Change, Identity, and the Fundamental Transformation of America
While on his campaign trail for the presidency, Barack Obama talked to no end about the “change” that would visit upon America, a change so profound, so sweeping, that it would “fundamentally transform” America. To understand the implications of this, we would do ourselves a good turn to subject the concept of “change” to philosophical interrogation.
“Change” is a concept with a storied history in the annals of Western philosophy. In fact, it is no exaggeration to account for Western philosophy itself as an enduring conflict over the nature of change and its place in the world. From its inception in ancient Greece 2600 years ago to the present day, philosophers have realized that inquiries regarding “change” are inseparable from those concerning “permanence,” “identity,” “knowledge,” “belief,” “particulars,” “universals,” and, in short, a plethora of other philosophical concepts.
The pre-Socratic philosophers set the stage for the issues that would arrest the attention of their successors for the next two-and-a-half millennia. Parmenides thought that change must be an illusion, for change is identity-extinguishing: If change were real, than neither the objects that constitute our world nor our knowledge of them would be possible. Heraclitus, on the other hand, thought that it was “permanence” that was illusory: It was he who famously said that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” Another partisan of “the flux,” Cratylus, grabbed hold of the logic of this reasoning and ran with it further: If change is the only constant, so to speak, then you can’t step in the same river even once, for nothing remains itself from one unit of time to the next. Thus, nothing can be known.
Plato thought that Cratylus was correct, that change precludes both identity and knowledge. And he agreed as well that there isn’t a single entity in our world that is immune to change. But to avoid Cratylus’s skeptical conclusions, Plato posited another world, a supra-sensible or “intelligible,” heavenly-like world constituted by, not the corruptible and temporal “particulars” that compose empirical reality, but invisible, incorruptible, immutable, and eternal “Universals.” What stability and identity each particular possesses it derives from its “participation” in the Universal to which it corresponds. Knowledge, then, is attainable, for its objects are Universals that, as such, remain exactly one and the same forever.
Plato’s premiere student Aristotle was among the first to identify the problems with his master’s “Two Worlds” theory. He rejected it, but the language of “universals” and “particulars” that were its central terms he preserved, even if in a significantly modified form. Still, Aristotle refused to abandon the belief that “the universal” is the immutable essence that ultimately invests each particular with its identity and renders it a possible object of knowledge.
Western philosophy had assumed an identifiable shape and the argument over change and permanence, particulars and universals, was well underway.
Along with others, I do not think that change is necessarily incompatible with identity. Because neither “change” nor “identity” is a theory-neutral term, it is indeed possible to construe each so as to reconcile it to the other. Only a conception of identity that equates it with exactness finds it impossible to accommodate change: If something doesn’t have exactly the same properties at any one moment as it has at any other, then it isn’t the same thing. But why endorse this understanding of identity? More plausibly, identity doesn’t preclude change but, rather, requires that whatever changes occur be continuous with one another. Since changes that are gradual or incremental are readily absorbable by the entity that undergoes them, the identity of that being isn’t impaired by them.
However, to paraphrase the twentieth century philosopher Michael Oakeshott, change that promises “fundamental transformation” is emblematic of death. Every change involves loss, it is true, but dramatic changes of this kind are designed to destroy the being upon whom they are visited. It is crucial that this is grasped. When Obama pledges to fundamentally transform the United States, he is not pledging to improve upon his country, but to replace it with another entity altogether.
This is what a “transformation” involves. It is but a euphemism for “death,” really. Anyone with any doubts on this score ought to ask himself how his wife would respond to him if, in addition to vowing to love and cherish her, he as well vowed to “fundamentally transform” her? The desire to “fundamentally transform” one’s wife is nothing more or less than the desire for a new wife.
Similarly, the desire to “fundamentally transform” a country is the desire for a new country.