- Although the English language is rich in synonyms, there are some words that are islands of desperate poverty in this respect. 'Identity' is one of them. It stands in for so many different concepts that to use it at all is a recipe for confusion. There is, first, the canonical philosophical distinction between 'qualitative' and 'numerical' identity. If, of two objects, it can be said that any property whatsoever that one of them has, the other also has, then they are said to be qualitatively identical; but it takes no more than a moment's thought to see that no two material objects in the real world are, or could possibly be, of this kind.
- The identity that engages the attention of modern philosophers is numerical identity, that is, whether, and under what circumstances, one can say that two phenomena observed at different times are one and the same thing.
- In this volume, Bernard Williams sets out the ground rules for the philosophical analysis of this problem and brings to light the intrinsic elements of indeterminacy that the notion of numerical identity entails.
- Derek Parfit is primarily concerned with 'personal identity', which he explores by a series of science fictions in which personal identity is extended by replication or dissected by transplantation of brains and bodies. Parfit agrees with Bernard Williams that there are situations where it cannot be decided whether personal identity has been preserved, but concludes that from a practical (and ultimately moral) point of view the preservation of personal identity is unimportant.
- Henry Harris argues that defining personal identity is simply a matter of defining what one chooses to call a person, and that fictional devices involving replication of persons or transplantation of brains are not only based on physiological misconceptions, but are also seriously misleading. For Harris, all questions of identity in the world of sticks and stones are empirical questions that can be answered, if at all, then only by empirical methods.
- Michael Ruse does a great deal to clarify the obscure and emotionally charged concept of sexual identity. He offers a critical and biologically informed analysis of the genetic, physiological, and psychological determinants of homosexuality, and he discusses how far it is reasonable to claim that homosexuality is a social construct.
- Terence Cave takes the view that personal identity is generated through narrative, either the narrative that one weaves about oneself or about other people, both real and fictional. In particular, he examines the crucial role that false identity and its exposure have played in literature from remote antiquity to the present day.
- Finally, Anthony D. Smith describes the various ways in which national identities are formed and analyses how this process is shaped by the interplay of cultural inheritance, political expediency, and myth.
- There are, of course, other concepts for which the word identity does duty; but this collection of essays, written by expert hands, covers a good deal of ground. Herbert Spencer would surely have been very pleased with them.
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