is which of these traits become manifested, and this warrants the question of social context:

To know what sort of character a person is, is to know what sort of life is best suited to bring out his potentialities and functions… Not all characters are suited to the same sorts of lives: there is no ideal type for them all… If one tries to force the life of a bargainer on the character of a philosopher, one is likely to encounter trouble, sorrow, and the sort of evil that comes from mismatching life and temperament. Characters formed within one society and living in circumstances where their dispositions are no longer needed — characters in time of great social change — are likely to be tragic. Their virtues lie useless or even foiled; they are no longer recognized for what they are; their motives and actions are misunderstood. The magnanimous man in a petty bourgeois society is seen as a vain fool; the energetic and industrious man in a society that prizes elegance above energy is seen as a bustling boor; the meditative person in an expansive society is seen as melancholic… Two individuals of the same character will fare differently in different polities, not because their characters will change through their experiences (though different aspects will become dominant or recessive) but simply because a good fit of character and society can conduce to well-being and happiness, while a bad fit produces misery and rejection.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Rorty’s central point about character takes it out of the realm of the literary and the philosophical, and into the realm of our everyday lives, where the perennial dramas of who we are play out:

“To be a character” is to maintain a few qualities, nourish them to excess until they dominate and dictate all others. A character is delineated and thus generally delimited. To “have character” is to have reliable qualities, to hold tightly to them through the temptations to swerve and change. A person of character is neither bribed nor corrupted; he stands fast, is steadfast.


Because characters are public persons, even their private lives can have universal form, general significance. The dramatic character, writ large, can represent for everyman what only later came to be thought of as the inner life of some; it can portray the myth, the conflicts, reversals and discoveries of each person, each polis.

After characters come figures, which Rorty describes as “characters writ large,” “defined by their place in an unfolding drama.” Figures are allegorical archetypes — rather their being defined by their vocations or social roles, their traits originate in ancient stories. Rorty writes:

A figure is neither formed by nor owns experiences: his figurative identity shapes the significances of the events in his life.


Individuals who regard themselves as figures watch the unfolding of their lives following the patterns of their archetypes… They form the narratives of their lives and make their choices according to the pattern…

In contrast with the wholly external perspective on characters, the concept of a figure introduces the germ of what will become a distinction between the inner and the outer person. An individual’s perspective on his model, his idealized real figure, is originally externally presented, but it becomes internalized, becomes the internal model of self-representation.

This shift from self-discovery to active choice, to locus of agency, brings us to the person. Rorty writes:

A person’s roles and his place in the narrative devolve from the choices that place him in a structural system related to others. The person thus comes to stand behind his roles, to select them and to be judged by his choices and his capacities to act out his personae in a total structure that is the unfolding of his drama.

The idea of a person is the idea of a unified center of choice and action, the unit of legal and theological responsibility. Having chosen, a person acts, and so is actionable, liable. It is in the idea of action that the legal and the theatrical sources of the concept of person come together.

Central to the concept of the person — unlike the character and the figure — is the idea of free will, which springs from our capacity for making choices and implies the responsibility for those choices. Rorty explains:

If judgment summarizes a life … then that life must have a unified location. Since they choose from their natures or are chosen by their stories, neither characters nor figures need be equipped with a will, not to mention a free will… The actions of characters and figures do no emerge from the exercise of a single faculty of power: there is no need for a single source of responsibility… Persons are required to unify the capacity for choice with the capacities for action.

This very capacity, Rorty argues, is what defines personhood. But unlike the powers of characters, which exist on a spectrum, personhood is a binary notion — because it arises from responsibility, and in any given instance we are either liable or not, there are no degrees in personhood. The more obvious dark side to this binary conception is the sociopolitical one: Throughout its evolving understanding of what it means to be human, our civilization has systematically treated various classes of people — women, children, people of color — as less-than-persons by denying them basic human rights of choice. But there is also a private psychological downside to our capacity for choice, one that plays out from the inside out rather than the outside in. Rorty writes:

It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person. Here the stage is set for identity crises, for wondering who one really is, behind the multifold variety of actions and roles. And the search for that core person is not a matter of curiosity; it is a search for the principles by which choices are to be made.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from This Moose Belongs to Me, an illustrated parable of the paradox of ownership

One of these principles is the notion of property, which determines the rights and agency of persons, thus transforming them into selves and conferring upon them the status of souls and minds. Rorty writes:

The two strands that were fused in the concept of person diverge again: When we focus on persons as sources of decisions, the ultimate locus of responsibility, the unity of thought and action, we must come to think of them as souls and minds. When we think of them as possessors of rights and powers, we come to think of them as selves. It is not until each of these has been transformed into the concept of individuality that the two strands are woven together again.


When a society has changed so that individuals acquire their rights by virtue of their powers, rather than having their powers defined by their rights, the concept of person has been transformed to a concept of self… The quality of an individual self is determined by his qualities: they are his capital, to invest well or foolishly.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Sylvia Plath’s meditation on free will and what makes us who we are, Rorty considers the identity level of soul and mind:

Because persons are primary agents of principle, their integrity requires freedom; because they are judged liable, their powers must be autonomous. But when this criterion for personhood is carried to its logical extreme, the scope of agency moves inward, away from social dramas, to the choices of the soul, or to the operations of the mind.


From character as structured dispositions, we come to soul as pure agency, unfathomable, inexpressible.

Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s ideas on the relationship between property-ownership, agency, and victimhood, Rorty considers the role of property in the conception of the self and its identity-crises in the face of alienation:

Judgments of persons are moral; judgments of souls are theological; judgments of selves are economic and political. Societies of persons are constructed to assure the rights of choice and action; they emerge from a contract of agents; societies of selves are also formed to protect and guarantee the rights of their members. But when the members of a society achieve their rights by virtue of their possessions, the protection of rights requires the protection of property, even though in principle everyone is equally entitled to the fruits of his labors and protection under law.


The concerns of selves are their interests; their obligations are the duties with which they are taxed or charged. The grammar and the semantics of selfhood reveal the possessive forms. Whatever will come to be regarded as crucial property, or the means to it, will be regarded as the focus of rights; the alienation of property becomes an attack on the integrity if not actually the preservation of the self.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from Once Upon an Alphabet

Alongside property, the other essential component of the self is the faculty of memory, which, as Oliver Sacks has memorably demonstrated, is the seedbed of what makes us who we are to ourselves. Rorty writes:

The conscious possession of experiences [is] the final criterion of identity. The continuity of the self is established by memory; disputes about the validity of memory reports will hang on whether the claimant had as hers the original experience. Puzzles about identity will be described as puzzles about whether it is possible to transfer, or to alienate memory (that is, the retention of one’s own experience) without destroying the self.

Today, two generations later, this puzzle is all the more puzzling, for it illuminates the central paradox of the singularity movement and its escapist fantasy of somehow decentralizing, downloading, and transferring the self across different corporeal and temporal hosts. Rorty speaks to this indirectly but brilliantly:

There is difficulty in describing the core possessor, the owner of experiences who is not herself any set of them. One can speak of characters as sets of traits without looking for a center; but it is more difficult to think of bundles of properties without an owner, especially when the older idea of the person as an agent and decision-maker is still implicit. It is presumed that the self as an owner is also endowed with capabilities to choose and to act.

Out of this necessity to reconcile the ownership of experience with the capacity for choice arises the level of the individual. Rorty writes:

From the tensions in the definition of the alienable properties of selves, and from the corruptions in societies of selves — the divergence of practice from ideological commitments — comes the invention of individuality. It begins with conscience and ends with consciousness.

Unlike characters and figures, individuals actively resist typing: they represent the universal mind of rational beings, or the unique private voice. Individuals are indivisible entities… Invented as a preserve of integrity, an autonomous ens, an individual transcends and resists what is binding and oppressive in society and does so from an original natural position. Although in its inception, individuality revives the idea of person, the rights of persons are formulated in society, while the rights of individuals are demanded of society. The contrast between the inner and outer person becomes the contrast between the individual and the social mask, between nature and culture.

A society of individuals is quite different from one composed of selves. Individuals contract to assure the basic rights to the development of moral and intellectual gifts, as well as legal protection of self and property. Because a society of individuals is composed of indivisible autonomous units, from whose natures — their minds and conscience — come the principles of justice, their rights are not property; they cannot be exchanged, bartered. Their rights and their qualities are their very essence, inalienable.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of power

Therein lies Rorty’s most important point — the integrity of our identity requires a locus of agency that is honored by the collective but cultivated in solitude. With an eye to Virginia Woolf’s immortal defense of that integrity, Rorty writes:

Being an individual requires having a room of one’s own, not because it is one’s possession, but because only there, in solitude, away from the pressure of others, can one develop the features and styles that differentiate one’s own being from others. Integrity comes to be associated with difference; this idea, always implicit in individuality, of preserving one’s right against the encroachment of others within one’s own society, emerges as dominant… Conscientious consciousness is then the transparent eye that illuminates the substance of social life.

And yet there is a level of personhood that exists even above the individual — one that represents our highest mode of being, beyond the ego’s ambitions and preoccupations — the level of presence:

Presences [are] the return of the unchartable soul… They are a mode of attending, being present to [one’s] experiences, without dominating or controlling them.


Understanding other conceptions of persons puts one on the way of being them; but understanding presences — if indeed there is understanding of them to be had — does not put one any closer to being one. It cannot be achieved by imitation, willing, practice, or a good education. It is a mode of identity invented precisely to go beyond of achievement and willfulness.

Complement The Identities of Persons — the remaining essays in which examine various facets of the perplexity of personhood and come from such celebrated thinkers as Daniel Dennett, John Perry, and Ronald de Sousa — with Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, Hannah Arendt on being vs. appearing, Andre Gidé on what it really means to be yourself, and Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the integrated life.