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  • Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities by Hilde Lindemann
  • Constance K. Perry (bio)
Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities, by Hilde Lindemann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Hilde Lindemann’s Holding and Letting Go is a valuable addition to the literature on personhood and identity. Like most such texts, it recognizes the ambiguity of the concepts. However, while other texts then try to clarify and fix the ambiguity, Lindemann goes in another direction. She embraces it by presenting and examining the many ways in which practices of social connection, interaction, and disconnection shape, preserve, and even damage an individual’s personal and social identity.

Lindemann breaks with classic texts on identity, which tend to move from the particular to proposing and supporting a specific definition of an objective concept of identity, usually incorporating moral agency. Using well-crafted narratives and copious scholarship in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, Lindemann invites the reader to consider the myriad of ways personhood, in general and in particular, is crafted, supported, and released. Her conception of personhood qua identity combines a conscious, sentient, human sense of self, the bodily expression of the individual’s sense of self, with social recognition of the presence of a self and the individual’s response to this social recognition (22). In this sense, “personhood” responds to and is recognized through interaction with other humans. Personal identity develops through the phenomena of experiences with other sentient beings.

This is not a new claim. For example, Claudia Mills (1999) wrote, “The self that is self-governing in any workable and attractive model of autonomy has to be a self that acknowledges and even celebrates its social formation. … To suggest otherwise is to deny the fabric of human interaction within which we are all, inevitably and fortunately, situated” (44). In this sense, Lindemann’s text adds to the rich history of feminist ethics by its recognition of the importance of the real context of social interactions for assessing the ethics of a situation. This includes the creation of ethically important concepts, in this case by focusing on the process by which individual selves are molded, colored, and even created by and through the interactions with and actions of others. Lindemann does this with a witty, skillful narration building on a [End Page 252] veritable who’s who of feminist ethicists as well as a strong foundation of Western European philosophers, such as Aristotle, Hegel, Wittgenstein, and Frege.

However, Lindemann breaks with Mills and many other philosophers by emphasizing the active practices that factor into recognizing an individual as a person. Her book doesn’t work if one is looking for a strong analytical argument in favor of a particular thesis. Rather, it presents stories, ideas, and theories that make explicit many of the activities of person-making/breaking which we engage in subconsciously, like breathing.

This is a book that you need to read many times because its stories stay with you, making the comfortable a little less so. For example, the story of Bud and his son, Joel, is, at first glance, a prosaic father-son story. Yet, Lindemann asks the reader to consider how Joel’s portrayal of his father, conveyed via alcohol infused sarcasm and snide remarks, impacts Bud as a person, father, manager, guest, and so on. It also raises questions about social practices, honesty, fairness, consideration, and the like. It is through stories like this that Lindemann’s text sparks insight into the complexity and import of these everyday human interactions.

For Lindemann, being a person is a developmental process. Since it requires the help of others, being a person is more complex than simple biology. Because of this emphasis on the practice of personhood, Lindemann can (and does) give a lot of attention to humans whose self-governance is lacking or impaired. Personhood as a social practice begins and ends with these hard cases of individuals who cannot actively engage in the practice of holding themselves in personhood. It is from these stories that the reader begins to grasp the complexity of interactions that goes into the work of holding a being as a person.



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pp. 252-255
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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