American Physics Professor at Princeton University and Columbia University, President of Oberlin, Author
The self does not stand alone; as we?ve seen, the self is not a thing, let alone a thing in itself. Rather, we experience selfhood as a renewable capacity to construct and field identities. Like evanescent particles in a cloud chamber, the existence of the self is inferred from its byproducts.
Twain broke with the tradition of asking Who Am I? and its species-wide variant Who Is Man? on the grounds that a who-question is a leading question. It predisposes us to expect the answer to be a sentient being, not unlike ourselves, whom we?re trying to characterize.
The inability to recruit recognition from others cripples an identity.
The inner voice we sometimes hear shaming us is not that of the witness, which is indifferent to our ups and downs. Self-accusation is rather the result of internalizing others? judgments.
Although not exceptional in ways we once believed, we remain exceptionally good at building tools and machines. And that includes machines that do what we do. Machines that dig, sow, and reap. Machines that kill and machines that prolong life. Machines that calculate, and, before long, machines who think.
Distinct identities are strung together on the thread of memory, all of them provisional and perishable. No less fascinating than the birth, life, and death of our bodies are the births, lives, and deaths of these makeshift, transient identities. Reincarnation of the body is arguable; metamorphosis of identity is not.
Fame is a bulwark against indignity. It proclaims our worth to anyone tempted to put us down and threatens retaliation if they persist. It even helps to quiet the critical voices we have internalized--of parents, classmates, and teachers--that echo in our heads long after these naysayers are gone.
In those places where we're most alive, we are questions, not answers. These questions change as we age. One has to listen carefully, again and again, to detect new questions, which may announce themselves in a whisper. At any age, the questions we're asking define our growing edge. So long as we've got even a single question, we're not dead. If all we have are answers, we might as well be.
When the power inherent in a position of authority is used to fortify that position, the institution's purpose is subverted. Behaviors are not aligned with the institution';s professed goals; rather they are skewed to preserve the rank, power, salaries, and security of rank-holders.
Not every age is an age of heroes. In order for there to be such larger-than-life figures among us, there must be great social causes, such as just wars or liberation movements that call for extraordinary leadership. Otherwise there are no heroic niches to be filled, and we look elsewhere – to business, sports, entertainment – for people to admire.