What philosophies of personal identity are out there?
November 15, 2005 10:38 AM   Subscribe

What philosophies of personal identity are out there?

I just got done re-watching Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and I'm curious, but a google search gives me a bunch of product, two hits and then a game. I wanna know what philosophers and what of their works I should go get at the library and read.
posted by nile_red to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total)
My university teaches a course around this reader. It's an edited collection of essays on identity by a bunch of different philosophers, and should make a decent introduction.
posted by gorillawarfare at 10:44 AM on November 15, 2005

Everyone's favorite! Hume's bundle theory.

Derek Parfit's book Reasons and Persons is a great but dense read all about personal identity. Really worth putting the time in.
posted by xmutex at 10:44 AM on November 15, 2005

"Philosophies of personal identity" is really open ended. Personal identity encompasses a lot of stuff so I imagine you'll be getting a ton of suggestions ranging across many different interpretations of what "personal identity" means.

Judith Butler for the gender/sex side of identity. Gender Trouble is the book that was easiest for me to digest. It deals with the question in both a personal and social sense.

Also, this Wikipedia entry has some starting points.
posted by panoptican at 10:46 AM on November 15, 2005

My curiosity is more along the lines of an "am I still myself if some of my memories are missing?" question.
posted by nile_red at 10:55 AM on November 15, 2005

I second Reasons and Persons for that question, nile_red. I had to slog through it for an entire quarter of a 500-level (grad school) ethics seminar. Painful, but it stuck with me. Lots of good sci-fi-type thought experiments.
posted by matildaben at 10:59 AM on November 15, 2005

Oh, and try some advanced Buddhist philosphy for an alternative view. I don't have any specific texts or authors (school was a long time ago), but the Buddhists have spent a lot of time thinking about what the self and consciousness are about.
posted by matildaben at 11:03 AM on November 15, 2005

I should qualify my recommendation of R&P by saying that it surely helped to have a philosophy professor helping me through it.
posted by xmutex at 11:07 AM on November 15, 2005

It's a dense book, but I'll recommend Derek Parfit's "Reasons and Persons."

It explores interesting questions about our conceptions of self, and our own reasoning. By evaluating just what we mean we we say "self," it's a good exploration of the concept of self-onwership, reason and self-interest.

Of the more interesting questions he brings up is the "branch-line case," in which a device is constructed along the lines of a Star Trek Transporter, but which functions by destroying the original version at point A and produces a perfect copy at point B, right down to the memories. Alternatively, it simply produces a copy at point b, without destroying point A's version. The disturbing answer is that in all of the meaningful senses of the word "self" both are meaningfully you, with equal moral entitlements. (You're both married to your wife, for example.)

You bring up a good, basic question for philosophy. In what meaningful way are you the same nile_red that you were at age 5? It's a fruitful area to research and think about.

To get you started thinking about the problem, here's the "Ship of Theseus" paradox, a philosophical problem of identity and replacement.
posted by generichuman at 11:29 AM on November 15, 2005

Somehow I entirely missed xmutex's recommendation with I was reading this. Sorry to repeat!
posted by generichuman at 11:30 AM on November 15, 2005

Thanks for your answer though, generichuman, gave me a bit more context : )
posted by nile_red at 11:35 AM on November 15, 2005

Parfit's view and the buddhist view aren't all that different, as he points out in R&P. An easier read that offers a Parfitian view can be found in the personal identity chapters of Richard Hanley's book The Metaphysics of Star Trek.

If you want a real alternative approach, I'd recommend Jeff McMahan's book The Ethics of Killing or Peter Unger's book Identity, Consciousness, and Value. In addition to the Perry anthology, there is another anthology edited by Amelie Rorty called The Identities of Persons that has some good essays.

Locke is the philosopher who first argued that memories are crucial for personal identity. You can find a selection from him in the Perry anthology. Bernard Williams has a classic essay on the unimportance of memory for personal identity. It is called "The Self and the Future" and can also be found in the Perry collection.

I have an essay on Eternal Sunshine coming out in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, but it only discusses Lockean memory criteria for personal identity in a footnote. (The essay is more concerned with the question of whether it may be immoral to erase the memories you have of someone else.)

Judith Butler is talking about something altogether different. I'd skip her unless you have a high tolerance for willful obscurity.
posted by chrisgrau at 11:39 AM on November 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

am I still myself if some of my memories are missing

see if you can get hold of a copy of daniel dennet's "brainstorms". it's a collection of essays that deal with mind/consciousness. i wouldn't have recommended it particularly for "theories of identity", but for your clarification quoted above this book is absolutely on the money.

in fact, i suspect a light-hearted final chapter, on a brian in a laboratory, might be on the net somewhere. [googles...] here you go. that gives some flavour, but the other essays are a bit more, well, "normal".

it's one of the best collections of philosophical essays i've read - really accessible, clear, and interesting.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:58 AM on November 15, 2005

(sorry - he's called daniel dennett (two ts)).
posted by andrew cooke at 11:59 AM on November 15, 2005

A little dense, but Hofstadter and Dennett's "The Mind's I" is very, very interesting.
posted by notsnot at 12:05 PM on November 15, 2005

There is work in this area in Deleuze & Guattari's "A Thousand Plateaus," but it's a big, difficult book & isn't "analytical" or divided into areas of interest in the conventional way. Great book though (not that I'm qualified to say).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:08 PM on November 15, 2005

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