The Transformation of Persons
Rorty (Amélie Oksenberg)
Source: Rorty (Amelie) - Mind in Action - Essays in the Philosophy of Mind
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. In the Odyssey, Menelaus tells Telemachus as much as he knows of Odysseus’s wanderings. He reports that Odysseus, wanting to learn the end of his travels and needing directions for returning safely home through the dangerous seas, captured Proteus and held fast to him, though Proteus transformed himself into a bearded lion, a snake, a leopard, a bear, running water, and finally into a flowering tree. Proteus eventually wearied, and consented to tell Odysseus something of what he wished to know.
  2. Presumably Proteus remained himself throughout these transformations; he may have chosen them; certainly his knowledge remained unaffected. Since Odysseus held fast to him throughout, the physical changes were apparently changes in a material object remaining in roughly the same place. But there are also tales of divinities who disappear in one place and reappear, in a different form, in a different place. Unless we invent spiritual or nonmaterial bodies to support these changes, the personal identity of such divinities rests on the continuity of their psychological properties.
  3. But such radical physical changes are precisely the sorts of transformations that occur to divinities or fictional heroes. It is, after all, built into our conceptions of divinities and heroes that they are exactly the sorts of beings whose activities cannot be explained in the usual ways. King Arthur shades away from history and into legend at just that point where he is regarded as capable of the sorts of transformations that we cannot ourselves perform, transformations that do not fall within the canon of our explanations of the normal changes of embryos to infants, infants to adolescents, and so on, with graceful stopping places, to senility and the grave. The fictions in which the careers of divinities and heroes are told grasp minimal threads of plausibility by such phrases as “scientists somehow transplanted," suggesting that an explanation hovers in the wings; but that explanation stays in the wings, and there is a stop to our prying.
  4. Under what circumstances might we imagine that an ordinary human being could undergo Protean changes and remain the same individual human person? If Omega Whirlpool, a very ordinary fellow, who has never been known to do anything the slightest bit unusual, one day disappeared without the aid of a mad scientist, and, exactly where he had been, drinking tea, there appeared the body of his cousin Anemone, complete with what seemed to be Omega’s memories and character traits, we wouldn’t (to put it mildly) know what to say. It is not, I think, logically impossible to imagine such changes; but by the time we have filled in the details of what might be required to make sense of them, we shall have diminished the dramatic power of the examples, and brought back into play the familiar constraints that ground the continued identities of persons in the network of our social practices and scientific theories. To show that this is so, I shall consider the criteria we use to determine whether Anemone is Omega, rather than a distinct individual who shares Omega’s essential traits.
    1. I begin with the familiar argument that the criterion of psychological continuity presupposes identifying the same physical agent.
    2. In part 2, I argue that the converse is also true: the criterion of bodily continuity presupposes a criterion of psychological continuity because it requires an account of the range of normal intentional action.
    3. In the last two sections, I pour oil on troubled waters by showing that the political and social implications of the mutual dependence of the two criteria are not disastrous, but beneficial.

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