Here are 14 ways in which you reveal who you really are. If you’re brave enough, or if you dare, aim to share who you really are, little by little, everyday, with those you trust.

- A typical 'Who You Really Are' article on Lifehack

Take a minute to consider the following questions.

Who are you?
Who are you, really?
Who do you really think you are inside?

It took me a full year to find the answer to these.  The answer was that these questions, when posed as philosophical dilemmas, were bullshit.  This post is not about ‘understanding who you really are’. It's about understanding, 'who you really are'.

“Who are you” is a question that sounds grandiose.  It’s hard to come up with a philosophically solid answer, and this makes it seem interesting.  It is not interesting.  It just lacks context.

What would you say if you were asked “who are you?” by the police?  By a doctor? By a relative? By a potential boss? By a space alien?

You should say different things, because these people would be using the same words to mean different things. 

What they really want is information about you that is of decision relevance to them.   A police cares where you are from. The doctor cares how old you are. A relative cares about who you are related to. A boss cares what skills you have. A space alien cares about your number of eyes and hands.  “Who are you?” really means, “given your understanding of my position, what simple information about yourself do you think is useful to me?”

So when a young philosopher follows up your response with, “no really, who are you?”, you should respond with asking, “what in particular would you like to know?”

Some may respond to this saying that there does exist a true self. A real self.  This is what the phrase should really mean, and this is what I personally spent a year pondering.

But first, the very idea of there being a true self is specific to a set of religions and philosophies that you may not believe in.  If you’re a empirical atheist, you shouldn’t.  David Hume fought the notion of an inner self 250 years ago. [1] Derek Parfit fought it more concretely in the last 30 years. [2]

Second, even if you do ascribe to a belief system where there is some sort of true self, this would not give you a clear way to describe it.  Should you say that you are a Capricorn inside?  Or that a small fraction of your brain believes in Libertarianism?  Or that you possess soul #988334?

Of course not.  The question of “who are you?” is wrongly worded, and the one of “who are you, really?” should be placed on hold until the questioner can figure out what they are actually trying to ask.  


[1] David Hume's view on Personal Identity, Skinner (2013)

[2] Reasons and Persons, Parfit (1986)

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The question "what part of your identity is of value to you?" sounds like it can rescue the original philosophical meaning of the question, I think.

That definitely is a better question.

I think 'who are you, really' is basically this plus 'what do you want/what are your goals?'


No, that assumes there is such a thing as "your identity" beyond what yourself and others ascribe to you. There's really only just your causal history.

Besides, psychological experiments show that when talking about others rather than themselves, people tend to identify "personal identity" and "moral character or alignment". So that answers that.

Reduce further -- "what part of the character traits that you and others see yourself as possessing do you value?"

It's nice that you've figured it out, but I feel that most people here aren't particularly worried or confused about the question, so the tone of the post seems somewhat baffling. The tools you apply are standard. One is formulating the meaning of a question more accurately than its initial phrasing, in order to know what the question means in terms of something you are more familiar with. Another is noting that formulation depends on context, in particular on the goal of asking the question or the use intended for an answer. Depending on the context, the useful formulation of the same question will differ.

I realize that Less Wrong people are the least likely to be confused about it, but I got the impression it still made the most sense to be posted here. I thought of it not as much as being posted 'to' Less Wrong, but 'from' it. You're right it's more for outside readers.

The tools are pretty standard. If I felt like I came up with really novel ones I would have made them into its own post.

That said, here are a few quick reasons why I thought it would be useful.

  1. If a reader knew of the tools but hadn't explicitly connected them to this phrase, it seemed like a very quick fix.
  2. It could be useful to link to for people who really do consider these phrases.
  3. It was very short to write and short to read, the the cost is quite low.
  4. My previous post on a very similar topic did much better than I expected.
  5. I bet that not everyone on this site is entirely familiar with these tools or understanding of the phrase.

I realize that the writing may have sounded a bit condescending. I didn't mean it this way, I just tried writing without as many 'reluctancy' words as normal.

Maybe a better question then would be, "How do you identify?" Philosophically the question is far from bullshit. The question is to make you analyze what is yours (what have you actually decided to do) over what society, peers, or family have told you that you should be. We like to play this game on freshmen philosophy students because most of them haven't yet analyzed their entire life to figure out why they are doing what they are doing and who they really are. The point of the exercise is to decide what is your motivation for doing things and acting the way you do.

All I can think of was this scene from Anger Management:

I'm curious what this post was prompted by? I haven't actually been asked this question in this manner for a while (presumably because I hang out with people who ask more precise questions than this most of the time)

Like I said, it's something I personally spent too long on myself. I keep on seeing it appear online (as in the blog post I cited) and it's the kind of thing that really frustrates me.

That scene is a really good example of what I'm referring to.

I am so sorry for this comment: but Patañjali does immediately spring to my mind. I think he had prettily answered the question with: "not much; nothing special". I wonder why it kept being found useful after being answered that clearly. (I still sometimes catch myself using it when dating; its usefulness there does not increase though) Maybe it's perceived worth lies beyond its meaning and the hope of getting an answer there is connected to the hope of getting an answer for "What is the awesomest version of future me? Which traits, virtues and potentials (Hidden and known) did it focus on?" (oh wait I'm going to steal that question from myself and put it to real use)

I suppose philosophically “Who are you” is about what attributes, qualities, beliefs, memories and others things about you that are important to you personally, not to doctor or alien. Or, probably, in other words, which of this things makes you you.

I guess many people feel like they have some specific "consciousness" or "soul" which is not connected to any other particular attribute. So they can imagine themselves having other body, memories and beliefs while still being themselves, while other people consider some beliefs, memories, or even body as something critical for being themselves. (Or may be some people think that their "soul" have some qualities of Capricorn or anything other as variation.)

So I still wonder how any particular answer can be reasoned rationally, and also I'm not sure which practical implications it can have so I'm not sure if any clear explanation of question can be enough to make discussion really rational.

Really I can figure out some hypothetical situations, this question is related to. For example it can be important to make decision if capturing mental activity and copying it into computer system is acceptable way to become immortal, or any exact model of your brain activity will not be really you so it haven't much sense. I also may notice that current materialistic model of universe can't make me sure even that today I am the same I that I was yesterday. So there is not much reason to claim that computer model of me is not me, just because i even can't claim that I'm me from previous day or even second or that group atoms which combine my body are any significant way different from any other atom group in universe. I only hope that it's all not much true cause current human's knowledge and intellectual power are probably just not yet enough to figure out all the true aspects of situation. But it still makes it's all more about religion and poetry rather than rationality.

I've always thought of that question as being more about the nature of identity itself.

If you lost your memories, would you still be the same being? If you compare a brain at two different points in time, is their 'identity' a continuum, or is it the type of quantity where there is a single agreed definition of "same" versus "not the same"?


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Though I agree that the answer to a question that's most fundamentally true (or of interest to a philosopher), isn't necessarily going to be the answer that is most helpful in all circumstances.

The answer was that these questions, when posed as philosophical dilemmas, were bullshit.

I've always interpreted them as prompts to introspection. The sages of old gave advice along the lines of "Know thyself", which naturally leads one to ask, "Who am I?" I can say, "I am a mathematician", which is fine when I need to list my profession but that line of questioning seeks to get past such superficial details. The purpose of the advice is to strip away the facades we put up to interact with others and to unearth the lies we tell ourselves. You can find the similar sentiments dressed up in the language of psychology and cognitive science on this very website. The questions are vague because you're compressing a lot of information into a simple, easy-to-remember form.

As you've pointed out, in everyday usage context will dictate the appropriate response. The serious sages wouldn't expect you to articulate a response because what they really want is to prompt some serious reflection. That leaves us with:

So when a young philosopher follows up your response with, “no really, who are you?”, you should respond with asking, “what in particular would you like to know?”

If you want to disengage from that conversation, the old "I am I" works. Or you can be graceful and say, "I'm still trying to figure that out." The sort of young philosopher who asks these questions is unlikely to actually want or expect a "proper" answer.


What effect would any particular answer to these questions have on you?

Would it cause you to take kinder actions if you believe that you are a kind person?

Figure out what you want in the world and shape yourself into a person who can achieve that.

Don't ask who you are, make something out of your self.


Well, the true self would be absolute reality itself.

Let's say you were transported Star Trek style to another place, except all your hair managed to make it four feet to the left of you.

So now there's hairless you, and your hair.

Is the hairless you, the real you?

Or is the real you split up and in two different spots?

The point, the boundary where you end and the world begins is a distinction that is conjured by a mind.

Outside of the mind, there are no distinctions. Your thumb isn't any different than your hand or your arm or my hand or my arm.

Who you are and what your name is and what your body is only make sense in the context of a mind. Beyond that, is the true self.

Sagan would say things like "we are how the cosmos explores itself".

the context of a mind. Beyond that, is the true self.

What does that even mean?


It means, you are a human being. Where does your being come from?

Are only living things "being"?

And everything else is non-being?

Being springs from non-being?

The idea is that existence itself is being, and our being human comes from that being.

Your handle is polymathwannabe. Do you have some polymaths in mind who you emulate? Who would you say was the last great polymath?

I'm going to be extremely generous and suppose that what you said made any sense at all. Still, we are talking different languages, and I see no hope of this discussion getting anywhere. With each post it is harder to understand what you mean. This is not worth the 5 karma points it's costing me every time I need to ask for more clarification. I'm done here.


I ask because it seems to me the last great polymath was Leibniz, also considered one of the great Rationalists.

What I'm describing is his mondadology.


I suppose you could bruteforce it by placing said person in different situations. But that's just horribly impractical. Could also min-max things if you magically put hormones though if I put x hormone in enough quantities I'm pretty sure I'll get a similar response from most people. (Can be quite fallacious as person X will reply differently to hormone Y but I'm not a biologist nor a physician nor a psychologist so I cannot make any worthwhile statements on that part.)