Experiences, subjects, and conceptual schemes
Parfit (Derek)
Source: Philosophical Topics, vol. 26, nos. 1-2 (Spring/Fall, 1999), pp. 217-270
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Like many of those who have written about the nature and identity of persons, I have been deeply influenced by Sydney Shoemaker's ideas1. I shall respond here to some remarks by Shoemaker on what I have written, and to some similar remarks by John McDowell. My view about persons, I shall argue, is closer to Shoemaker's than he believes2.
  2. My main claims have been these:
    1. Even if we are not aware of this, most of us are inclined to believe that, in all conceivable cases, our identity must be determinate. We can find this out by imagining that we are about to undergo some identity-threatening operation, such as the replacement of our brain, and then asking "Would the resulting person be me?" Such questions, most of us assume, must have an answer, which must be either Yes or No3. Either we would wake up again, or we would lose consciousness for the last time.
    2. For this assumption to be true, our existence would have to involve the existence of some ultimate and simple substance, such as a Cartesian Ego4.
    3. There are no such entities.
    4. Our existence consists in the existence of a body, and the occurrence of various interrelated mental processes and events. Our identity over time consists in physical and/or psychological continuity.
    5. We can imagine cases in which questions about our identity would be indeterminate: having no answers. These questions would also be in the following sense empty: they would not be about different possibilities, but only about different descriptions of the same course of events. Even without answering such questions, we could know what would happen.
    6. Reality could be fully described in impersonal terms: that is, without the claim that people exist.
    7. Personal identity does not have, as is widely assumed, rational or moral importance. But some of this importance can be had by psychological continuity and connectedness, with any cause5.
  3. (F), as I shall admit here, was a mistake. The view expressed by (D) I shall call Reductionism. According to some Reductionists, such as Bernard Williams and Judith Jarvis Thomson, each of us is a human body6. This view is not, strictly, reductionist, but that is because it is hyper-reductionist: it reduces persons to bodies in so strong a way that it doesn't even distinguish between them7. On a variant of this view, defended by Thomas Nagel, we are embodied brains8. According to the version of Reductionism that Shoemaker and I prefer, we are distinct from our bodies and our brains, though we are not, in relation to them, separately existing entities. This we can call Constitutive Reductionism9.
  4. Shoemaker's view differs slightly from mine. Shoemaker defends a pure version of the Psychological Criterion of personal identity, according to which some future person would be the same as some present person if and only if these persons would be uniquely psychologically continuous. Though I once defended this criterion, I wouldn't do so now. And Shoemaker assumes that what we are essentially is persons, while I regard it as acceptable to claim that what we are essentially is human beings, treating the concept person10 as a phased-sortal11, like child or chrysalis, so that we exist before we become persons and we may continue to exist after we cease to be persons12. I shall ignore these disagreements here. They are less important if, as I believe, our identity is not what matters, and it is only while we are persons that we could have most of the special moral status that, on most views, persons have.
  5. In his comments on what I have written, Shoemaker suggests that there is another difference between our views. Shoemaker's view is broadly Lockean; mine, he suggests, goes too far in the direction of Hume. Thus he writes that I seem to regard experiences as separate entities, like bricks, rather than as entities that "of their very nature require subjects" (Reading Parfit, op. cit., henceforth RP, 139). McDowell similarly writes that, on a view like mine, thoughts and experiences are "conceived as happenings of which we can make sense independently of their being undergone by subjects," adding that it is "doubtful that we can conceive of thinking as a subjectless occurrence, like a state of the weather" (RP, 235). I shall try to resolve this disagreement.
  6. Since this paper is long, and may seem to be discussing fairly minor and marginal questions, I shall say why these questions seem to me worth pursuing. Of the claims that I listed above, the most important I believe to be (A) to (C) and (G). Even if we accept the Reductionist view expressed in (D), many of us don't fully accept the implications of this view. We think about ourselves and our futures in ways that could not be justified unless something like a Cartesian view were true. So it is worth trying to make clearer what Reductionism implies, and asking how we might think differently about ourselves.


For the full text, see Parfit - Experiences, subjects, and conceptual schemes.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 3: Footnote 4:
  • As Shoemaker argues in "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Parfit on Identity", this is an oversimplification, since there might be complex entities whose identity must be determinate. But this possibility can. I believe, be ignored here.
Footnote 5:
  • I defend these claims in Part 3 of Reasons and Persons,
Footnote 6: Footnote 7:
  • Some Cartesians claim, not that we are Cartesian Egos, but that our existence consists in the existence of such an Ego and of an associated body.
  • As Quassim Cassam remarked to me, such a view is, in one sense, reductionist.
  • Similarly. some use "reductionist" more narrowly than me.
  • I use Reductionist merely as a label for the view expressed by (D).
Footnote 8: Footnote 9:
  • To give Shoemaker's analogy, a gold statue is distinct from the lump of gold in which it consists, though not separately existing. These entities are distinct because, though they share the same matter, either could outlast the other.
  • If we melt the statue, we would destroy the statue without destroying the lump. Suppose instead that we melt and extract, in one malleable lump, all but the outer 1 percent that is the surface of this statue. We could then destroy the lump, though the statue would continue to exist.
Footnote 12:

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