Skip to main content

Personal Identity

Image result for Parfit identity

The following observation arose in the course of a critique of philosopher Derek Parfit.  

"Even if the lower-level facts [that make up identity] do not in themselves matter, the higher-level fact may matter. If it does, the lower-level facts will have derived significance. They will matter, not in themselves, but because they constitute the higher level fact."


The quote is from Mark Johnstone, as part of a critique he wrote of Parfit's work on personal identity for a collection called DEREK PARFIT AND HIS CRITICS. 


Parfit didn't believe in personal identity. That is, he didn't believe there is any important sense aside from social convention why an "I" of 15 years old is the same person as an "I" of 45, thirty years later, however firmly the latter has memories that might be traced ultimately to the sensory organs of the former.


Parfit can perhaps best be understood as bringing into the Anglo-American analytical philosophical tradition a touch of Buddhism, where of course skepticism about an enduring "I" is familiar stuff. He employed science-fictional thought experiments to this end, such as the one illustrated in the comic whence I stole the above illustration.


Parfit was a “reductionist,” that is, he took the view that what we think are the facts about persons and personal identity can be reduced into more particular facts about brains, bodies, and interrelated mental and physical events. The latter, upon careful inquiry, turn out not to matter all that much, so hat which can be reduced into them doesn't matter either. 


That is what Johnstone was critiquing in the quote with which I began. One might say that he offers a coherentist justification for personal identity. It doesn't matter that none of the pieces seem important in themselves. They seem important and thus (given the subject matter) they are important, when seen together. 



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…