The Constitution of Selves: Locke and the Person Led View
Interview by Richard Marshall.
‘Locke is not, of course, the first to suggest that a person could come apart from the human body with which she is associated. What is novel and important in his discussion of identity, however, is that he does not conclude from this, as others have, that a person is therefore an immaterial soul rather than a material body. If a soul is thought of as an immaterial substance, Locke says, there is no reason to suppose that the flow of consciousness could not be transferred as easily from one soul to another as it is from one human body to another.‘
‘Our lives are unified, ongoing events that unfold over time and constitute a single, persisting person who is the right kind of entity to be the target of different kinds of practical concerns at different phases of her life. Infants are to be taught and nurtured and adults to be held morally responsible. So it is true of persons sa wholes that they are beings who can be held morally responsible for what they do, but not throughout the whole of their lives.‘
Marya Schechtman is a Professor of Philosophy and a member of UIC’s Laboratory of Integrated Neuroscience. She specializes in the philosophy of personal identity, with special attention to the connection between ethical and metaphysical identity questions. She also works on practical reasoning and the philosophy of mind, and has an interest in Existentialism, bioethics, and philosophy and technology. Here she talks about the philosophical issues arising from personal identity, Locke’s approach , what he meant by ‘forensic’, links between his approach and contemporary psychological theories, the link between metaphysical fact and practical judgment, how her approach expands the inclusivity of Locke’s notion of personal identity, Locke’s approach and animalism, multiplicity, the Narrative Self-Constitution view, the person life view, why animalism opposes this view, how her position still involves a metaphysical position and what is meant by ‘literal identity’. Finally she offers some thoughts about the issue of gender imbalance in professional philosophy. Keep asking, keep thinking…
3:AM: Why did you become a philosopher?
Marya Schechtman: I’m not sure I can really answer that question. I have always been interested in the kinds of questions philosophers ask. I actually think most people are interested in these questions; the difference comes in how we frame them and what methods we use to address them. As it turns out, the framing and methods of philosophy work extremely well for me. In terms of biography, I have noticed a correlation between becoming a philosopher and having been a big Twilight Zone fan as a kid- which I was. I was also lucky enough to go to a high school that offered an Existentalism class, which was really the right thing at the right time. In college, I had outstanding teachers and mentors who motivated and encouraged me. I really liked the fact that philosophy was more of a method than a subject matter, so that in studying philosophy I did not really have to choose between investigating the questions that absorbed me in, for instance, psychology, anthropology, and math, as I would have if I had chosen one of those majors. I am also a really slow reader, so it was great for me that in a philosophy class you could spend weeks discussing five pages of Descartes’ Meditations, as opposed to my English Literature course, for instance, where we were supposed to read eight Dickens novels in ten weeks. By the time I graduated college I was completely enthralled by philosophy and decided I really had to at least try to make a living discussing and writing about the questions that had grabbed me when I first watched Twilight Zone episodes. Fortunately for me it turned out that I could. It’s a pretty wonderful life.
3:AM: You’re interested in the philosophical issues surrounding personal identity. Could you start off by telling us a little about the problem as it has been usually approached by philosophers historically. What have been the main issues that philosophers have grappled with?
MS: There are many different problems that might be called the problem of personal identity. As I put it elsewhere, the question “Who am I?” might be asked either by an amnesia victim or a confused adolescent, and it is a different question in each case. When we think about questions of personal identity in everyday life we tend to think more about the kinds of questions that would be raised by the adolescent – questions about what we truly believe, value, and desire, or where we fit into the world. While philosophers certainly do talk about these issues, “the problem of personal identity” in analytic philosophy usually brings to mind something more like the amnesic’s question. It is a question about what makes someone at age 60 the same person she was at age 15, despite all the many ways in which she might have changed. This question of personal identity is a specific instance of a more general and very ancient worry about the conditions under which complex objects persist through change. If I replace the boards of a wooden ship gradually over many years until I have a ship that has no wood in common with the original is it still the same ship? What if I replace 30% all at once? 50%? What if I take it apart and fly the planks across the country and build a ship just like the first out of them, is it the same ship as the original? What if I divide the original boards in half and build two ships, each with half of the original boards and half new boards? You get the idea. These are the general kinds of puzzles about the identity of objects that philosophers ask. The problem of personal identity is seen as a special case of this general investigation, just as the question of boat identity is.
3:AM: Locke is a key figure in this history isn’t he? Can you sketch Locke’s approach and what is meant by him saying that person is a ‘forensic term’?
MS: Yes, Locke in many ways sets the framework of the current debate on personal identity with his discussion of this topic in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke makes three very important claims in this discussion: (1) That the identity criteria for an object will depend upon the type of object it is. An atom, a watch, and a tree, for instance, will have different conditions for their persistence. (2) That the concepts of “man” (by which he means humans) and “person” are distinct, and so there will be different persistence conditions for humans and persons. (3) That the continuation of the same person does not require the continuation of any substance, material or immaterial, but depends instead upon sameness of consciousness.
The first point he argues for as part of his general philosophical program. The argument for the second trades on very common intuitions that it is fully imaginable that a person might somehow come apart from her body. This is a very familiar feature of folktales and other kinds of stories. There are, for instance, loads of films of this sort – think Freaky Friday in which, we are told, “a mother and daughter switch bodies with hilarious results.” If a person can move from one body to another, the person cannot be identical to hre body; a thing cannot be detached from itself. Locke makes liberal use of these kinds of cases to argue for his account of personal identity. He asks us, for instance, to imagine that the consciousness of a prince is moved to the body of a cobbler. When we think about this case he says, we will see at once that the individual with the prince’s consciousness and the cobbler’s body is the same person as the prince even though he is the same human as the cobbler, so these concepts cannot be the same.
Locke is not, of course, the first to suggest that a person could come apart from the human body with which she is associated. What is novel and important in his discussion of identity, however, is that he does not conclude from this, as others have, that a person is therefore an immaterial soul rather than a material body. If a soul is thought of as an immaterial substance, Locke says, there is no reason to suppose that the flow of consciousness could not be transferred as easily from one soul to another as it is from one human body to another. Were this to happen, he says, it is clear that the person would once again go with the consciousness rather than with the substance. Think, for instance, of a form of reincarnation in which your current soul is scrubbed of all of its attributes, thoughts, memories and traits and then recycled in a new baby who grows up to have its own stream of consciousness. The fact that my soul is reused after I die does not constitute my continuing any more than the fact that the matter that now makes up my body may one day, centuries in the future, come back together in some other human body with no consciousness of my current life. And since immaterial substances are not perceivable by the senses, for all I know my consciousness is transferred to a new soul every night while I sleep. Even if that is happening it does not keep me from waking up each morning. Souls, if they exist, are not any more relevant to my personal continuation than bodies are, Locke argues, and sameness of person does not consist in sameness of substance, material or immaterial, but only in the psychological relation of sameness of consciousness.
You asked about Locke’s claim that person is a “forensic” term. This is a fourth, absolutely crucial, element of his view. He says that persons are not the same as humans or souls, but then what are they? His answer to this question is that a person is a locus of certain kinds of sophisticated practical capabilities and judgments, in particular the capacities for moral responsibility and prudential reasoning. A person is the kind of thing that can rightly be held responsible for the actions that it takes, or chastised for its irrationality. Since consciousness (which Locke thinks of as reflective self-consciousness) is necessary for these capacities, he concludes that to be a person is to be a rational, reflectively self-conscious being.
Particular forensic judgments are also associated with sameness of person. We typically think that it is appropriate to hold me directly responsible only for what I have done, and that I am rational to care in a particular way about the quality of my future experience that it is not rational to care about the quality of the future of others. (I can care about their future wellbeing a lot, I may even be morally obligated to, but I will care about it in a different way that does not involve anticipating it). We can only explain the connection between these judgments and personal identity, Locke suggests, if we accept his view of what constitutes the continuation of a person. What makes me responsible for some past action is not that I am made out of the same material stuff as the person who took it, or that I possess the same immaterial substance, but rather that I am the same conscious subject who decided to take it. Similarly, it is rational for me to put up with the pain of getting a filling now to avoid the much more horrible dental procedure I will otherwise suffer later only if I will be the subject who experiences that future procedure.
The claim that “person” is a forensic term thus suggests a particular method for evaluating proposed accounts of personal identity. Whatever relation identity is defined in terms of should illuminate the practical judgments associated with facts about identity. When Locke asks us to imagine the case of the prince and the cobbler, for instance, he points out that the person with the cobbler’s body and the prince’s consciousness would be responsible for what the prince has done and not for the cobbler’s past deeds. This is taken as evidence for the claim that when sameness of consciousness and sameness of body split the person goes with the consciousness.
3:AM: Is there a link between his views and some contemporary psychological continuity theories? Do these modern accounts leave out what you think is important in Locke’s account, which is the link between the personal identity of someone and the practical?
MS: There are very close links between contemporary psychological continuity theories and Locke’s view. In many respects the contemporary views grow out of Locke’s, taking his account as a starting point and developing it in ways that are aimed at avoiding some of the difficulties his view encounters. One difficulty with Locke’s account is that, intuitive as it may sound to say that personal identity consists in sameness of consciousness, it is no easy thing to say just what sameness of consciousness is. Traditionally (but not exclusively) people have interpreted Locke as holding the view that some past experience is mine if I can remember it “from the inside.” The parallel claim about the future would be that some future person will be me if that person will be able to remember my current experiences from the inside. As it turns out, there are many very serious difficulties with this simple memory theory, and so anyone wanting to develop Locke’s insight needs another way of filling in the details. This is what psychological continuity theorists offer.
These theorists argue that personal identity consists not quite in sameness of consciousness, but in psychological continuity. This is defined in terms of overlapping chains of psychological connections, usually with the requirement that the connections be “appropriately caused” (defined differently in different versions of the view) and that the relation hold uniquely (i.e., there is only one person at any time to whom I am psychologically connected). A psychological connection in this context is the kind of connection that holds between a memory and the experience remembered, or between different moments of a continuing belief, value, desire, thought, or what have you. So what the psychological continuity theory basically says is that what makes me the same person I was at my sixth birthday party is that right now I have many psychological connections to myself yesterday, and yesterday I had many psychological connections to myself the day before, and so on back to that six-year-old.
Psychological continuity theories share many of the most important and innovative features of Locke’s view. They maintain the distinction between persons and humans, claim that personal identity consists in a psychological relation rather than in the persistence of a substance, and view “person” as a forensic term, employing the same basic method Locke did to argue for their account of personal identity. The examples psychological continuity theorists use in their arguments are more high tech than Locke’s. Instead of a cobbler’s body being informed by the consciousness of a prince, for instance, they ask us to imagine brain transplants or replication machines. Like Locke, however, they argue that if we reflect on these cases, and think about how we would make judgments about moral responsibility and prudential reasoning were they to occur, we will see that when psychological continuity comes apart from continuity of substance the person goes with the psychological continuity.
The ironic thing, though, is that once psychological continuity theories have provided a precise account of the relation that constitutes personal identity according to their view, the theory no longer seems true to the insights that inspired it. When the details of the relation of psychological continuity are articulated, it seems to many people far too thin a relation to make sense of the forensic judgments we connect with personal identity. Psychological continuity, it is argued, is basically a relation of sameness; it ensures that the psychological make up of a person will change only gradually. But this is not enough in the minds of many to underwrite the ethical practices associated with personal identity. The arguments here are rather complicated, and of course psychological continuity theorists have offered a variety of replies to this kind of objection, but it is striking that the most difficult challenge for the view arises with respect to precisely what was supposed to be its greatest strength.
3:AM: To some it’ll seem odd that the practical issues are anything like the question of what personal identity is literally. Philosophers like Korsgaard and Olson think this don’t they – the former seeing it as a matter of value theory and the latter as metaphysics. Why don’t you?
MS: This is a difficult question for me to answer. Although those in the Lockean tradition tend to take it for granted that there is a close connection between the metaphysical fact of personal identity and practical judgments, there are also many who deny this connection in one way or another. As you say, Eric Olson argues that if we are really interested in the metaphysical notion of identity – what it takes for an entity like one of us to persist over time – our practical concerns have no obvious role to play. I am some kind of substance, Olson claims, and there is some metaphysical fact about whether I continue to exist or not. There is no reason, however, to think that our judgments about moral responsibility or egoistic concern would have any impact on, or necessary relation to, that fact. Christine Korsgaard, on the other hand, argues that the kind of unity a person has is the unity of an agent, not the unity of a thing or substance. It is a practical unity, not a metaphysical one on her view, and so we do not even need to raise the metaphysical question of identity over time when we are talking about persons.
I cannot give a direct argument for the claim that there is a connection between the metaphysics of persons and practical concerns. What I can say is this: It seems to me that there is something very right about the general Lockean idea that the practical aspect of our existence – our concerns and attachments and interactions with others – are not just something we do, but part of our most fundamental nature. This suggests that our very persistence must be somehow connected to these practical elements. So far, however, this is just the expression of a hunch. What I undertake to do in the book is provide a plausible account of personhood and personal identity where practical features do play such a role. The hope is that the view will be attractive enough to support my position about the relation between the practical and metaphysical aspects of personal identity.
3:AM: Infants and people with severe dementia don’t have personal identity on Locke’s theory do they? How does your approach expand the inclusivity of personal identity?
MS: Locke’s conception of personhood is linked to the sophisticated higher-order capacities which make us moral and rational agents. This is an important conception, and one that plays a role in our lives. Before prosecuting someone, for instance, the legal system is typically interested in determining whether she is, by virtue of youth or some kind of deficit, unable to understand the meaning and consequences of her actions. So the Lockean person (call it the “moral person”) is a valuable conception. The difficulty arises, however, when we use this concept to investigate the metaphysical persistence conditions of an entity called a “person.” This is what Eric Olson and others argue so effectively against psychological continuity theories. As Olson (and others) point out, it does not seem as if a new entity comes into existence when a child gains the capacities of moral personhood; it seems as if something (someone) who was there before gains new capacities. And it does not seem as if an entity ceases to exist when someone develops dementia or suffers a head injury that robs her of reflective self-consciousness and rationality. It just seems like someone has tragically lost important and highly-valued capacities.
These observations lead Olson and others to argue for a position known as “animalism,” the view that we human persons are identical to human animals and have biological persistence conditions (as all living things do). On this view each of us begins to exist when a human organism begins to exist and lasts until the human organism dies. During this time we may become persons or cease to be persons, but this is just gaining or losing attributes. Personhood is just a characteristic of some more basic thing. In our case, the animalist says, that more basic thing is a human animal.
I think the considerations animalists raise do show that the Lockean conception of personhood (moral personhood), important as it is, cannot be used to tell us what kinds of things we most fundamentally are or to provide us with an account of our actual persistence conditions. We do not begin to exist when we become Lockean persons and do not cease to exist when we cease to be Lockean persons. But I also think that the animalist position, as initially plausible as it sounds, oversimplifies our nature, and here is where I start to answer your question more directly. I argue that the reason it sounds strange to say that a new entity comes into existence when a child gains the capacities of Lockean personhood or that an entity ceases to exist when these capacities are lost is not only, or even primarily, because there is a single organism throughout, but because we establish relationships and develop practical concerns for other people long before the capacities of Lockean personhood come on board. Our relationships with others and concern for them also continue after they are lost.
A parent, for instance, will find it absurd to say that a new entity comes into existence when her child develops the sophisticated capacities Locke emphasizes; she will almost certainly insist that this is the same child she has loved and nurtured all along. The parent’s reasons for saying this are likely to have little to do with the metaphysical conditions for the persistence of an organism, however, and much to do with the ongoing relationship she has with this child. The parent has already interacted with the child in multiple person-specific ways and taken a host of person-specific interests in her. The child is named and talked to, sung to and played with and clothed. Perhaps she has been inducted into a religious community or granted dual citizenship. All of this happens before the child has any of the capacities Locke talks about. The child is already living the life of a person by that time, and the development of the Lockean capacities fits into that life, enhances it, and becomes part of its continuous flow.
So I agree with Locke and the Lockeans that identity is connected to practical concerns, but I think that the practical considerations on which Locke relies – assessments of moral responsibility and the rationality of egoistic concern – are only a very few of the vast number of practical concerns and judgments associated with personhood and personal identity. I therefore think that there is a practically-based conception of what it is to be a person that is more basic than Locke’s. Like the Lockean conception, it sees the person as a unified locus of practical judgments, but the range of judgments is much greater, including also those directed at infants and the demented.
3:AM: The problem of multiplicity is a big challenge for your approach isn’t it? Can you say exactly what the issue is and how your idea of a Narrative Self-Constitution View helps to provide a solution?
MS: The problem of multiplicity arises because of the more inclusive view of personhood I endorse. I am thinking of a person as a locus of a huge number of practical concerns, judgments, and interactions, not just the very limited, forensic concerns on which Lockeans focus. On my view, then, a person is a locus not only of judgments about morality and prudence, but of the full range of attitudes, concerns and judgments involved in our interactions with one another, including those appropriate to an infant child or a relative with dementia. The challenge I have set myself is to provide an account of personal identity which explains or justifies the fact that these attitudes, concerns and judgments are connected to facts about identity. So I am trying to do roughly what Locke and the psychological continuity theorists were trying to do, but for a much wider range of practical concerns. What I call “the problem of multiplicity” is a theoretical challenge that arises from the fact that different practical concerns seem to require different kinds of relations to explain or support them. The relation that makes it so important to me whether the toddler injured at daycare was mine or someone else’s is different from the relation that makes me justified in holding the contractor I hired responsible for getting the remodeling done on time, and this is different still from what makes it necessary for me to know whether the patient I am about to treat is the one who had the allergic reaction to antibiotics last month. It is thus not obvious how it could be possible to define a single relation of personal identity which would explain and justify the full range of our practical concerns.
To bring the point home, we can think of it this way: There is general agreement that there are some practical attitudes and judgments that are appropriate when dealing with typical adults that are not appropriate when dealing with toddlers (e.g. assessments of moral responsibility or complaints about failures of rationality). But the relation which makes a three-year-old the same person as an earlier one-year-old and the relation which makes a forty-year-old the same person as an earlier thirty-year-old should be the same relation of personal identity. Since neither three-year-olds nor one-year-olds are capable of full-blown moral responsibility, the relation that makes them same person cannot, it would seem, be a relation which supports the praise or blame of the three-year-old based on the moral choices of the one-year-old. In order to support the full range of our practical concerns and judgments about persons, however, the relationship that is given as the one that constitutes identity will have to be a relation that supports and explains the fact that we do praise or blame the forty-year-old for the moral choices of the thirty-year-old. So the problem is that once I expand the relevant practical concerns in the way we do it is not clear how a single relation could support and illuminate all of them. Without such a relation, however, I have not provided an account of personal identity that works throughout the whole of a person’s life.
The Narrative Self-Constitution view doesn’t provide an immediate and direct answer to this challenge, but it does help by giving us a different way of thinking about the way in which the relation that constitutes identity can justify this wide array of concerns. The problem arises when we look at the relation holding between two person time-slices (first between the three-year-old and the one-year-old and next between the forty-year-old and the thirty-year-old) and assume that being the same relation it must have the same practical implications in both instances. I propose instead that we think of the relation as one which produces a particular kind of diachronic whole of which it is true that particular concerns of different types are appropriate at different phases of its extended history. The notion of narrative and the device of thinking of our lives in narrative terms helps to see how this would work.
The crucial feature of narrative in this context is its holism. All of the events in a narrative are equally part of that narrative, and it is being part of a single narrative thread that holds them together. There are, however, things that are true of the narrative whole that are not true of each of its parts. A narrative may, for instance, be suspenseful. This does not mean that every stretch of the narrative is suspenseful. It may be, in fact, that for the narrative as a whole to be suspenseful it is necesary that some parts lack suspense altogether. My move is to say that there is a similar kind of unity to the life of a person. Our lives are unified, ongoing events that unfold over time and constitute a single, persisting person who is the right kind of entity to be the target of different kinds of practical concerns at different phases of her life. Infants are to be taught and nurtured and adults to be held morally responsible. So it is true of persons sa wholes that they are beings who can be held morally responsible for what they do, but not throughout the whole of their lives.
3:AM: How does this new position differ from what you used to think in your first book?
MS: In the first book I am addressing a different question than I am in this one. There I was trying to provide an account of the identity of the Lockean (or moral) person, just as psychological continuity theorists are. As I mentioned earlier, once these theorists spell out the relation of psychological continuity it seems unable to do what it was devised to do, which is to capture Locke’s idea that personal identity must be defined in terms of a psychological relation in order to make sense of the way in which our forensic judgments are connected to facts about personal identity. I argue that these views fail in this way because psychological continuity as defined in these views is the wrong kind of psychological relation to spell out the insights found in Locke’s view. My proposal in that book is that it is closer to Locke’s original insight to think of the unity of a life in terms of the unity of a self-narrative, or narrative experience of self.
I still stand by something like the narrative view as a way of answering questions about the basis for our forensic judgments. For the reasons given by animalists, however, I do not think that this view is viable as an account of our literal persistence as entities (although, for the reasons given in the previous answer, I do think it’s a useful heuristic in that context as well). In the new book I try to give an account of this literal identity and defend the more inclusive view of persons described above.
3:AM: Your new position is what you call the person life view isn’t it? How does this work?
MS: The person life view says that to be a person is to lead a characteristic kind of life – a person life. Persons are individuated by individuating person lives and an individual person lasts as long as a person life does. So the trick, of course, is to say what a person life is and what is required for a single person life to continue. A person life is most easily described in contrast to a biological life. Animalists argue that we are organisms, and persist as long as a single organism does, which is the length of a biological life. A biological life, in this context, is basically understood as the set of internal, biochemical processes (e.g. metabolism, circulation, respiration, immune response) that maintain the form and function of the whole.
The person life view argues that this is too unidimensional an understanding of beings like us (here I focus on human persons, although I leave open the possibility that there might be nonhuman persons as well – that’s a longer story). Human persons are biological beings, but they are also psychological and social beings, and the biological, psychological, and social aspects of our lives are inextricably intertwined. We are well aware that the psychological aspects of our lives depend upon the functioning of the brain and nervous system, but it is also the case that psychological events impact our biological functioning. For instance, anxiety about an impending interview can cause one’s heart to race and stress hormones to be produced; consistent exposure to stress can permanently alter biological functioning. Similarly, our social interactions and capabilities depend upon our psychological and biological functioning, but also impact them in direct ways. It is becoming increasingly clear, for instance, that the development of healthy brain functioning requires that infants receive appropriate social support; they must be talked to, touched and cared for. Social organization influences diet (think agriculture), immune function (think sanitation and vaccination), reproduction (think of just about anything we do) and other fundamental biological functions. We are, I claim, inherently bio/psycho/social beings, constituted by interactions involving dynamic feedback between biological, psychological, and social processes.
In trying to provide an account of personhood many philosophers are starting from the premise that there is some key feature that separates persons from non-persons. Our paradigmatic cases of persons are human persons, and so those taking this approach ask what it is that distinguishes human persons from all of the other animals which are not persons. The Lockean approach, as we have seen, is to say that it is the capacity for forensic interactions which distinguishes persons from non-persons. I am suggesting instead that it is the capacity to develop, maintain and live within a social and cultural infrastructure. The lives of persons are thoroughly conditioned by social and cultural institutions like religions, ethical systems, economies, political structures, systems of education, organized sporting events, and artistic traditions. To be a person on this view, is to be an entity that lives within the confines of a culture. Cultures vary a great deal with respect to time and place, of course, and there is great variation of lifestyle within a single culture. The person life view does not suggest that any particular cultural organization is required for personhood, only that one live a form of life mediated by cultural institutions, whatever their particularities.
The person life view says that an individual person continues to exist as long as a single person life does, and so of course it needs to say something about the conditions of the continuation of such a life. Here, it is useful to begin by thinking about debates concerning the conditions for the continuation of the same biological life. As it turns out, there is considerable disagreement about when a human life ends – some argue it ends with the irreversible cessation of circulation and respiration, others when there is whole brain death, and others when higher brain function ceases. There is one approach, offered by Winston Chiong, which I find especially intriguing. He suggests that rather than choosing some one of these functions as the defining feature of life and death we think of these instead as cluster concepts. In a healthy organism, different systems interact, supporting one another and maintaining the integrity and functioning of the organism as a whole. Should one of these systems decline or fail it will have an impact on the others. The exact impact will depend upon the complicated dynamics of the system – perhaps other systems will compensate or perhaps there will be a domino effect in which all of the systems start to fail and the integrity of the organism is lost, resulting in death. The key point is that there are many different pathways to both life and death. The difference between living and dying consists not in the continuation or cessation of some one function, but rather in retention or loss of the overall integrity that results when enough of these systems function effectively together. I really like this idea, but would apply it to the conception of a person life instead of a biological life. We are complex bio/psycho/social beings, and in the healthy state these elements work together to produce a functioning, whole person. A person life can thus continue or end in an even greater variety of ways.
3:AM: So if there is no single relation or small set of relations we need for a personal identity to hold then how do we track a person according to your approach?
MS: When we think of biological life and death as cluster concepts the question we are asking is whether a single, unified organism continues through whatever changes or deficits emerge. Exactly how that unified organism might continue – on life support or dialysis or whatever – will vary depending on which systems are impacted. The person life view holds that a person is an integrated locus of interpersonal interaction and concern, so as long as there is a single, trackable locus of such interaction the person has continued. This can happen in different kinds of circumstances. In the case of someone with severe dementia or in a vegetative state, for instance, there is very little interaction, but there is a continuing locus of interpersonal concern. There are a host of practical questions about whether and how someone in such a state is to be maintained and treated, and these questions are, in the typical case, especially salient to those who have a particular kind of history with her. So a person life can continue, albeit in a deeply depleted state, even with the loss of psychological continuity and severe attenuation of social functioning. It is also true, however, that if we could perfect cerebrum transplants that moved psychological functioning intact from one body to another, all social/interpersonal relations would likely be directed to the individual in the new body with the original consciousness, just as predicted in Locke’s prince and cobbler case. The locus of concern is tracked there in this case. So it also seems that a person life could continue without biological continuity on the strength of psychological and social continuity.
The direct answer to your question, then, is that we track a person through our practices of interaction. This may seem to make the question of personal identity frighteningly conventional, since it seems up to us to decide whether a person survives some vicissitude based on how we choose to treat the individual who emerges. This is not the case, however. Our fundamental practices are not something we simply decide to adopt; they develop organically over time and are necessarily responsive to facts about the world and about ourselves. The person life view does allow for some variation at the margins – the exact moment when a person life which has been going steeply downhill comes finally to an end may, for instance, vary somewhat with social practice. There is no room, however, for disagreement about paradigm cases. The view does not allow that we can decide that when an individual becomes moderately demented or marries out of the faith or whatever there is no longer a trackable locus of interaction and the person life is over.
3:AM: Why would Olson and the animalists not like this theory? How do you face them down?
MS: Animalism tends to be based on a rather conservative kind of metaphysics which holds that the world is given with well-defined individuals whose boundaries are completely independent of our judgments or concerns. Each individual belongs essentially to one kind on this view, and this kind determines its persistence conditions. Animalists see “human organism” as a basic kind of thing to be. Since we human persons are human organisms, wherever there is a human person there is a human organism with biological persistence conditions. If “person” is also a fundamental kind, a person must be an independent entity in its own right, distinct from the human organism, with its own persistence conditions. If this is the case, then wherever there is a human person there must also be a person, an entity distinct from the human organism but materially coincident with it. Animalists argue that this is not only implausible, but problematic in all kinds of ways. Since my view holds that we are persons and persons are not identical to human organisms, animalists would see it as subject to these problems.
My response to this is two pronged. First, I question whether the animalist view really is any more metaphysically plausible than the alternatives it rejects. It certainly sounds commonsensical to say that we are all human organisms and that a human organism is a kind of thing, but when we look closely at how this plays out as a developed metaphysical view it has some serious infelicities of its own. Olson, for instance, acknowledges that animalism works best with an ontology in which the only genuine objects are simples and organisms. There are not actually any chairs or tables or cars or houses on this view, just atoms arranged chair-wise, table-wise, car-wise, and house-wise. For many people this is just as implausible as the claim that wherever there is a human person there are two materially coincident entities. I would also add that if persons as I define them are as real as chairs, tables, cars and houses I can live with that, even if they do not meet the highest metaphysical standards of respectable substancehood. It is therefore not clear that even granting this ontology my view would be in trouble.
The other prong of my response, however, is to reject Olson’s metaphysics. Among other things, I deny that “organisms” as animalists define them exist. There are, of course, living things, and these living things have inner biochemical functions that maintain them. I have no desire to deny any of that. My point is that we cannot understand living things solely in terms of their inner functions, and the more complex the living thing the truer this is. To begin with, all living things depend upon interactions with their environment to maintain themselves, so there are life-sustaining behaviors as well as life-sustaining inner biochemical processes. The next step is to point out that for some kinds of living things, the environment with which they must interact effectively to maintain form and function includes the social environment. Humans, I ultimately argue, maintain themselves in part through their social/cultural infrastructure.
The claim then is that a human “organism,” in the sense of a biochemical machine, is not a fundamental kind of entity but rather an abstraction from a full-blown human person. If we look at a human person we can focus our attention only on the strictly biochemical aspects of her life and talk about her as an organism. Or we can concentrate solely on the strictly psychological aspects of her life and talk about her as a psychological subject. Or we can concentrate on the strictly social aspects of her life and talk about her as an agent. Each of these, however, is an abstraction from a whole life, and understanding any of these aspects of a life fully will ultimately require reference to the others. It is in this regard that I claim that there are no organisms in Olson’s sense of the term. It is possible to operate with a broader conception of “organism” of course, which includes the psychological and social aspects of a human existence, but this is not a conception of organism that animalists would accept, and it would seriously compromise their arguments to do so.
3:AM: By removing personal identity from metaphysics aren’t you also moving it from science? Could there be a science of persons? They seem more like Tuesdays than lions?
MS: I am not completely willing to concede that I have removed personal identity from metaphysics. I actually think I have offered a metaphysical account of personal identity; it is just that my metaphysics is quite different from that which has traditionally been part of this discussion.
If the worry is about the cluster model and the fact that I give no necessary and sufficient conditions for the continuation of a person, I don’t see why this should take personal identity out of the realm of scientific investigation. Accepting a cluster model of biological life and death, for instance, does not imply that medical science has nothing to tell us about when this occurs. Biology can tell use a great deal about how the different biochemical systems found in humans interact to maintain the form and function of the whole, as well as providing insight into the likely implications of different kinds of failures or deficits and how they can be addressed. This is just what medical science does.
Something very similar is true of persons as defined in the person life view, it is just that in this case there are more sciences (and types of science) involved. In addition to biology and related physical sciences there is psychology, sociology, anthropology and other social sciences which help uncover the mechanisms that maintain the integrity of human persons. There have, for instance, been amazing discoveries about the ways in which social interaction promotes brain development, how psychological abuse interferes with physical health, why elderly individuals with limited social interaction tend to suffer more cognitive deficits and health problems than those with social support networks, and a host of similar issues. All of these are scientific investigations into the way biological, psychological, and social factors interact to maintain the form and function of the person as a whole and so scientific investigations into the nature of human persons.
3:AM: You say that your theory is about ‘literal identity’. What do you mean by ‘literal’ here?
MS: This is an excellent question and I don’t have as good an answer as I should, I’m afraid. Philosophers of personal identity usually describe their goal as providing an account of what makes a person at one time numerically identical to a person at another time. The notion of numerical identity, however, is not entirely transparent. It can be something very thin – the relation everything has to itself and to nothing else – but in the context of the personal identity debate it is often thickened up in ways that bring in substantive metaphysical commitments that I don’t want to take on board. So I talk about “literal” identity rather than numerical identity to avoid taking up those commitments, while at the same time signaling that I am addressing questions about our identity in a very fundamental, non-metaphorical sense. I might say, for instance, that Uncle Jim is a completely different person since he lost his job. This is metaphorical. If he were not still Uncle Jim in some basic, literal sense the person before me would not have lost Uncle Jim’s job (Uncle Jim did that) and it would not be all that remarkable that he seems so different from Uncle Jim as I knew him. In giving an account of literal identity I am trying to give an account of the sense in which the individual in this case is still Uncle Jim. I am addressing the same basic question as animalists and psychological continuity theorists, and mean my view to be a competitor to theirs.
3:AM: As a successful philosopher working in the Academy, are there difficulties for women in the academy that you think don’t face men and if so how do you account for them? Is there something weird going on in philosophy departments that is avoided elsewhere? What can be done?
MS: Hard question. I wish I had an answer, but I really don’t. Something obviously is going on because the numbers are very striking. There are very few women in philosophy relative to other fields, and the numbers are not getting larger in the way one would expect. Reflecting on personal experience I cannot put my finger on any specific element of philosophy as a profession that would be responsible. I have to say that I always felt supported and encouraged by my teachers and mentors. I am appalled in retrospect by some of the instances of sexism I encountered during my education and early career, but many of those were the kind of thing generally common to the time and things really have changed a lot. There is still plenty of more subtle bias and sometimes it can be discouraging, but I can’t say that I experience this more in the world of philosophy than elsewhere.
One thing that may contribute in a strange way is the toolkit of the philosophical trade. Philosophers typically have a strong explicit commitment to equity and inclusion. Since the profession involves so much reflection and introspection, I think that we can sometimes assume that since we reflect so hard and approach all appearances with skepticism we are immune to implicit or undetected bias, even though empirical work makes it pretty clear that virtually no one is. Our reflectiveness may thus ironically make us more opaque to ourselves in some ways than those who are, for instance, regularly tracking empirical results in their work. Recently a friend from graduate school, Sharon Lloyd, suggested something related that may be at work here. Philosophers tend to be very focused on “smartness” or depth of thought. Many of our heroes are strong individualists, frequently difficult people who produce difficult work, which can only be understood and appreciated by others with sufficient philosophical talent and insight. I do not mean to discount the legitimacy of these heroes, most of whom I admire very much. But the sensibility that brilliance is more important than widely-accessible results does allow for a great deal of subjectivity in the evaluation of those to whom we might give fellowships or graduate admission or jobs or honors, and is likely to favor those most like the already empowered.
I wish I knew what to do about this. All I can think is that we need to continue to encourage women students with interest and talent in philosophy to pursue a career in the field. And we have to be willing to call one another on our biases when we see them, and to do so in a way that is constructive and non-accusatory. I wish I had something less clichéd to say, but I am not sure I have a clear sense of the problem, let alone how to solve it.
3:AM: And for the curious readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
MS: There are so many books that have influenced my thinking on this topic that it is very difficult to choose five. John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, especially the section on identity and diversity, is an obvious choice.
Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit also has to be on the list.
The Human Animal: Personal Identity without Thought Experiments by Eric Olson describes the animalist view I am reacting against.
The Claim of Reason by Stanley Cavell is an amazing book which has had an immense influence on my general approach to philosophical problems in general and this one in particular.
Finally, there is a book I just finished reading, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I wish I had known about it when I was working on the book, since it provides an empirically rich and very exciting account of the role of culture in human development which would have really helped me to explain why my view is a naturalist rather than conventionalist approach (plus it’s a really good read).
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 8th, 2016.