Monthly Archives: August 2012

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.)

The Creative Aspect of Thinking About Stuff

One of the things that most attracts me to philosophical discourse is the special kind of creativity needed to engage in it.

It’s possible, of course, to simply digest some theory and then apply it to whatever one encounters. This requires at best minimal creativity. If I have learned a good deal about, say, utilitarianism, I can look at many problems from a utilitarian perspective and see if there is some failure to apply utilitarian principles in current approaches, or show how utilitarians would deal with this problem.

We see much the same thing in say, for example, philosophers writing about what Nietzsche would think of some particular artwork, or how Kant would respond to a particular political problem, or simply applying the terms and concepts of some particular critical theory to a critique of a popular film or TV series.

But the creativity I’m interested in involves not simply applying a theory.

One instance of it comes about in counter-examples. Although it became an industry in itself, and ultimately the formula got a bit easier, there’s something particularly creative about Gettier cases. To look at a standard definition, “knowledge is justified true belief,” and then to invent a story where someone has a justified, true belief that is not knowledge, requires a narrative sense of creativity as well as an analytic skill.

Parfit’s teletransporter, Williams’ split minds, Nagel asking what it is like to be a bat, all of these are examples of the sort of fiction-writing skills needed in certain areas of philosophy. Sartre made a career out of this sort of thing; Being and Nothingness is something like a collection of philosophical fictions, imaginary cases that bring out some essential elements of existentialist thought.

I think this creativity can be taught, as well.

In my critical thinking classes, I present the following to the students:

A study has shown that beer drinkers are significantly more prone to lung cancer than wine drinkers, even when the population samples are controlled for smoking (this is from an actual study I recall reading about in Slate some years ago.) Therefore, beer drinking contributes to lung cancer.

Then I ask them: is the conclusion reasonable? At first, some agree, but then they start to come up with alternative hypothesis. Maybe beer drinkers are more likely to work in factories with malignant air, whereas wine drinkers work in offices. Maybe beer drinkers hang around in bars where people smoke, whereas wine drinkers are in restaurants. Maybe beer drinkers are poorer and live in neighborhoods that are closer to toxic dumps, pollutants, etc.

Obviously, none of these possibilities are given in the short description. They have to be invented by the students. This is not analysis, then, but creative writing of a sort.

The more I do this sort of exercise with my students, the quicker they are to come up with original hypotheses on their own.

Philosophy, and thought, in general, requires some degree of creativity. And creativity is a skill that can be practiced. My concern is that in teaching theories and positions we be careful not to let our students think that philosophy is the process of applying these theories, or saying what Philosopher X would have said about some topic, but that we show them the creative process of thought, and, with any luck, goad them in the direction of trying out that creativity.