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“One is what one does”: from pragmatic to performative disclosure of the who


After taking into consideration the most relevant criticisms questioning the capacity of the thinking “I” to grasp itself in a transparent and undistorting way, I will ask what remains of first-person authority with regard to one’s own identity. I argue that first-person authority is not to be abandoned, but rather reformulated in terms of public commitments that nobody else can take up in my place. After recovering the original meaning of Heidegger’s claim “one is what one does,” I turn to Arendt’s performative disclosure of the “who” through political initiative and suggest reading the requirement of public exposure as a model allowing for a better understanding of self-identification. In order to discern more clearly the shape of this new paradigm of self-identification, I draw on Ricoeur’s notion of self-attestation, Crowell’s analysis of our “being-answerable” and Larmore’s account of avowals in which we give ourselves a publicly binding shape. In synthetizing and prolonging the considerations of the abovementioned authors about the performative disclosure of the self, I demonstrate that one’s identity—in the sense of ipseity—is both constituted and manifested by the commitments that the self endorses and for which it is held accountable in front of others.

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  1. 1.

    Korsgaard (1996, p. 101).

  2. 2.

    Merleau-Ponty (1945, p. 117).

  3. 3.

    Ibid., p. 280.

  4. 4.

    Zahavi (2005, p. 74).

  5. 5.

    Heidegger (1953, 79).

  6. 6.

    Sartre (1943, p. 111).

  7. 7.

    Sartre (1943, pp. 303, 366, 537). “The necessary condition for me to be what I am not and to not-be what I am […].” (p. 366); “my ontological structure is not to be what I am and to be what I am not.” (p. 537).

  8. 8.

    Heidegger (1994, p. 95).

  9. 9.

    Heidegger (1975, p. 226).

  10. 10.

    Dreyfus (1991, p. 302).

  11. 11.

    Dreyfus (1991, p. 147).

  12. 12.

    Heidegger (1953, p. 239).

  13. 13.

    Ibid., p. 191.

  14. 14.

    Wrathall (2017, p. 239).

  15. 15.

    Heidegger (1953, p. 127).

  16. 16.

    Arendt (1998, p. 179).

  17. 17.

    Heidegger (1953, p. 274).

  18. 18.

    See Tchir (2017, p. 116).

  19. 19.

    As Klaus Held shows, the Greek concept of pragmata does not refer merely to equipment, but to “possibilities for action that we take into consideration in conversation with others or in consulting ourselves, in order to reach any given aim.” (Held 2002, p. 65). Held’s extension of the concept of pragmata invites us to consider things as we encounter them first and foremost not only as equipment, but rather as things that matter to our shared concerns, as our common undertakings or possibilities for collective action.

  20. 20.

    This view is developed in Tchir (2017, p. 15).

  21. 21.

    Arendt (1998, p. 19).

  22. 22.

    Comments reported by Tassin (2005, p. 152).

  23. 23.

    Arendt (1994, p. 476).

  24. 24.

    Bickford (1995, p. 319).

  25. 25.

    Loidolt (2019) addresses the same difficulty from a different angle and explains the reasons behind Arendtian deliberate emphasis on the political dimension of “being a person.”

  26. 26.

    Ricoeur (1990, pp. 195–197).

  27. 27.

    Crowell (2013, p. 171).

  28. 28.

    Husserl (1970, p. 178).

  29. 29.

    Crowell (2013, p. 187).

  30. 30.

    “To take over being-a-ground, then—that is, to possibilise what grounds me—is to transform the claims of nature or society (what “one” simply does) into first-person terms, into my reasons for doing what I do.” (Crowell 2013, p. 209).

  31. 31.

    Larmore (2010, p. 94).

  32. 32.

    Ibid., p. 143.

  33. 33.

     “L'homme n'est rien d'autre que ce qu'il se fait.” (Sartre, 1996, pp. 29–30).

  34. 34.

    Larmore (2010, p. 95).

  35. 35.

    Ibid., p. 133.

  36. 36.

    Ibid., p. 131.

  37. 37.

    Ibid., pp. 127–128.

  38. 38.

    Ibid., p. 171.

  39. 39.

    Hegel (1986, p. 558).


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The author gratefully acknowledges that this work was supported by the Czech Science Foundation, financing the project “Personal Identity at the Crossroads: Phenomenological, Genealogical, and Hegelian Perspectives” (GAČR 18-16622S).

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Švec, O. “One is what one does”: from pragmatic to performative disclosure of the who. Cont Philos Rev 53, 209–227 (2020).

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  • Personal identity
  • First-person authority
  • Self-knowledge
  • Arendt
  • Heidegger