The Self, Supervenience and Personal Identity: Introduction
Alexander (Ronald)
Source: Alexander (Ronald) - The Self, Supervenience and Personal Identity, 1997, Chapter 1
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  1. The problem of personal identity has received considerable attention from philosophers for the past three decades. For the last two decades the discussion has been intensified because of Derek Parfit2’s arguments supporting his thesis that it is not personal identity in one’s survival that matters but rather some degree of ‘psychological continuity’3. The latter can be understood as involving chains of overlapping memory experiences, intentional acts and results, and mental contents such as beliefs or desires that are not merely momentary4. Although I do not address directly the problem of personal identity as framed by Parfit5, an underlying theme in this essay is that Parfit’s6 understanding of the nature of personhood and of the self is attenuated. Although Parfit7 is concerned about the implications of the concept of personal identity for morality, he does not seem to see the importance of values, social roles, and the person’s orientation to tensed time as essential elements involved in the reidentification of a person.
  2. In contrast, it is my contention in this essay that it is the self understood as a ‘pattern’ or ‘narrative identity’8 or dynamic ‘Gestalt’ that arises from the physical and psychological properties that serves as the basis for ascribing personal identity to ourselves and others. Further, I will argue that personal identity is a dynamic concept, i.e., a concept that involves an interpretation of the self as being a diachronic, supervenient ‘abstract particular’ or ‘trope9’. Moreover, the self, serving as the basis for the attribution of personal identity to human beings, cannot be understood apart from the influences coming to bear upon it from society10 in terms of values and customs. Those who treat the problem of personal identity as merely being a problem of how one and the same thing (a human being) can retain its identity over time in spite of internal and external changes taking place in respect to that being are destined to experience frustration if the frame of reference in which they operate is dictated by the model of non-conscious concrete particulars. Human beings that bear personhood are not mere ‘lumps of meat’. Therefore, the problems attending the identity or reidentification of non-animate things, though having a bearing upon personal identity, are increased in number when one tries to understand what it is that allows us to reidentify a person.
  3. In the following chapters, I will not produce a survey of the history of the problem of personal identity. This has been done many times in recent years. For example, "Noonan (Harold) - Personal Identity" is a very fine survey. Another helpful and recent survey is "Baillie (James) - Problems in Personal Identity". A rather lengthy anthology "Kolak (Daniel) & Martin (Raymond), Eds. - Self and Identity: Contemporary Philosophical Issues" provides a representative sampling of recent literature on the subject. My intention in this essay is to attempt to account for the continued persistence of the belief in the concept of personal identity in spite of this concept having been called into question by David Hume and, in this century, by Derek Parfit and others. In Chapter II, I set the stage for the identification of that which serves as the basis for personal identity ... see "Alexander (Ronald) - A Brief Look at the Problem of Personal Identity".
  4. As already indicated, I believe that the ‘self’ understood as a supervenient trope (abstract particular) is that which provides a basis for a person’s reidentification over time. However, as a trope the self should not be understood as a static, timeless quality but as that which serves as the ‘pattern’ or ‘narrative identity11’ of the life of the person bearing that self. As such, the self can only be understood in terms of the temporality of the person. However, the groundwork for the latter point must be laid. Thus, Chapter III contains an exposition of the concept of supervenience12 as it must be understood in its role of depicting the relationship between the self and its subvenient properties … see "Alexander (Ronald) - Searching for the Proper Kind of Supervenience".
  5. In Part I of Chapter IV, I take a brief look at the work of George Stout and Donald Williams, two of the twentieth century’s early proponents of abstract particulars … and in Part II, I defend the metaphysical nature of the self treated as a supervenient trope … see "Alexander (Ronald) - The Supervenient Self and Its Relationship to Tropes".
  6. The contents of Chapter V serve as a necessary prelude to Chapters VI, VII, and VIII in the sense that the latter three chapters provide an analysis of the self as that which figures prominently in the person’s being as it unfolds itself in time. Decision-making is one of the hallmarks of personhood, and thus in Chapter V, I try to make a case … for the self’s role in the causal process of intention and action …. see "Alexander (Ronald) - Supervenience and Action".
  7. In Chapter VI, I try to show how the person is temporal through and through …. see "Alexander (Ronald) - The Self, Time, and the Community".
  8. Chapter VII continues the theme of the social self but with Ernst Tugendhat’s interpretation of Mead’s work serving as a transition … to Paul Ricoeur’s ethical interpretation of the self …. see "Alexander (Ronald) - The Self and Narrative Identity".
  9. In Chapter VIII, the relationship between the self and consciousness is explored. See "Alexander (Ronald) - Consciousness and the Self".
  10. Finally, in Chapter IX, I try to show that the philosophical demise of personal identity as generated by Parfit13 was misguided from the beginning because of his careless use of thought experiments14. See "Alexander (Ronald) - A Major Problem With Parfit".
  11. A word about the use of terminology is in order at this point.
    • I have tried with great care not to use the terms ‘person’, ‘human individual’, ‘human being’, ‘self’, and ‘consciousness’ as synonyms.
    • The term ‘person’ is not equivalent to the term ‘self’.
    • Neither is ‘human being’ nor ‘human individual’ nor ‘individual’ equivalent to ‘person’.
    • I use the term ‘person’ as signifying the human being or human individual that satisfies Dennett’s15 six conditions of personhood with the added qualification that a person is necessarily ‘temporal’ as well.
    • A human being (human individual or individual) is not necessarily a person.
    • ’Human being’, ‘human individual’, and ‘individual’ are terms used to refer merely to the organic, physical being of a person16.
    • The term ‘self’ refers to the ‘character’ or ‘pattern’ or ‘narrative identity’17 that characterizes a particular person.
    • But the term ‘self’ is not equivalent to the term ‘consciousness’ because the person bearing a specific self can be aware, to a certain extent, of the nature of its ‘character’ or ‘narrative identity’18.
    • Furthermore, none of the preceding terms should be understood as being equivalent to ‘transcendental ego’. The admonitions of Sartre against this are well taken; one must guard against an implicit idealism.


Photocopy of complete Book filed in "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 01 (A)".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: But Chapter Summaries have been removed to the relevant Chapters – follow the links.

Footnote 4: "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 204 ff.

Footnote 9: This strikes me as about as wrong-headed as you can get, so it’s important that I get to grips with the arguments.

Footnote 11: A term taken from Paul Ricoeur. It suggests that the self is the product of one’s interpretation of his/her life based on imaginative variant readings of personal decisions, cultural influences, and moral choices.

Footnote 15: See "Dennett (Daniel) - Conditions of Personhood".

Footnote 16: Presumably he means “human person” – and the same with “individual”.

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