Characters, Persons, Selves, Individuals
Rorty (Amélie Oksenberg)
Source: Rorty (Amelie) - The Identities of Persons, 1976
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The concept of a person1 is not a concept that stands still, hospitably awaiting an analysis of its necessary and sufficient conditions. Our vocabulary for describing persons, their powers, limitations, and alliances is a very rich one. By attending to the nuances of that vocabulary we can preserve the distinctions that are often lost in the excess of zeal that is philosophic lust in action: abducting a concept from its natural home, finding conditions that explain the possibility of any concept in that area, and then legislating that the general conditions be treated as the core essential analysis of each of the variants. Such legislation — enshrining general and necessary preconditions as essential paradigms — is tantamount to arbitrary rule. We have not furnished an argument that socially defined entities such as nations, families, and persons, varying culturally and historically in their extensions and the criteria for their differentiation, have a place in a tidy taxonomic tree, neatly defined by genera, species, and varieties. Nor could such a proof be constructed, because there is not one to be had. Because the definitions of such entities change historically, forced by changes in social conditions and in answer to one another’s weighty inconsistencies, there are layers and accretions of usages that can neither be forced into a taxonomy nor be safely amputated.
  2. “Heroes,” “characters,” “protagonists,” “actors,” “agents,” “persons2,” “souls,” “selves,” “figures,” “individuals” are all distinguishable. Each inhabits a different space in fiction and in society. Some current controversies about criteria for personal identity, for characterizing and reidentifying human individuals, are impasses because the parties in the dispute have each selected distinct strands in a concept that has undergone dramatic historical changes; each has tried to make his strand serve as the central continuous thread. But criteria for reidentifying characters are different from those for reidentifying figures, and both differ from the criteria that identify selves or individuals. The concept of a person is but one in the area for which it has been used as a general class name. There is good reason for this; but we cannot understand that reason until we trace the historical sequence. The explanation of the recent concentration on the criteria for personal identity, rather than character identity or individual identity, is not that it is logically prior to the other concepts in that area, but that it affords a certain perspective on human agency. Before we can see what has seemed central about personal identity, we must trace the history of the notion.
  3. Characters are delineated; their traits are sketched; they are not presumed to be strictly unified. They appear in novels by Dickens, not those by Kafka. Figures appear in cautionary tales, exemplary novels and hagiography. They present narratives of types of lives to be imitated. Selves are possessors of their properties. Individuals are centers of integrity; their rights are inalienable. Presences are descendants of souls; they are evoked rather than represented, to be found in novels by Dostoyevsky, not those by Jane Austen. The effects of each of these on us and our political uses of their various structures differ radically. Indeed, we are different entities as we conceive ourselves enlightened by these various views. Our powers of actions are different, our relations to one another, our properties and proprieties, our characteristic successes and defeats, our conceptions of society’s proper strictures and freedoms will vary with our conceptions of ourselves as characters, persons, selves, individuals.
  4. I want to give a skeleton outline of some of the intellectual, emotional, and social spaces in which each of these move and have their being, to depict their structures, their tonalities and functions. I shall perforce use the expressions “person” and “individual” neutrally, to designate the entire class of expressions that refer to the entities we have invented ourselves to be, but I shall argue that this usage does not reflect the ontological or the logical priority of those concepts.


Also in "Rorty (Amélie Oksenberg) - Mind in Action - Essays in the Philosophy of Mind"

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2:

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