Personal Identity
Perry (John), Ed.
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Amazon Book Description

  1. This volume brings together the vital contributions of distinguished past and contemporary philosophers to the important topic of personal identity. The essays range from John Locke's classic seventeenth-century attempt to analyze personal identity in terms of memory, to twentieth-century defenses and criticisms of the Lockean view by Anthony Quinton, H.P. Grice, Sydney Shoemaker, David Hume, Joseph Butler, Thomas Reid, and Bernard Williams.
  2. New to the second edition1 are Shoemaker's seminal essay "Persons and Their Pasts", selections from the important and previously unpublished Clark-Collins correspondence, and a new paper by Perry discussing Williams.

Amazon Customer Review2
  1. This is a first-rate anthology on personal identity that includes important historical work and recent (up to the 70s) discussions of the relevant issues. It begins with an informative introduction by Perry. The introduction presents the basic problem and the way philosophers traditionally have thought about it. Then Perry gives a summary of most important points made in the historical material included in the anthology.
  2. What is the question of personal identity? Basically, it's the question of what makes a person one and the same person through time. I assume I'm the very same person I was two days ago, two months ago, two years ago, two decades ago, etc. Given that I've changed a great deal over that period of time, how could this be? It seems like I, the very person sitting here and typing this now, was once an undergraduate planning to go to grad school, once a high school student getting ready for college, once an elementary school kid, and once a new-born baby. But it's clear that I don't look or think a lot like those previous people who appear to be one and the same as I am. There's been a lot of physical and psychological change over time, and yet I think I'm the very same person I was at those various times. How could that be?
  3. And this is a philosophical issue that seems to have practical ramifications. It appears to have consequences for how we understand ourselves and other people: Does a person survive radical amnesia? How about brain death3? Could a person survive after bodily death? Could there be multiple people in the same body at the same time? If a person's memories, beliefs, desires, etc. change so that there's little or no connection to her previous self, is she really the same person at all anymore? Consequences for how we relate to people: If my friend suffers from amnesia and never recovers his prior memories, is he really still my friend (is he still the same person I knew before)? If my mother is dying from a disease that has left her little more than a body rotting away in a hospital bed, is she still really my mother (i.e. the same person who raised me)? And moral consequences: Is a fetus4 a person? If a person's psychology has radically changed over time, is it still fair to hold her responsible for things she did long ago (maybe she's no longer the person who did whatever we want to hold her responsible for)?
  4. Now, clearly, it's pointless to try to summarize even the most important ideas that you'll find in the readings collected here. There are too many positions, too many important arguments, and too many interesting issues to say much of importance about the anthology as a whole. But I will try to give you some sense of the contents here.
  5. The first reading is from the seminal work on this topic, namely Locke's discussion in his Essay concerning Human Understanding. In a few justly famous thought experiments5, Locke argues against the view that personal identity consists in identity of immaterial soul over time and the view that it consists in identity of body over time. He then proposes a version of the view that personal identity consists in the stages of a person sharing memories of previous stages. This is followed by more recent essays by Paul Grice and Anthony Quinton in which they defend views similar to Locke's. These two essays are responses to problems raised in the next two essays, both of which include classic objections to Locke's memory theory of personal identity. Joseph Butler argues that Locke's view begs the question since any accurate account of memories presupposes an account of personal identity. Thomas Reid argues that Locke's view fails to respect the transitivity of identity in some cases. And then there are two more readings querying the plausibility of the memory view, one by Sydney Shoemaker and one by Perry himself.
  6. Then the anthology moves on from discussions of the memory view to other views about personal identity. The first alternate view is Hume's. In some famous material from his Treatise of Human Nature, he argues that there is no personal identity over time. Two of the remaining three papers argue for similar conclusions. Derek Parfit6 argues both that there may be no personal identity over time, and that identity isn't what matters7 through time. It is perfectly rational, he thinks, to care about the future of beings with psychologies similar to ours even if we aren't identical to them; and this is supposed to have important practical consequences. Thomas Nagel argues that our concept of a person may not apply in certain real-world cases of brain bisection, and he thinks that such cases may show that our concept of a person doesn't even apply to us in our normal condition. The final paper in the collection is by Bernard Williams. He argues that there seem to be cases in which bodily continuity is more important than psychological continuity8.
  7. While the reader should look elsewhere for the state of the art on the issues, I'd recommend this anthology to anyone interested in personal identity. Nearly all of these papers are classics that you ought to know if you're going to more recent work on this issue, and so it's still well worth buying even if you're more interested in contemporary thought about the topic.

In-Page Footnotes ("Perry (John), Ed. - Personal Identity")

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Of the First Edition.


University of California Press, 1975

"Butler (Joseph) - Of Personal Identity"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity


"Grice (H. Paul) - Personal Identity"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

Philosophers Index Abstract
    In this article, the author discusses the nature of the main question philosophers ask when concerned with the problem of a personal identity. Then, the question is asked whether it is possible to maintain a pure ego theory of the self. Finally, the author attempts to defend a form of the logical construction theory. (Staff)

"Hume (David) - Our Idea Of Identity"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

COMMENT: Part of "Of Skepticism With Regard to the Senses", Treatise I.IV.II

"Hume (David) - Second Thoughts (on Personal Identity)"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

COMMENT: Treatise III Appendix

"Hume (David) - Treatise I.IV.VI: Of Personal Identity"

Source: Hume - Treatise I.IV.VI; also in Perry - Personal Identity

"Locke (John) - Of Identity and Diversity"

Source: Locke - Essay, Book 2, Chapter 27
Write-up Note1

For an essay on this chapter Click here for Note.


"Nagel (Thomas) - Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness"

Source: Nagel (Thomas) - Mortal Questions

Introduction (Full Text)
  1. There has been considerable optimism recently, among philosophers and neuroscientists, concerning the prospect for major discoveries about the neurophysiological basis of mind. The support for this optimism has been extremely abstract and general. I wish to present some grounds for pessimism. That type of self-understanding may encounter limits which have not been generally foreseen: the personal, mentalist idea of human beings may resist the sort of coordination with an understanding of humans as physical systems, that would be necessary to yield anything describable as an understanding of the physical basis of mind. I shall not consider what alternatives will be open to us if we should encounter such limits. I shall try to present grounds for believing that the limits may exist - grounds derived from extensive data now available about the interaction between the two halves of the cerebral cortex, and about what happens when they are disconnected. The feature of the mentalist conception of persons which may be recalcitrant to integration with these data is not a trivial or peripheral one, that might easily be abandoned. It is the idea of a single person, a single subject of experience and action, that is in difficulties. The difficulties may be surmountable in ways I have not foreseen. On the other hand, this may be only the first of many dead ends that will emerge as we seek a physiological understanding of the mind.
  2. To seek the physical basis or realization of features of the phenomenal world is in many areas a profitable first line of inquiry, and it is the line encouraged, for the case of mental phenomena, by those who look forward to some variety of empirical reduction of mind to brain, through an identity theory, a functionalist theory, or some other device. When physical reductionism is attempted for a phenomenal feature of the external world, the results are sometimes very successful, and can be pushed to deeper and deeper levels. If, on the other hand, they are not entirely successful, and certain features of the phenomenal picture remain unexplained by a physical reduction, then we can set those features aside as purely phenomenal, and postpone our understanding of them to the time when our knowledge of the physical basis of mind and perception will have advanced sufficiently to supply it. (An example of this might be the moon illusion, or other sensory illusions which have no discoverable basis in the objects perceived.) However, if we encounter the same kind of difficulty in exploring the physical basis of the phenomena of the mind itself, we cannot adopt the same line of retreat. That is, if a phenomenal feature of mind is left unaccounted for by the physical theory, we cannot postpone the understanding of it to the time when we study the mind itself - for that is exactly what we are supposed to be doing. To defer to an understanding of the basis of mind which lies beyond the study of the physical realization of certain aspects of it is to admit the irreducibility of the mental to the physical. A clearcut version of this admission would be some kind of dualism. But if one is reluctant to take such a route, then it is not clear what one should do about central features of the mentalistic idea of persons which resist assimilation to an understanding of human beings as physical system. It may be true of some of these features that we can neither find an objective basis for them, nor give them up. It may be impossible for us to abandon certain ways of conceiving and representing ourselves, no matter how little support they get from scientific research. This, I suspect, is true of the idea of the unity of a person: an idea whose validity may be called into question with the help of recent discoveries about the functional duality of the cerebral cortex. It will be useful to present those results here in outline.


"Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. Some people believe that the identity of a person through time is, in its nature, all-or-nothing. This belief makes them assume that, in the so-called 'problem cases', the question "would it still be me?" must have, both a definite answer, and great importance.
  2. I deny these assumptions. I try to show that the identity of a person through time is only, in its logic, all-or-nothing. In its nature, it is a matter of degree.
  3. I then propose a way of thinking in which this would be recognized.

Author’s Introduction
  1. We can, I think, describe cases in which, though we know the answer to every other question, we have no idea how to answer a question about personal identity. These cases are not covered by the criteria of personal identity that we actually use.
  2. Do they present a problem?
  3. It might be thought that they do not, because they could never occur. I suspect that some of them could. (Some, for instance, might become scientifically possible.) But I shall claim that even if they did they would present no problem.
  4. My targets are two beliefs: one about the nature of personal identity, the other about its importance.
  5. The first is that in these cases the question about identity must have an answer.
  6. No one thinks this about, say, nations or machines. Our criteria for the identity of these do not cover certain cases. No one thinks that in these cases the questions "Is it the same nation?" or "Is it the same machine ?" must have answers.
  7. Some people believe that in this respect they are different. They agree that our criteria of personal identity do not cover certain cases, but they believe that the nature of their own identity through time is, somehow, such as to guarantee that in these cases questions about their identity must have answers. This belief might be expressed as follows: "Whatever happens between now and any future time, either I shall still exist, or I shall not. Any future experience will either be my experience, or it will not."
  8. This first belief – in the special nature of personal identity – has, I think, certain effects. It makes people assume that the principle of self-interest is more rationally compelling than any moral principle. And it makes them more depressed by the thought of aging and of death.
  9. I cannot see how to disprove this first belief. I shall describe a problem case. But this can only make it seem implausible.
  10. Another approach might be this. We might suggest that one cause of the belief is the projection of our emotions. When we imagine ourselves in a problem case, we do feel that the question "Would it be me ?" must have an answer. But what we take to be a bafflement about a further fact may be only the bafflement of our concern.
  11. I shall not pursue this suggestion here. But one cause of our concern is the belief which is my second target. This is that unless the question about identity has an answer, we cannot answer certain important questions (questions about such matters as survival, memory, and responsibility).
  12. Against this second belief my claim will be this. Certain important questions do presuppose a question about personal identity. But they can be freed of this presupposition. And when they are, the question about identity has no importance.

COMMENT: For Notes, see "Funkhouser (Eric) - Notes on Parfit, “Personal Identity”".

"Perry (John) - Personal Identity, Memory, and the Problem of Circularity"

Source: Perry - Identity, Personal Identity and the Self, 2002, Chapter 5

  1. Grice’s Theory
  2. Circles and Logical Constructions
  3. Three Charges of Circularity
  4. Memory
  5. Logical Constructions and Inferred Entities

COMMENT: Also in "Perry (John), Ed. - Personal Identity"

"Perry (John) - The Problem of Personal Identity"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

  1. Persons and Puzzles
  2. Persons and Person-Stages: Identity and Unity
  3. Locke’s Theory
  4. Locke, Quinton, and Grice
  5. Locke and Butler on Substance
  6. Hume’s Theory
  7. Concluding Remarks

COMMENT: This is just the Introduction to "Perry (John), Ed. - Personal Identity".

"Perry (John) - Williams on The Self and the Future"

Source: Perry - Identity, Personal Identity and the Self, 2002, Chapter 6

  1. Putative Examples of Body Transfer
  2. The Reduplication Argument1
  3. The Nonduplication Argument


"Quinton (Anthony) - The Soul"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. This is an argument for the constructability of an empirical concept of the soul, which, like Locke's, interprets the soul as a sequence of mental states logically distinct from the body and is neutral with regard to the problem of the subject.
  2. The soul is defined as a series of mental states connected by continuity of character and memory.
  3. The objection that a memory criterion presupposes a bodily criterion is considered.
  4. Arguments for it are judged forceful but not conclusive.
  5. Finally, the paper deals with the complex question whether a soul can exist in an entirely disembodied1 state.


"Reid (Thomas) - Of Identity"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

"Reid (Thomas) - Of Mr. Locke's Account of Our Personal Identity"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

"Shoemaker (Sydney) - Personal Identity and Memory"

Source: Perry - Personal Identity

Author’s Introduction
  1. Persons, unlike other things, make statements about their own pasts, and can be said to know these statements to be true. This fact would be of little importance, as far as the problem of personal identity is concerned, if these statements were always grounded in the ways in which people's statements about the past histories of things other than themselves are grounded. But while our statements about our own pasts are sometimes based on diaries, photographs, fingerprints, and the like, normally they are not. Normally they are based on our own memories, and the way in which one's memory provides one with knowledge concerning one's own past is quite unlike the way in which it provides one with knowledge concerning the past history of another person or thing.
  2. It is largely for this reason, I believe, that in addition to whatever problems there are about the notion of identity in general there has always been felt to be a special problem about personal identity. It is, for example, the way in which one knows one's own past that has led some philosophers to hold that personal identity is the only real identity that we have any knowledge of, the identity we ascribe to ships and stones being only, as Thomas Reid expressed it, "something which, for convenience of speech, we call identity."
  3. What I wish to do in this paper is to consider how the concept of memory and the concept of personal identity are related. In particular, I want to consider the view that memory provides a criterion of personal identity, or, as H. P. Grice expressed it some years ago, that "the self is a logical construction and is to be defined in terms of memory."


"Shoemaker (Sydney) - Persons and Their Pasts"

Source: Shoemaker - Identity, Cause and Mind

Author’s Introduction
  1. Persons have, in memory, a special access to facts about their own past histories and their own identities, a kind of access they do not have to the histories and identities of other persons and other things. John Locke thought this special access important enough to warrant a special mention in his definition of "person," viz.,
      "a thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places. . . ."
  2. In this paper I shall attempt to explain the nature and status of this special access and to defend Locke's view of its conceptual importance. I shall also attempt to correct what now seem to me to be errors and oversights in my own previous writings on this topic.


"Williams (Bernard) - The Self and the Future"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self
Write-up Note1
  • For a précis and discussion, click File Note (PDF), now replaced by this Note2.
  • This text appeared in Commensal (Mensa) and in Aitia (Birkbeck).

  1. Also published in:-
  2. Printout filed in "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 19 (W)",
  3. See "Funkhouser (Eric) - Notes on Williams, 'The Self and the Future'" for Notes,
  4. Originally in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 79, Issue 2 (Apr., 1970), 161-180).

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