Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Personal Identity

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Johanna McCahan
IMPORTANT: Before you begin--- Please take a moment to write down in a journal or notebook what your perception of personal identity is. How do you see yourself? Keep this in the back of your mind as you go through this page. Think about the things that frustrate you, excite you, confuse you etc. as you go through the information on the page. If you need to, write it down so you don't forget. You will return to it when you have finished this aspect of the course.

"A human person is most fundamentally a person...just as a bronze statue is most fundamentally a statue, not a piece of bronze. Two separate human persons that exist at the same time are individuated by their bodies. A human person's body at a time distinguishes her from all other separate persons at that time...A human person and the body that constitutes her are a unity, in the same way that a bronze statue and the piece of bronze that constitutes it are a unity...Have a first person relation to my body (i.e. I have the property of being left-handed and of having brown eyes derivative; the non-derivative bearer of these properties is my body. When I attribute to myself such properties, I am thinking of myself-as-my-body. on the other hand, I have the property of being employed or of having asked a question non-derivatively; my body is the derivative bearer of these properties. When I attribute to my body properties that I have non-derivatively, I am thinking of my-body-as-myself." http://host.uniroma3.it/progetti/kant/field/bakersymp.htm

"The unexamined life is not worth living."—Socrates
INTRIGUED? For further inquiry and speculation…read on.

>>Generally when a person poses the question, "what am I?" They are seeking to decipher what specific attributes or qualities set them apart from others. These are the elements that describe how you see or define yourself; how you understand your individuality. So…who are you? What do you believe and what “clicks” with you? (Pssst!! That’s the great part of this particular study of philosophy…it will add to your “journey.” My guess is that your studying philosophy as a means to answer a question. That question probably relates to you in some way. Here is where you get to experiment with putting words to that. It’s wild, it can be circular, confusing and frustrating, BUT regardless of what you decide when you have finished you will have discovered some new element to yourself (perhaps an element that links to an aspect of your personal identity??) all based on how you react and come to understand the material that is sketched out below. REMEMBER: none of this is set in stone and widely open to interpretation. This is largely due to the fact that all this information is just a glimpse into the identities of those that came before you and tried to articulate what it is that makes a person who they are… Therefore: ENJOY and happy hunting…

One of the components of the mind-body problem is the part that encompasses one's understanding of personal identity. This is particularly important because it deals with the personal aspect of a person. Addressing this problem seeks to ask and answer the kinds of questions that motivate people down different paths to uncover things like what they are, who they are, when they began, and what will happen when they die.

It seems important to establish a concept of what all defines the concept of personal identity and the different aspects that the question of personal identity addresses. Personal identity is such a fluid concept that to give a precise definition of what it is would only serve to limit the discussion of personal identity. Therefore the first part of this study will seek to establish the concept of personal identity and what it is understood to mean in the context of today (or at least more recent understandings of it) and will then move into how earlier philosophical study went about looking at and questioning what comprised personal identity.

Here are some important ideas to look for/keep in mind while going through this process of uncovering what personal identity may be and how it affects you, can relate to you, and how it makes you react…

Understanding the Concept of Personal Identity in relation to ...[edit | edit source]

Personal Identity discussed in relation to time
Personal Identity discussed in relation to consciousness
Personal Identity discussed in relation to language
Early Discussions of Personal Identity

Surprisingly there is a distinction made between personal identity and identity.

So…What is a person? In brief to get us started:
>>"Many philosophers define 'person' as something that has certain mental features."

Locke was a key figure, one of the forerunner’s in this discussion on personal identity. To him, "a person is a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself the same thinking thing, in different times and places” (1975). On to identity then…

Identity is usually discussed qualitatively and quantitatively and though in some discussions it contains many of the same ideas and discussions relating to personal identity; identity itself is a much more general and technical way of positioning something/someone/an idea. Personal Identity on the other hand is usually discussed and understood in terms of "personhood" or what it is to be a person. It seems to be less generic and technical than the discussions usually relating to identity by itself.

... time[edit | edit source]

“For every period of time when you exist, short or long, there is a temporal part of you that exists only then. And for any temporal parts of any objects whatsoever, there is a larger object made up of just those parts.”

Persistence Question[edit | edit source]

You over time: Generally when we try to explain or comprehend personal identity in relation to time it is referred to as the persistence question The relevant questions include: Is it possible to remain always the same person? What changes? What does stay the same? In what way do you relate to yourself now that makes you, you?

  • The definition of persist is: to continue steadfastly, remain. To place, to stand still.

This suggests that some element that makes a person must remain steady and consistent throughout time in order for a person to retain the identity that makes them a person in relation to everything else. There are a variety of ways to talk about this:

Numerical identity: what is necessary and sufficient for a past or future being to be you (i.e. if something is numerically identical—it is one and the same: one thing rather than two. A past/future person doesn't have to be exactly the same as you are now (in terms of action, thought, opinion etc) to be numerically identical with you, however at the same time, someone who is exactly similar to you may not be numerically identical to you. "As long as I continue to exist at all I necessarily remain numerically the same." Based on this idea of numerical identity nothing can become something different than what it already is. One thing cannot become two separate things it is just the “logic of identity.”(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Qualitative identity: they are exactly similar (i.e. identical twins—cannot tell them apart, but they are not numerically identical because there are two of them.) Qualitatively a person may change over time- size, shape, appearance. This way of looking at identity is not “guaranteed” in the same way that numerical identity is. Numerically you are always one regardless of what changes internally.
~necessary conditions: x= (is identical to) y only if x y.(i.e. if x has the same body as y)—something specific
~sufficient conditions: X=Y if X Y – more open-ended
(We will refer back to the idea of necessary and sufficient conditions when we discuss the psychological approach as well so keep these definitions in mind).

... Memory Criterion[edit | edit source]

-- Memory is one proposition offered as evidence for the ideas consistent with persistence and personal identity over time. Let’s take a look at how this works…--

>Memory Criterion: A past/future person is distinguishable as you based on their ability to remember an experience you are having now. According to this line of thought if a person, ‘A’ cannot remember the experience currently being held and has no recollection of past experiences that related specifically to them then they would no longer be distinguishable as person ‘A’. For example, if you were to lapse into a vegetative state, the resulting vegetable wouldn't be you because it wouldn't contain the ability to remember the experience currently being had. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
>>>The Memory Criterion is a way of making a distinction between a person and thing: Philosophers tend to assume that every person is a person essentially. Thus, the ability to describe past or future experiences describes the kind of person you are not the thing that you were. As in the vegetable example as a thing you would be distinguishable as a vegetable however there is no relationship between that and the kind of person you were before the vegetative state. The argument seems to be that the person prior to the vegetative state is no longer present.

"Whatever is a person at one time must be a person at every other time when he/she exists." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) So long as we understand what a person is in relation to a thing and where the person fits. Does this then suggest that if you could transfer the “person” from the body of a human into the body of an animal, but retaining their “personhood” the person could remember past experiences in the body of the human as well as their current experience as a dog that the “person” is still existing simply in a different state?? This seems to be a plausible argument. It also seems to be an argument that could lead to the immortality of the soul. If the soul and the person are synonymous with one another, two different ways of identifying the same thing, and the soul gets “lifted” from the body then as long as it retains its “personhood” through the experiences it has had, then it will continue to exist even outside the body in whatever form it happens to take.

In Reflections on Philosophy Gary Full addresses many of the ideas that we have been discussing thus far. He connects many of the ideas of identity over time with psychological continuity as well. He also provides some examples to help explain the idea of necessary and sufficient conditions in relation to a person’s identity. The example with President Washington is particularly helpful in this endeavor:
--Washington the boy and Washington the president were one and the same although dissimilar in many respects (If x is identical to y= 1 person; if not= 2 people).
In other words even as one’s personality changes they still may be the same person just dissimilar in many respects from a previous state (as we seen in our example of the development of Washington as a boy to Washington as a man). We remain in the same body, but our experiences over time change us from what we are, think, feel, believe at one point in time and what we are at a later point in time. This is part of one’s personal identity’s ability to remain the same and yet be in a constant state of flux as well. This again, is also why it is so difficult to concretely nail down a definition or one single understanding of personal identity; hence the reason that one of the most common ways of understanding it is as a process.

In an essay on identity by Julian Wolfrey’s a cultural and literary theorist called “I/Dentity” she explains this concept in some detail emphasizing the importance of recognizing how we talk about ourselves, what the “I” we seek to establish refers to and how it is impacted, altered and in the process of constant change based on an individuals relationship to events and experiences. She quotes Richard Dyer in order to help establish some of these claims.

--"Every time I enunciate 'I', even in my thought, an identity is assumed, and this identity is itself not simple, but a figure for a complex gathering of personal and impersonal histories, texts, discourses, beliefs, cultural assumptions, and ideological interpellations...it is not an artifact but a process." "When 'I' is spoken, a focal or suturing point within a discursive, psychic, historical, national, gendered and ideological network constituting an identity is implied in even this apparently simplest of words: how one thinks and feels is at once lived as intensely personal, yet made up of matters that in themselves are not unique to one...crucial to such affirmation is the construction of a sense of oneness with a social grouping." --Richard Dyer (1997)

In the reverse Wolfrey also takes note of the Irvin Cemil Schick’s suggestion that though our identity is in constant flux there is also a sense of sameness and stability that is retained. This again refers back to the idea of personal identity in relation to time and the persistence question.
--"Though identity is a permanent process of construction and reconstruction, this fluid or mutable nature does not mean that it never enjoys any stability."-- Irvin Cemil Schick (1999)

Based on some of these things something to keep in mind is the possible connection here between these elements and our ability to develop, use, and understand morals- punishment, commitment, fairness. These will continue to develop over time in relation to the experiences that we have where these things are involved.

This is one of the most prominent discussions that appears when someone begins the search to understand personal identity. Despite all the material that this discussion has to offer, as with any theory, there are some problems with it as well…
2 Problems:

1.) Identity is transitive; memory continuity is not. In other word identity is only definable in relation to other things. It is very difficult to discuss identity in relation to itself without relating it to what it is based on what it can and can’t be related to. Memory is not definable based on the same criteria. Memory is only definable based on a persons ability to recollect and that is somewhat self-reflexive. Therefore the difficulty that using memory continuity presents is based on the fact that in some respects you end up comparing apples to oranges rather than apples to apples which is generally preferred.
2.) You can only remember your own experiences- this one is fairly self-explanatory. The fact that an individual can only remember the way in which they experienced something opens up the can of worms that deal with human fallibility and the uncertainty of memory. As we change our perspective of our memories may change and thus things become altered. This is how myths are developed so does this mean that if we rely on memory as a means of distinguishing our identity that we are relying on a myth to believe we exist? Some would say yes.
One example of the problem of the Memory Criterion in action is the logical assumption that--- You didn't exist (weren't the same person sleeping in bed) when you were sleeping because you can't remember anything.
Now, that seems rather ridiculous but according to the confines of logical reasoning this is what we potentially end up with when we strictly adhere to the theory of the memory criterion for evidence of existence.

Psychological approach[edit | edit source]

This approach deals with the need for necessary or sufficient (or both) conditions to exist in order for one to persist over time.
--versions of the psychological approach include the bridge between the psychological approach and the somatic where you need both mental and physical continuity in order to survive.

Most western people drawn to this approach—They want to believe that identity goes with the brain--this theory assumes that the brain and mind aren't distinct. According to this there is a future being that inherits mental features (personality, belief, memory) from you and a past being whose mental features you've inherited.

Gary Full goes into some detail about this in Reflections on Philosophy:
“The person I was yesterday and the person I am today are psychologically connected…I have retained most of the beliefs, memories and skills that I had yesterday.”-- He describes this as a high degree of connectedness, whereas, the connectedness that a person experiences with say a younger version of themselves may not be as great because they are further removed from those beliefs, memories and experiences by virtue have having new ones in relation to the events they have been through most recently.

Tiger Woods example: This theory implies: “that the person who ends up in Tiger Woods body is identical to me, because he is psychologically continuous-because he is psychologically connected to a high degree with me.”
-- Therefore, psychological connectedness is plausible as a necessary condition of personal identity.

Somatic approach[edit | edit source]

deals with being a part of a future being. Has nothing to do with psychological facts, it is grounded in bodily identity. Another term that has been used to discuss similar principles is the…
Body Theory: The idea is that a person is the same even if they add/lose parts. There are essentially no necessary or sufficient conditions

BOTH these views relate to the assumption that our identity comes from something other than itself. It takes something else outside of our identity that enables us to persist. The third view denies this assumption.

Simple view[edit | edit source]

No sort of continuity is necessary for a person to persist. There are no conditions required in order to explain a person’s persistence. The simple view seems to be concerned with the now and it uses that to explain the past.
Mental and physical continuity are evidence for identity, but don't guarantee it, again, they are not required---"a person here, now is identical with a past/future being if and only if they are identical." What is important is determining the degree to which something is identical with something else.

"In the constitution of any identity, therefore, there is always an oscillation between determinants that are 'external' or which pre-exist the subject's identity: identity ...comes to be through enactment, through performance, that is through practices that construct it using a host of discursive instruments which might be called 'technologies of identity.'-- Irvin Cemil Schick (1999)

Ultimately, what it takes for an individual to persist through time is one thing. How we find out if you have is another. Some arguments will use fingerprints as an example to determine whether or not a person has persisted through time, however as we saw with examples and discussions of personhood as being something that is contained within an individual then what happens if, theoretically, a person was lifted from one body with a certain set of fingerprints and that same person was implanted into another body with a different set of fingerprints. There is a new distinction being made here where it is logical then to argue that the person has persisted through time, but they are not persisting in the same body. This throws into question the fingerprint argument. There is also an important mind/body distinction being drawn upon here which relates itself back to ethics and the question of responsibility in relation to the individual and an individual’s actions. What about someone with a split personality? Are there two, three, more people in one body?
Puceeti 1973 argues for two different people within the skin of every "normal person" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This continues to add to the complexity of the nature of personal identity. If Puceeti is right, how do we reconcile something like that?

... the Language element[edit | edit source]

"We are born into language, we are born into patriarchal language, into being identified by a patronym, by a paternal proper name...we are subject to names, even if we wish to ignore or disown them." "What is at stake in this logic of being subject to language is a conception of language as not simply instrumental: language is not simply something that we use. Language governs what we (can) say as much as we govern or use language. Language is not simply an instrument: we are, unavoidably, agents of language. The idea of the 'I' or 'me', in other words, is not unchanging and unchangeable."

Language and the way in which we communicate with one another plays a key role in the way we understand one another, the world we inhabit and ourselves in relation to it. Language has long been considered a marker of identity because it is our means of expression. Language is a means of ordering and making sense of things. Language is a structure by which things are established, defined and differentiated. So, how we use language to discuss our conception of personal identity is very applicable because if we are not functioning from the same definitions or structures we are going to come out with different perspectives. This defines us in relation to others, establishes our conception of self, and marks us as unique. People have been trying to establish a standard for language in order to lessen the miscommunications that take place but the nature of language is so much a process consistent with those currently using it that like philosophy or personal identity it is difficult to nail to a definitive concept. It is just important to recognize that how we describe our personal identity with language is in response to a unique element of us as an individual and may not be consistent with those around us. However, rather than throwing out someone else’s description of something, learning to understand the context of the language they are using and the meaning that is associated with that will only further help develop our overall conceptions.

"Only persons can be moral agents or rational agents. Persons have many cognitive and practical abilities that beings lacking first-person perspectives lack. Only beings with first-person perspectives can know that they are going to die; only such beings can envisage alternative possibilities for their own futures, or seek self-understanding. Only beings with the first-person perspectives can have ideals or can try to change themselves to conform better to their ideals." And perspective has a great deal to do with language, based on the manner that we discuss things.

" 'Identity' is, however, problematic because the one thing which can be said for certain is that no one definition for identity as a conceptual term will suffice:...so often conceived as a thing to be unearthed..." --Denise Riley (2000)--

Metaphysics[edit | edit source]

Metaphysics deals with the material vs. the immaterial. It looks at substances, attributes, events, matter or thoughts and experiences. It is under this approach that the mind/body and to some degree the mind/brain problem/distinction becomes particularly apparent.
>>Some general metaphysical views: There are no unique right answers for what it takes to persist---identity is relative to a kind-- "Qua people, perhaps we exist by virtue of some sort of psychological continuity; qua animals we persist by virtue of brute physical continuity” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

some common metaphysical views[edit | edit source]

Here are some of the more common metaphysical views that have been discussed in relation to personal identity:

>Swinburne: 1984: He liked the idea of personal identity being consistent with compound things where the things combined included an “immaterial soul and a material body."
>Hume: Like Swinburne, there was this idea of combination or compilation a a means of collecting/understanding one’s personal identity. Hume described it as, "A bundle/collection of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement." -1888
>Paradoxical view: We don't exist at all-- we're a metaphysical illusion
>Essential vs. accidental/contingent parts__: These deal with the “what if's” (things had turned out different). i.e. what if you had ended up with a different body would you be a different person or would your person be essentially the same? Or, what if you had stayed single instead of getting married would you be a different person than you are today? Or what if you had lost your leg in a traffic accident when you were younger? How would you be different? One of the problems that I see with the Essential vs. Accidental/contingent parts is that if so much of identity is based on the perspective with the what is important here and now then is asking the “what if’s” really relevant to unearthing what makes you who you are today and helping you establish your identity? Granted, in order to sufficiently follow the idea of persistence it may be important to collect and combine the information of the past that added to your identity, but why collected data of what could have been in the past? How will theoretical past experience help to establish your identity other than to affirm what you are based on what you are not?

Soul Theory[edit | edit source]

Those that subscribe to the soul theory make an association between one’s personal identity and one’s soul. In other words, one’s soul is the well from which a persons identity draws from. The soul is what distinguishes one’s identity and makes them who they are. “Survival of the soul means survival of the person” (Fuller). This connects up with the idea of persistence in relation to identity that we have been discussing. The challenge in associating personal identity and the soul is that neither one has a really tangible element with which to make comparisons. They are both fairly “unstable” or at least unclear ideas-there are no easy boundaries to draw. (But, this should not come as a surprise to you otherwise you would not have read this far!)

Way back in the day Pythagoras was one of the first to discuss the nature of personal identity in relation to the soul. He believed in the transmigration (the ability for a soul that was immortal to be reborn in an animal). This implied that the soul is what defines a persons identity. Thus, the two are one and the same.

More recently, Gary Fuller makes it a point to try to clarify the idea of the soul. He breaks it down into two general features that make up the soul.

1. Souls must have psychological features- i.e. beliefs, desires, intentions etc.

2. Souls must be nonphysical. Something that is nonphysical is capable of existing separate from the brain and the body, making it distinct from both, an independent entity.
a. Descartes: souls have no spatial features, there are no distinct boundaries that help us to distinguish them. This also means they have no spatial position making it incredibly difficult (ok in literal understanding it pretty much makes it impossible) to locate the soul. The reason this is so controversial is that all of this makes the soul incredibly difficult to comprehend. (Perhaps in the future a way to put it in comprehensible terms is to discuss the soul as being an important or animating aspect of the body, but an aspect of the body that is in fact dependent on the body in order to give it boundaries and spatial positioning.)

Fuller also talks about a third feature of the soul that is not as commonly recognized. This idea states that:

-Souls are simple. By simple he suggests that a soul cannot be divided into parts. One soul will not become two souls. This view becomes controversial because it is incredibly limiting. Often we find that so may of our ideas are split, divided or that there are multiple parts that make us who we are and define the way we think. If a soul is indivisible this takes away from the commonly accepted views that approaches like the psychological approach take and eliminate certain elements of the brain that we have taken for granted. This is a valid concern, but again perhaps there is another way of conceiving of the soul. If personal identity is the kind of thing where we can assume that “the whole (of our identity) is equal to the sum of its parts (all the things that are involved in making up our personal identity as it is in the current moment),” then why can’t we conceive of the soul as something that is more flexible and divisible as well. If it has no boundaries and no spatial positioning isn’t it also possible that it could branch as well?

*Again, I must remind you not to simply accept what is being stated here. Whether we are talking what is being re-stated as previously gathered information or speculation of the current author; I encourage you to continue questioning and challenging each and every statement made in order to continuing uncovering defining features of your own personal identity rather than fully accepting any one else’s definition of personal identity since their definition is really just a response to what the are reacting to as their own identity in the first place.* For further ideas and explanations relating to the soul...on the soul,faith and reason,arguments for God's existence,determinism & free will

"Identity...depends upon repetition...and every signifying element must be identifiable as such in order for it to signify- every signifier or 'mark' must be recognizable, repeatable. It never can present itself simply once." --Samuel Weber (1996)
"In order to be cognizable, an element must be recognizable as the same, which in turn presupposes a process of com-parison and repetition. It must be compared with earlier instances of itself in order to be recognizable as a self, as an identity. This process of repetitive comparison, out of which self-sameness emerges and which it therefore must pass through, introduces an element of heterogeneity, of otherness, into the constitution of the same."--
Samuel Weber (1996)

Thus, the repetition of others perspectives and ideas on personal identity is key. Each time it reveals itself through a new person with a new perspective (with a different personal identity) but one that relates to the collective and it is through this repetition that new concepts/ideas are revealed and elements are established. Collectively through comparison and repetition each individual becomes better equipped to complete the puzzle that has presented itself and see the picture as a whole rather than simply one part. Learning and discovery can be fairly circular processes, but each time you cross the same point of the circle you are different because you’ve never been through that point with the experiences you accumulated in the process of getting there.

>>I cannot conclude this portion of our search without mentioning John Locke and the perspectives that he brought to the study of personal identity.<<

David Hume[edit | edit source]

There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our SELF- we feel its existence and its continuance in existence, and are certain beyond the evidence of demonstration, both of its identity and simplicity. According to Hume, the strongest sensation,the most violent passion say they, instead of distracting us from this view, only cause to be mored fixed upon it with even greater intensity, and want to make us consider their influence on one's self by considering their pain or pleasure. It is unlucky that all these positive charged assertions seem to be contrary to the real experience. It seems that the self or for that fact the person is not formed from any one impression, but by several impressions and our ideas that provide us some reference.

Hume starts his discussion on personal identity with the philosophical idea presented above, that he sees as obviously false. that idea is "we are every moment intimatley conscious of what we call our self, This assumption does not seem as clear to Hume as to some other philosophers. To have an idea of a self there needs to be an impression that corresponds to that idea and Hume asks in what way can we assert this identity since there is not an any impression that is constant and invariable enough to give rise to such an idea of a self. Instead, all of our impressions, pain pleasure, grief, joy, and so on, are momentary and succeed each other rather than exist at the same time. Therefore, they cannot constitute the grounding for a self. Our perceptions, Hume says "are different, distinguishable, and separate from each other, and may be considered separately,and also may exist separately, and have no need for anything to support their existence"(A Treatise of Human Nature) They do not need to be connected to a self to exist and since we cannot observe such a self but only these perceptions, and cannot think of ourselves as existing without these perceptions, Hume concludes that "we are nothing but a bundle of, or a collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement"(Treatise,p.252) That we still go on and ascribe identity to persons, even if there is not any unchanging self that would justify this description is, according to Hume to be explained as merely a trick of the mind. We have an idea of the impressions as they are related to each other, but the impressions themselves exist separately and distinctly from each other and are not dependent on each other. There are several problems connected with this idea that perceptions are all there is. We might for example ask in what way can we tell the difference between others perceptions and our own, and how do we account for this, how does possibly pain that I may experience relates differently than pain someone else may be experiencing?.

Hume's account of personal identity is very possibly one of the most criticized ideas in the thought arena of philosophy, at times it has been described as just how wrong a philosophical discussion can seem to go on occasion. Although there are confusions that can be found in Hume, it seems that very possibly with careful observation that he may have been right, or at least on the right path. In this is the rejection of the idea that there is some inner, unchanging core within ourselves, and the people that are surrounding us. Hume seems to want to deny the idea that the identity of a person is in some way connected with the recognition one may have of a self, a soul, of some kind of substance that our identity may subside, or consists of. This idea for example, is very clear in thinking of Descartes. I think we can agree with Hume in saying that the self is not something to observe simply by looking inward, and when we speak of "I", we do not make reference to an inner substance. "I" in these terms does refer to something particularly within "us" for us to perceive or be conscious of. There seems to be a problem in Hume's basic claim that identity or sameness is seen in a thing not changing over a period of time. This idea does not reflect on how we usually think of something as the same thing, which is also apparent in Hume's discussion where he gives examples of practices that he thinks show the ways we are mistaken when we say that something is the same thing. Foe example, we think of a ship as the same ship even if the parts of it are changed, because all parts conspire to a common end(Treatise p.257). One of the problems with this discussion, is that Hume is confusing two different ideas of identity, numerical and specific identity, even if he himself at one point makes a distinction between them. he fails to see that we are not always talking about one thing when we are talking about identity and that there are different ways of talking about things as being the same. two new cars can for example be identical in the specific sense. They are two objects but have the same qualities, and can in that sense be said to be the same car. It does not for instance matter if I buy the one car instead of the other. Posessing the same qualities, as Hume seems to understand identity, is not however the only way of understanding something as the same. The car somebody has now, for example, is still the same car that they bought ten years ago even if its qualities have altered over this period of time, it now has rust on it, some parts may have been changed in it and so on. To point out these differences and say that they are proof that it is not the same car that they bought would in most circumstances be absurd. We would not for example sat that it is not their car since it is not the same as the car that they bought ten years ago. If we look at the qualities, in the specific sense, it is not the same car, but in the numerical sense it is. What Hume misses in the talk about personal identity and people being the same over a period of time is that we in these cases are talking about identity in the numerical sense rather that in the specific sense. Throughout our lives people go through smaller and bigger changes, which involves their physical appearance as well as their characteristics, so to try to maintain that that the qualities of the child and the full grown person will remain identical, would seem to be a little ridiculous. However, it is not ridiculous to say that it is the same person, in the same way that as the tree we have in our garden is the same tree as the small sapling that we planted there a few years ago. There is of course some situations where we say that people are not the same person or people that they were before. Someone might, for example, undergo some form of drastic change as aresult of some type of injury, illness, drug abuses, and so on, they may even change so much that the one's even closest to them would no longer reconize them, or the person that they once knew in them. All this is now lost, and the painful in a way is the fact that the person is still here to remind us of this loss. A problem for Hume is that when he tries to give an account of personal identity, he seems to focus on the identity of the mind. If the identity of the mind is what he is most concerned with, this might be a reason not to be too hard on his given account of personal identity, but since he does seem to want to say something about the identity of persons, this objection might also be overlooked. What this focus on the identity of the mind misses out on is the fact that we are bodily beings and that a large part of our understanding of the identity of persons exists in this. A person is not only a mind, but also someone with a body, a name, a history, a family and so forth. In stressing the fact that persons are bodily beings it is also important to see that a person is someone who leads a life, and that the continuity of this life, things such as growing up, growing older, all seems to have an influence on our idea of personal reality. This goes to show that the way we go about ascribing an identity to persons is not only something to do with recognizing unchangeable qualities in them, but is part of a life where we live as persons among other persons. Hume characterizes identity as remaining unchanged over a period of time and since he cannot observe anything constant and unchanging in a person, but only a diversity of perceptions, he concludes that" the identity we ascribe to the mind of man is fictitious". This does not however follow from there being no unchanged core, a self, substance or soul, to a person, and Hume's conception of identity seems to be seriously muddled. He recognizes that the ways we use to talk about identity and sameness seem to differ, but takes this to mean that we sometimes are mistaken in talking about something as the same thing instead of seeing that we are talking about it in different ways. Sameness does not only consist in having identical or persisting qualities over a period of time, what we come to see as the same depends on the circumstances and the factors we chose to see as relevant in the certain situation. In emphasizing the identity of the mind, Hume also misses the importance the fact that we are bodily beings with a history and a continuous life has when we ascribe an identity to a person. We do not come to know minds in our life, we come to know human beings and persons that we can relate to and that can matter to us in certain ways.

LOCKE[edit | edit source]

John Locke was a crucial figure in the development of personal identity. He established some of the first definitions that dealt directly with this concept. Locke related the idea of consciousness to personal identity. For him it was something that was essential to being able to understand oneself. Consciousness was also something that could not be separated from thought. If you can think about yourself then you are in a state of consciousness; if you are in a state of consciousness then you can think about yourself. "What person stands for;- which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places…it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so.” In this sense Locke could be described as being an advocate for the “now.” It is what we are conscious of, in relation to the perceptions we are experiencing now, which we are aware of, that distinguishes us as a person. And, in being distinguished as a person we have in that moment established some aspect of our personal identity.

Locke also talked about what happens if for some reason we lose consciousness and in that lose “sight of our past selves.” When this happens and we are no longer able to identify with something that has previously been part of our identity we begin to question the nature of our identity and how stable/constant it is. The fear of chaos creeps in and with that doubt as to who we are. In this moment we are not so much concerned with whether or not we are inhabiting the same body, or space. We are not so concerned with the substance of our identity as we are with whether or not, in this momentary loss of consciousness, we are living the same life that we were previously. Has the continuity of that life been broken up? If so where do we go from here? Locke points out that whether or not something is the same substance has no bearing on personal identity. "For it is by the consciousness it has of its present thoughts and actions, that it is self to itself now, and so will be the same self, as far as the same consciousness can extend to actions past or to come...the same consciousness uniting those distant actions into the same person, whatever substances contributed to their production.” Locke may have been drawing some on a previous idea laid out by Heraclitus when he stated, "Men forget where the way leads...And they are at odds with that with which they most constantly associate. And what they meet with every day seems strange to them...We should not act and speak like men asleep."

Based on this idea that substance (i.e. the body) has no direct bearing on a persons identity Locke states: "Thus, the limbs of his body are to every one a part of Himself; he sympathizes and is concerned for them. Cut off a hand, and thereby separate it from that consciousness he had of its heat, cold, and other affections, and it is then no longer a part of that which is himself, any more than the remotest part of matter. Thus, we see the substance whereof personal self consisted at one time may be varied at another, without the change of personal identity; there being no question about the same person, though the limbs which but now were a part of it, be cut off.” Though a person may lose consciousness of the feeling in a hand or other limb they have only lost consciousness of an attachment of themselves rather than having lost consciousness of the actual self. In contrast when he talks about the “separation of the little finger” he acknowledges that if the self and the consciousness associated with that are residing in the little finger and the little finger gets removed from the body…that’s a different story altogether. In that instance the self has been altered.

"Self depends on consciousness, not on substance. Self is that conscious thinking thing,--whatever substance made up of--which is sensible or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends...upon separation of this little finger, should this consciousness go along with the little finger, and leave the rest of the body, it is evident the little finger would be the person, the same person; and self then would have nothing to do with the rest of the body."

Early Discussions of Personal Identity[edit | edit source]

So...How did we get here anyway???
The question of personal identity is not something that people just started questioning recently. It has been around probably as long as people have been able to use language to verbalize the questions related to personal identity. They may have just used different words to discuss the same sorts of themes in the past.

Thales was the first philosopher. In order to distinguish the way in which everything was made he developed the concept of the arche. An arche is the stuff out of which everything is made. It is the source. For Thales his arche was water. He was looking for the "core" the "essential" element that made things what they were and in the end he decided that water was the most reasonable "essential element." He stated that "There must be some nature-either one or more than one-from which the other things come into being, it being preserved."

It began with Thales, but this is a pattern that has carried through the history of philosophy. Ever since the beginning of philosophy those that practiced philosophy have been asking questions, searching for answers, trying to unlock the secrets and unknowns prevalent in the world in which they existed. In hard times people have always sought for something they could rely on. If you can't rely on your identity and your sense of self then what are you suppose to fall back on? Whether it was water, air, the idea that the elements were split into a pair or even chaos that was the foundation and source of creation, each of these philosophers had something, one core idea from which the rest of their philosophy took its foundations. There seemed to be a sense that everything had to have an origin; there had to be some sort of fundamental thing.

By the time we reach Plato, he very clearly advocates for one core thing to which everything came and towards which everything should strive. For him, it was the Good. Plato established the hierarchy that determined a moral order. How does personal identity relate to this? Well...the idea here is that we identify ourselves in relation to this moral order, in relation to the Good. Comparing and contrasting ourselves to the Good is how we establish/define who we are as an individual. The Good is a Form, something that is boundless and hard to spatially locate, ironic...does that sound like personal identity? The Forms for Plato were the closest things to reality. The Forms established everything else. Everything participated in the Forms, things contained the Forms and that was the way that they were able to exist. The same seems to be true of personal identity. If personal identity is what makes us who we are then anything we do and act on is an act of participating in the truest form of ourself. At least perhaps this is the argument we could make if we are going to try to use Plato's line of reasoning.

Aristotle talked about "essences." For Aristotle essences are what made a person what they were and those were contained within the person or the object. It was a things essence that determined its outcome. However, rather than saying that the development of a person or object was as a result of that person striving to achieve the truest Form of something Aristotle felt that the way in which a persons essence was able to interact with/experience the objective world it was existing in determined how that entity came to be distinguished.

There were many others in-between that all seemed to be searching for something (well obviously...why else would they be practicing philosophy?!) By the time we reach the Christian Philosophers (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas) a great portion of a person's personal identity was associated with the relationship of the soul.

We all need a way in which to define and distinguish ourselves from others, from objects, from the experiences we have in the world. We want to ground ourselves in something definitive as a way of establishing a sense of strength, security and order in a world that is full of chaos. It is a need that seems to be inescapable. However, establishing something definitive may not be possible. Well, at least it does not seem possible to establish one thing and determine: that's it! There's nothing more to know or discover. Personal identity is something that like language and philosophy will continue to change and evolve based on the people and the events that interact with it. It is not a stable thing, but it is constant in its instability and it provides us with a wealth of opportunities to continue learning. Each page that you will go through/have gone through in the process of taking this Introduction to Philosophy course is an example of a little piece of one classes attempt to identify their own personal identities in relation to a topic that they were given. They have tried to establish some of the facts (or at least the ideas that have gained some stability and have been most often repeated) but they have also included themselves in their page, interacting with the text and whether it was conscious or not identifying with it (regardless of how much or how little they agreed with the topic). And now, you are in the process of doing the same. Good Luck with your endeavor. It is gauranteed to be bumpy, it is guaranteed to be frustrating, exhausting and overwhelming, but you have no choice but to get something out of it if you are even the least bit open to it. It's everywhere and I encourage you to enjoy finding bits and pieces of it in all the things you do.

Let's Review!![edit | edit source]

For the journal:
1.) Remember the very first thing you did on this page? Go back to your definition/description of personal identity and how you see yourself. Write down the ways in which that has changed, stayed the same etc. Also be sure to note the things that confused you, frustrated you and excited you about what you read. Anything to add?
2.) Personal identity is an incredibly expansive topic. To start list out the things that struck you as being most important or relevant. Write these down on a separate piece of paper or in a journal.
3.) Watch the one or both of the following movie trailers. Without even seeing the movie can you identify areas where the idea of personal identity may be being addressed? How do you see people attempting to identify themselves? What role to you think control is going to play? How can you identify with just this little clip from a movie trailer?
[V for Vendetta] [What the Bleep do We Know?]

For Discussion:
This is purely a recommendation. I HIGHLY recommend that you take the things that you discovered in 1,2,3 from above and use them to invite a discussion with someone you are close to. The best way to get anything out of any of the stuff that you have read is to share it with someone and bounce those ideas as well as ones that you have come up with off of them and vice versa. It is also the best way to help you further establish your own concept of personal identity in relation to you.

A little more academic:
--Write a brief essay on one of the quotes that were highlighted and italicized throughout the text. These quotes did not come directly from philosophers. They came from other literature. Try to include in your essay: a further interpretation of the quote (as much as this is possible), how this is relevant to personal identity (or if you don't think it is, why isn't it), and how personal identity/philosophy relates to other disciplines. (you would be surprised how connected so many of these ideas are...branch out a little and see if you can make those connections).

Try to answer the following questions.
1. What is it to be a person?
2.What is a necessary condition? Give an example.
3. What is a sufficient condition? Give an example.
4.How do necessary and sufficient conditions distinguish between a person and a non-person?
5.What would it take for a chimp, Martian, computer to become a person?
6. What are two things that Locke identified that are crucial to the understanding of personal identity?
7.In 1-2 sentences describe the role of persistence (i.e. how does personal identity relate to time).
8.In 1-2 sentences explain the psychological approach, memory criterion, somatic approach, simple view, metaphysical elements, role of language and the soul and their relationship to helping establish a criteria for personal identity.
9.Can identity ever be addressed separately from the influences of gender, class, or sexuality, or independent of space, place or time?
>>Keep in Mind>> All of these questions are answerable largely based on trying to establish identity for yourself. For the few that require more direct answers simply referring back to the text should enable you to determine whether or not you have gotten the right answer. Again, this is more for you just so you have a better foundation and can summarize these aspects well enough to use them to distinguish for yourself and others in conversation.

Good luck with your further endeavors and...Congratulations!

<< If you haven't already check out other pages from this course closely related to the concept of personal identity(well it all is but specifically...) mind/body, theories of the mind

References and Helpful Links[edit | edit source]


  • Wolfreys, Julian. I/Dentity.
  • Bennet, Andrew. Me

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