Identity. I am who I am
Identity. I am who I am
Identity. I am who I
Personal identity deals with questions about ourselves qua
people (or persons). The most common question is what it takes for us to
persist from one time to another. What is necessary, and what is sufficient,
for some past or future being to be you? But there are other questions
of equal interest and importance. Many are familiar thoughts that occur to
everyone at some time: What am I? When did I begin? What will happen to me when
I die? Philosophical discussions of personal identity go right back to the
origin of the discipline, and most major figures have had something to say
I will first survey the main philosophical questions that go
under the heading of personal identity. Most of the entry will then focus on
the question of personal identity over time: what it means and the main
proposed answers. I will try to show how these answers relate to some of the
other questions about personal identity, and to more general questions in
metaphysics and the philosophy of mind.
1. The Problems of Personal Identity
There is no one problem of personal identity, but a range of
loosely related problems. Discussions that go by the name of personal identity
are most often about questions like these:
Who am I? We often speak
of one's "personal identity" as what makes one the person one is.
Your identity in this sense consists roughly of those attributes that make you
unique as an individual and different from others. Or it is the way you see or
define yourself. Your individual psychological identity is a property that you
might have for a while and then lose. You could acquire a new identity, or
perhaps carry on without one.
Persistence. What does
it take for a person to persist--for the same person to exist at
different times? What sorts of adventures could you possibly survive? What sort
of thing would necessarily bring your existence to an end? What determines
which future being, or which past one, is you? You point to a girl in an old
photograph and say that she is you. What makes you that one--rather
than, say, one of the others? What is it about the way she relates to you as
you are now that makes her you? For that matter, what makes it the case that
you existed at all back then? An answer to this question is an account of our
persistence conditions, or a criterion of personal identity over time (a
constitutive rather than an evidential criterion: see the Evidence Question
Historically this question often arises out of the hope that
we might continue to exist after we die. Whether this is in any sense possible
depends on whether biological death is the sort of thing that one could
survive. Imagine that after your death there really will be someone, in the
next world or in this one, who is a bit like you. How would that being have to
relate to you as you are now in order to be you--rather than me, say,
or a new person who didn't exist before? What would the Higher Powers have to
do in order to resurrect you? Or is there anything they could do?
Evidence. How do we find
out who is who? What evidence bears on the question whether the person here now
is the one who was here yesterday? What ought we to do when different kinds of
evidence support opposing verdicts? One source of evidence is memory: if you
can remember doing something, or at least seem to remember it, it was probably
you who did it. Another source is physical continuity: if the person who did it
looks just like you, or even better if she is in some sense physically or
spatio-temporally continuous with you, that is reason to think she is you.
Which is more fundamental? Does memory supply evidence all by itself, for
instance, or does it count as evidence only insofar as it can be checked
against third-person, "bodily" evidence?
This question dominated the philosophical literature on
personal identity from the 1950s to the 1970s (Penelhum 1970 is a good
example). Though it is sometimes confused with the Persistence Question, the
two are not the same. What it takes for you to persist through time is one
thing; how we find out whether you have is another. If the criminal had
fingerprints just like yours, the courts may conclude that he is you. But even
if it is conclusive evidence, having your fingerprints is not what it is
for some past or future being to be you.
Population. If we think
of the Persistence Question as having to do with which of the characters
introduced at the beginning of a story have survived to become the characters
at the end of it, we can also ask how many characters are on the stage at any
one time. What determines how many of us there are now, or where one person
leaves off and someone or something else begins?
You may think that the number of people is simply the number
of human animals--members of the primate species Homo sapiens (perhaps
discounting those in a defective state that don't count as people). But this is
disputed. Surgeons sometimes cut the nerve bands connecting one's cerebral
hemispheres (commissurotomy), resulting in such peculiar behavior as
simultaneously pulling one's trousers up with one hand and down with the other.
Does this give us two people--two thinking, conscious beings? (See e.g. Nagel
1971. Puccetti 1973 argues that there are two people within the skin of every
normal human being.) Could a human being with split personality literally be
the home of two, or three, or seven different thinking beings? (Wilkes 1988:
This is sometimes called the problem of "synchronic
identity", as opposed to the "diachronic identity" of the
Persistence Question (and the "counterfactual identity" of the How
could I have been? Question below). But we shouldn't take this to imply that
identity comes in two kinds, synchronic and diachronic. There are, rather, two
kinds of situations where questions about the identity and diversity of people
and other concrete things arise: synchronic situations involving just one time
and diachronic ones involving several times.
Personhood. What is it
to be a person? What is necessary, and what is sufficient, for something to
count as a person, as opposed to a non-person? At what point in your
development from a fertilized egg did there come to be a person? What would it
take for a chimpanzee or a Martian or an electronic computer to be a person, if
they could ever be?
What am I? What sort of
things, metaphysically speaking, are you and I and other human people? What
metaphysical category, if you like, do we fall under? For instance, are we material
or immaterial? Are we substances, attributes, events, or something different
still? Are we made of matter, or of thoughts and experiences, or of nothing at
Here are some possible answers to this question. We might be
human animals. Surprisingly, most philosophers reject this answer. We will
return to it in Sections 6 and 7. We might be partless, immaterial souls (or,
alternatively, compound things made up of an immaterial soul and a material
body: see Swinburne 1984). Hume said that each of us appears to be "a
bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an
inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement" (1888:
252; see also Quinton 1962 and Rovane 1998: 212). A modern descendant of this
view says that you are a sort of computer program, a wholly abstract thing that
could in principle be stored on magnetic tape (a common idea in science
fiction). A popular view nowadays is that we are material objects
"constituted by" human animals: you are made of the same matter as a
certain animal, but you and the animal are different things because what it
takes for you to persist is different (Wiggins 1967: 48, Shoemaker 1984:
112-114, Baker 2000). Another is the idea that we are temporal parts of animals
(or in science fiction of more than one animal). There is even the paradoxical
view that we don't really exist at all. The existence of human people is a
metaphysical illusion. Many philosophers have denied their own existence (e.g.
Russell 1985: 50 and Unger 1979).
How could I have been?
How different could I have been from the way I actually am? Which of my
properties do I have essentially, and which only accidentally or contingently?
Could I have had different parents? Frank Sinatra and Doris Day might have had
children together. Could I have been one of them? Or could their children only
have been people other than me? Could I have died in the womb before I acquired
any mental features? Are there possible worlds just like the actual one except
for who is who--where people have "changed places" so that what is in
fact your career is my career and vice versa? Whether these are best described
as questions about personal identity is debatable. (They are not about whether
beings in other worlds are identical with people in the actual world: see van
Inwagen 1985.) But they are often discussed in connection with the others.
What matters? What is
the practical importance of facts about our identity and persistence? Imagine
that surgeons are going to put your brain into my head, and that neither of us
has any choice about this. Will the resulting person (who will think he is you)
be responsible for my actions, or for yours? Or both? Or neither? To whose
property will he be entitled? Suppose he will be in terrible pain after the
operation unless one of us pays a large sum in advance. If we were both
entirely selfish, which of us has a reason to pay?
The answer to these questions may seem to turn entirely on
whether the resulting person will be you or I. Only you can
be responsible for your actions. The only one whose future welfare you can't
ignore is yourself. You have a special, selfish interest in your own future,
and no one else's. But many philosophers deny this. They say that someone else
could be responsible for your actions. You could have an entirely selfish
reason to care about someone else's well-being for his own sake. I care, or
ought rationally to care, about what happens to Olson tomorrow not because he
is me, but because he is then psychologically continuous with me as I am now
(see Section 4), or because he relates to me in some other way that doesn't
imply numerical identity. If someone else tomorrow were psychologically
continuous with me as I am now, I ought to transfer my selfish concern to him.
(See Shoemaker 1970: 284; Parfit 1971, 1984: 215; Martin 1998.)
That completes our survey. Though these questions are related,
they are different, and it is important not to run them together. What they
have in common that makes them all questions about personal identity is
difficult to say.
- To talk about our identity, we try to
answer the question, "Who am I?"
- We have different kinds of identity:
national identity, social identity, cultural/racial identity, class
identity, familial identity, gender identity, sexual identity, etc.
All these identities are formed beyond our control (at least
partly). (This explains why some contemporary theories say
that we have multiple
identity and that our identity is split.)
- Out of all of these inter-related
kinds of identity we form our personal (sense of) identity.
"Usually" we loudly pronounce (articulte and/or defend) a
certain kind of identity unless it is strongly related to our beliefs or
unless it is threatened.
others makes possible a better knowledge of oneself: any form of identity is
complex, for individuals are defined in relation to other people - both
individually and collectively - and the various groups to which they owe
allegiance, in a constantly shifting pattern.
UNESCO, Learning : The Treasure Within,
Understanding and valuing cultural diversity
are the keys to countering racism. All individuals must feel free to explore
the uniqueness of their culture and identity while developing understandings of
the cultural diversity that exists in the world around them. Denying cultural
expression means limiting the expression of unique perspectives on life and the
transmission of knowledge from generation to generation.
Culture and language
is a defining feature of a person's identity, contributing to how they see
themselves and the groups with which they identify. Culture may be broadly
defined as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings,
which is transmitted from one generation to another. Every community, cultural
group or ethnic group has its own values, beliefs and ways of living.
The observable aspects of culture such as
food, clothing, celebrations, religion and language are only part of a person's
cultural heritage. The shared values, customs and histories characteristic of
culture shape the way a person thinks, behaves and views the world. A shared
cultural heritage bonds the members of the group together and creates a sense
of belonging through community acceptance.
Language is intrinsic to the expression of
culture. As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, it has an
important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and
solidarity. It is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared
values may be conveyed and preserved.
is fundamental to cultural identity. This is so for people everywhere. For
Bininj, their unique world is expressed in their language. For this reason, it
is important that people keep their own language alive.
and linguistic diversity is a feature of most nations today as
people from different groups live together as a consequence of historical
events and human migrations. Within multilingual societies, the maintenance of
the languages of the various ethnic and cultural groups is critical for the
preservation of cultural heritage and identity. The loss of language means the
loss of culture and identity. In many societies throughout history, the
suppression of the languages of minority groups has been used as a deliberate
policy in order to suppress those minority cultures. As a result a large number
of the world's languages have been lost with the processes of colonisation and
languages disappear, cultures die. The world becomes inherently a less
interesting place, but we also sacrifice raw knowledge and the intellectual
achievements of millennia.