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Schachtel, E.G. (1961). On Alienated Concepts of Identity. Am. J. Psychoanal., 21(2):120-127.

(1961). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 21(2):120-127

On Alienated Concepts of Identity

Ernest G. Schachtel, Ph.D.

In Daily Life the question of identity arises when we want to claim something from the post office, or when we want to pay by check in a store where we are not known, or in crossing a border. On such occasions we are asked: “Who are you, so that I can know for sure it is you and nobody else?” And we establish our identity by showing a driver's license or a passport or some similar document which tells our name, our address, the date of our birth, and perhaps some physical characteristics. Together, these will tell us apart from anybody else and will also establish that we are the same person that was born on such and such a date. We have papers to establish our identity, and this paper-identity is something fixed and definite. This is also the meaning of the word “identity,” as applied to people, for the average person.

Such paper-identity seems far removed, at first glance, from the current concern of psychoanalysts, philosophers, and other students of the contemporary scene, with man's search for and doubt in his identity. But actually it is quite central to it. It is a telling symbol of alienated identity. It is a kind of identity which is the product of bureaucratic needs of commerce or administration. Its most gruesome and tragic manifestations occurred in our time when men's identities were reduced to numbers in concentration and extermination camps, and when countless people fleeing from the terror of the totalitarian states were shunted from country to country because they did not have the right paper-identities.

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