Senses of self

February 2, 1996

The idea of collecting, in one volume, essays around the theme of identity is an appealing one. The essays are based on the Herbert Spencer lectures given at Oxford. Clearly, such essays, written from such different intellectual perspectives, were bound not to focus on one single concept of identity, but one might have hoped that the essays would bring together work on interrelated or overlapping concepts of identity. I am not sure that this hope is met.

The first three essays address the philosopher's question about the numerical identity of the person: what makes the person described or named in one way the same as the person described or named in another way? The last three essays address another question: what sorts of facts about a person, if any, are integral or important to a person's sense of who he is?

One would have liked to have seen an extended discussion of the question of whether there are, in any illuminating way, connections between the various identity questions the essays address. In the end, I was left with the thought that the word "identity" is simply ambiguous, and that the essays address different and unrelated ideas. If so, there is no more reason to bring them together in one volume than there is to bring together into one volume essays on rivers and financial institutions, since both are, or have, banks. If this is wrong (it may be), one needs to be shown why it is wrong.

The essays are somewhat disappointing, in different ways. Bernard Williams offers a general introduction to the philosophical problems of personal identity. As always, his essay is elegant and beautifully written; it is a superb piece to give the philosophical novice. But it breaks no new ground.

Nor does the essay by Derek Parfit, which, apart from nuance or emphasis, puts in a succinct and helpful way a central point he has made elsewhere: that personal identity does not matter to us, and that what does matter to us, continuity or connectedness of persons, in no way presupposes identity.

Henry Harris's piece is, alas, dreadful. It is, in essence, an underargued diatribe against the use, in dealing with questions of personal identity, of the method of gedanken-experiment. Harris wants us to examine only actual, or anyway scientifically possible, cases; our counterfactuals about persons should not extend to the merely logically or conceptually possible.

The view has been put by others, including at least one of his colleagues at Oxford. Unfortunately Harris makes no reference to this literature, and is not even able to reach the level of the current debate on this matter, let alone go beyond it. He makes it seem that only a fool could accept a view about these matters other than his own.

MichaelRuse, on sexual identity, and Anthony Smith, on national identity, have written careful pieces that do some disentangling of issues, and that introduce crucial distinctions. I learnt something from both, but I doubt whether they argue any novel thesis.

Finally, the penultimate essay is by Terence Cave, on fictional identity. It includes some interesting observations about various pieces of literature, and some well placed apercus. But I cannot really say what question the essay was attempting to answer.

David-Hillel Ruben is professor of philosophy, London School of Economics.


Editor - Henry Harris
ISBN - 0 19 823525 9
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £16.99
Pages - 170

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