Personal Identity and Reductionism
Garrett (Brian)
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 51, No. 2, Jun., 1991, pp. 361-373
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract1

  1. If we reject Cartesianism and accept some version of the Continuity Theory, a crucial question which arises is this: can our preferred analysis of a person's identity over time proceed to a reductionist2 stage? Can we reduce persons to their bodies and experiences? This is perhaps the most difficult question in the philosophy of persons, and part of its difficulty is entirely general in character: exactly what constitutes, or suffices for, a reduction3 of Fs to Gs?
  2. In this paper, I characterize various attempts at an ontological reduction4 of persons and argue that such attempts are either false or fail to constitute a genuine reduction. I am not aware of any attempt at an ontological reduction of persons which would escape these objections.
  3. I also argue that the consequences for ethics and rationality which Derek Parfit5 has drawn from his reductionist conception of persons may still follow, even if we refuse to advance to a reductionist stage in our analysis of personal identity over time.


For a partially-completed Write-up, see Note6.

Write-up7 (as at 06/11/2014 10:13:26): Garrett - Personal Identity and Reductionism

TT Notes8
    • Assume anti-Cartesianism – ie. persons are not immaterial substances.
    • Assume also the Continuity Theory – the claim that the identity of persons can be analysed in terms of psychological and or physical continuity.
    • So, the Psychological Criterion analyses personal identity in terms of non-branching psychological continuity. Theorists differ over now normal the cause of the continuity must be. Some rule out Teletransportation9 by insisting on continued operation of the brain / CNS.
    • Similarly, for the Physical Criterion – analysis is in terms of temporal continuity of the body and / or the brain.
    • There are also Mixed Criteria, assigning varying degrees of importance to both physical and psychological criteria.
    • Garrett singles out as continuity-theorists:-
      "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons", part III
      "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Personal Identity: a Materialist Account",
      "Nozick (Robert) - Personal Identity Through Time", and
      "Lewis (David) - Survival and Identity"
      They are not segregated by type, except for Nozick as “mixed”.
    • Can our preferred Continuity Analysis of PID lead to a reduction? That is, can we reduce persons to their bodies and experiences?
    • Garrett thinks that this is a difficult question because the general question of what counts as a reduction of Fs to Gs is difficult.
    • He distinguishes eliminative from non-eliminative forms of reduction. His examples are:-
      eliminative: abstract to concrete (reduction of directions to lines).
      non-eliminative: theoretical identification (water to H2O).
      How do we understand non-eliminative reduction of persons?
    • The aim of this paper is to catalogue the attempts at ontological reduction and show that where they do characterise a genuine reduction, they are false.
    • Garrett claims (followed up in Section 10) that Parfit’s ethical claims for reductionism in
      "Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity and Rationality", and
      "Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity and Morality"
      10 even if reductionism fails.
    • Garrett sees no incoherence in accepting the materialism11 of persons, yet denying that they are reducible to bodies + experiences.
    • Hence, the claim that people are material is uninteresting from a reductive perspective, unless a more “fine grained” account12 can be given.
    • He claims that because the concept PERSON is a sortal concept, it already contains its persistence criteria, which is what a reduction is trying to elucidate.
    • Note that what is being reduced here, is not PERSON but SAME PERSON.

This is a place-holder13. Currently, mostly see the categorised reading-list below.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:
  • This is his Section 2, p. 362.
Footnote 7:
  • This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (06/11/2014 10:13:26).
  • Link to Latest Write-Up Note.
Footnote 8: Footnote 10: Footnote 11:
  • Garrett posits – for the sake of the argument – that “all persons are material”. We ignore the caveat about immaterial non-human persons, and assume he’s talking about human persons only.
  • Even so is his “are” that of constitution or identity?
Footnote 12: I had thought that it was explanatory rather than ontological reductions that had to give “accounts”.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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