Problems of the Self
Williams (Bernard)
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Cover Blurb

  1. This is a volume of philosophical studies, centred on problems of personal identity and extending to related topics in the philosophy of mind and moral philosophy.
  2. 'To read only a few pages of [this excellent book] is to get a fine impression of the character, or flavour, of contemporary philosophy. A powerful feel for analogy allows various phenomena in turn (belief, desire, consistency) to be illuminated by considering both their resemblances to, and their differences from contiguous phenomena. There is an impatience with the trivial. And there is a constant sense, as in a Dutch landscape, of how the roads lead beyond the visible horizon. Added to this Williams exhibits on every page a mind of exceptional acuity. I doubt if anyone could read the reflections on immortality entitled 'The Makropulos Case1' without a consciousness that his deepest beliefs and feelings were being engaged: engaged and adjusted under the influence of reason. In these pages an ancient promise of philosophy has been kept.'
    … Richard Wollheim, The Listener


CUP, Cambridge, 1999 reprint

"Perry (John) - Review of Bernard Williams' 'Problems of the Self'"

Source: Journal of Philosophy 73, No. 13, The Mind and the Self, Jul. 15, 1976pp. 416-428

Author’s Introduction
  1. Williams's papers usually are admirably clear, and always reward careful and sustained study. In the first eight he deals with various problems concerning the nature of persons. In the remaining essays he is concerned, for the most part, with ethical and meta-ethical problems. These essays connect in various ways with the first eight and with each other. But the book is not unified around a single argument, theme, or problem. I concentrate here on Williams's treatment of personal identity, a problem with which he deals in most of the first eight essays, and to the understanding of which he has made a major contribution.
  2. Williams thinks that persons are material objects. The "most forceful" objection he finds to this is that the identity of persons is not the same as the identity of bodies. When not based on an explicitly Cartesian conception of persons, the motivation for denying that personal identity is just human-body identity usually derives from cases of putative body transfer. Locke's cobbler with the prince's memories, and Sydney Shoemaker's Brownson with Brown's brain and memories and Robinson's body, are perhaps the most famous of such cases. If the same person could at one time have one body, and at another time have a different body, then being the same person cannot amount to having the same body; and then it seems that in some sense (though perhaps not in others) persons are not just bodies. It is William's involved and imaginative treatment of these cases, which he discusses in several of these essays, that I shall examine.


"Williams (Bernard) - Personal Identity and Individuation"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

Author’s Introduction
  1. There is a special problem about personal identity for two reasons.
    1. The first is self-consciousness1 – the fact that there seems to be a peculiar sense in which a man is conscious of his own identity. This I shall consider in Section 3 of this paper.
    2. The second reason is that a question of personal identity is evidently not answered merely by deciding the identity of a certain physical body. If I am asked whether the person in front of me is the same person as one uniquely present at place a at time t, I shall not necessarily be justified in answering 'yes' merely because I am justified in saying that this human body is the same as that present at a at t. Identity of body is at least not a sufficient condition of personal identity, and other considerations, of personal characteristics and, above all, memory, must2 be invoked.
  2. Some have held, further, that bodily identity is not a necessary condition of personal identity. This, however, is ambiguous, and yields either a weak or a strong thesis; depending on one's view of the necessity and sufficiency of the other conditions.
    1. The weaker thesis asserts merely that at least one case can be consistently constructed in which bodily identity fails, but in which the other conditions will be sufficient for an assertion of personal identity; even though there may be some other imaginable case in which, some other condition failing, bodily identity is a necessary condition of personal identity.
    2. The stronger thesis asserts that there is no conceivable situation in which bodily identity would be necessary, some other conditions being always both necessary and sufficient. I take it that Locke's theory is an example of this latter type.
  3. I shall try to show that bodily identity is always a necessary condition of personal identity, and hence that both theses fail. In this connexion I shall discuss in detail a case apparently favourable to the weaker thesis (Section 1). I shall also be concerned with the stronger thesis, or rather with something that follows from it – the idea that we can give a sense to the concept of a particular personality without reference to a body. This I shall consider chiefly in Section 4, where the individuation3 of personalities will be discussed; the notion occurs, however, at various other places in the paper. The criterion of bodily identity itself I take for granted. I assume that it includes the notion of spatio-temporal continuity, however that notion is to be explained.
  4. In discussions of this subject, it is easy to fall into ways of speaking that suggest that "bodily " and other considerations are easily divorced. I have regrettably succumbed to this at some points, but I certainly do not believe that this easy divorce is possible; I hope that both the general tenor of my thesis and some more direct remarks on the subject (Section 2) will show why.

  1. Deciding another's identity
  2. Some remarks on bodily interchange
  3. A criterion for oneself
  4. Multiple personality and individuation4


In-Page Footnotes ("Williams (Bernard) - Personal Identity and Individuation")

Footnote 2: Did Williams change his mind on this very non-animalist notion?

"Williams (Bernard) - Bodily Continuity and Personal Identity"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self (Analysis XXI, 1960)

"Williams (Bernard) - Imagination and the Self"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self
COMMENT: Also in "Strawson (Peter), Ed. - Studies in the Philosophy of Thought and Action"

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

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self
Write-up Note1 (Full Text reproduced below).
  • 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).

Write-up3 (as at 21/04/2018 20:05:17): Williams - The Self and the Future

"Williams (Bernard) - The Self and the Future" – An Analysis and Critique4

Introduction: An initial Question
    Is it possible that you could exchange bodies with someone? You are to understand 'possible' not as 'practical' or as 'possible', but only as something that is coherent or possible in thought. If you think it is possible, describe the circumstances that would have led for this to happen. And if you think it impossible, say why.
  1. This question is raised preparatory to discussing a thought experiment described in Williams' paper. A similar idea, to which Williams is reacting, occurred in the late seventeenth century in Chapter 27 of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which Locke imagines a Prince's consciousness inhabiting the body of a cobbler.
  2. Technicalities aside (a wiring problem) there seems nothing conceptually incoherent about having one's own brain transplanted into another's body. The alternative is the "dump and restore" technique - where the contents of one's brain (one's memories and presumably one's capabilities) are copied onto a storage device and then further copied onto the physical brain of another, overwriting or erasing whatever was there beforehand.
  3. There seems nothing utterly inconceivable about either of these techniques, but they seem to be conceptually different. Williams recognises that describing such thought experiments as "changing bodies" begs the question of what constitutes the substrate of consciousness and what makes up an individual person.
  4. The "brain transplant" approach has the benefit of some physical continuity, as the brain is a physical thing, and we are reasonably confident that the transplanted brain would be capable of retaining its information processing capacities. It would have a new body to get used to, but we would expect the mental abilities and memories of the transplantee to be as they were beforehand, though the physical abilities would be much changed and mental functioning would be affected by a different hormonal and respiratory environment and by a different sensory apparatus. Whether the hybrid felt himself to be the same person after this procedure would depend on that person's self-image and capabilities. A man whose abilities and aspirations were predominately physical (such as a boxer or footballer or even a musician or painter) would presumably not feel himself the same person after the operation, because it is not likely that these capabilities would cross over successfully, though a philosopher might not consider himself so badly off. Saying you have "exchanged bodies" while retaining your personhood would imply that your body was not of much significance to you as a person other than a rather passive vehicle for your mind. Not many people can say this.
  5. The "dump and restore" approach leaves the added complication of possibly cloning the original person (or at least their consciousness) - the original "me" can be left there undisturbed, after the contents of my brain have been copied, to awake as before. There is no necessity to copy the other person's brain-contents into my brain. I don't feel fully confident that the "restored" me would actually wake up - maybe it would be a zombie - though presumably a non-vitalist should have the courage of his convictions. Life would presumably be even harder for the new me in this "asymmetrical copy" case than in the "brain transplant" situation, as I would not only have the rest of the world confusing me with the previous owner of the body I then occupy, but I would have to contend with someone with a prior claim to being me - though as he is in on the act, this might be more of a help than a hindrance. It is this asymmetrical situation, which Williams turns to right at the end of his essay, that raises the most interesting questions.
  6. Enough of this pre-amble … we'll see how these initial prejudices (admittedly already influenced by Williams) change after some serious consideration of Williams' thought experiment. We now analyse in some detail what Williams has to say in his essay.

Analysis of Williams' Paper
  1. Williams asks us to consider his (tendentiously-entitled) "exchanging bodies" experiment. We have before us two persons, A and B, each with their own memories and characters and distinctive physical mannerisms for displaying them. After the exchange, however achieved, body A displays the memories and character of person B by physical manifestations appropriate to person B, and vice versa.
  2. Williams adopts a simplifying assumption to make the experiment more likely to be understood as that of "exchanging bodies" - he assumes some similarity between A and B so that there is a good chance of B's mannerisms in A's body not being made unrecognisable by gross physical or psychological differences between A and B.
  3. For us seriously to be convinced by the B-ishness of A-body's post experimental character, another condition must obtain according to Williams. B's memories must be reflected by A's body in such a way as it seems true that there is a causal chain between B's experiences and A-body's demonstration of apparent first-hand experience of them (presumably to guard against the supposition that A had simply studied B's background and the "memories" are learned rather than records of first-hand experience). Williams insists that the causal chain should not run outside of A's body, and therefore the simplest way to ensure this is by transplanting B's brain into A's body. However, Williams thinks a less radical version of copying B's memories and then restoring them to A's brain will suffice, for the reason that of the three grounds for knowing about one's own past - remembering, being reminded and learning again - there is no sufficient reason for describing the restored memories of B in A as "learned again". It is an interesting question whether this will do, because for A-body to be B, he needs not only B's memories, but B's information processing abilities. It is an open question whether the contents of B's brain can be copied onto different hardware (or in this case "wetware") while retaining the B-ishness of B. The restore mechanism would need to reconstruct the entire structure of A's brain to be as B's (which it might have to do in order to accomplish memory transfer, as memories are (most likely) physically encoded as connections between neurons). However, the firing rates of these neurons would presumably remain A's. Hence, I prefer the brain-exchange as the most likely method of "exchanging bodies". This form of the experiment is not, however, as interesting.
  4. After this exchange, we have the A-body-person and the B-body-person (where the A-body-person is the person occupying the body that was A's prior to the experiment). Those unaware of the experiment will initially presume the A-body-person is A, while the description of the process as "exchanging bodies" presumes that the A-body-person is B. A non-question-begging approach leaves it open as to whether either the A- or B-body-person is A.
  5. Williams now tries to determine which person is which using a thought experiment from the third-person perspective. A & B are informed before the procedure that post-operatively one of A- and B-body-persons will be tortured and the other given $100,000. They are asked what, on selfish grounds, they would prefer to happen to which. Williams notes that, depending on the choices of the victims, the experimenter may or may not be able to satisfy both of them, but that their choices and reactions to being told prospectively what is going to happen will reveal how they understand the procedure to work in accord with personhood. As Williams notes, while if the post-operative state is announced beforehand it makes sense to say prospectively that A or B got what he wanted, it is an open question whether retrospectively either of them can be said to have got what he wanted, as this begs the question that either of the A- or B-body-persons is A or B, or whether, for instance, they have been hybridised.
  6. Williams suggests that there are good grounds for presuming that we could say retrospectively that either A or B got what he wanted. He takes the case where A and B presume this to be an "exchanging bodies" experiment, so that A chooses that the B-body-person receives the good treatment and B the A-body-person. He then further supposes that the experimenter in fact awards the good treatment to A and the bad to B, though he doesn't tell them beforehand. After the experiment, the A-body-person, with B's memories, remembers that he chose the good outcome and is doubly satisfied on the grounds both that he got what he wanted and that what he got was good. The B-body-person, with A's memories, is similarly doubly dissatisfied. At face value, this seems to imply that B chose wisely, got what he wanted, and that the A-body-person really is B, whereas A also chose wisely, but was unlucky, and that the B-body-person really is A - and that "exchanging bodies" is a correct way of describing the experiment.
  7. That the A-body-person really is B and that the B-body-person really is A can be made to seem probable by variations on the experiment - eg. with the same experimental outcome as before, A chooses that the A-body-person receives the good treatment and that consequently the B-body-person is unhappy with the outcome, but acknowledges that this is what he chose and that he chose unwisely (and similarly, mutatis mutandis, for the B-body-person). Finally, Williams considers the hybrid case where A chooses unwisely and B wisely, with the experimenter acting as before. Both get what they chose, but B-body-person is happy, A-body-person unhappy with the outcome. All three cases seem to support the "exchanging bodies" hypothesis.
  8. Williams now starts to expand the perspective of the experiment by considering the post-operative responses of A- and B-body-persons to their bodies (he is careful not to describe them as B & A respectively, though notes that their responses would be consistent with this assumption - he also notes that if they had viewed the experiment as changing bodies, they would have had to be reasonably satisfied with these bodies before agreeing to take part in the experiment at all). He tries to tease apart the consequences of the supposed body-swap by asking questions such as, if the B-body had a wooden leg that B had become habituated to, would the post-operative B-body-person also be habituated to it; ie. is the habituation a mental or a physical thing?
  9. Williams now proceeds to consider the matter laterally by thinking in detail about A & B's psychological expectations, concerns and responses. In particular, he stops begging the question by presuming that the experiment results in A and B exchanging bodies. It thus at least makes sense for A and B to ask whether, post operatively, they may be able to escape some of the mental hang-ups they currently have. So, he imagines A with bad anxiety and B with fearful memories, but concludes that the post-operative B-body-person would possess this proneness to anxiety while the A-body-person would have the bad memories. This is still consistent with the "exchanging bodies" hypothesis, and so far the argument leads us to conclude that the requirement for bodily continuity as a necessary condition for personal identity is mistaken and that, as Locke thought, we should identify ourselves with our memories rather than our bodies.
  10. Williams now considers what appears to be a different thought experiment, but which is really the previous experiment this time viewed from a first-person perspective5. I am told that tomorrow I am to be tortured, but with allegedly increasingly ameliorating circumstances, as below:-
    • Shortly before the torture I will forget that I have been forewarned
    • I will lose all my former memories
    • I will be given a new set of memories, ie. a new past
    • That my then memories will correspond to those of another person now living
  11. The point is that, at no point in this Sorites-type6 argument will I feel any comfort; rather, I will feel even more disquieted - for (despite being told how this is to be brought about) not only would I still have the prospect of torture to endure, but would have mental derangements equivalent to total amnesia and madness imposed on me as well.
  12. As this is just another view of the first experiment, can we confidently say this view, rather than the first, in which I would be happily escaping from the soon-to-be tortured body, is wrong. Williams thinks not. The experimenter may simply be intimidating me by persistently using the term "you" to me - thereby begging the question in the opposite direction to the "exchanging bodies" perspective - but it seems clear that, at the moment of torture, whatever impressions I have of the past will not influence my then present pain, and in reviewing the process there seems to be no point at which I've been "beamed up" into another, happier body.
  13. Williams now briefly explains why he's chosen the example of torture as a future dread event, rather than some other thing one might fear. This is because many of our fears are character- or memory-based, which, in this experiment, are likely or known to be about to change. However, aversion to physical pain is minimally character- or belief-dependent. Having started on this aside, Williams also points out that it may still be valid to fear a psychological disturbance in which our then selves would be perfectly happy - as in our being turned into contented vegetables - and the reason we would fear such a turn of events would be selfish rather than the altruistic acknowledgement that we'd be unable to fulfil our obligations. Personally, I do not view this as a paradox of hedonistic utilitarianism (nor, I suspect, does Williams). What makes our pleasures so exquisite is that we have chosen to have them, maybe struggled for them, and so the utility of a life of our own, with all its vicissitudes, exceeds that of one in the orgasmatron7.
  14. Returning to the chase, Williams now points out the second difference between this first-person report of the events and the "exchanging bodies" one - there is no mention of the second person, other than as the source of my new memories. From this first-person perspective8, this second person is irrelevant except as an object of our envy, but in the third person account this is the new me, the one on whose account I ought to be afraid, if at all. One who subscribes to the "exchanging bodies" interpretation of events will count this as a fatal objection to the first-person account. However, Williams doubts this is so.
  15. To demonstrate why not, Williams rehearses the first-person account again, imagining the torture occurring at the end of each of the six steps in the process (starting with me suffering total amnesia, and ending with the other person undergoing the analogous character-change to that which I undergo). Since these steps are important for subsequent discussion, and already succinctly summarised by Williams, I have filched them verbatim from Williams' paper:-
    1. A is subjected to an operation which produces total amnesia;
    2. amnesia is produced in A, and other interference leads to certain changes in his character;
    3. changes in his character are produced, and at the same time certain illusory 'memory' beliefs are induced in him: these are of a quite fictitious kind and do not fit the life of any actual person;
    4. the same as (iii), except that both the character traits and the 'memory' impressions are designed to be appropriate to another actual person, B;
    5. the same as (iv), except that the result is produced by putting the information into A from the brain of B, by a method which leaves B the same as he was before;
    6. the same happens to A as in (v), but B is not left the same, since a similar operation is conducted in the reverse direction.
  16. At the prospect of none of these six cumulative experiments do I feel anything other than disquiet. This is because from this perspective at no stage do "I" (A) escape into the other person's (B) body.
  17. Viewing everything up to the fifth step (copying B's dispositions & memories into A's brain while leaving B otherwise alone), Williams thinks we have two answers to the "exchanging bodies" objector. Firstly, there is no reason (given the primal pain aversion common to us all) why I should not be just as afraid of torture, even with B's dispositions, as normal. Secondly, because B still exists undisturbed, A-body-person (me) cannot be (numerically) the same person as B as there are two persons with a claim to B-ness. Locke would say there are two men but only one person. I would agree with this, but only for an instant - the two men diverge into two persons as soon as either has an experience (I wanted to say "has an experience not shared by the other" but feel that even if their experiences were miraculously kept synchronised they would still be two persons because they are two consciousnesses). From the "exchanging bodies" perspective, if we stop after step five, A has died (or is at least in suspended animation) and B has been partially cloned. This situation is critical. B's consciousness cannot have "hopped" to body-A as it must still be in Body-B at this stage. So, what consciousness is in Body-A? It is tempting to think of this consciousness as a scrambled version of A's, but we "exchanging bodies" types9 should maybe stick to our guns and assert that the consciousness in Body-A is also B's; for the consciousness in Body-A it will feel like B having swapped bodies, and having temporarily a mental twin in Body-B, though because of its necessarily different environment it will rapidly diverge from Body-B's. Williams’s assertion that at the end of step five A-Body-person and B-Body-person are certainly not the same person is too strong (though, as I noted, they soon would be).
  18. Williams now tries to find out whether we can make out that the transition from (v) to (vi) is important for A, and does not simply refer to something happening to someone else (B). The point is that, at the end of (v), B-Body-person is very definitely B, so if A-Body-person is not A, then no-one is. This seems fair enough (as I've alluded to above), but if A doesn't exist at (v), when in the process does he disappear? Williams argues that A still existed after (i) and (ii), that is, after the total amnesia and personality change, so maybe we should draw the line after (iii) or (iv), memory exchange with a fictitious person or, in (iv) B. Williams question is rhetorical, presuming a "no" answer. I think, though, that he gives insufficient weight to the catastrophic nature of the changes affecting A-body-person. His analogy is with the normal amnesia, personality disorders or delusory memories that might afflict someone going out of his mind. Well, if someone had been afflicted to the total degree suggested in the thought experiment, we would forensically count them as having become a new person, and treat the original person at least as being in abeyance. The question is, when would A suddenly suffer a dislocation of consciousness, so that a new person with no historic conscious continuity with A pop up in A's body. Personally, I think this would be after step (i), the total amnesia, though possibly after (ii), the total personality change. We could apply more granular Sorites-type10 arguments against this (memory draining away bit by bit, personality changing gradually) and ask just when does A cease to exist? This is not the same situation, however - A would be adjusting to this unfortunate state of affairs and would evolve into A*. We wouldn't be troubled by such thoughts in the "brain transplant" version of the experiment. If A's brain was taken out of A's body, there would be no chance of A's consciousness remaining there, not even in his little finger11!
  19. Williams now repels a rather silly proposal, along the lines that we can't decide whether or at what point A-body-person ceases to be A, so why worry about it; some things are just like that. Well, Williams adopts the first person perspective12 of A, and points out that, while this situation might be acceptable for a third party, it is of vital interest to A, who is either going to be tortured or not depending on the outcome. I have to say I can almost feel Williams being argued into accepting Pascal's wager (after all, what is worse than being tortured for ever!), so there must be something dodgy going on here. Williams labours the rather obvious point that I will retain fear at the prospect unless I am sure that I won't be involved in the unpleasant things yet to happen to A-body-person, and will be fearful in proportion to the probabilities involved. Williams seems to be suggesting that in this case, the situation must resolve itself one way or another - the coin has to be heads or tails - A-body-person will either be me or not, but until I know which, I have good reason to be in trepidation.
  20. Williams thinks that this situation of undecidablity is unthinkable from a first person perspective13 in that if I lose my fear on account of the undecidablity, I have effectively decided that it will not be me who will be tortured, while if I continue to worry about it, it is because I think it will be me. Williams tries to envisage whether I might adopt ambivalent concern towards the event, as I might towards something to which I was sentimentally attached that underwent some puzzling confusion of identity. Williams, of course, thinks this won't do, for as soon as I adopt this ambivalent stance towards A-body-person, while I may be hazy about who he is, I've already concluded that he's not me. If I still thought he might be me, I wouldn't be so detached. I think that Williams is getting into a muddle here, and mutiplying zero by infinity and getting any number he likes (as in Pascal's wager). If the prospect was a remote chance of a slapped wrist rather than unbearable torture one would easily become dispassionately involved.
  21. Williams states that "there seems to be an obstinate bafflement to mirroring in my expectations a situation in which it is conceptually undecidable whether I occur". Isn't this parallel to any future contingency? What's the difference between this and being worried on being told that all first-year BA students who fail their exams will be mercilessly tortured. While I might concur that this sentence, though just, is unlikely to befall me - I would do well to fear it because, confident though I may be, there is no way of knowing that I will pass.
  22. Later, Williams considers, returning to the six-stage experiment, whether we might not choose to identify A with A-body-person after stage (v) because there is no better candidate, but not after (vi) because B-body-person will then do much better. Williams thinks this is like disposing of the effects of some intestate relative - we just have to decide as best we can within the confines of the law. Williams rightly doesn't think this will help A at all, for if he's still frightened at the prospect of (v), the thought that there would be a better candidate for A-ness after (vi) will not console him.
  23. When Williams starts to sum up, he thinks the opposite conclusions reached by the third and first person perspectives14 of A's fate are conceptually undecidable, and that he's not sure which choice he'd make were he to have the bad luck to be A. Not surprisingly, he's disturbed by this (he's taking his thought experiment rather too seriously, one might think). Williams brings up the dichotomies between, respectively, first and third person perspectives and "mentalistic" and "bodily continuity" considerations involved in questions of personal identity. Williams points out that his thought-experiments have revealed a reverse parallelism to that usually considered for these two pairs of concepts - the third person perspective is here associated with "mentalistic" considerations while adopting a first person perspective15 led us to support bodily continuity. Williams considers this inversion of some enigmatic significance.
  24. Finally, Williams considers whether the presentation of the third-person perspective in its neat symmetrical form unfairly induced us to consider it as "exchanging bodies". This is a very important point, and in my view more space should have been devoted to it at the expense of the angst-ridden ramblings that occupy most of the latter half of the paper. Clearly, according to the rules of the experiment, we could have generated any number of A's and B's in any number of brains / bodies. This is in sharp contrast to the more invasive, but allegedly equivalent, "brain swap" alternative experiment. This leads me to feel there is a little bit of slight of hand in Williams' introduction of his non-invasive equivalent, which is not equivalent in the least - though depending on what Williams is seeking to demonstrate, this lack of equivalence may not matter. The possibility of "me" being "restored" into the brains of numerous bodies (while being left alone in my own body - let the reader please forgive the tendentious language here!) makes it unlikely that my consciousness would flip over into B-body-person at any stage in the experiment - otherwise, in variants of the experiment, I could be saddled with an open-ended number of (presumably incommunicable) selves to cope with. We would have to suppose that these new consciousnesses, for all their similarities to me, are not me, and that in the experiment both A and B die, with two new consciousness emerging in their places.
  25. So, Williams comes down to the decision that if he were told that he (as the A-body person) could choose who would have the post-operative torture, he would choose B, being convinced by his psychological angst arguments. My view is that, in Williams' "dump and restore" variant of the experiment, I would opt out because both A and B are dead, but in the "brain transplant" version, assuming I'm confident of surgical success, I'd choose the easy life for the body with my brain in it any day.

Further Questions

At Birkbeck, we are supplied with a Commentary that expatiates on aspects of the passage under discussion and asks (and sometimes sketches answers to) various questions. Because answering questions not surprisingly tests comprehension, I'll seek to answer some of the questions and you must let me know whether you agree with the answers:-
  1. Say which of the following seems the best account of what will have happened in the initial "third person" account of Williams' thought experiment:
    1. A turns into B, and B turns into A.
    2. A comes to inhabit B's body, and B comes to inhabit A's body.
    3. A and B will both die and two other people emerge, say A+ and B+.
    Can you think of any other descriptions that fit what happens more closely?
    • The fourth description (d) sought by the question would be that all sorts of horrid mental events happen to A and B, including total amnesia, character change and implantation of someone else's memories, but that A-body-person remains A and B-body- person remains B.
    • Description (a) is inadequate because what makes A or B a person includes both somatic and mental attributes, and the post-operative individuals are hybrids of A and B; the function "turns into" loses this sense of what's happened.
    • As discussed above, in the case of the "brain transplant", I would favour (b) as the best description, while for "brain copying" I would favour (c).
    • In case of brain transplantation it is not possible for any of A's conscious experience to remain behind in A's body, which rules out (d). The effect on A of finding himself in B's body, with different somatic, sensory and hormonal structures to get used to, would be exceedingly traumatic, but, though A would necessarily lose consciousness while the operation was performed, we (or at least I) can just about imagine him waking up feeling highly disorientated, but still feeling, as in (b) that he was A and not, as in (c), A+.
    • One reason I'm reluctant to support (b) in the "brain copying" example is the (science-fiction-) fact that multiple copies can be made of A's mental structures and parked in as many Xi-body-persons as we wish, and can they all be A? However, and I believe this to be a very important point, while we're making use of the technology, we could go further and use our matter-copier to clone A's physical brain multiple times and wire him up in the Xi-body-persons, or go the whole hog and clone the whole of A producing the set {A*i}. Would all these A*i's feel themselves to be A? I think it's clear that, subject to the caveat in the next paragraph, they would, though, like twins, they would instantaneously diverge into separate persons as they developed further.
    • One caution - given how little consciousness as a phenomenon presumably derived from physical processes is understood - we should not get carried away by our thought experiments; for all we know we may be suggesting techniques that are not just impractical but impossible (as, for instance, would be the case if there was some immaterial soul that animates a person and that couldn't be cloned or copied by our ingenious devices). The metaphysical assumptions as to what makes up a human being are not made explicit in Williams' paper. It does seem, though, that the first-person perspective16 tacitly assumes that there's something more to "me" than the contents of my brain and that it's this "me" that continues in my original body as the (highly disturbed and utterly disorientated) person with a new mind. The first person perspective17 might almost be described as "exchanging minds", which is an even more difficult concept to get our heads round that "exchanging bodies".
  2. Williams considers different things that A and B might say if they were asked to choose the fate of the A- and B-body-persons, and also what they would say about their willingness to undergo the experimental operation. Summarize these various options in your own words.
    • Williams considers various responses (which I detailed above) all based on the "exchanging bodies" paradigm that A's consciousness ends up in B-body-person and vice-versa. From this third-person perspective, A chooses wisely if he chooses pleasant things to happen to B-body-person. Whether A would like to play this game would depend on what he thought of B's body and whether he found the prospect of occupying it appealing.
  3. If, when you answered the earlier exercise, you thought that this (ie. A and B changing bodies) was not the best description of the case, has the series of choices and estimates of outcome changed your mind? If not, what do you think might be wrong with the way these choices are described?
    • As Williams later points out at the end of his essay, the "exchanging bodies" paradigm is made more plausible by the perfect symmetry of the operation, whereas we might stop the procedure after we've copied B into A but before we've copied A into B. Also, though we've followed A & B's prudential thought-processes, we've not put ourselves firmly enough in their shoes to experience the angst they would feel at the possible results of the experiment for them, and hence may have missed out on the possible continuing A-ness of A-body-person.
  4. Williams considers ways in which one might resist this conclusion about the second of the perspectives on the example (ie. considered from the first-person perspective18, at no stage does it seem as if you and the other change places). The arguments here are careful and sometimes dense, but you should read them over several times, and try to summarize them in your own words.
    • Williams doesn't seem very convinced that the first-person conclusion can be resisted, because, firstly, as A views the prospect before him, as summarised in Williams' (i) to (vi), at no stage does his fear abate, and in particular not at step (vi) which from this perspective appears to be something happening to someone else. The key point is after (v) when B is very much alive and kicking, but A has not been reconstituted. Where is A, and who is A-body-person if B is still B? How do we resist the conclusion that A-body-person is still A? Williams doesn't hold out much hope for doing so, but recognises that someone committed to the exchanging bodies view will take it that step (vi) involves the re-introduction of A, who had at sometime prior thereto dropped out of the plot. Williams' problem is just when this might have been - he thinks it unlikely after (i) - amnesia - or (ii) - character change - and thinks it would have to be after (iii) - fictitious memory introduction - or (iv) introduction of memories modelled on B's. I've argued above that Williams underplays the catastrophic nature of these changes and that he ought to be more sympathetic to A dropping out of the picture after (i).
  5. Williams presents several arguments against the strategy based on thinking of our concept of a person as sometimes undecidable. Summarize his points in your own words.
    • This strikes me as the most difficult part of the essay. Williams rejects the idea that abandoning hope of clarity on the grounds of formal undecidability may provide some comfort. While it may supply some to third party observers of A's situation, it will supply none at all to A who is, potentially at least, intimately and disastrously involved. To clarify the situation, Williams asks us to consider a future situation S at which we (in fact, I) may or may not be involved. I will only feel fear at the prospect of S if I expect to be involved (and, of course, if I believe there is something in S for me to fear). If some dread event is going to befall one of a company of people, of whom I am one, my apprehension will rise to fear in proportion to my imagining that the one will be me. Moreover, I know that this situation will resolve itself and that it will either involve me or not. Williams also says that I may be neurotically apprehensive of some indeterminate ill from some range of possibilities, or even of some nameless horror, but the common factor for me to display fear at the prospect of one of these things happening is that they should happen to me. When I think that S may involve me, I am able to imaginatively project myself forward to my involvement in the event.
    • Williams now returns to our experiment, and finds A's predicament to differ from the indeterminacy in the examples just cited. It is not like the nameless horror, since that, whatever it was, was definitely going to befall me, nor is it like the probability case, where it would either involve me or not, depending on how the situation worked out. A's (my) fear of torture in the experiment seems neither appropriate (as it would be if I knew myself to be A-body-person) nor inappropriate (if I knew myself not to end up as the A-body-person), nor is it appropriate for me to be dispassionately equivocal, since the stakes are too high.
    • Williams seems to argue that if I try to imagine myself present at some situation S at which it is formally undecidable whether I will be there or not, then if my effort of what he calls projective imagination is successful, then I have effectively decided the situation in the affirmative, while if I am unsuccessful I've decided it negatively. Personally, I cannot see what is demonstrated by one's ability, or lack thereof, to work oneself up into a lather of apprehension. I find a later argument even more confusing. Williams states that "material objects do occasionally undergo puzzling transformations which leave a conceptual shadow over their identity". An example of what this is supposed to mean would have helped. Whatever this is supposed to mean, we are to imagine that we are sentimentally attached to some object which undergoes this strange transformation, so that afterwards we are supposed now to feel ambivalent concern for it - neither as we did before, yet not totally disinterested. Not surprisingly, Williams does not think this a fair model of the situation envisaged when I'm not sure whether or not I'll be present at situation S, but that if I am something nasty is going to happen to me. I will not feel ambivalent concern for the person involved - I will feel terror on account of it possibly being me!
  6. Williams dismisses this second, conventionalist, way of evading the problem (of being precise in our definition of a person). What is his reason for dismissing it?
    • Williams' view is that whatever forensic decision is given by third parties on this subject, this is of no use to me who is vitally involved. If the conventionalists have decided that the best candidate for being A after (v) is A-body-person, to whom nothing further happens (apart from being tortured, of course !), the fact that there is a much better candidate after (vi), namely B-body-person, will be no consolation, as we had no necessity to proceed with step (vi) at all, so, from a forensic perspective, he might have been left as the unfortunate A-body-person.
  7. In the final paragraph of his essay, Williams tentatively suggests a resolution to the conflict between the two cases. Say what his conclusion is, and what argument he uses to reach it. Finally, give some reasons for either agreeing or disagreeing with him.
    • Williams' comes down tentatively on the side of the first-person perspective19, and says that if he were A, he would choose for the torturing to happen to B-body-person. His reasons are that we were deceived by the symmetry of the third-person perspective experiment into considering it as an exchange of bodies, whereas if the experiment had been conducted asymmetrically (eg. only as far as the equivalent of (v)), we would not have been so convinced that this was the correct description of the procedure. As I have previously stated, I think Williams gives insufficient weight to the drastic changes that come over A- and B-body-persons, and that if the focus was on brain-transplantation, which is allegedly parallel to the experiment being performed, he would be on the side of the body-exchangers.

In-Page Footnotes ("Williams (Bernard) - The Self and the Future")

Footnote 3:
  • This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (21/04/2018 20:05:17).
  • Link to Latest Write-Up Note.
Footnote 4:
  • This essay is based on one of my first Supervision papers in my first year at Birkbeck, and appeared as here in February 2001 in Mensa’s Commensal when I edited it.
  • A version appeared in Aitia the Birkbeck Student Philosophy magazine, in the Summer 2002 (Volume 2) edition. From a quick check, the text seems unchanged.
  • I’ve not changed the text – see later versions (if any) for my current understanding.
Footnote 7: This allusion to Woody Allen's Sleeper was made before the recent announcement of the invention of such a device, honest!

Footnote 9:
  • January 2016: did I ever really believe this?
  • I’d thought I’d always agreed with Williams that exchanging bodies – other than by a brain transplant – was impossible.
Footnote 11: An allusion to another thought experiment by Locke.

"Williams (Bernard) - Are Persons Bodies?"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self (1970)
COMMENT: Annotated photocopy filed in "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 19 (W)"

"Williams (Bernard) - The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

Notes1 / Comments
  1. p. 82:
    • Williams believes in the “mortality of the soul” and that eternal life is meaningless because death gives the meaning to life, though not in the existentialist sense of the fear of death that does so.
    • Yet death is still an evil, which is not the same thing as whether it is to be feared.
    • Given the facts about human desire and happiness, and what human life is, eternal life without the prospect of death would be intolerable.
    • Background to the Makropulos2 Case: play by Karel Capek, opera3 by Janacek. Unending life leads to boredom, indifference, coldness, joylessness. The elixir is destroyed by a young woman, to the dismay of the old men.
  2. p. 83:
    • Death is not just not an evil as an end to suffering, but because it is best not to live too long.
    • This – that death is not necessarily an evil – is disputed by some philosophers. Those that agree do so either on the grounds that death is not the end, or that it is!
    • Lucretius seems to have feared death, and so was – by way of consolation – keen to prove it – seen as annihilation – not to be an evil. His argument concludes that the length of life – viewed selfishly – is unimportant.
    • Lucretius’ first argument is that fear of death is based on the confusion that we will – despite annihilation – still be around to contemplate our loss. Death and us are mutually exclusive.
  3. p. 84:
    • His second argument is that it doesn’t matter when we die as – if eternity is really infinite – then we’ll be dead just as long. This argument would fail if “eternity” was finite, but either way, the issue seems to be that there’s something wrong with the state of “being dead”, which is denied by the first argument.
    • However, there is something wrong with the first argument in that it would seem that a long life full of good things is better than a short one without them. In this case, dying early would be bad in some way. Longer consciousness of good things is better for the individual that a shorter life, irrespective of the fact that the dead are conscious of nothing.
  4. p. 85:
    • I prefer a situation in which I get what I desire to one in which I don’t, and death deprives us of realising any of our desires. So, even though when dead I’ll not know anything of my unsatisfied desires, the realisation that death frustrates all my desires is sufficient for it rationally to be considered an evil.
    • But are not all wants conditional on being alive, and “if one dies, all bets are off”? Some old people desire many things, yet on balance would prefer it if they and their desires were dead. And if one desires death, one cannot fail to satisfy the desire by dying.
    • Williams considers the occasional rationality of suicide, though he focusses on the case where the temptation is rationally resisted.
  5. p. 86:
    • His claim is that there can be unconditional or categorical desires that are not conditional on being alive. If I decide to go through with some unpleasant future event, rather than committing suicide, then I must have some desire that propels me on into the future, and not one conditional on being alive as it is the very desire that resolves whether or not I will be alive4.
    • There are more categorical reasons than the ascetic requires or suggests.
    • It is absurd to represent every desire as a desire to avoid its own frustration.
    • For humanity to survive, the drive to survive needs to be greater than any perceived reason so to do.
    • The minimum is something beyond the mere desire to survive – maybe the desire that my future desires will arise and be satisfied.
  6. p. 87:
    • But normally, the question never even comes up. The question of life being desirable is certainly transcendental in the most modest sense, in that it gets by far its best answer in not being asked at all.
    • Someone can think egoistically about whether it would be better or worse for him to go on living longer or less long, but not whether it would be better for him never to have existed at all.
    • The response to Lucretius’ first argument in "Nagel (Thomas) - Death" is interestingly different to the one Williams has presented. His point is that a person can suffer a misfortune even if he never knows about it (eg. if betrayed). This is not just – as any rejecter of Lucretius’ argument must admit – that we can suffer misfortunes that do not involve nasty experiences.
  7. p. 88:
    • Unlike on Williams’s account, whereby the reasons for avoiding death are based on the frustration of categorical desires, Nagel’s doesn’t even go this far (I might never have had a desire not to be betrayed).
    • Hence, Nagel is one step further from utilitarianism than is Williams, and his argument might be rejected by a utilitarian, while Williams’s cannot. Granted categorical desires, death has disutility for the agent in their non-satisfaction even though this disutility does not rest on any unsatisfactory experiences.
    • Williams takes it that it is a contingent fact that – contra Lucretius – most people have categorical desires that make death a misfortune for them. But Nagel’s argument can be taken as supplementary to Williams’s in supplying non-utilitarian reasons. Williams also doubts that categorical desires are merely contingent.
    • Neither argument against Lucretius considers possible worlds in which the agent does not exist. The shared reason is that the misfortune is X’s, which cannot be the case in a world in which X never existed.
  8. p. 89:
    • Williams further grounds X’s misfortune on his categorical desires, which cannot be had if there was never an X in that world.
    • So we should reject the Lucretian argument that it doesn’t matter when you die, and death is – cateris paribusalways5 an evil.
    • Nagel admits this, with some qualification that it is worse to die in one’s prime or failing to live out one’s natural term.
    • But – and here’s the point of all this in the context of Williams’s paper – if Lucretius is wrong, then isn’t it best to live for ever? Are we committed to wanting immortality?
    • This brings us to the “other things being equal”. Obviously, as our faculties decline, death may eventually become “a good thing”. But this decline is contingent – maybe one day it will be possible for some of us not to age.
    • So, even in the Makropulos case6, might it not be the case that things are indeed equal (selfishly, anyway) and that it might always be a good thing – for oneself if not for anyone else – if one lived on for ever?
    • Williams will argue that the supposed contingencies are not such, but that an eternal human life would be meaningless and one that we would not be rational to desire. There is no desirable or significant property which life would have more of, or have more unqualifiedly, if we lasted for ever.
  9. p. 90:
    • Williams considers – as an embodied being living in the world much as it is – at what bodily age one should best eternally be. Makropulos is 342, but has lived 300 years aged 42 – which is OK for Williams7. The issue for her is not that she is eternally too old, but that she is bored, being eternally the same age. All the sorts of things that could make sense to a human being of a certain character aged 42 had already happened to her. All the passing centuries could add were more memories and a few changes of style.
    • We can raise questions about the presumed constancy of her character, and how it remains that way in the face of endless experiences. Williams suggests that the only way is detachment.
    • Makropulos differs from the general population, but this would not be the case if her “condition” became usual. Williams thinks that this generality would ot eliminate boredom and inner death – it would be a world of Bourbons, learning nothing and forgetting nothing, and it is unclear how much could ever happen.
  10. p. 91:
    • Williams argues that the boredom of immortality has little to do with the specific character of Makropulos. He claims that the only persons who could endure such an endless life would be those whose character was already shut out, and with no categorical desires they would not want everlasting life in the first place.
    • There are two conditions that need to be met by any fulfilment of the anti-Lucretian hope:-
      … 1. That the person who live for ever be me.
      … 2. That I will survive in a state adequately related to aims I have for surviving at all.
    • The second condition says that my future life must hold out some hope for the fulfilment of my categorical desires; and, the limiting case of these, is that future desires of mine may arise and be satisfied, and that it should be clear how these future desires might relate to my present character.
  11. p. 92:
    • Williams now considers a succession of lives as an alternative to the Makropulos situation. The major problem with this8 has always been recognised as the fulfilment of the first condition above, namely the preservation of identity.
    • But Williams (for the sake of the argument) assumes this condition is satisfied – by some minimal physical9 continuity. Otherwise, the situation – supposedly rebirth – cannot be distinguished from new birth.
    • Could such a series of psychologically disjoint lives provide any hope to someone not wanting to die?
    • Williams thinks this difficult, even if we were to admit the cogency of the "Future Great Pain Test" – that one should rationally fear the future pain of someone with whom one is only bodily continuous.
    • Williams sees psychological disjointedness10 as central to the “reincarnation”11 model, and so there is a limit to what the individual can know about his series of lives. Indeed, it might need to appear to him that his present life is the only one, and that he could not be sure of what sort any future lives might be, should there be any.
  12. p. 93:
    • With no intimation of future lives, there would be no hope for those wanting to go on living. So, Williams considers a variant whereby some expectation is present.
    • In this case, the prospect of future great pain might encourage the individual to self-terminate (which Williams thinks would be possible in this “recurrence” scenario), as the psychological connection needed before future great pain appears unacceptable is minimal.
    • This aside, it is difficult to see how the survivor’s former and latter characters can be linked. If his present character is wiped out, there is no sense in saying that he has survived. To think otherwise is a muddle.
    • We are referred to "Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity" for further discussion, in a different context.
  13. p. 94:
    • Williams thinks the serial-lives suggestion – were it to make sense – is the only one with any appeal, on the grounds that each period is at least a life.
    • Yet those who believe in eternal recurrence seem to look for release from it, which Williams sees as seeking not eternal life but “a superior sort of death”.
    • Williams considers it a fantasy to try to combine serial and continuous lives by allowing earlier, and (attractively) very varied, lives to remain in memory. He styles this the Teiresias model12.
    • The issue is that these serial lives cannot combine into a character: Tiresias is not a person but a phenomenon.
    • All this may have missed the point of those who have wished for immortality – which was not that they should never die, but that they should live on after death (or that they should not really die), and that their eternal life would not be in this world. If this is so, then maybe the frozen boredom of the Makropulos case13 can be escaped?
    • But even this hope has to be modelled on some more familiar unflagging activity or satisfaction. Just what would stave off eternal boredom? Williams alludes14 to the old joke of Don Juan in Hell, the tedium of heaven, and the devil having all the best tunes.
  14. p. 95:
    • Such thoughts point out the difficulty of imagining unending, but supposedly satisfying, activity based on a self-aware character already acquired in a finite life.
    • For Williams, the point is not that we have boredom in the utilitarian sense, which might be imagined away, as it is in our present life15. The point, rather, is that boredom would not just be a tiresome effect, but a perception of one’s relation to the environment. And such an unending perception, Williams thinks, has to be unthinkable.
    • This cannot be – thinks Williams – for there is nothing for a man with a developed character – that could be continually absorbing. And, merely thinking away the reaction of boredom isn’t improving the circumstances, but simply becoming less conscious of them.
    • We can make the immortal content by stripping him of all consciousness that would bring discontent. Even total absorption might do this.
    • Williams acknowledges that there can – even in this life – be necessary boredom. He gives as examples a radical bored by his party’s rhetoric or a sentry on duty.
  15. p. 96:
    • But eternal boredom doesn’t fit this mould. What would it be for?
    • Williams now turns to the philosopher’s favourite eternal pursuit – intellectual activity, which is totally absorbing and in which the philosopher can lose himself. This last thought suggests a warning to Williams.
    • He leaves aside those for whom intellectual activity has not been a focus in this life, and who would consequently require a new character to develop.
    • But even the intellectual would not be liberated by an eternity in which intellectual activity as all that was on offer. The activity must relate to the person, and not just the enquiry.
    • Williams claims that the Platonic introjection is an illusion. This16 is imagining that the satisfactions accruing from studying what is timeless and impersonal are themselves timeless and impersonal.
    • Williams rejects Spinoza’s idea that a man is most free and most himself when occupied in intellectual activity.
  16. p. 97:
    • We are referred to "Hampshire (Stuart) - Spinoza and the Idea of Freedom" as a supporter of Spinoza’s view, and Williams notes that Hampshire sees a similar trait in Freud.
    • It seems the freedom arises because in all else we’re subject to the action of unconscious memories, hence the Freudian appeal. But Williams thinks that Strawson has already committed himself to the importance of the accumulation of memories in developing the individual’s character.
    • Strawson thinks that we have maximal freedom in intellectual activity because the sequence of thoughts is maximally determined by internal considerations and the logical relation between thoughts. But this leaves out the question why the thinker is bothering with this line of thought at all. And it leaves out entirely what is going on in creative thought, where later thoughts are not supposed to be fully determined by earlier ones.
    • While all this may offer something in the way of freedom of the intellect, it is no help with freedom of the individual.
    • While freedom is rightly taken to include freedom from outside coercion17, it is not to be understood as freedom from my past, my character and my desires. This would be to pre-judge the boundaries of the self.
  17. p. 98:
    • Williams sees freedom to lie in the development and exercise of character, not in the desire to be free of character. Unconscious memories and desires fall within the boundaries of the self and are involved in the desire to persist in an active life.
    • So, contra Hampshire, an eternity of intellectual activity is no use to one concerned with individual immortality. Such ceaseless intellectual activity is fitted rather to Aristotle’s Prime Mover rather than to an individual man.
    • Williams closes with reference to Unamuno18, who gives in a cited purple passage a classic statement of the desire to go on living, come what may. He just wants the life of this self not to end, rather than wanting a Spinozist life of the intellect.
  18. p. 99:
    • Williams says that Unamuno is – rightly – at equal remove from Manicheanism and Utilitarianism, describing the latter as “the one-legged descendent of the former”.
    • Williams usefully points out that Manicheanism (also Orphism and Platonism) contrasts the spirit and the body such that the former is eternal and aims at truth and salvation, while the latter is adjusted to pleasure and is destined for dissolution. Secular utilitarianism is just the residual half of this dualism. There is no immortality, so this life should go on as long as we (or, Williams thinks, ultimately others) think it pleasant for us to be around.
    • Whatever else is wrong with Unamuno’s philosophy, Williams thinks he’s right in denying that the meaning of life consists in managing the satisfactions in a body or in an abstract immortality without one.
    • It looks like Unamuno “looked for” the resurrection of the body19, which Williams describes as the “rather brutal Catholic faith”. But his real desire is to go on irrespective of agreeable experiences. Williams quotes him as preferring Hell to nothingness.
    • Williams can make no sense of this claim. Lucretius has disproved – if too lightly (Williams says) – the rational fear of nothingness. Yet Unamuno would prefer continued existence even if it involved limitless suffering, and we are back to a categorical desire for life that can push through not just the presence but the prospect of “unpleasant times”.
  19. p. 100:
    • Williams has claimed that – while this categorical desire remains – one will not want to die. But he has also shown – he thinks – that such an eternal life will be unliveable.
    • He thinks the reason is that the categorical desire will – as in the Makropulos case20 – go away where I remain recognisably myself, of whom I will eventually have had too much.
    • But prior to this, Williams admits (contra Lucretius) that there can be reasons for not dying, and that death comes either too early or too late. One should die just before the horrors of not doing so become evident.
    • He suspects that technical progress may make this luck rarer21, but that currently one can be “lucky in having the chance to die”.

COMMENT: Also in "Fischer (John Martin), Ed. - The Metaphysics of Death".

In-Page Footnotes ("Williams (Bernard) - The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality")

Footnote 1:
  • I’m trying to develop a method of reviewing philosophical papers that is more than just reading them, or jotting notes in the margin, but less than a complete analysis and commentary, which takes an inordinately long time, and takes longer to (re-) read than the original paper.
  • This time I’m writing the notes up electronically as I read the paper, with the intention of making a final review and commentary in due course.
  • I should probably skim through the articles first before writing anything – but it is difficult to do this with understanding.
  • I have commenced a Note (Click here for Note) on the Makropulos Case, though it is currently only a place-holder for the papers involved.
Footnote 2: See also "Moore (Adrian W.) - Williams, Nietzsche, and the Meaninglessness of Immortality".

Footnote 3: Williams is an opera aficionado, so probably cam across the opera directly rather than via the philosophical literature.

Footnote 4: I do not understand this argument, and may consequently be misrepresenting Williams here.

Footnote 5: I’m not sure of the import of this qualification. Is it that future life will be on balance good? Or that we don’t have good reasons for wanting to die soon?

Footnote 7: This chapter started life as a lecture given in 1972, when Williams, born in 1929 (Wikipedia: Bernard Williams) was indeed 42.

Footnote 8: Effectively reincarnation (Click here for Note).

Footnote 9: Because this is the only option (unlikely though it seems) if psychological continuity is not allowed.

Footnote 10:
  • Why is this so? Some of the so-called “proofs” of reincarnation seem to involve memories of past lives.
  • Of course, if there is too much psychological connectedness, the situation collapses into the Makropulos case.
Footnote 12: Williams assumes we’re sufficiently well-educated to understand the allusion. See Wikipedia: Tiresias and note the alternative spelling! It seems Tiresias had a life (or part-life) as a woman, maybe 7 lives on some accounts.

Footnote 14: As usual, without a reference. Maybe “Don Juan in Hell” (see Link), Act III of "Shaw (George Bernard) - Man and Superman".

Footnote 15: Ie. We just get on with it?

Footnote 16: I don’t know whether the Platonic introjection is a standard expression. A quick Google revealed nothing.

Footnote 17: Indeed, it seems to me that in rational enquiry I am at my least free – in that I am constrained by the evidence, or ought to be. Anyone sufficiently rational should come up with the same answer. My contribution – other than my choice of problem – is no more than a computer’s.

Footnote 18: Footnote 19: There’s a quotation – in untranslated Spanish – from a Basque tombstone.

Footnote 21: He’s not explicit, but he says “in more than one direction” – so, presumably either by cutting off life too early, or extending it too long.

"Williams (Bernard) - Strawson On Individuals"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

Authors’ Introduction
  1. Mr P. F. Strawson's book 'Individuals' is subtitled An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. 'Descriptive metaphysics', he writes (p. 9), 'is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world', whereas 'revisionary metaphysics is concerned to produce a better structure'; it is distinguished from logical or conceptual analysis in scope and generality, rather than in fundamental intention. The book is divided into two parts; in Strawson's words (pp. 11-12), 'the first part aims at establishing the central position which material bodies and persons occupy among particulars in general.... In the second part of the book the aim is to establish and explain the connexion between the idea of a particular in general and that of an object of reference or logical subject.'
  2. In the first part, Strawson introduces the notion of identification, and gives an account of the identification of particulars and the role played in this, in our actual thought, by material bodies (ch. 1). He then considers the possibilities of identification in a hypothetical world containing no material bodies, but only sounds (ch. 2). In the third chapter, he discusses persons, and in the fourth offers some engaging and largely self-contained Leibnizian reflections ('Monads'). The second part starts with a long discussion of subject and predicate, in which various criteria for the distinction are considered. This is followed by a consideration of 'language without particulars', and the book ends with a chapter called 'Logical Subjects and Existence', in which existence itself, objects of reference which are not particulars, and some questions of reductionism are discussed.
  3. The book is a remarkable achievement. It considers a large range of fundamental topics in a detailed, subtle and closely-related manner. It achieves a high degree of systematic unity, greater in fact than one may at first suppose; there is a good deal of detailed argument which makes it not always easy to keep the structural connections in view. The variety and suggestiveness of its content, and the closeness of its argumentative texture, demand a notice as long as the book. I regret to say that the present notice manages to be about one-eighth of the length of the book, without discussing one-eighth of the questions that invite discussion.
  4. This notice falls into four sections.
    1. In the first I discuss Strawson's account of particular-identification, and
    2. In the second certain problems in his treatment of space and time. These sections are almost entirely concerned with the first chapter of the book, and, in both, questions are raised about the notion of reference.
    3. In the third section I consider Strawson's concept of a basic particular, and go on to discuss the relation of this to his treatment of individuals as a whole, and to some theses of the second part of the book.
    4. The fourth section offers, fairly independently of the rest, some criticisms of Strawson's chapter on persons.
    I have not been able to consider at all the chapter on sounds, nor that on monads, nor much of the logical matter in the second part.
  5. There is one general question raised by Individuals, which is of great importance, but which I have been able to touch on only obliquely. This concerns the nature and limits of what Strawson calls 'descriptive metaphysics'; it may be felt that there is too little determinacy in the idea of 'our actual conceptual system', and in the canons of argument that seek to establish, as Strawson does, the primacy of certain things in this system over others, for the aims of descriptive metaphysics to be entirely clear. These seem to me to be genuine questions; but as Strawson has written a book that admirably seeks not to describe descriptive metaphysics, but to produce some, I have correspondingly tried in this notice to consider the results rather than the nature of the activity. The third section, however, on basic particulars, does raise issues that concern the ultimate purpose of Strawson's type of enquiry.


"Williams (Bernard) - Knowledge and Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

"Williams (Bernard) - Deciding to Believe"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

"Williams (Bernard) - Imperative Inference"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

"Williams (Bernard) - Ethical Consistency"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self
COMMENT: Photocopy filed in "Various - Papers on Ethics Boxes: Vol 3 (O-Z)".

"Williams (Bernard) - Consistency and Realism"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

"Williams (Bernard) - Morality and the Emotions"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

"Williams (Bernard) - The Idea of Equality"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

"Williams (Bernard) - Egoism and Altruism"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

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