Psychological continuity
Thomas (Janice L.)
Source: Thomas (Janice L.) - Mind and Person in the Philosophy of Religion
Paper - Abstract

Paper SummaryNotes Citing this PaperText Colour-Conventions


  1. Essential reading – 93
  2. Further reading – 93
  3. Memory – 93
  4. Locke – 94
  5. Hume's theory – 98
  6. Learning outcomes – 100
  7. Sample examination questions – 100
  8. Tips for answering sample questions – 100
Full Text
  1. Essential Reading
  2. Further reading
  3. Memory
    • For many people the concerns of the last chapter — about what is required to preserve the (numerical) identity of a particular living human body — seem almost beside the point where personal identity and the possibility of survival of death1 are concerned. From their point of view, what matters2 for being me at any time in the future is that I still, at that time, possess all the features which I would say make me me — the very particular, individual person and self-conscious subject I am now. And those features and properties — utterly distinctive identifying characteristics of me — have very little to do with my physical features and properties. Or so it might seem.
    • Lots of other people have the same weight, height, eye and hair colours, number of teeth, shape of nose and ears etc. It is not outlandish to suppose I might share a large number of my physical features with, not just one other person, but many of them. Anyway, I do not think of such features as very closely connected with the individual, conscious subject I am. My hair will go grey, my weight can certainly change, without my identity being lost.
    • What matters3 for being (and, therefore, staying) me, such a view maintains, is possession of that collection of inner features — thoughts, particularly memories, and traits of personality and character — that constitute my own distinctive inner life, point of view and self. No one else has just that collection of memories, of retained or potentially recalled experiences, with just the significances which they have for me (see Lewis, pp. 43-44 on this point).
    • (For the moment, put to one side the question whether the persistent person or self is or is not something over and above the collection of inner experiences and properties: we must and will return to it later.)
  4. Activity
    • What do you think it is that makes you, you? What aspects or characteristics of yourself would have to remain in order for you to survive? Is there any memory, thought, feeling, character trait, talent etc. which you could not lose and stay you?
  5. Locke
    • The name from the history of philosophy which most philosophers associate with a memory criterion of personal identity is that of John Locke (1632-1704). To learn Locke's views on personal identity you need to read his Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk.II, Ch. xxvii. (Locke's Essay is usually published nowadays in two volumes or one very hefty one. Bk.II, Ch. xxvii will be in the first volume of any two-volume edition.) In this chapter Locke gives his account of identity over time for all sorts of substances — material objects, plants, animals, man and finally persons. Of particular importance for you are sections 1, 2, 6-9 (on the identity of animals, especially human beings) and from 10 to at least 13 (concerning persons). But do read the whole chapter at least once if you can obtain it (Flew's collection has some of the relevant sections). You need to be aware of two major points:
    • 1. Locke's view is that, in general, ‘such as is the idea belonging to that name, such must be the identity' (II.xxvii.7). In other words, different kinds of things have different criteria of identity. For some sorts of thing, an individual must retain all its original material constituents in order to stay the particular it was. For others, however, such as plants and animals, as long as the same life is maintained, material can be assimilated in nourishment (for growth and repair) and lost, when waste products are eliminated, without any loss of identity. For some kinds, alteration of most sorts is not tolerated: for others, change is required if identity is to be preserved (for example, living organisms which grow and alter as they mature; think of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly).
    • In the case of substances, Locke appeals to a very general criterion of identity over time which has come to be called by the imposing title 'spatio-temporal continuity'. This means simply ‘tracing an unbroken path through space and time' or, more briefly, ‘having an (unbroken) history'. He says at the very beginning of the chapter ‘that, therefore, that had one beginning is the same thing: and that which had a different beginning in time and place from that, is not the same but diverse'.
    • A modern-day exponent of the importance of spatio-temporal continuity to the identity of material things is David Wiggins ("Wiggins (David) - Identity & Spatio-temporal Continuity"; "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance" and numerous articles). He adds ‘sameness of ending' to ‘sameness of beginning' to tighten Locke's criterion and draw out the point that sameness of history of an individual is what is crucial for identity over time.
    • 2. Locke distinguishes between the animal you are (a ‘man' — i.e. a human being, male or female), the immaterial substance (or soul stuff) you possess and the person you are (which is not a substance at all but something he calls ‘a mixed mode').
    • (I think Locke in fact believes that the idea of immaterial substance is nonsensical but knows that the Cartesians and others believe in such a principle so he wants to distinguish it from material things like animals and from the person you are. Not every commentator would agree. Flew, for instance, thinks Locke equates person with immaterial substance.)
    • Notice that Locke thinks it possible for a number of things (in our case three) of different kinds to be in the same place at the same time. So each of us, for Locke, is — not only a human and a particular immaterial substance — but also a person. And the three do not necessarily have the same history and fate. The man (or human animal)4 comes to be at conception. We just don't know anything about the history of the immaterial substance. The person could, on Locke's account, come to be and go out of existence at different times to those which begin and end the history of the human being or the immaterial substance.
  6. Locke's notion of a person
    • ”We must consider what person stands for; — which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places: which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking”
      Essay, II.xxvii.9.
    • As far as you can cast back the net of conscious memory, that is how far the person you are stretches. If you can recall your first day at school, the day you started your first job, saying your wedding vows, hearing news of a bereavement, then you are the same person as the one who experienced the activities of those days and felt the shock of that sad news. ‘For the same consciousness being preserved, whether in the same or different substances, the personal identity is preserved.' (Essay, lI.xxvii.13) In other words, Locke is quite sympathetic even to the notion of reincarnation: he thinks the notion of a person is independent of the notion of a single living animal.
  7. Objections to Locke's view
    • 1. Critics have objected that Locke's view cannot cope with simple memory lapse, still less amnesia. If a person has forgotten a minor infringement committed last year should we say ‘since he is not conscious of that past happening he is not the person who committed that act and thus should not be blamed or punished'? Most people would judge that he should be punished because he is the one who did it, whether he remembers or not.
    • 2. Likewise most people would say that the amnesiac who cannot cast his consciousness back to events that happened before the onset of his condition is not a new person who came into existence at that onset. Rather, he is a single person who has lost all memory of the events of the earlier part of his life.
    • 3. Critics also see absurdity lurking in another aspect of Locke's theory. An innocent person suffering from a particular sort of mental illness might make a sincere claim to remember doing, say, some horrendous crime reported in the newspaper. On Locke's view of personal identity, even if we have conclusive evidence of another's exclusive guilt, the false confessor must be judged numerically identical with the criminal. His memories are false but he sincerely believes them. His consciousness has, so to speak, appropriated the guilty acts and made him the same person as the guilty agent.
    • 4. Butler (in "Butler (Joseph) - Of Personal Identity") objected that Locke's account of personal identity was circular, he thought that it could not be my memory of a particular happening which made me the same person as the person who experienced that happening — surely I could only truly remember it as my experience if it was my experience in the first place; that is, if I was the person to whom it happened. Memory cannot be the string on which the experiences which make up my personal history are strung and which ties them together and makes them all mine. Only my experiences belong on the string so something other than being on the string (being remembered) must identify them as and make them mine.
    • 5. Finally, Thomas Reid objected that Locke's criterion of personal identity can be shown to contradict itself. Applying it can make me both identical and not identical with my past self. (This example is often cited as 'Reid's Paradox of the Gallant Officer'. For example, in "Noonan (Harold) - Personal Identity", pp. 66-67.) Suppose in middle years when doing a responsible job, I recall a prank I committed when very young. This consciousness of my childhood prank (on Locke's view) makes the youthful me the same person as the responsible adult. Years later, I may remember performing the responsible job when middle-aged though I have lost all memory of the childhood prank. Thus, in old age, I am no longer the same person I was when very young since I have lost that memory essential for uniting my youthful and elderly selves. However, by transitivity of identity, since I am the same person as my (remembered) middle-aged self and that self was identical with the child who committed the prank, I am identical with the child. Locke's criterion proves me both identical and not identical with my childhood self. This contradiction shows there is a flaw in Locke's criterion.
  8. Replies — psychological continuity5 and connectedness
    • Those who think the Lockeian view still has much to recommend it suggest that Locke's criterion can easily be amended if we realise that memory, though important, is not enough all by itself. What is wanted is a psychological criterion so our sense that our inner life, distinctive thoughts and feelings are what makes each of us a unique self with a unique identity receives its due. But ties of memory of past experiences are not sufficient. What the desired psychological criterion needs to refer to are those repeated mundane ties of remembrance and anticipation which unite one day with the next in an overlapping fabric of psychological continuity6.
    • Of course, ties of memory will sometimes connect me with my distant past self because of the heightened significance specific experiences have which makes them especially memorable. When traumatic or very special events occur in my life, their memory will endure and stay on or near the surface of my on-going mental life. In addition, when I plan schemes and projects which will be a long time in the execution I will lay down memories which (perhaps much) later will resurface. This phenomenon has been called psychological connectedness7.
  9. Amending Locke
    • Psychological continuity8 and psychological connectedness of the sorts just sketched can together, it is claimed, resist the objections levelled against Locke's original position. Psychological continuity9 replaces Locke's simple conscious recall or memory criterion. If I am now able to remember what happened to me yesterday and last week so that today's thoughts and feelings seem smoothly continuous with those of the subject of those recent memories and if last week's subject's inner life had similar continuity with her recent past experiences and so on back through my whole history as far back as the earliest events recorded in my experience memory, then this continuity and connectedness make for a single persistent lasting self.
    • If certain memories are no longer accessible to me in conscious memory, that fact alone does not sever me from the past self with whom I have the sort of psychological continuity10 just outlined. Even for the amnesiac, much psychological continuity11 and connectedness with his past life exists (he won't have forgotten how to tie his shoelaces or speak his native language to take two isolated examples) and there is always the hope that he will regain access to some of his past experiences via renewed memory connections. The person does not cease to be one and the same with the past subject with which he is continuous just because of certain memory lapses, so Reid's objection (objection 5) is blocked by this revised account as are objections 1 and 2.
    • The objection concerning ‘sincere false memory' (objection 3) also loses strength on the revised Lockeian criterion since the false rememberer lacks mundane-but-across-the-board psychological continuity12 (which fills in the intervening gaps) with the real criminal. He ‘remembers' the criminal's crimes and thus has some psychological connection with him but lacks the history of minute detailed overlapping connections needed to underwrite a claim to personal identity.
    • Can this revised account deal with Butler's circularity objection? This was the claim that memory presupposes personal identity and so cannot constitute it. At this point it is appropriate to raise the question left on one side earlier — the question whether the persistent person is anything over and above the collection of inner experiences, memories, thoughts and feelings which you might feel are essential to the unique particular person you are. If memories and conscious experiences do not simply belong to the person but somehow actually constitute that personal self wherever or however realised, then Butler's objection loses much of its force. If mental items are all there is to any given person then perhaps personal identity actually is constituted by memory. Shortly we will be turning to Hume whose ‘bundle' theory of the person bears a marked similarity in some respects to a sort of ‘no-ownership' view like the one just touched upon.
  10. Objections to the revised Lockeian view
    • First we need to look at objections that could be raised to the revised Lockeian ‘psychological continuity13 and connectedness' view I have been outlining. In order to understand the major objection to this revised view, you need to be aware of a distinction between two kinds of relations. Some relations are one—one, which is to say that such a relation holds between or relates single items and only those single items, one to another. (For example, think of the relation between mother and eldest child.) Other relations are, or are potentially, one—many. Any paradigm and its copies have such a relation. (Think of any page of a book and the photocopy you take of it. You or anyone could have taken any number of copies and each would have been related to the original by the same, one-many, relation.)
    • The relationship of personal identity which an earlier person bears to that person's later self is a one—one relationship it will be said. You cannot have two later persons identical with one, single earlier person (or two earlier persons identical with one, single, later person).
    • But the psychological continuity14 and connectedness relationship is potentially one—many. Think of the two Robinsons case in Chapter 10. Each later person, possessing as he does half of Brown's brain, has memories of Brown's life and past and is psychologically continuous with the man who suffered the traumatic, body-crushing accident. The memories each has now were caused in the same way. They depend upon memory traces which were laid down in the same way in Brown's brain by happenings in his earlier life.
    • Bernard Williams first propounded this ‘reduplication argument' in "Williams (Bernard) - Personal Identity and Individuation" apropos an example of putative reincarnation. If someone in the twentieth century were to begin to show amazingly accurate and extensive knowledge of the details of Guy Fawkes’ life and deeds we might begin to wonder whether he could really be Guy Fawkes living again in the present. If he could astound historians by suggesting hitherto unknown facts about Fawkes’ life which were later confirmed we might wonder how perfect a recall of the life of an historical figure is required before we should accept that this figure has been reincarnated.
    • Williams' answer is that no amount of detail, however massive and accurate, should be taken as sufficient to prove a claim of reincarnation. This is because there is always an alternative explanation available which is no less plausible (makes no greater appeal to the paranormal) than reincarnation. That alternative explanation involves appeal to what might be called ‘complete retrocognition' of the life of the historic figure. To be endowed with such complete retrocognition would be no more mysterious (and no less) than to have undergone reincarnation. Any evidence of reincarnation, however impressive, would equally be evidence of paranormal recall of someone else's life.
    • Why would we do better to accept the paranormal ‘complete retrocognition' explanation rather than the reincarnation explanation? Because reincarnation would be the return of the very (historic) person himself, a case of a present day person having personal identity with a person who died in an earlier century. But if one person could have the same mental contents as (be psychologically continuous with and connected to) Guy Fawkes, in principle so could any number of further candidates for identity with the same long-dead gunpowder plotter. But two or more persons cannot (logically) be identical with an earlier single person. On the other hand, any number could, logically, be endowed with complete access to Guy Fawkes, memories (bizarre though that assertion might seem, it does not infringe logic).
    • You may feel that the right verdict should be that, as long as only one candidate for being Guy Fawkes reincarnated presents himself, massive accurate detailed recall is evidence enough of personal identity. However, this makes personal identity dependent on the failure of a sufficiently weighty rival to appear. Critics would say that it is absurd to suggest that whether or not present individual X is identical with past individual Y could depend on whether or not there is some rival candidate for identity, some completely different person, Z. Surely, either X and Y are identical or not, independently of whether any further individual of whatever description exists or not?
  11. Hume's theory
    • "Hume (David) - Treatise I.IV.VI: Of Personal Identity": “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.”
    • Thus Hume (1711-76) debunks the idea of the self — by which he means a persistent substance which exists just in order to last and be the principle of identity and unity for an individual throughout his existence. Hume is persuaded that the only things whose existence we have adequate evidence for are the ideas in our own minds, the perceptions as he calls them, of which we are aware when we are aware at all. We are, he thinks, going beyond the evidence when we believe that any objects outside us and independent of our own minds exist or when we (as he says) ‘imagine' that such mind-independent things persist for any length of time.
    • Hume's is a world of perceptions or mind-dependent entities and if we think about it, mind-dependent entities are not just not independent, they are instantaneous: the thought or mental state you were in when you began reading this sentence has been replaced by a succession of perceptions as you have read each word and then its successor. As far as we know nothing — not even us — lasts!
    • But Hume's scepticism about the self goes beyond even that of the last sentence. For he believes there are not even instantaneous selves — if by that is meant ‘something which has perceptions but is not itself a perception'. For Hume, the only meaning that can be attached to the notion of a person or its personal identity is the notion of a ‘bundle of perceptions'.
    • Hume is sarcastic: some few philosophers may (think they) have a self but ‘I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions' (ibid.)
      Hume says (259) that it is natural to wonder whether anything really binds the bundle of my perceptions (thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, emotions, etc.) together or whether the persistent unified person is as much a creature of the imagination as he believes are the so-called bodies in the external world. He concludes that personal identity is imaginary: each of us is just a collection whose apparent unity and integration are a function of the principles of association which Hume thinks are to mental things what gravity and magnetism are to physical things.
    • The imagination is led by the resemblance between one idea and another to move from the first to the second. Or if it has an idea it usually thinks of as a cause it naturally produces the idea it usually regards as the predictable effect of that cause. Memory, of course, keeps many ideas recycling and they will help bind the bundle together because they will resemble to a high degree the ideas thrown up from moment to moment by present experience.
  12. Objections: Hume's radical scepticism about the self and personal persistence have attracted many objections. The most important of these for our purposes are the following.
    • 1. How could a perception (or even an extensive collection of them) itself have impressions and perceptions? How could memories just arise in a collection? Or to put it another way, what has become of the mind's capacities or faculties on Hume's theory? It is impossible to believe that any mere bundle of perceptions could be an active and productive mind.
    • 2. Hume's account seems to leave no principled way of distinguishing one person from another. As long as each bundle's contents are different from the next no problems should arise, but there is no reason in principle why my bundle (or, rather, the bundle I am) should not replicate yours exactly. If so, we would be the same person. In other words, Hume has failed to discover whatever it is that genuinely individuates one person from another and makes each individual unique.
    • 3. Critics have also objected to Hume's counterintuitive view that any change at all in any sort of thing (person, pumpkin or pickaxe) annihilates identity. Many, many small changes are constantly happening to any physical body whether animate or inanimate. Surely, you should not agree that you are extinguished, go out of existence, when you exhale or cut your fingernails!
    • 4. Finally, and perhaps most seriously, Hume maintains that personal persistence is not real, it is just a product of the imagination. He has a detailed account of how the imagination is led along a succession of perceptions and is duped into identifying some of the earlier perceptions with some later ones to create the fiction of the lasting subject. But surely, in order to be misled and duped into identifying earlier with later perceptions the imagination must be a lasting subject itself — one that can have first one perception and later another and then conflate them and mistakenly think the first has lasted from earlier to later episode of perceiving. At least the imagination (which Hume practically equates with the mind) must be a lasting subject which preserves its identity over time.
  13. Learning outcomes: After studying the material in this chapter, you should be able to:
    • Discuss memory as a criterion of personal identity.
    • Recount and evaluate Locke's theory.
    • Explain the notions of psychological continuity15 and connectedness.
    • Describe one-one and one-many relations and the connection between these ideas and Williams' reduplication argument against a psychological criterion of personal identity.
    • Explain and discuss Hume's scepticism about personal identity and the notion of a bundle theory of persons.
  14. Sample examination questions
    • What needs to be added to memory to make a sufficient condition of personal identity?
    • Can Locke's theory of personal identity by rescued from the standard objections?
    • Examine critically Hume's view that there is no such thing as the self. What is Hume's bundle theory of the nature of persons? Is it defensible?
  15. Tips for answering sample questions
    • In answering the first of these questions, write briefly about necessary and sufficient conditions to show that you understand what the examiner is asking for. Then you should talk about memory and its importance in any psychological criterion of personal identity. You should mention psychological continuity16 and connectedness as improvements on a simple memory criterion.
    • The next question requires a straightforward exposition of Locke's theory. Then say what the standard objections are. Don't just list them: give a brief account of each and then say whether or not each can be overcome and how.
    • Again, straightforward exposition is what is wanted in the third question. Show that you understand what Hume's theory is, what he says in its defence, what criticisms it has to face and the extent to which they damage Hume's position.


Part 2 (Personal identity and survival of death)17; Chapter 11. Hard Copy filed in "Various - Papers on Religion Boxes (Heythrop)".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 7: For more on the two terms 'psychological continuity' and 'psychological connectedness', see "Noonan (Harold) - Personal Identity", Sections 1.7and 1.8 and "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons", Section 78.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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