Persons, Animals, Ourselves: Introduction
Snowdon (Paul)
Source: Snowdon (Paul) - Persons, Animals, Ourselves - Introduction
Paper - Abstract

Paper SummaryText Colour-Conventions


Full Text1

  1. One of the fundamental purposes of this book is to provide a critique of a certain mode or style of philosophical thinking about ourselves. It is, therefore, in part an essay in critical (or, perhaps, as one might call it, destructive) metaphysics. The style of thinking that is its target is not one which leads to, or incorporates, dualist conceptions of ourselves, theories according to which we are, or perhaps are partly composed of, non-material souls, spirits or, what are sometimes called, 'metaphysical2 egos'. This is a style of thinking that has had a long place in philosophy (and also in religious thought). To criticize it and to search for a well-founded alternative is, I think, a task that is clearly valuable, but this book does not aim to carry out that task. Rather, I take it as a warranted assumption from the very beginning that in thinking about ourselves we must do so without postulating such non-material entities. I assume that both because it seems true to me, but also because it seems true to most3 philosophers nowadays4. The way of thinking that is the target here can, and does, occur in thinkers who acknowledge, or sense, no attraction in such dualism.
  2. The style of thinking it is my aim to uproot can be given an initial characterization in terms of two features. In fact this characterization is slightly restrictive in a way that I shall shortly indicate, but it is close enough to start with and even without the modification covers almost all versions of the idea that currently tempt people.
    1. The first feature is that according to it we have a conception of ourselves as entities which must have some positive psychological features to exist. This is vague and highly general, but one particular version would be the claim that we cannot exist unless we are capable of remembering our past. In this version the loss of memory is equivalent to the loss of existence. That is, however, only one candidate version5. It needs to be borne in mind, too, that what I am calling the 'mental feature' that is regarded as essential to us might be highly complex and conditional.
    2. The second feature of the view is that the claim that we are essentially possessors of psychological features is not reached by finding, or thinking that one has found, empirical evidence that we cannot, in fact, exist without such features. Rather, it is regarded as in some way having an a priori status. Thus, the conception has such a status that it supposedly enables us to judge of described cases, on the basis of thought alone, whether or not the people described at the beginning in them continue to exist after various imagined changes. Again, this is, of course, a vague characterization.
  3. I intend this characterization to apply to the vast majority of modem thinkers about personal identity, including, for example, and despite their many differences, Baker, Garrett, Grice, John Mackie, McMahan, Nagel, Noonan, Parfit, Shoemaker, Unger, and many others6. Amazingly, Locke's discussion of personal identity written in the seventeenth century is a clear, explicit, and brilliant exposition of this way of thinking.
  4. In this introduction, and from time to time in the book, I shall call this, vaguely characterized, approach 'mentalism7'. (I am, though, far from wanting to recommend this use of that name generally, but it has a certain utility for me in this essay.) Mentalism can be divided into two varieties. According to the first variety we, persons, essentially possess certain mental features. Descartes thought that we are essentially thinking things, but others think, for a variety of reasons, that we are essentially capable of self-consciousness8, or that we are essentially capable of consciousness9. The essential mental condition might be a complex (and conditional) one.
    1. Thus one view might be that the essential feature is that if we are conscious then our conscious states must possess what might be called strong unity. According to such views these mental features represent conditions for our existence.
    2. According to the second variety of such views for a person to exist over time there must be certain psychological links across time. Such views hold that personal existence over time can be partly or completely analysed in terms of such relations. This second version provides an analysis which, as one might say, enables us to trace ourselves over time in the light of psychological data. The first version merely issues in nonexistence verdicts.
    I aim to make a case for thinking that both variants of mentalism are quite without support or plausibility. This is the right point to add the complication that I hinted at earlier. One type of mentalism might deny that mental characteristics are essential to our existence, and that mental links are essential too, but hold, in a minimal way, that in certain conditions we can survive over time solely in virtue of the presence of mental links (or in virtue of mental links plus some physical links well short of those required for animal persistence). When certain philosophers in the 1960s proposed the slogan that the criteria of personal identity are multiple it may be that they wanted to incorporate this possibility. The term 'mentalism' should be understood as covering this idea. I should, though, note a restriction relating to my discussion of mentalism. There will be no discussion of some standard pro-mentalist arguments, including, for example, those of Descartes. The ones I aim to counter are those which emerge in, roughly, a more recent tradition of debate concerning personal identity and the unity of consciousness.
  5. To deny the correctness of what I am calling 'mentalism' is not to imply that the psychological (or mental) aspects of our existence are not what confer value on our lives10. Nor is it to deny that we have the sorts of lives we have only because we possess the psychological features we do possess. Nor is it to deny that characteristically and naturally we do possess mental properties. It is, rather, to deny that these psychological features define or partially define our existence conditions.
  6. Now, an apparently crucial commitment of the mentalist approach is that we need to distinguish between ourselves, the persons, and the human animals present where we are. This is (or seems to be) a consequence in virtue of two things.
    1. The first is that it seems fairly obvious that it is not a condition for these animals to exist that they possess psychological capacities or states. Awful things can happen to animals to deprive them of their psychological capacities. Mentalism does not apply to animals, even human animals.
    2. The second is an elementary piece of logic that says that if A cannot continue to exist in circumstance C, whereas B can continue to exist in those circumstances, then A and B cannot actually be the same thing. If A is B then either it will be able to exist in C or not.
    This means that the style of thinking under attack endorses what is sometimes called the 'animal/person', or, in an earlier way of speaking, the 'man/person', distinction. If this is right then to endorse the claim that the animal and the person are one and the same thing is to commit oneself to something the mentalist mode of thinking must oppose. So my opposition to this way of thinking proceeds by claiming that the proposition that I am identical to an animal is true, and by exploring, and attempting to undermine, the reasons offered to believe it false. To defend this involves countering the reasons on which the mentalist tradition is currently based.
  7. The claim that each of us is identical to an animal I call 'animalism'. However, in order not to bore the reader I designate that thesis (or theses that are equivalent to it) in other ways in the course of the discussion.
  8. Since the style of thinking about ourselves which is my target is, or seems to be, committed to the animal/person distinction, to deny that distinction and affirm animalism involves criticizing that mode of thinking. However, affirming animalism is not simply equivalent to denying mentalism. It is obviously possible to affirm that there is an animal/person distinction for other reasons. I do not mean that it is obvious what those reasons might be, but it is obvious that someone might think that there are such reasons. Affirming animalism, therefore, also involves articulating and confronting any other suggested reasons. To defend as well as I am able to the positive claim that there is an identity between each of us and a (human) animal is the second fundamental aim of the book. This book is, therefore, in part an essay in constructive metaphysics11.
  9. If one is attacking a way of thinking which is, and has been, popular, there is a strong temptation to search for explanations as to its attractiveness. Unfortunately, the type of explanations that philosophers have tended to offer for what they see as mistaken but attractive modes of thought, in terms of, for example, the bewitchment of intelligence by language or mistaken ideals of reasoning, are either too unspecific or simply prompt further questions. The truth is that we do not, as yet, understand, in enough detail, the dynamics of human (philosophical) thought to give such explanations with confidence. It can be said, though, that the way of thinking in question is made possible by our possession of a distinctive first-personal way of referring to ourselves, whereby we can focus on and advance theories about those objects that we are without knowing what sorts of things the objects are. As to why philosophical theorizing has tended to converge on what I am arguing is a mistaken view I shall myself offer some, unconfident, speculations in the course of the argument.
  10. Stepping far back from the details of the argument, both the destructive and the constructive claims rest on three major lines of thought.
    1. First, mentalists and anti-animalists urge the plausibility of their views on the basis of verdicts about described cases which they think are convincing and support their attitude. Looking at these case by case I argue that the verdicts are simply not plausible, but are, rather, fantastical and insubstantial, and lack any grounding in a psychologically realistic description of what our reactions to such cases would be. It is, of course, impossible to scrutinize all the cases that philosophers have based their arguments on, but I hope that the way some of them are discussed here will indicate how to respond to others that are not discussed.
    2. Second, I argue that animalism has the status of the default view, to be accepted unless there are convincing arguments against it. Together with the first claim we get strong support for animalism.
    3. Third, once it is granted that there is a psychologically endowed animal in the same place that we ourselves occupy it is very hard to claim that the entities are distinct. I suggest that patterns of argument based on this difficulty have application in different ways and in relation to different cases.
  11. Current metaphysics is marked by extreme disputes over a number of issues which are relevant to the present discussion. For example (and this is just one example), is it possible for two, non-identical, objects to exist at a time occupying exactly the same area? As it is sometimes expressed: are coincident objects possible? Now, standardly, the mentalist way of thinking commits itself to the possibility of coincident objects, and so denying that possibility creates difficulties for the view12. However, what is, in my opinion, most striking about these abstract metaphysical disputes is that, despite the manifest strength of conviction of the different sides, they are remarkably hard to settle. My aim, therefore, is, as far as possible, to remain neutral, in the development of my case, about these so-called 'big' metaphysical issues. In my view, it is actually easier to see and to bring out the problems in the mentalist way of thinking under attack than it is to determine the truth about, for example, the possibility of coincidence13. A goal of the argument to be developed in this book is, therefore, to be as non-committal about such metaphysical debates as possible. I hope that at the cost of some excitement there may be a gain in solidity and plausibility. The purpose of this monograph is, as one might say, to uproot one metaphysical prejudice without relying on other metaphysical prejudices. I hope, too, that this approach will counteract a tendency in some recent philosophical discussions of personal identity which is to argue for a general approach to the problem in a rather brief way, in, as it were, short order, and then to spend colossal intellectual energy devising a metaphysical structure to sustain it and to render it consistent with other preferred metaphysical commitments. What needs particular attention is, rather, the basis for the choice of general approach14.
  12. The aim then is, by looking at it direct, to paint mentalism in its unattractive colours, and to display the contrasting attractions of animalism.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: See the note at the end of the page for the colour conventions to determine which footnotes are mine, and which are Snowdon’s.

Footnote 2: I assume these are the same as “Cartesian Egos”: Click here for Note.

Footnote 3: Footnote 4: The kind of anti-dualism that I assume throughout is, I hope, not too strong. It is an assumption that enables me to ignore certain conceptions of ourselves. The assumption also impinges on the discussion in that I assume that cognitive and psychological processes have to be grounded in processes that are physically real. The notion of being grounded in is weaker than that of being exhaustively realized by or identical with. I do not wish to deny that the mental and the physical are related in some such stronger way, but I am not relying on the (controversial) assumption that they are.

Footnote 5: This particular suggestion, hardly attractive on first encounter, is quite close to what Locke himself thought.

Footnote 6:
  1. See:-
  2. When I name proponents of mentalism who are alive, I do not mean to imply that they currently hold such a view, merely that, at some time, they did.
Footnote 7: Footnote 8: Footnote 9: Amusingly, Locke provided a devastating response to Cartesian mentalism, while proposing a different version of his own.

Footnote 10: To react to a sense of the importance and value for us of our mental lives by incorporating reference to them in our existence conditions is like, if I may be allowed an absurd conceit, a piece of cheese which valued above all the result when it was attached to a biscuit failing to recognize that it was a distinct thing from a biscuit or from a biscuit/cheese complex!

Footnote 11: Note that neither sort of metaphysics that I am engaged in here corresponds to the two types famously distinguished by "Strawson (Peter) - Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics" (1959), the descriptive and the revisionary.

Footnote 12: This claim is central to the animalist arguments of both Michael Ayers and Eric Olson.

Footnote 13: In the past there was a tendency to base one's system on a prior theory of meaning, say verificationism, but supporters of alternative systems merely inferred that the theory of meaning was false. Currently, certain metaphysical claims seem to be offered as playing the probative role, But again opponents merely infer their falsity.

Footnote 14: If I were writing here about the practice of philosophy, rather than, as I am doing, engaging in it, I would recommend above all the secure grounding of general proposals, so that, as a subject, it does not become a misplaced exercise of extraordinary ingenuity.


Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2017
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



© Theo Todman, June 2007 - December 2017. Please address any comments on this page to theo@theotodman.com. File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page