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The Identity CodeReview - The Identity Code
The 8 Essential Questions for Finding Your Purpose and Place in the World
by Laurence Ackerman
Random House, 2005
Review by Ludger Jansen, Dr. phil.
Sep 11th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 37)

This is a self-help book. Normally, philosophers (like the reviewer) do not have a professional interest in self-help books, lest they be written by Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. But identity is a full-blown philosophical topic, and thus this book attracts philosophical interest and, at the same time, invites philosophical criticism.

Larry Ackerman, the author of "The Identity Code", makes his living as an "identity consultant" (30). His business is, in his own words, to "help organizations, and the men and women who lead these organizations, come to term with who they are" in order to "bring them face-to-face with their uniqueness, and the potential it implies" (30--1). His identity counselling is something like an Anti-Sartre cure against an overdose of existentialism. The freedom of choice between seemingly endless possibilities, Ackerman tells us, causes stress, guilt, depression and despair: "Unbridled freedom weighs you down." (9) Thus Ackerman concludes: "The myth of personal freedom [...] is the unspoken agony of the modern person." (9) But help is at hand, because "life has order" and this order is encoded in our „identity code", in analogy to the biological genetic code (9). It is this "identity code" that secures order, which "helps us to navigate uncertainty" (175) and without which "it is impossible to find meaning in life" (77). The bulk of the book is dedicated to techniques and exercises to decipher this code. But although the identity code is already mentioned in the book's title, the analogy to the genetic code is nowhere in the book thoroughly discussed.

Ackerman makes quite a lot of promises about the success of his counselling-technique: If you follow his traces, you will "create value in this world -- and get rewarded for it in return" (3); you will even "marry smarter" (10) and "understand the why of your own life" (11; more promises: 13, 17). Ackerman does not hesitate to describe identity by means of superlatives, as well in semiotic as in causal dimensions. For him, an identity is not only "the most perfectly integrated expression of a human being there is" (14), but also "an inherently positive force", indeed „the most powerful human force on earth" (17).

The basic claim underlying his identity business is: Agents can improve on their performance if and when they act in concordance with their identity. With respect to this claim, Ackerman sees a perfect analogy between individuals and collectives, like huge companies: "the needs of organizations are no different from the needs of people" (32). This analogy, however, gets no corroboration within the book. This gives the impression that the present book is the attempt to transfer to individuals an approach that has before been successfully applied on the co-operate level only. Such a transfer is tempting, but it would be decent to have it broadly tested in practise before inviting the general public to apply it to their lifes.

Despite this lack of evidence, Ackerman is quite bold in his claims: the "Laws of Identity", or so he claims, "have proven to be as universally absolute, inescapable, and predictive in their effect on life as the laws of physics" (15). The eight "laws" in question include darkish formulations like "An individual's ability to live depends first upon defining one's self as separate from all others" ("Law of Being", 15) or slogans like "Identity foreshadows potential" ("Law of Possibility", 16). The laws of physics can be falsified, and since Popper many philosophers take this feature to be the mark between science and pseudo-science. I wonder in which situation Ackerman would possibly regard his laws of identity to be empirically falsified. 

In some respects, philosophers are on well known ground in reading this book. Not only is there the odd reference to Socrates and the famous "Know thyself!". A lot of Ackerman's ideas about identity and how it is related to living a good life resembles very closely Stoic theories about the importance of nature for the good life, though the Stoics never get cited. "You are happy", Ackerman tells us, "being who you are among others in the world" (9). Thus, Ackerman's main advice for the pursuit of happiness is: Live in concordance to identity. Substitute "identity" with "nature", and you get Zeno's and Chrysippus' famous doctrine. Ackerman himself sometimes uses the phrase "natural laws" when he talks about his "laws of identity" (e.g., 11, 13), and even the examples he uses to illustrate these laws -- desire to live and care for offspring (11) -- could have been taken from Cicero or some other source for Stoic doctrine.

In other respects, the book is quite foreign territory for a philosopher. Like other self-help books, it is full of anecdotal evidence, little stories that are thought to illuminate the author's ideas. Strangely enough, Ackerman does not relate the success stories of his former co-operate clients in search of their identity. Instead he tells stories about friends and parents ­ (some of whom are already deceased and can no longer confirm or deny the truth of the reports) and about himself. At least in part Ackerman tells his reader so much about himself (30-41!), he says, because he wants to give the reader his "credentials" (30), because he wants to explain how it comes that he knows so much about identities. However, it is not so much the author who needs credentials, but his claims. Credentials for claims are called arguments, they are tested by the means of logic, which requires a certain degree of precision. In this book there is a remarkable lack of all of this. Instead, there are religious elements: Ackerman relates to the reader how the laws of identity have been revealed to him in his summer vacation in 1996, and which course of life steered him to these insights. And the whole book even culminates in an "Identity Credo" (180) -- despite the fact that a creed is not a standard element in psychological literature, let alone contemporary philosophy.

At times, the whole talk about identity seems to be an eliminable rhetorical device. Ackerman could as well talk about the single elements of an Ackermanian identity, i.e. a person's capabilities, values, convictions, gifts, and goals. Of course, in our days "identity" is a catch phrase of high popularity. Many authors use it to express people's affiliations and allegiances to groups, and also Ackerman mentions wars related to such identities (18) and he cites Huntington's book on American national identity (28). But in the end, this is not what Ackerman thinks about identity. To the contrary, according to him, group affiliations can even hide and hinder a person's own identity. For Ackerman, a person has a certain identity not because of the groups she belongs to and interacts with -- whose "history and blood" (47) she shares -- but rather in spite of her belonging to these groups.

An Ackermanian identity is nothing we are socialised in, it is born with us: "We are all born with values and convictions we cherish, with identities that are the essence of our being" (146). This again raises doubts: Are there really inborn convictions, inborn values? Does the possession of convictions not require the possession of language skills, which are to be acquired through interaction with those who do already follow the social rules of the language to be learnt? And does the possession of values not require experience of actions, the ability for empathy and other skills? Again, these skills are not possessed by a newborn but have to be acquired by interaction with other persons. Furthermore, one could argue, a newborn does not even have the neural capacities for having convictions, mastering a language or possessing values. These are severe problems for Ackerman's claims about both the innateness and the social disconnectedness of identities, which threaten the coherence of Ackerman's concept of identity.

The problems continue if we consider the "Identity Credo" or Ackerman's laws of identity. The creed's first tenet is: "I am unique." This matches to the "Law of Individuality": "A person's natural capacities invariably fuse into a discernible identity that makes that person unique." (15) But does an Ackermanian identity necessarily make a person unique? In the end, all elements of such an identity (capabilities, values, convictions, gifts, and goals) can be shared by many people, and so can bundles of them. Often, Ackerman uses the word "special" instead of "unique", which is less committing: An identity makes someone belong to a certain kind of persons -- making him literally special in the sense that he belongs to this species of people and not to another. Indeed, there is a constant tension in Ackerman's book between identity as part of a universal human nature (13) and identity as a part of individuals, related to "our uniqueness and potential as individuals" (14). Ackerman tries to market his identities as something like personal unique-selling-points, but there is no contradiction involved in thinking about lots of human individuals participating in exactly the same capacities.

The creed's second tenet is: "I am immutable, even as I grow and evolve." As it stands, this is a flat contradiction: If something is immutable, it can neither grow nor evolve. Ackerman even gives identities a status similar to Platonic ideas: "Identity is fixed, transcending time and place, while its manifestations are constantly changing." ("Law of Constancy", 15) But this is scarcely tenable. As I argued, all the elements of an identity (capabilities, values, convictions, gifts, and goals) need to develop, thus all of them have a history and a development and are far from being immutable.

Ackerman claims universal applicability for his approach: "there is no person walking this planet who doesn't have the capacity to live through his or her identity" (183). But there seem to be plenty of people on this planet who are not in all in want of the cure Ackerman offers to his readers. There are plenty of non-western societies, regulated by traditions and fixed rites, which would consider the quest for a person's individual identity to be sheer nonsense. And even western poors are likely to laugh in the face of someone who encourages them to search for their identity. Maybe this whole quest is a luxury problem of a more or less well-off middle class. Maybe those who struggle to survive on an underpaid low-prestige job have enough "order" in their life by working hard to bring through their families.

If this book is helpful (and in the end, this is what a self-help book is meant to be), it is not because it unfolds a brilliant theory. To the contrary, there is nearly no theoretical content, and the traces of theory to be found in the book are not well corroborated and highly incoherent.

© 2007 Ludger Jansen

Dr. Ludger Jansen teaches philosophy at the University of Rostock, Germany.


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