Author’s Introduction (Sections 1-3)
The conviction which every man has of his identity, as far back as his memory reaches, needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it, without first producing some degree of insanity.
→ Thomas Reid
- Under the influence of well-known thought experiments modern inheritors1 of John Locke's conception of personhood have recently been led to draw a distinction between questions of the identity of a person and questions about survival.
- 'Certain important questions [about such matters as survival, memory, and responsibility] do presuppose a question about personal identity. But they can be freed of this presupposition. And when they are, the question about identity has no Importance2'.
- 'We can, I think, describe cases in which, though we know how to answer every other question, we have no idea how to answer a question about personal identity. . . . Do they present a problem? It might be thought that they do not, because they could never occur. I suspect that some of them could. . . . But I shall claim that even if they did they would present no problem3'.
- In another place4 I have attempted some reassessment of the thought experiments involving the supposed fission and fusion of persons that prompted Derek Parfit to draw these strange and disturbing conclusions. I have even suspected sometimes that Parfit's conception of the identity relation rests on a rejection of the idea, which to me at least seems overwhelmingly plausible5, that the predicate 'is the same as' is as primitive and irreducible6 as any other predicate that one can think of. But the present question is neither the status of thought experiments involving the putative division of persons, nor the nature of identity (whether, as Parfit puts it, identity can be 'a further fact' of some matter7). It is the separability that Parfit alleges of questions of survival from questions of identity — and not even the whole of that issue.
- What it is necessary to discuss is the alleged separability of two concerns — the separability, for instance, of a man's 31st December 1978 concern to survive until 31st December 1980 at least and the concern that such a man has on 31st December 1978 that, at every moment between then and 31st December 1980 at least, there should exist something identical with him. I concede that, even as regards survival, this separability or inseparability is only one small part of what needs to be discussed; but nobody can judge the separability question irrelevant who undertakes, as Parfit did8, to reach out to our actual concern with death or to distinguish in theory between a legitimate apprehension that lurks in fear of death and something supposedly less rational therein, having to do with identity.
- The criticisms I offer will be made from the general position of one who holds that, although experiential memory is one component in an inner nucleus of conceptual constituents of what it is for a person to continue to exist (to persist), there is no non-trivial necessary or sufficient condition of identity through time that we can formulate in terms of experiential memory. Insofar as there is some general disagreement here, it is about the importance of identity in the philosophy of persons and the relation between identity and mental connectedness9, not about whether any importance attaches to mental connectedness10. The disagreement is a disagreement within the wider class of friends of mental connectedness11 who see something to applaud in Locke's definition of a person as 'a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places12' however much they differ over other things.
- I have rehearsed these points only in order to set the general scene for the dispute. What I want to argue now is much more briefly stated. Suppose I express the fervent and enduring wish to survive until 1980 at least. Then, so far from its being possible (as a pure mental connectedness13 account of survival would hold that it was possible) to separate my concern that there should exist something identical with me at every moment between now and 1980 from my concern that my mental life should flow on under the cognitive and affective influence of my present memories, beliefs, and character (even as these themselves evolve between now and 1980), absolutely any adequate description of the second concern will have to presuppose the validity and importance of the first one. This presupposition between the two concerns arises from something central to the phenomenology of these matters — something whose elimination or modification cannot be relied upon to leave undisturbed the desire itself to survive into the future. This last desire is not, I claim, a thing that we can treat as a brute datum. It comes with thoughts and conceptions that require philosophical attention and description: and some of these thoughts and conceptions have a content that involves identity inextricably.
Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 3: Footnote 4: Footnote 5: Footnote 7:
Footnote 8: Footnote 12:
- I doubt that we really know what it is to describe a case for which we know how to answer every question, or every question except one. Certainly no such case ever presents itself in concrete reality.
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