Monthly Archives: August 2012

Identity After You Die, Identifying Beyond the Organism

Recently, Bill Cosby proposed an “identity law” which deals with the ways a person’s identity can be used after he or she dies.

It’s clear that there’s a literal sense in which identity persists after death. Our identities, in the sense of the public record of who we are, can in fact suffer misfortune after death (as Aristotle notes in the Nichomachean Ethics in the case of a man whose family comes into terrible disrepute), or a rise in fortune (Van Gogh, for example, did better after death in his identity as a painter.) Of course, none of this affects us subjectively, but the subjective experience of identity is only one aspect of identity.*

And here we see a divergence between persistence of identity and persistence of personhood (or persistence of a human being.) An identity is not simply something we control: it’s partly public. That public identity can undergo interesting changes in our absence or without our consent.

This is part of what Parfit is after in Reasons and Persons, and why he thinks a certain kind of identity is not “what matters” (ch. 12). For Parfit, we should be more concerned that in the future our current interests are protected and nurtured. Another way to say this is that we can identify with a cause or purpose (or maybe with another person, or a family) just as much as with a physical body.

This is obviously true: certainly people die for causes (or for family members), identifying so strongly with the cause that they think its continuation is more important than their bodily continuation. Similarly, people identify so strongly with family or loved ones that they’ll sacrifice their lives to allow that family or the loved one to continue on. And many people derive an identity from some larger entity, such as a nation, a religion or a political cause. Others identify with, or are identified with, something, such as their art works or their reputation, that exists outside of them. Thus, Bill Cosby’s interest in protecting his identity (his reputation, his image, the legacy of his works) after his death.

Notoriously, John Galt, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, declaims “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” This is an interestingly impoverished view of self and identity. (Note that Galt swears by his life…he has nothing else to swear by since he holds no other ideals.) I think if we reduce identity to identity with the course of life of a human animal, or some such, we risk impoverishing the concept the in the same way. Not that that’s not an important area for investigation of identity!

But  we identify well beyond our bodies, as Parfit (and Erik Erikson and many others) notes. Further, our identities as such are always tied in to social milieux (or what Marya Schechtman calls “person space.”)

Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, in “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion and Motivation,” (Psychological Review, vol 98, no 2, 1991, pp 224-253) make an empirical case, by survey method, that in the United States, identity is more closely tied to the individual, whereas in Japan it’s more closely tied to the group (though not necessarily to the whole…the group from which identity is derived tends to be fairly exclusive.) Looking beyond our cultural borders is one way to expand the possibilities of identity, and helps to show that there’s no absolute reason that the unit of identity should be the single organism. Any unit of identity has to be constructed to some extent. Where and how we construct them shows something about what we hold as important, what impinges upon us as an obvious unity, and as a source of identity.

Of course, we can imagine other possibilities here and I think fiction and historical narrative can serve this purpose, reminding us of lives lived in identity with something or someone beyond the simple individual organism.


*It seems that psychological literature, especially social psychology starting with Erikson, has been good on analyzing the different meanings of  “identity” whereas at times philosophical literature has focused overly narrowly on one sense. Markus and Kitayama’s work is an interesting empirical extension of this social psychological tradition

Continuity, Essence, Sex-change and Other Changes

In my metaphysics class today we were discussing Aristotle and I was explaining the idea of accidental and essential changes. One student asked, “what if something has two distinct functions, could the same change be accidental with regard to one function and essential with regard to the other?”

First, I applauded the student for creative thinking (see this post.) Then, taking off from this I gave the example of a wheeled office chair that was used by children as a continuing prop in a game of monster: the chair played the role of the monster, and they would run from it, sneak up on it, roll it towards each other and scream, etc.

A cigarette is accidentally dropped on the seat of the chair, and the seat burns away, but the rest of the chair is largely unharmed. It can no longer be used as a chair, so there’s been an essential change: in a sense, it’s no longer a chair. But it’s only an accidental change in its role as monster. It still rolls and it looks enough the same that it can still serve its role

So it’s had an accidental change on one interpretation of the object, and an essential change on another. It’d be easy enough to think of other cases like this. There’s a kitchen knife that I use as a screwdriver. It’s tip breaks off so that it will no longer fit into a screw slot, but it’s still a perfectly good kitchen knife. I have a TV/radio. The screen burns out, so it’s essentially not a TV anymore, but the speakers still work so it’s a perfectly good radio (note to young people: there used to be these objects that were combination TV/radios). Or, it’s still a perfectly good TV for my blind roommate, but I no longer get much pleasure out of it as a tv. So it’s essentially not a sighted person’s TV, but it has undergone no essential change for a blind person.

I was thinking this is similar to the question of continuity of identity. Sometimes we need to know the specific function for which the continuity question is being asked.

The example that came to me was a sex change operation. Joe is married to Keisha. Joe gets a sex change and becomes Josephine. Josephine is still liable for Joe’s crimes and debts, but Keisha could quite rightly say “Josephine is not the man I married!” This is doubly true: Josephine is not in fact a man. For Keisha’s purposes, Joe has undergone an essential change and ceased to be, because it was essential for Keisha that Joe be a man. Joe the man is gone. And as a result, Keisha is within her rights to say, “I am not married to that person! [actually, in some parts of the U.S., the sex change does nullify the marriage, though Keisha could say this anywhere, and could probably get the marriage annulled] That person is not Joe!” There some elision here between “man” and “person,” but from Keisha’s perspective, part of the essence of the person she married was that he was a man. In changing that, Joe/Josephine changed an essential characteristic of the person Keisha loved.

Of course, from Josephine’s perspective, it’s probably the case that she now better embodies an internal essence that she always felt. I think there’s a lot to be said about that: that Josephine’s new bodily form is a better expression of her self than her old form.

So this may require some teasing apart of  “person,” “self,” and “man.” But at the same time, I think it’s not unfair to say, without providing technical and stipulative definitions of these terms, that Keisha is not wrong when she says, “that’s not the person I married,” and Josephine is not wrong when she says, “I’m the same person I always was,” they’re just interested in different senses of continuity of identity. For Keisha, Joe’s identity included being a man. For Joe, it did not. And we can’t simply say that Joe is right because it’s his identity; sometimes we have to accept, as in criminal law, that our sense of ourselves is not the key to who we are. I might think myself a hero for having shot someone, but if the law finds that I’m a criminal, my point of view may not matter (I can be delusional, or have a very different ethical perspective than the law, etc.).

Again, this comes back to first- and third-person accounts of identity, and I want to give some weight to social identity, or identity-in-relation to others. And I definitely want to give weight to the spouse who says, “that’s not the person I married,” in this case and in many other cases not involving anything like a sex-change, but rather strong shifts in values or personality, because someone’s personhood can change in ways so radical that we cease to accept them as the same, and this can be a justified move.

Genre and Meaning

One of the most interesting comments on genre comes from Samuel L. Delaney, who wrote:

 In science fiction, “science”—i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourses—is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences as “His world exploded,” or “She turned on her left side,” as they subsume the proper technological discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible. (from Trouble on Triton)

Part of what Delaney is saying here is that, not only is it the case that a work falls into a genre the more it uses elements of that genre, but that, once in that genre, the meanings of sentences are changed by virtue of the genre.

That is, science fiction gives context to sentences like “His world exploded,” or “she was over the moon,” that informs how they’re supposed to be interpreted.

Delaney was asked why he refused to present himself as a “literary” writer and instead stuck with the as science fiction label at a time when he was being welcomed into the academic and critical discourse of literature. Notably, writers like Vonnegut and Atwood shunned, at various times, the science fiction label so that their work could be regarded as literature.

Delaney’s response was that science fiction gave meaning to sentences like “she turned on her left side” in his texts, and that the label “literature” would treat those sentences as metaphors.

Something about this reminds me of Kendall Walton’s “make believe” theory. While the theory has rich implications in metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of visual art, I want to look at only a small piece of it as it relates to the use of objects in genre.

Walton gives the following example in his book Mimesis as Make-Believe: (I’m reconstructing from memory because I don’t have the text handy, and this is a blog and not a real academic paper, and writing loosely is my favorite thing about blogging): two boys are in the woods playing a game. One says, “stumps count as bears,” and then, as they walk, when one sees a stump, he shouts, “A bear! Run!”

At one point in their game, a boy yells, “A bear!” and they start to run away, but then the boy notices that it’s not a stump, it’s  a rock that looks like a stump, and he yells to his friend, “no, not a bear, it was just a rock that looked like a bear.”

The point is that an agreement was made that certain sorts of entities had a certain meaning. Within the fictional world of the game, there is a truth-condition for the claim that a bear is present. But the interesting thing about the game is that that truth condition can fail to be met, and, since there is a condition, and it’s not the case that whatever anyone says goes, one can be mistaken about when the condition is met.

Walton extends this as an analogy for art: we pretend in a certain way in the imaginary realm of the work of fiction, following certain rules, and we accept that a world is being built based on these rules. The world that is built in, for example, Anna Karenina, has a set of rules that does not completely overlap with the rules in Lord of the Rings. Once the novel has established its genre and milieu, the reader is oriented by relating the sentences to the genre rules. So in Anna Karenina, had Tolstoy written “her world exploded” (which fits the narrative of the novel but is a little trite for Tolstoy) it would clearly not have meant that the planet earth had splintered in pieces. In Lord of the Rings, if Tolkien had written, “the forces of darkness laughed,” he might well have literally meant that Sauron and the Ring Wraiths burst out laughing. Had that sentence appeared in Anna Karenina, it would clearly have been metaphorical. In fantasy, “The forces of darkness laughed,” becomes, in Delaney’s word, a “possible image of the impossible.”

What is possible is laid out in the rules of the genre, in the counting-as that works for certain terms. “The world” counts as “this planet,” in science fiction; in literary fiction it might count as a subject’s realm of experience, the usual life that that character could expect to encounter every day, which might “explode” (where “explode” counts as “was shown to have been a lie” or “changed drastically”) in the event of a personal revelation or loss of status.

A lot of this ties into the question of world making, about which more in a future post. But the idea of different sets of rules for make-believe separating the different genres is, I think, helpful. Of course, each novel will to some extent have its own rules, but to a large extent “realistic” fiction all has the same world-rules, whereas, though there are rules common to many works in their genres, texts in certain science fiction and fantasy and some other genres have to clarify those rules within the text. So at some point, a genre author may have to make clear what a phrase like “you turn me on” counts as: if this is a story about robots, “you turn me on,” probably literally means “you turn me on,”  but if this is a story about a romantic awakening, then “you turn me on,” probably doesn’t mean that an actual switch has been flipped, though, “it was as though a switch had been flipped” is a phrase that could certainly appear in that text.

Interestingly, the science fiction case of “you turn me on,” is a more literal use, but to show that it’s not a metaphor is something that has to established in the text, and, for example, a description of an on/off switch on the back of someone’s neck would be needed to show that in this story, “you turn me on,” counts as “you turn me on.”

Free Open Access Critical Thinking Text

I’ve been teaching critical thinking for many years, and I’ve developed a short, free, Creative Commons-licensed text that’s useful for a brief (maybe 3 week?) critical thinking section in any intro philosophy or composition course (or really, just about any course; it’s been used at my college by professors from a number of departments.) I thought I should make it accessible here, in case anyone is interested.

Critical Thinking: Primary Concepts

There’s no instructor’s manual with this text, so it’s for use by teachers who already have some background in critical thinking, though I’ve given it to instructors with no such background and they told me they found it helpful and they were able to make use of it. I’ll probably work up an instructor’s manual shortly, so that this text could have more general use, and will post it here when it’s ready.

It’s fairly modular, so some parts of it can be excised and used without the rest. I’ve had a lot of success with the section on teaching necessary and sufficient conditions, and generally found that one class day with that, combined with regular, contextual reinforcement, gets the idea across.

Some good work by women writing on the identity question

In an independent study last year, a student asked that we work on personal identity, and that we read work by women. I thought that was a good idea; philosophy, as is well known, is the most male-heavy of the humanities, and that can cause writings by women to get overlooked, especially women working outside of feminism.

So here’s a list of some of the more interesting work we read, in case anyone’s interested. Notably this is NOT meant to be an exhaustive list on the topic, or even a reasonable overview! It’s just a selection of the best works we read during the course of the prior semester. I excluded a lot of stuff  from our readings that I just didn’t think was that great, and we only had time to cover so much material. I’m working now on a general bibliography on the topic, and hope to put that up at a later date.

There are a lot of pieces by Marya Schechtman here, partly because she’s  very good, and partly because, among the leading discussants of personal identity in contemporary philosophy, she is one of the few women. I’ve put a star next to works I think are particularly valuable or interesting, or which add significantly to the topic.

Finally, I’ll note that focusing the reading on women’s writing was not just an exercise in equality;  good ideas that were not prominent or were largely absent in the leading male thinkers on the topic were well represented here (for example, the ways in which personhood and identity are limited by social forces and can be externally determined are much better covered here than in the mainstream writings by men), and of course,  any exploration of this kind calls for as many good perspectives as possible.

—————————-The List————————————————-

*Simone de Beauvoir, “Introduction to The Second Sex.” Probably everyone has already read this, but applying it to personhood and identity studies is extremely helpful. Goes very well with the Joanna Russ piece below.

*Marilyn Friedman, “Autonomy and the Split-Level Self” Southern Journal of Philosophy, Spring 1986, 24, p.31 I can’t recommend this piece enough. It’s  a wonderful response to Frankfurt’s “Concept of the Person” and adds an important emotional component to personhood while also complexifying the Frankfurtian notion of first- and second-order desires.

* Carol Gilligan, “Remapping the Moral Domain: New Images of the Self in Relationship” in Reconstructing Individualism ed. Heller, Sosna, Wellbery, Davidson, Swidler and Watt, Stanford Univ. Press, 1986 I’ll note that this piece has received a lot of strong criticism in the years since it’s release, and much of that criticism is very helpful. It is nonetheless an essential piece in the history of thought on ethical topics, and I think it’s a great piece for reading in relation to questions of identity and personhood, in that it helps establish the normalcy of forms of identity that are socially situated, as opposed to the traditional view that the self or person is self-contained.

Christine Korsgaard, “Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency,” in Personal Identity, ed. Raymond Martin and John Barresi, Blackwell, 2003 I find myself in pretty strong disagreement with Korsgaard, who takes a strong body-criteria approach, but Korsgaard is a great philosopher and always worth reading, and her approach is nicely complex in the way it focuses on agency and time.

Kristen Renwick Monroe, “Morality and the Sense of Self,’ American Journal of Political Science, vol 45, no. 3, July 2001, pp. 491-507

*Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion and Motivation,” Psychological Review, vol 98, no 2, 1991, pp 224-253 Interesting attempt at cross-cultural study of the concept of selfhood and identity. It’s a sketchy overview, and it’s hard to be sure if the conclusions drawn are well-supported by the evidence, but there’s some extremely thought provoking models in here.

*Amelie Rorty: Introduction to The Identities of Persons, University of California Press, 1984

*Joanna Russ, “What Can A Heroine Do, or Why Women Can’t Write” in Images of Women in Fiction, ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillion, Bowling Green Univ. 1973 Great, sadly under-read piece about how forms of life and identity are limited when stories are limited. Excellent for narrativist theories of selfhood, and really well written.

*Marya Schechtman: “Empathic Access: The Missing Ingredient in Personal Identity” In Personal Identity, ed. Martin and Barresi, Blackwell, 2007 While I have strong criticisms of this piece, it’s absolutely groundbreaking and essential for future studies of personal identity.

*Marya Schechtman, “Self Expression and Self Control” in The Self? ed. Galen Strawson, Blackwell, 2005

Marya Schechtman, “Stories, Lives and Basic Survival”

Marya Schechtman, “Diversity in Unity”

Marya Schectman, “Personality and Persistence”

Marya Schechtman, “Memory and Identity,” Philosophical Studies 153:65-79, 2011

Marya Schechtman, “Personhood and the Practical,” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 31:271-283, 2010 This piece is a little sketchy and some of the arguments highly unsatisfying but it points the way to a radically new conception of personhood based on the idea of “person-space,” that is, the area we reserve for certain entites in our social practice that admits them to a socially-sanctioned realm of personhood. 

A Note on the Physical Criterion

One thing that’s interesting about the physical criterion for continuity of identity (the claim that it’s the continuation of the body that counts, not the continuation of any mental content–cf. Olson, Wiggins) is that most of those supporting this position would hold that a person is the same person even if he or she loses a leg, an arm, or really, almost any part of the body except the functioning brain. (I’ve had students claim that loss of limbs would involve loss of continuity of identity, which I think is an interesting idea which requires a greater exploration of what they mean in that case by “continuity of identity.”)

This is discussed by Parfit in ch.10 of Reasons and Persons, and it’s a fair assessment of the general consensus. So what counts isn’t the body, as such, but rather the part of the body that produces psychological content. Further, if the brain is rearranged enough, even some physicalists would accept that the person (if not the human animal) has ceased to be.

What all this points to, I think, is that for many purposes the physicalists have a psychological criterion or critera:  that is, they’re just focusing on the physical area where psychological effects are produced. This is a reasonable strategy, especially if you want to hold an eliminativist position in regard to psychological terms. Still, the claim of the physicalists who make this move is that the body part that produces psychological effects is what must continue to exist for continuity of identity (and probably it has to continue without certain changes, like those that would cause the death of the organism…there’s an interesting set of end-of-life problems here, and some questions about total loss of brain function, or loss of all higher function/all function other than brain-stem function, etc.)

Some physicalists would probably accept that a person remains the same person even in the event of massive brain injury if the body survives…this is what Marya Schechtman was getting at in “Personhood and the Practical,” for example. Schechtman, though, accepts that sometimes the physical criterion is the relevant one, and sometimes it’s not. I think this is a fairer approach than picking one criterion and assuming it’s relevant in all cases or for all questions and concerns.

On the diversity and vagueness in the question of continuity of identity

Suppose you are 40-something years old. You remember growing up, getting married, having children, etc. Basically, a standard life with standard memories. Then it’s shown to you, incontrovertibly, that all of your memories from before you were 25 are false; they were implanted. The body you inhabit had been inhabited by a serial killer. Doctors took the serial killer, placed her in a coma state, and fed dreams into her head electronically. Over the course of a year these dreams replaced her prior memories. No surgery was involved, just the process by which all our memories are altered over time: we remember something, a detail is added, another subtracted, and slowly our memories are altered. (This is well-established in psychological studies of memory, by the way, and it’s possible to create false memories using this method–not the coma, just making suggestions to people as they are asked to remember things–, though I doubt anyone’s ever tried it on this scale.)

When you learn that about the serial killer, do you think that she was (A) you, (B) sort of you and sort of not you or (C) not you at all? Or maybe a better question is: do you feel yourself to be identical to the serial killer? Do you share her identity?

I think what’s interesting here is that many of us (maybe most) don’t have a clear sense of how to answer this (or we take the B answer). Ultimately, I think a lot of these cases point to problems with our overly rigid notion of continuity of identity: we want there to be answers in all cases (that’s why we get “it’s body,” “it’s psychological continuity,” etc, put forward as the criteria), but I think the fact that there aren’t clear-cut answers (and even if one person has a strong sense of what’s the right answer in all cases, repeated studies have shown a tremendous amount of disagreement in many such cases, so there’s no consensus here, and no clear standards to appeal to–I’ll return to this claim) is helpful in showing us the complexity of the concept of self/person/identity/continuity.

From a forensic perspective, here are some interesting real-world cases that show, even for legal purposes, bodily continuity is not sufficient for identity: the courts have ruled that a person with split personalities was not responsible for what her other personality did:

(There have been a few other cases like this too, and cases where a person was found guilty because it was thought that he/she was faking the split personality.) I should note I’m a bit of a skeptic on the actual existence of split-personality, at least of the sort where one personality has no access to the memories of the other. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that in such a case, a court would rule (rightly, I think, if the claims of split-personality were true) that one personality is not responsible for the doings of the other.

This is because, in general, bodily identity is not enough for guilt; the law demands that there be a degree of psychological connection to the criminal action, which is why mens rea is a necessary element of a crime. In R. v Parks, in Canada, the supreme court upheld the acquittal of a man who committed murder while sleepwalking; in fact, the point of contention was not whether a sleepwalker was responsible for murder; it was agreed that a sleepwalker was not; it was whether he was lying about sleepwalking. So again, bodily identity is not sufficient for forensic purposes.

But it seems obvious that in a will or property case, bodily identity may well be sufficient. If someone leaves person X some money, I doubt total memory loss for person X would negate the will (barring some specific language in the will to that effect.) So in _some_ legal contexts, the body is what’s relevant. In some, it’s not condition.

Again, this goes back to the claim that the question of continuity of identity is several questions that have to answered in specific contexts.

I’ll also note, briefly, that the method of pumping intuitions and looking at cases is helpful here not because it points us to the “true person” or “real self” or whatever the target of a personal identity inquiry is, but because the multiplicity of answers shows that we don’t have a single, consistent answer to that question. Further, it’s not just popular confusion that could be cleared up by an expert inquiry into the real self, or real person, or what have you. Instead, I think what we’re seeing is that a number of different senses of continuity of identity are at play in our social practices. It’s not that these practices can’t be mistaken, but that there’s no fundamental reason, no raw data, that’s entirely separate from social practices, that we can point to in all cases as the final word on how we should act. Sometimes a physical criteria is best. Sometimes a psychological criteria. And sometimes one physical criteria makes more sense than another (“the functioning brain” might be our physical criteria, but if the brain ceases to function the bodily entity probably still has plenty of ownership rights, for example, but no longer has (I’m guessing) voting rights or parental rights.) Marya Schechtman’s discussion of the mother in the late stages of dementia does a nice job of noting when we accept a pure bodily criteria, and how much is lost in making this the sole criteria (see “Personhood and the Practical” in Theoretical Medical Bioethics, 31:271–283, 2010)

Exploring these multiplicities, again, tells us something about what people hold as important in identity.

The Multiple Senses of “Continuity of Identity”

A lot of my recent work has been on personhood and continuity of identity (that is, how do I know that a person at some given time is the same person as a person at some prior time.) Some of my papers are linked on my page.

One of the things I’m interested in is the multiple possible senses of continuity of identity.

Locke, who kicked off a lot of the modern discourse on the topic, thought that the question of continuity of identity was a forensic question; that is, that it mattered only for legal (or maybe some quasi-legal) matters. Is John the person who is responsible for the actions committed yesterday or last week? Is this John’s property? Etc.

Clearly, it’s extremely important in this area to know if someone is the same person as some prior person. But I doubt this is the only are where this matters.

After Locke, the question became more problematic because the pragmatic concern was removed. It seems like Parfit and Williams and Wiggins and Lewis* are sometimes asking the question in general, as though there were only one kind of identity relation between a future and past person.

But I think there needs to be a purpose to the question or it doesn’t make sense.

For example: suppose Sue loses her memory (I’m referencing the case of Sue Meck here, so this isn’t one of those wonderfully creative but purely imaginary philosophical cases). Complete memory wipe. She has a husband and two children. Over time she learns to speak and read and write and be an adult person again (again total memory wipe). Suppose that she stays married and manages to be a mother to her children through this.

Is Sue the same person she was before the memory loss? She doesn’t regain the old memories, though she does hear about her previous life, so she has a kind of memory access to it, but it’s like the memory access you have to anyone’s life you’ve heard about.

I don’t think there’s a simple, universal answer to this question. Even forensically, we have to split the question. I would guess she still owns the same property, but I would also guess that she would not be found responsible for criminal acts committed before the memory loss.

What about first and third person? The actual Sue talks about her prior self (if that even makes sense) as a different person, calling her “Sue 1.” But she maintained a marriage, friends in a community, a relation with her children. Do these people think that Sue 2 is a completely different person?

Imagine another case: Joe and his meth-dealer friends like hanging out by the river, getting high, spray-painting walls, etc. One day Joe discovers Jesus and becomes a born-again Christian and leaves his meth-world behind. He is instantly transformed into someone who’s concerned with virtuous behavior and who constantly asks himself, and abides by the answer to the question, “what is the Christian thing to do?” (This sounds odd but there are cases, so I don’t think it’s entirely imaginary case.)

We can imagine Joe’s old friends saying  “ He’s not the guy I used to know,” or even “That’s not Joe anymore.” They wouldn’t be entirely wrong; he’s undergone a radical change of personality, and personality is a big part of what individuates a person. Forensically, he’s the same man; he’s still responsible for his crimes (though interestingly his change of personality can come up at sentencing, so while he’s still guilty of his crimes the penalty given could be lessened, as though to say, “he’s not quite the man who committed those crimes,” i.e. there’s been  a partial change of personhood) but from the standpoint of being “my friend Joe,” he can rightly be seen as a different person.

I proposed the following thought experiment for cases like this

Which of these two cases is there greater continuity of identity:

 1. You are transported to another world; there is no hope of return to earth. On this planet you must constantly fight other sentient beings for survival. Cannibalism is common, and often the only means of subsistence. Human relations are purely instrumental. Others can be trusted only to act in their own self-interest, and that interest is survival. You remain there for twenty years, adapting to this new environment, and doing what’s necessary to stay alive, then return home.

 2. You suffer total personal memory loss. However, you are married, part of a large and intimate community who knows much about you. You retain most of your personal characteristics, and the community fills you in on your background: this is your spouse, these your children, your friends, those you had trouble getting along with, etc. They help you acclimate to your old life, and it’s generally agreed that your personality has remained consistent; you have many of the same interests (though you’re surprised you have them), show the same level of compassion, etc

(DiGiovanna, “You are not the person I knew: eclecticism and context in continuity of identity,” Appraisal, Vol. 9 No. 1, March 2012)

My guess is that people will answer that 1 involves greater continuity of identity, but if you switch “you” to “your friend,” they’ll answer 2.

Jesse Prinz has recently done a similar experiment (not yet published) in which he found that people did indeed think that continuity of identity was greater in cases of continuity of personality rather than in cases of continuity of memory.

So: there are a lot of ways to ask this question. Is Joe at time Tx the same person as Joe at time Tx+n? needs to be contextualized. Yes, for forensic purposes he is. Well, yes for ownership but no for responsibility. Yes for being the guy who’s my friend, but no for being the guy who’s your friend. Maybe Joe’s behavior towards Lisa has changed so drastically that for Lisa, Joe is not the same person, but Joe’s behavior towards Tom has not changed.

What about sex-change? Loss of abilities that one strongly identified with, like, say, an athlete who focused her identity heavily on her athletic prowess and activities is paralyzed from the neck down? Loss of religion? I’ve informally polled students on cases like this and gotten interesting results: while many will say that a person remains the same person through almost any change, they differ on which changes constitute a change of personhood. It was indeed a young athlete who told me that a loss of bodily function would be enough for her to lose her personhood. A young man told me he would not be the same person if he surgically changed his race and gender. Etc.

Listening to these differences is, I think, important. Philosophy is not (or at least not always) the act of telling people that their intuitions about the applications of “good” and “person” and “beautiful” and such are right or wrong. If the linguistic turn was of value, it was because it told philosophers that they sometimes had overly idiosyncratic uses of some terms. Listening to what’s important to non-philosophers when they ask about continuity of identity tells us what’s important about that topic (and other topics) in general.

*This is a little unfair…Williams at least hints at the possibility that the question is too complicated to be reduced to a single answer, though he’s not as explicit about this as I think he could be. See “The Self and the Future” Philosophical Review,. LXXIX, 1970, and collected in Problems of the Self, Cambridge. 1973, pp. 46-63

More On Genre: Literature, Genre, Form and Content

So in the previous genre post, in which I was a bit sloppy (this post is also gonna be real sloppy as I think this stuff through!), I noted four elements of a genre work.

The first, which most genre theorists agree upon, is that a genre has certain marks, characteristics, etc, which I called “elements,” because I wanted to use a very general term (some in-use terms, like “formal markers,” seemed to specific to me.)

While a lot of classical genre theory focuses on formal elements *, I’m somewhat more interested in content-based markers, partly because I’m particularly interested in popular culture genres: science fiction, romance, superhero stories, action films, buddy comedies, etc., which are often more marked by content-elements.

So in the previous post I wanted to say that a work is part of a genre because (1) it has elements of that genre, (2) among the elements it has may be some which carry more weight in assigning the work to the genre than others (spaceships are more science fiction than pain medicine with no side effects, though both are from the SF category “futuristic technology”), (3) it avoids elements which would mitigate against its being in the genre (an action movie may cease to be an action movie if more than fifty percent of screen time is taken up with a slow-paced romance), and (4) the narrative focus of the film is centered upon, or depends upon, the genre elements.**

ll of this goes to how we classify a work as in or out of a genre, and to how far it is in some genre (e.g., it’s barely an action movie; it’s nothing but a romantic comedy.) The more it follows formula, the more it includes only elements from the genre, the more it’s in the genre.***

In popular discussions of literature there is sometimes a distinction between “genre works” and “literary writing.” There’s a way to preserve this distinction without simply looking to the canon of “literature” and claiming that these are not genre works, and then dismissing anything that is too clearly science-fiction, etc.

It may be that work that very closely hews to the properties of a genre, and includes nothing that undermines or stands outside of or comments upon or even adds to the genre, is more purely genre writing, and to the extent that a work is hard to classify as belonging to a genre, that’s literary.  Notably, one could include all of the elements of a genre and still be outside of it because of the inclusion of type 3 elements, those that expressly don’t belong in the genre (a romantic comedy probably can’t have a realistically portrayed and tragically presented scene where a terrorist murders dozens of people.)

Here’s an application of the above:

One might argue, based on this, that Raymond Carver, who was for a time the paradigmatic short-story writer for creative writing MFA programs, was a genre writer. It’s very easy to see the repeated elements in his work. There are many, but in brief: The story includes very little action; sometimes a single event, but sometimes almost none (a story that was very plot-heavy would fall outside of this genre.) It generally takes place indoors. The focus is on characters, not action. Two or a few people from different walks of life come together and have a moment, usually because of a conversation, where one or both or several of them have an epiphany or emotional realization: A baker and a couple who just lost a child are brought together, and connect emotionally even though a moment before they’d seemed at odds, and the baker shows emotional growth. A blind man and a man who is uncomfortable being around the blind man come together and connect emotionally, causing the uncomfortable man to grow and change, etc.

A lot of writers have written these sorts of stories, both before Carver, and very heavily after him due to his influence. It’s interesting that this form, I don’t have a name for it (I’m sure someone does) but let’s call it “the emotional realization story,” is accepted as literature even though it can be very strongly part of a genre. Part of this may be due to the fact that the genre wasn’t named, and that Carver had a strong hand in inventing or at least making widely known the form. The first science fiction stories obviously weren’t considered science fiction stories until a bulk of such stories had begun to appear.

So, in attempting to answer what a genre is, one thing that comes forward is that a genre is a form whose elements can be reasonably clearly delineated. When Plato divided writing into poetry, prose and dialog it was fairly easy to see the distinguishing markers. With science fiction, we can note the appearance of currently non-existent technology, the future, and forms of social organization that have not yet been tried (among other elements.)

But there’s a big difference between the genres categories that Plato gives, and those that we commonly use in popular culture, like “westerns,” “buddy movies,” “thrillers,” etc. and I think a lot of that difference is that Plato, and many classical theorists, focused on formal elements, whereas the popular understanding of “genre” is about differences in content-elements. ****

*Amy Devitt calls these “formal markers” (Devitt, Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004). Herder thought of genre as the rules and aim of the work, with the rules being purely formal elements and the aim being something like the effect the work is supposed to produce in the audience; Notably, genre theory starts with Plato’s division of literature into genres by form: prose, poetry and dialogic drama are identified by their structural or formal aspects. So some classical and even contemporary theories focused on formal, rather than contentual, elements.

**I’m speaking somewhat synchonically here. Obvious, genres come and go, arise and fall, and in the process accrue new elements and sprout new sub-genres. That’s an interesting topic for another time.

***There’s a lot to be said about the way art can use genre by breaking it. For example, the film Punch Drunk Love contains most of the elements of a romantic comedy, but it escapes the genre in interesting ways. In a rom-com, the male lead is lovable but his actions, if not put forward comedically, would seem dangerous and a sign of mental unbalance. In Punch Drunk Love the romantic lead appears to be, and even notices that he is, mentally unbalanced and potentially dangerous. Making this obvious, and presenting it in non-comedic moments, brings to light some aspect of the genre and removes PDL from the genre, because it has become both too aware of the genre (and self-awareness isn’t really a feature or element of romantic comedies) and because it has to leave the genre in order to comment on the genre.

**** I’m not saying anything terribly new here; a lot of genre theorists now focus on content-elements. If there’s a contribution in this discussion it’s not so much on point 1 as on 2-4.

Defining “Genre” in the Narrative Arts

One of the problems of defining “genre” is that the definition is not entirely consistent across genres.

Here’s a stab, though: (1) a work is a genre work to the extent that it includes elements of some given genre [I know I can’t use “genre” in the definition of  “genre,” I’ll address this]. The more elements it has, the more it is a genre work. (2) But certain elements carry more weight than others in the assignment of the genre term, and (3) some elements that are outside the genre can mediate against the application of the term. (4) Further, the extent to which the genre elements are the focus of the story increases the genre-ness of the tale

Looking more closely at these four conditions:

(1) For example: in science fiction, the elements include things like not-yet-available technology, the future, and alternate forms of social arrangement that have not yet been tried. (2) Some examples in the first and third of these carry strong genre marks: if the work includes spaceships and a hive-like form of society, those will give it more science fiction points than if it includes only two-way wrist TVs and universal acceptance of homosexuality.

(4) If the story essentially relies upon and revolves around space travel, that is, if the story includes a trip through space and the themes of the story would vanish if the story were retold as a train-trip, then it’s going to be more strongly a science fiction story.

If a science fiction story is most centrally concerned with romance, it may be considered less of a science fiction story. Again: if Zzxrt and Krznvt fall in love on a space ship, it’s science fiction, but if you could convey nearly everything about the story by switching the setting to a train trip, it’s a romance. So it could be a science-fiction/romance, or a romance/science-fiction story.

(3) In the example above, the romance could, all by itself, detract from the science-fictioness of the story. Adding comedic elements can take away from a hard-science fiction genre ranking, but probably not eliminate it. But if your romance story is heavily imbued with goofball comedy, it probably loses some of its simple romance-genre cred. I would think that romance can only tolerate so much mocking before it is self-ejected from the genre.

Anyway, this is just a rough outline for making some larger claims about genre. I think it’s notable that I can’t define genre here without using terms like “elements of the genre,” i.e., without violating a basic rule of definition, and that’s because, as noted, each genre has its own set of conditions for admission. So to define genre properly one would probably need to list a bunch of genres and discuss their conditions of admission.

Listing the genre elements for different genres would be an interesting enterprise; for science fiction, above, I tried to be as general as possible with “not-yet-available technology, the future, and alternate forms of social arrangement that have not yet been tried.” The specific instances in these categories, though, have of course been added to over time, and some of the specific instances have become hallmarks of the genre, so that it’s probably not sufficient just to say in general what the genre conditions are. Space-ships, as noted, are more science fiction than, say, a medicine which completely relieves pain while producing no other side effects, even though we currently have space ships but we have no such medicine.

Finally, it’s important that a work can be more or less a work of some given genre. It’s not wrong to say “that’s very much a science fiction film,” or “that’s sort of science-fictiony.” The more it adheres to genre rules, the more it’s in that genre.

(Here’s a review of “Prometheus” that address some questions of genre.)