- What follows is a review of a review! It doesn’t sound like the book itself is worth reading – or at least not worth my reading it.
- From Blatti’s review, it sounds like Martin & Barresi’s aim is to argue for the correct attribution of priority to various implausible ancients and others.
- While the authors claim to describe “everything that happens and what it means” – on the topic of personal identity – the focus is overwhelmingly on what happens, and then misses off everything after Parfit1.
- It sounds like the last chapter argues for animalism2, without mentioning it by name, or any of the animalists3.
- Looking on Amazon (Link), it does look like the last Chapter is all there is of recent (ie. 2nd half of the 20th Century!) interest. Blatti says who isn’t mentioned (which is almost everyone involved in contemporary debates. A quick scan through the index revealed that Avramides, Ballie, Blackburn, Dennett, Garber, Kripke, Kusch, Nozick, Perry, Sydney Shoemaker, Sorabji, Sosa, Unger … and others receive a mention, but mostly only in the Notes.
- Michael Ayers gets several mentions, but probably only as a Locke scholar rather than as an animalist4. David Lewis features in the Notes, though Blatti says his work isn’t discussed.
- An Amazon reviewer complains that “what starts out looking like an even-handed review of the history of the self turns out in the end to be a heavy-handed, ideologically scientistic and materialist slam on Christianity”.
- No doubt as a historical study it’s interesting enough, but it sounds irrelevant to contemporary debate.
- Review of: “The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity, by Raymond Martin and John Barresi. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Pp. 400. H/b $29.50.
- Raymond Martin and John Barresi’s latest effort — a commanding intellectual history of personal identity from Pythagoras to Parfit5 — represents an expansion of the authors’ earlier work, Naturalization of the Soul: Self and Personal Identity in the Eighteenth Century (London and New York: Routledge, 1999). As before, the discussion is mainly expository, and the authors are remarkably adept at summarizing, contextualizing, and interweaving the views of both familiar and less familiar thinkers. Also as before, the authors are concerned less to advance a philosophical thesis than to chart the evolution of Western theories of the self. One’s satisfaction with the fruits of these labours will depend largely on one’s reasons for consulting the work in the first place. But the breadth of the scholarship is beyond dispute, and even those acquainted with the outline of this history will discover some gems along the way.
- The authors begin by announcing their pledge to tell us ‘everything that happened and what it means’ (p. 1). Adapted from a remark made by Grace Kelly’s character in Rear Window, this phrase provides the book with its structure: after the first thirteen chapters in which they chronicle ‘everything that happened’, the authors conclude with a chapter concerning ‘what it means’. Though cutely introduced, these are ambitious undertakings for a work of barely three hundred pages (discounting back matter), and neither the historian whose specialty period is briefly summarized nor the theorist whose favoured view is swiftly considered is likely to feel deeply appreciated. But this is to be expected, and the authors are aware of the challenges they face (p. 5). Rare is the work of intellectual history not so preoccupied with the sweeping narrative that it manages also to inform the working historian. Equally rare is the intellectual history not so caught up in mapping the historical byroads and intellectual dead ends that it manages also to enlighten the working theorist. (Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) is perhaps the exception that proves both rules.) So, while Martin and Barresi’s volume does not break the mould, it nevertheless succeeds admirably for the audiences likely to derive the most from its pages: students of the history of philosophy, historians of one period intrigued by another, and theorists curious about the historical antecedents of contemporary views.
- One of book’s principal leitmotifs is how few ‘new’ ideas were not anticipated in an earlier era. And while some of the historical reverberations amplified for our benefit can seem less than consequential, others are downright revelatory. In the work of John Locke, for instance, we learn to heed the echoes of Chrysippus, in whose writings one finds not only ‘the first use ever of the word “consciousness”’, but also the view that ‘humans are both “lumps of matter” and also “persons” and that their identities as lumps of matter may be determined on a different basis than their identities as persons’ (p. 26). Likewise, the volume’s broad canvas enables the authors to situate their important earlier scholarship on Joseph Priestley, Thomas Cooper, and William Hazlitt — all of whose work addresses the question of whether personal identity is primarily what matters6 in survival — within a wider historical context: all the way back to Lucretius (whose work, we learn, was the first to be animated by this question) and all the way forward to Derek Parfit7 (in whose work, of course, the question once again took centre stage).
- Occasionally, however, the authors’ suggested connections threaten to obscure more than they illuminate. When recounting the origins of experimental psychology, for instance, the authors juxtapose a remark attributed to Hippocrates in The Sacred Disease — that ‘the human brain, as in the case of [the brains of] all other animals, is double’ — with the hypothesis introduced by the English physician, Arthur Ladbroke Wigan, that (in Wigan’s words) ‘a separate and distinct process of thinking or ratiocination may be carried on in each cerebrum8 simultaneously’ (pp. 202–3). On this basis, the authors casually suggest, the origin of the two-brain hypothesis may be traced to antiquity. Since the clinical, experimental, and theoretical significance of this hypothesis has been controversial ever since Wigan proposed it in The Duality of Mind (1844), its intellectual provenance is not without interest. Yet the authors’ enthusiasm is misplaced: the purport of the remark attributed to Hippocrates does not extend beyond the humdrum anatomical observation that the brain is comprised of two hemispheres — a fact signaled by the description of the corpus callosum in the part of the passage that Martin and Barresi elect not to quote. (The full sentence reads: ‘The human brain, as in the case of all other animals, is double; a thin membrane runs down the middle and divides it.’) Indeed, whilst the Hippocratics may have surmised the principle of contralateral innervation, neither in The Sacred Disease nor elsewhere in the Hippocratic Corpus does one find any trace of Wigan’s striking claim that distinct thought processes can occur simultaneously in each cerebral hemisphere. If (which I doubt) Wigan was scooped more than two millennia ago, it may have been by the Greek physician whom Pliny the Elder describes as ‘second only in reputation, as well as date, to Hippocrates’: Diocles of Carystus. While very little of Diocles’ writings remain, an early twelfth-century codex credits him with the view that ‘there are two brains in the head, one which gives us our intellect, and another one which provides sentience’. Yet even this does not settle the matter, for not only is the attribution to Diocles disputed, but also a deeper textual analysis suggests that this passage (whoever its author) augurs not the two-brain hypothesis but only the nineteenth-century discovery of hemispheric functional asymmetry. (The interested reader is directed to recent work by Gert-Jan C. Lokhorst.) Arguably the strongest challenge to Wigan’s status as progenitor of the two-brain hypothesis comes from the Dutch physician Meinard Simon Du Pui (1754–1834), in whose 1780 dissertation, De homine dextro et sinistro, one finds the view that man is a ‘homo duplex, a right man and a left one’. But be all this it may, neither truth nor nuance is to be found in the blank suggestion that the two-brain hypothesis first surfaces in Hippocrates.
- Sometimes, though, it is the missed connection that obscures. Consider, for instance, the following passage from Leibniz’s New Essays On Human Understanding (II.xxvi, quoted in full by the authors):
It may be that in another place in the universe or at another time a globe may be found which does not differ sensibly from this earthly globe, in which we live, and that each of the men who inhabit it does not differ sensibly from each of us who corresponds to him. Thus, there are at once more than a hundred million pairs of similar persons, i.e. of two persons with the same appearances and consciousness; and God might transfer spirits alone or with their bodies from one globe to the other without their perceiving it; but be they transferred or let alone, what will you [Locke] say of their person or self according to your authors? Are they two persons or the same since the consciousness and the internal and external appearance of the mean of these globes cannot make the distinction? … [Leibniz answers that God and certain spirits could distinguish them.] … But according to your hypotheses consciousness alone discerning the persons without being obliged to trouble itself with the real identity or diversity of the substance, or even of that which would appear to others, how is it prevented from saying that these two persons who are at the same time in these similar globes, but separated from each other by an inexpressible distance, are only one and the same person; which is however, a manifest absurdity?
- About this passage Martin and Barresi make just one remark: ‘This “twinearth” example never found a home in the eighteenth or nineteenth century debates over personal identity, but it found a different one, in our own time, in formal semantics’ (p. 140). But whilst Leibniz’s talk of ‘similar persons’ on ‘similar globes’ admittedly foreshadows contemporary discussions of our counterparts on twin earth, the authors’ observation overlooks the primary import of Leibniz’s remarks. In an intellectual history of personal identity, surely what is most remarkable about this passage is its patent anticipation of Bernard Williams’ reduplication9 argument (‘Personal Identity and Individuation’10, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 57, pp. 229–52). Yet not only do the authors misdiagnose the significance of this particular passage, but Williams receives not so much as a footnote in the entire book.
- In a wide-ranging work of so few pages, of course, there are bound to be topics and figures left out, and perhaps the exclusion of Williams’s work can be excused on that basis. Such anyway is the authors’ justification (p. 343, n. 54) for not discussing the contributions of David Lewis, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Perry, Ernest Sosa, Sydney Shoemaker, and Peter Unger. Presumably space constraints also explain both the book’s Western concentration — not even the Buddhist ‘no self ’ view comes in for mention — as well as the authors’ neglect of important recent work by (among others) Lynne Rudder Baker, Marc Johnston, Eric Olson, Carol Rovane, Paul Snowdon, Galen Strawson, Richard Swinburne, Judith Thomson, Peter van Inwagen, and David Wiggins. Still, this silence is not so easy to reconcile with the authors’ commitment to covering ‘everything that happened’, particularly when, in the final eight pages of the book’s penultimate chapter, Martin and Barresi purport to sketch for us the ‘three major developments since 1970 in analytic personal identity theory’ (p. 288). While each of the developments identified seems plausible enough (the role of fission examples in motivating ‘externalist’ theories of personal identity, the question of whether personal identity is primarily what matters11 in survival, and recent challenges to the traditional three-dimensional ontology), readers familiar with the contemporary debate will note animalism’s12 omission from this list. Even this oversight might not merit special mention were the authors not determined, in their final chapter, to tout the significance of precisely this view — though neither under the name ‘animalism’13, nor with even a footnote to the growing literature concerned with its defence. In the book’s closing pages, Martin and Barresi suggest that animalism14 represents the only respectable theoretical option, now that the self ‘stands naked and exposed, revealed for the first time for what it is: a misleading, albeit socially indispensable and incredibly useful fiction’ (p. 304). ‘[If] there is unity in sight’, the authors tell us, ‘it is the unity of the organism, not of the self or of theories about the self’ (p. 302).
- On balance, however, this is a very fine work, and none of the foregoing criticisms should distract from this evaluation. With Rise and Fall of Soul and Self, Martin and Barresi reinforce their standing (along with Richard Sorabji) as today’s caretakers of the intellectual history of personal identity and the self.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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