- What changes can a human undergo without becoming someone different? For example, if a degenerative disease paralyses your body, it’s clearly still you who exists in this transformed state. But what if the disease transforms your mind, impairing your memory or causing radical personality change? Would this new ‘you’ be a different person entirely than the one who existed before the transformation?
- Part of what makes it hard to answer this question is its ambiguity. Imagine you saw my father, John, one day and then his twin brother, Joe, the next, and you pointed out Joe to me and said that you had only just seen him. I might correct you by saying that the person you see now is a different person than the person you saw yesterday. But is that the meaning we have in mind when we ask whether the person existing in the wake of a disease is a different person than the one before?
- Or is it more like this: a man goes away to war, where he experiences great horrors, and on his return his family finds him to be a different person entirely than he was when he left. This is different from your confusion about John and Joe (and different from the situation if the person who showed up at the doorstep after the war happened to be an imposter). The family take for granted the continued existence of the man who left and then returned home. What troubles them is that he has changed, so much so as to be unrecognisable except in outward appearance. And the same point seems to hold in the case of the degenerative disease: if it were not you who existed in the wake of it, then your loved ones would not have cause to mourn your state in the way they do. But what, then, can we mean when we say, as we so often do, that the disease (or war, or drug taking, or divorce, or near-death experience…) has made you into a different person?
- Here’s another example – imagine contemplating a life experience that will radically transform your values. The philosopher L.A. Paul calls this a transformative experience, such as when parents claim to have been altered fundamentally by the first sight of their newborn child. Given the prospect of such a radical change, should you allow it to happen? ...
- Sometimes, the claim that someone has become a different person can be used to justify cutting them out of our lives, or treating them as if they were a mere acquaintance. This makes sense in some cases: for example, if you and a classmate once bonded over a shared love of punk rock, or a common religious conviction, then, if they were to lose this love, or this conviction, it might be appropriate for you to dissolve your friendship. In such a case, the person who was your friend is no longer ‘about’ the thing that was the ground of your relationship. Hearing from your friend how she has changed, you will find yourself asking: who are you? For the purposes of your friendship, the person that you knew is gone.
- But not all human relationships are this way. A person you marry, or a parent or child or elderly relative, is not someone who is tied to you just by virtue of a shared passion or purpose. Your relation to them goes deeper than that, and its ground is your shared life. It is part of being human that people sometimes change in ways that can make a radical difference to what they are about. But our passions and purposes are not the only things that determine who we are. Our lives are also defined by the irrevocable commitments we make to our loved ones, and the ties that bind together parent, child, sibling and kin. To see ourselves, and one another, for who and what we really are, we need to recognise these aspects of our identity that are not so subject to change.
- John Schwenkler is professor of philosophy at Florida State University, and Humboldt Visiting Researcher at Leipzig University in Germany. He is the author of Anscombe’s Intention: A Guide (2019), the co-editor of Becoming Someone New: Essays on Transformative Experience, Choice, and Change (2020) and the co-author of Reading Philosophy: Selected Texts With a Method for Beginners (2nd ed, 2020).
- This is effectively a plug for the Author's book Becoming Someone New: Essays on Transformative Experience, Choice, and Change (2020)
- I wasn't sure whether this is about Personality or Narrative Identity, but decided on the latter.
- I will write up detailed thoughts in due course.
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