Por Santiago Vallés
Recently, I came across a vehicle in a parking lot that had a sticker on the back window which read, “I identify as a Prius”. The surprising thing was that the car showing off that message was actually a Chevrolet Suburban. For those who don’t know a lot about cars, the Prius is a medium-priced hybrid made by Toyota, while the Suburban is a full-size SUV. It is fair to say that both cars are opposites in most possible ways, retaining, of course, the needed commonality. That is, they are similar in that they are cars, have car attributes, do car stuff, and are made of car parts, but are different in almost everything else. So, there was, so to say, a reason for surprise when I saw the label. At first thought, it seemed to me like a funny joke, but a bit of careful reflection revealed something very interesting.
The sticker was placed by its owner through a conscious act, and independently of the car manufacturer’s will or knowledge. Furthermore, the particular use of the sticker is not mandated in any way. The same sticker could be used by anyone on his own car if he were to want that; on any car, without the requirement of it being actually a Prius. The sticker could even be worn by a fridge or a boat, depending on the owner’s choice. The thing to note is that there is not necessarily a link between what the sticker says and the object that wears it.
To further our reflection, we can look into what the phrase says, omitting the final word: I identify (myself) as a. We can see that what the speaker is doing is transitioning from a personal perspective into a realm of common understanding. I added the word “myself” to the phrase, even though it is implied in the original version because I believe that it highlights more clearly what the action in the sentence is doing: self-identifying. Self-identification alone is a subjective act, of course, but when one uses an objective concept as a reference, it can be judged objectively as true or false, at least in principle. In other words, when someone says “I identify as something”, we can easily tell that the judgment is sustained if there is in fact a relationship like the one described in the phrase. The concept of reference, to which we give a particular name, is meant to be something objective. A Prius, if it could talk, would be free to say any of the three following sentences: I identify as a Suburban, I identify as a Shelby, or I identify as a Prius. We can, without much effort in these cases, accept only the third of the options presented. Then, we can note that the validation of the act of identification is objective, that is, it is only adequately done without taking into consideration the subject’s beliefs. The Prius’ self-identification is correct if it matches the concept used as a reference; in this case, both are Prius.
Let us now forget the abstract matters for a while and consider the following case. Suppose the car in question, which is a Suburban and bears the sticker which says “I identify as a Prius”, is being sold by the owner. The owner can choose to publish his vehicle as a Prius, in accordance with the sticker, or to publish it as a Suburban, in accordance with the manufacturer, the physical characteristics, the experts, and the overall public. For unknown reasons, the owner decides to stick to what the sticker says and publishes the car with a title like the following: “Prius for sale”. An interested buyer, who seeks a car that can fit seven people, goes offroad and carries lots of cargo in the trunk, seeing the pictures and discarding the text in the title, decides to make an offer, writing a message like the following: “Dear friend, I am interested in your Suburban. I have a big family, frequently go on expeditions to the country and work for a logistics company that requires me to use my own vehicle for pick-ups. I am also a diesel fanatic and a long-time lover of the Suburban models. It is time for me to try this particular version”. The offer is generous and the owner answers: “Estimated sir, I thank you for your interest, but the car in question is not a Suburban, as you can clearly see in the title of the publication. What I am selling is a Prius. To avoid any doubts I send you an image that depicts a sticker that this car wears and accurately labels it as a Prius. I am sure this misunderstanding can be settled by your referral to that image. I take the opportunity to inform you that the Prius is a very attractive car, it is hybrid, compact, and, being a Toyota, it is easy to find spare parts, should you need them. Have a nice day”. The confused potential buyer becomes deeply surprised, and after a couple of messaging rounds with the owner, he decides to turn towards other sellers that actually identify their products correctly.
It is easy to note that identifying is not the same as naming. The case presented is one of misidentification, while a case of misnaming could be one in which the owner and potential buyer call by different names an object that they both agree has certain characteristics. It is easily resolved by finding that both names that are being used are synonyms, something that happens many times between people that speak different languages or dialects. Mis-identification is not like this because, in misnaming, it misconceives what is being named. Identifying is, in short,
assigning a certain conception to an object, and then using common language to talk about it and giving it a name. A Suburban that identifies itself with a Prius conceives itself as a hybrid car and that is what the sticker mentions.
What first seemed to us as a joke turned out to be a deep philosophical and practical problem, as we have briefly shown. What we have realized is that when a proposition of the form, I identify as , is presented, it can be objectively judged. The trick is to be sure to understand what the concept of reference really means —the one suppressed in this last sentence and that way we can avoid committing mistakes like the car owner. A Suburban is a Suburban regardless of what its owner calls it. Calling something a particular way doesn’t magically modify that something. The name “Suburban”, which refers to a very particular SUV, is correctly used if it is assigned to an object which is in fact that which the name is supposed to label. Names, of course, can vary, but they have to do so in accordance with the concept they refer to. There are already established names for certain objects and concepts which serve their function perfectly, allowing us to communicate. In our example, the sticker is incorrectly naming something that already has a name that works and describes perfectly what is meant. The arbitrarily given name, Prius, does not match the name already linked with the car, and that in fact corresponds with it, which is Suburban. The importance of name and concept matching in self-identification is very relevant because what is at stake here is not the use of one or the other name, like in the case discussed of misnaming, but the adoption of some conception about the object. If each of us starts calling things the way he or she wants and not paying attention to the objective link between name and concept then we will suffer the fate of not being able to understand ourselves.