Theoretical Persons and Practical Agents
Shoemaker (David)
Source: Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 25, No. 4. (Autumn, 1996), pp. 318-332
Paper - Abstract

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Author's Introduction

  1. Kant pointed out that as a rational human being I can view myself in two different ways. On the one hand, I can view myself from a theoretical standpoint as a natural entity, a being whose behavior can be explained and predicted. From this standpoint, I appear to be an entity that exists in certain states over time, an entity that undergoes experiences, and an entity whose behavior is causally determined by certain other natural phenomena. Philosophical accounts of the nature of personal identity most often take this theoretical viewpoint. Persons are thus viewed as the objects of theoretical study, and the various criteria offered for why X is the same person as Y usually have to do with some natural features that X and Y share, such as bodies, brains, psychological factors, or a combination of the three.
  2. But there is a second standpoint from which I might view myself, the practical standpoint. From this standpoint, I consider myself as an entity that freely performs actions, an entity that deliberates, chooses, and originates actions. And it is from this standpoint that we view ourselves as agents, and as the authors of our actions.
  3. My aim in this paper is to dissolve a general Kantian objection to modern theoretical accounts of personal identity-the objection that the theoretical approach cannot account for a crucial element of this practical perspective. To do this, I will concentrate specifically on Christine Korsgaard's objections to Derek Parfit's Reductionism with regard to personal identity.
  4. Korsgaard, in "Korsgaard (Christine) - Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit", stresses the practical viewpoint in objecting to what she sees as Parfit's overly theoretical account of personal identity. Specifically, in her discussion of the unity of agency, she charges that Parfit ignores the "authorial" nature of my relationship to my actions and choices, and that he thereby misses an essential feature of what in fact matters to me as a person.
  5. In what follows, I will show how this objection fails by demonstrating precisely why a Parfitian theoretical approach to personal identity need not ignore this authorial element. We will see how Korsgaard's view of agents and Parfit1s view of persons are not only compatible but also closely resemble one another in their most crucial aspects. The result of this analysis is a theoretical account of personal identity that avoids the general Kantian complaint.

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