Category Archives: personhood

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