The Meaning of Identity: a Brief History
The Meaning of Identity: A Brief History
The term identity as the dictionary defines it today is almost as new as the sciences devoted to studying it. The definition of the word identity has undergone several transformations since it was first used by European philosophers emerging from the Dark Ages. It wouldn’t be until 1950 that the word would undergo its final stage, the one seen used in psychology textbooks across the world. Erik Erikson’s eight stages of the life cycle gave us its modern meaning. The way the term identity has been used by philosophers in the past has given it definite significance and seriousness. Despite this, its use in relation to the individuality of a person was very casual and lacked depth. Only recently has the term identity come to represent an analytical psychological concept (Gleason, 1983). Before modern social sciences evolved, the term identity was associated with philosophical thought and the ever-present questions about the mind-body connection and the nature of self. The root of the word identity is Latin in origin. The word is “idem” and it means “the same.” The word identity has been found in philosophical texts going back to 1690 with John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (Gleason, 1983). The term seemed to be used only to describe “self” as the philosophers viewed it. The definition of identity that we have today did not come about until much later and when it did it gave much insight into issues that had risen around the term (Douvan, 1997). The new use of identity came from the vocabulary of the modern social sciences, the two main being psychology and sociology. The social sciences were born around the turn of the last century. They didn’t become recognized as separate scientific areas until after the end of World War I. Over the next 10 years, the sciences would evolve enough to assemble the first social science encyclopedia. The first publication of the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences would contain no entry for the word identity. It wouldn’t be until its republication in 1968 that an identity and its definition were added (Gleason, 1983). The Roosevelt Era, gave the social sciences opportunities to better society. Many held the belief that the social sciences could unlock the mystery of the human condition (Gleason, 1983). Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1902, Erik Erikson is the man responsible for the definition of identity as we have it today. As a young man he was known as Erik Homberger. After finishing high school, Erikson became a nomad, he wandered across Europe taking various art classes and visiting museums. His dream was to become an artist. At 25, a fellow artist friend of Erikson’s gave him the idea to apply for a teaching position at an experimental school for American students. This school was run by a friend of Anna Freud, daughter of psychologist Sigmund Freud, both of whom greatly influenced Erikson’s later work. Anna Freud psychoanalyzed Erikson during his time at the school (Boeree, 2007). Erikson fled Vienna, Austria for Boston when the Nazi Party began to rise to power in Europe. Immediately after receiving his citizenship, Erik Homberger changed his last name to Erikson. He taught at Harvard Medical School and Yale and the University of California at Berkley. It was during this time that Erikson published his best known work, Children and Society, in 1950 (Boeree, 2007). Children and Society explored the concept of identity in psychological and sociological terms, and gave us the modern definition of the word as we have it now. Some argue that Erikson did more than any other person to popularize the concept of identity (Gleason, 1983). Erikson himself admitted that his concept of identity is difficult to grasp because it concerns “a process ‘located’ in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture, a process which establishes, in fact, the identity of...
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