who am i
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Heralded as the first modern philosopher of the 17th century and popularly misattributed as the father of philosophy, René Descartes has long been credited with his work in challenging medieval knowledge — which centered around faith and the propagation of religious doctrine —  and reconstructing the modern self through his “Meditations on First Philosophy,” or “Meditations.” This ancient Latin text explores the existence of god, the immortality of the soul and the very belief in knowledge. In his quest to realize certain knowledge, the French philosopher discovers a single indubitable truth: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. This famous line comes from Descartes’ state of skepticism in the beginning of “Meditations,” where he insists that all of his beliefs are uncertain. Skepticism is a philosophical theory of knowledge in which everything is subjected to doubt. After all, if something can be distrusted, it cannot serve as a secure foundation for knowledge. However, by this reasoning, Descartes discovered that even in doubting his own existence, he is thinking. Thus, it must follow that he most certainly exists. He uses this singularly certain truth to doubt the existence, and thus influence, of one’s environment by furthering his claim that we are entirely our minds and not our bodies. 

Take that how you will, but many contemporary thinkers find this mind-body dualism to be removed from true lived experience and its influence on the notion of self. After all, not everyone has the privilege to sit in front of a fireplace — eyes shut — and contemplate their existence to formulate their identity like Descartes did when writing “Meditations.” As disconcerting a thought it may be for our white Father of Philosophy, some identities are almost entirely indoctrinated by external environments and experiences. Some knowledge of self derives entirely from others, and as much as I hate to admit it, that starts with names. 

Upon my first readings of “Meditations” for my History of Philosophy course, I forced myself to sit with this Cartesian rationale of the self. But the more I sat with it, the more I realized how inapplicable his philosophy is to my own life. Descartes thinks, but so do I. I think, I overthink and then I think some more. But I have yet to discover a semblance of self that remotely demonstrates certainty. Only recently did I recognize that maybe, just maybe, this lack of certitude has something to do with my name. Correction: It has something to do with how people perceive, say and pronounce my name. I like my name. I like how it blends into my last name: “Easheta Shah.” I like how its spelling messes with every Indian relative because it deviates from the traditional, “correct” way. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the way my friends have Americanized the seven consonants and vowels — I even introduce myself by their pronunciation, rarely feeling guilty for self-butchering my own Indian identity. I use my last name for coffee orders by sheer convenience, and I know that it’s my name when there’s a hesitant pause in roll call. While I cringe at the awkward first tries and alternative vowel emphasis of strangers, I generally don’t bother to correct people. At the same time, I know that when I come home, my family will do the due diligence to my Gujarati roots.

The name and identity dilemma is a long-standing one. I’ve read countless compelling articles about people’s relationship with their name and their identity. I’ve seen American comedian Hasan Minhaj’s and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s public corrections of how to pronounce their names, and I fully support their doing so. Getting a name right matters. Many people with non-American names notoriously anglicize their names in attempts to assimilate in professional and social environments and to protect against resume discrimination. And many are taking those invalidating assimilations back. However, my compliance with mispronunciations runs deep, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s inextricably linked to my incoherent sense of self — an identity that I failed to acquire the Cartesian way. 

Audre Lorde, feminist philosopher and self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” deviates from Descartes’ close-minded perception of identity by focusing more closely on the body. Unlike the Cartesian knowledge of self, Lorde derived much of that knowledge of herself from others. Lorde’s livelihood and her work came from a time when she was socially rejected for her race and sexuality, so inevitably, it was far from her own self-reflection that gave way to her asserting her identity. While I can’t begin to fathom Lorde’s struggles as a Black lesbian women in the early 80s, I can appreciate her philosophy and apply it to my own existential dilemmas. Lorde recognizes that self knowledge is not an isolated journey of the mind. Instead, it is a journey marked by experiences that elicit different awarenesses of the self. Like feeling othered and alienated when someone unmistakably avoids saying my name. Or when I see my name on the junior varsity soccer roster display, carelessly spelled yet carefully penned in big bubble letters: Ashida Shaw. Or when my high school English teacher pauses roll call to recite my name the way my mom says it. Or when that person uses my name in conversation for the first time, making my skin tingle all over. Or when I hear my grandmother’s soothing voice linger over the last vowel when she picks up my call. In subtle moments like these, my name has the power to make me feel, and I am pushed further into a reflection of who and what I am. 

Not surprising to anyone at all, Lorde was right. Self knowledge does not derive solely from remote meditation. I will always be hyper aware of the external world around me, especially when it comes to my name. My knowledge of my being is derived from a collective awareness of both ignorant assumptions and patient understanding from the people around me. So, I’m ditching Descartes’ cogito. Instead, I’m pursuing Lorde’s philosophy:  “I feel, therefore I can be free.”

MiC Columnist Easheta Shah can be contacted at shaheash@umich.edu.