Self and Substance
Shoemaker (Sydney)
Source: Shoemaker - Identity, Cause and Mind
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Nowadays the question whether the self is a substance, and whether the identity over time of a person requires the identity of a substance, has a musty smell to it. We recognize it as a question that played a central role in the intriguing discussions of personal identity in Locke, Butler, Hume and Reid; but it has not been the central question in contemporary discussions of personal identity, and in most such discussions it is simply not addressed.
  2. Yet the question does have echoes in contemporary discussions. Contemporary "reductionists" about personal identity hark back to Locke and Hume, and contemporary antireductionists hark back to Butler and Reid. As I shall try to show, some of the intuitions of the antireductionists – e.g., their denial that the person who comes out at one end of a "teleportation1" process can be the same as the person who went in at the other end – can be seen as expressions of the idea that in some good sense of "individual substance," a person must be an individual substance. And such a view seems at odds with the view of a reductionist like Derek Parfit2, who says that while we can allow that a person is a "subject" of experiences, since this is "the way we talk," it is nevertheless true that facts about persons and their experiences admit of an impersonal description that reveals them to be nothing over and above facts about the relations of experiences to one another and to bodies.
  3. There is always a danger that framing a current philosophical issue in traditional metaphysical terms – here, in terms of the concepts of substance, inherence, etc. – will result in obfuscation rather than clarification. But that is a risk I shall take. I shall try to show that it is possible to combine some of the central intuitions that go with the claim that the self is a substance with some, although certainly not all, of the intuitions that go with reductionist views about personal identity. Among other things, I shall be developing the view, which I have presented elsewhere, that the psychological continuity3 view of personal identity, the contemporary heir to Locke's memory theory, can usefully be seen as complementary to – the "reverse side of the coin of" – a functionalist view about the nature of mental states. And I shall be arguing that there is a version of this view that is compatible with much of what Peter Unger argues on behalf of a "physical" view of personal identity in his "Unger (Peter) - Identity, Consciousness and Value", a work I place (somewhat hesitantly) in the Butler-Reid tradition.
  4. Owing in large part to the work of Derek Parfit4, the emphasis in recent literature on personal identity has shifted somewhat from the metaphysical issue of what constitutes such identity to questions about its importance – in particular, the question of whether it is identity "as such" that matters in "survival." My primary concern here will be with the metaphysical issue, not the issue of importance. But at the end I shall briefly discuss the relation between these.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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