Personhood and Personal Identity
Schechtman (Marya)
Source: Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Feb., 1990), pp. 71-92
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The question 'Who am I1?' might be asked either by an amnesia victim or by a confused adolescent, and requires a different answer in each of these contexts. In the former case, the questioner is asking which history her life is a continuation of, and, in the latter, the questioner presumably knows her history but is asking which of the beliefs, values, and desires that she seems to have are truly her own, expressive of who she is. These can be called, respectively, the question of reidentification and the question of self-knowledge.
  2. Contemporary philosophical discussion of what has been called the problem of personal identity is generally considered to be concerned with the question of reidentification. Those involved in this discussion say virtually nothing about the self-knowledge question. Instead, they attempt to spell out the necessary and sufficient conditions for saying that a person at time t1 is the same person as a person at time t2 – to give criteria of personal identity over time which would enable us to answer the amnesiac's2 question.
  3. The primary contenders for a criterion of personal identity have been the bodily criterion3 and the psychological criterion4, which are based, respectively, on the intuitions that it is sameness of body and sameness of personality which are responsible for sameness of person5. Of these two, the psychological criterion has been by far the more widely accepted, and current philosophical discussion of personal identity has focused almost exclusively on attempts to refine and defend this criterion.
  4. In what follows, I shall argue that psychological continuity6 does not and cannot provide the sort of criterion of personal identity which identity theorists wish to provide. My claim will be that such criteria are inherently circular-that they cannot answer the circularity objection that is standardly raised against them in the literature, and hence cannot provide an analysis of our concept of the persistence of a person.
  5. I shall start, in section I, by giving an exposition of the central features of these psychological-continuity theories. To do this, I shall look in detail at Derek Parfit's version of this theory, and shall use Parfit as a representative of psychological-continuity theorists throughout the paper. I choose Parfit for three reasons.
    1. First, his view is, for my purposes, perfectly representative. There is no argument I make against Parfit which could not be applied to any other standard psychological-continuity theory without significant alteration.
    2. Second, Parfit's view is one of the strongest versions of this theory, and,
    3. Finally, it is the version of the psychological-continuity theory which has been most discussed in the recent literature.
  6. After laying out Parfit's view in section I, I proceed, in section II, to describe the circularity objection that has standardly been raised against such views, and the standard response as offered by Parfit. In section II, I shall argue that this response relies implicitly on a highly implausible view of human experience, and that when this view is made explicit it becomes clear that not only does the standard response fail to overcome the circularity objection, but that this objection cannot be overcome, that psychological accounts of identity, to be accurate, must be circular.
  7. Finally, in section IV7, I shall suggest that the dead end that psychological-continuity theorists have encountered is a result of their conflating the two questions of personal identity outlined above – the reidentification and self-knowledge questions-and suggest what I believe to be a more fruitful direction for philosophical work on personal identity to take.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 7:

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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