The problem of identity. Also: writing this philosophy essay sucks

I am currently working on a philosophy essay plan, which is due Monday.  It’s driving me insane.  Here is the question:

Although the principle that our personal identity is preserved as long as we inhabit the numerically same body is plausible and well established (same body = same person idea), it seems questionable at times.  Consider the situation of Robert.  Robert used to be a very athletic person who spent all of his free time playing basketball and riding motorcycles.  In August 2002 Robert crashed his motorcycle and is now paraplegic.  Although Robert still has the same (numerical) body as before, he feels that he is not the same person since he cannot do the things he loves most. 

Do you agree with Robert? Explain and justify your reasoning to this by: Drawing on the works of at least two philosophers and one film from this course.

The thing is, in some ways I agree with Robert in that he is not the same person… but in other ways I don’t.  I believe it’s called ‘fence sitting’ and is not something I can do in writing this essay.

I will have to start by examining the body theory of identity, which to me is a logical theory, but is not in itself enough to constitute identity.  The fact that the body is constantly changing does not in itself constitute a change of identity (as far as I am concerned) as it is gradual and the cells themselves share a commonality as they grow and are expelled from the body.  We identify others by their physical appearance.  However, if person A had their consciousness transferred into a different body then would we still continue to identify them as the same person?  Intuitively I would think so.

If we look at identity being defined by psychological continuity, or by memory, then post-accident Robert is indeed still the same person as both his thought processes and memories are continuous with pre-accident Robert.  There are of course flaws with these theories also.  For example, if Robert lost all his memories in the accident, and his psychological continuity was eliminated, I would still consider him the same person.

These is also the theory that there is no self, and to think we have one is merely an illusion (Hume), and we are nothing more than a collection of perceptions.  But then what holds us together over time?  What gives our current perceptions context and meaning?  Our memories, perhaps.  Or maybe it’s just the thread that is woven between our perceptions creating an illusion of self.  If it is the case that we HAVE no self then what does this mean for Robert?

I like to think of people as a constantly changing and evolving thing.  Like the river analogy.  While you can’t step into the same water twice (as it’s constantly moving and changing) we would still identify it as the same river.  I think personality has the same fluidity, whether in regard to body, memory or perception.  Our past selves share commonality with our current selves, so while we are constantly changing we still remain identifiable as the same person.

I guess I do disagree with Robert after all.

I think my head just imploded.

Your thoughts and ideas about how I could formulate a reasonable essay plan around this question would be greatly appreciated.  I’ll buy you something pretty.

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2 responses to “The problem of identity. Also: writing this philosophy essay sucks

  • GidgetWidget

    Luckily I’ve been writing analytical essays since BEFORE I was forced to wear knickers…. But let’s not go there.

    First of all, if this is a formal class on philosophy, then they wil expect a formal essay. In my opinion, the topic sucks balls but we can sweeten it with some Jelly baking love.

    You know what might help? Seeing a copy of your syllabus. In the meantime, does your Professor assume you know how to construct a thesis or has this been reviewed in your class? The basic structure differs slightly in the philosophical disciplines, I believe. Not by much but again, it will help to know where the standards and expectations are. Specifically, I don’t want to give you bad advice: the chains and dungeon-trappings of the Classical method, unless you have a foundation for understanding its context, can easily frustrate the process.

    ~Gidgie (I’m on WordPress too!)

  • Collin

    A few thoughts scribbled out this morning, and the tip of an iceberg of musings on the topic. I’m kid wrangling, so if it doesn’t make sense, I totally blame the offspring..

    So after a night tossing around various ways to point out that the concept of identity is itself a paradox (in that it is both claimed and assigned) I ended up checking out the etymology to get a better idea of what the word itself means.

    “sameness, oneness,” from M.Fr. identité (14c.), from L.L. (5c.) identitatem (nom. identitas) “sameness,” from ident-, comb. form of L. idem (neut.) “the same” (see identical); abstracted from identidem “over and over,” from phrase idem et idem.

    The simple answer would be to disagree then, because changes become irrelevant – identity (subjective OR objective iterations thereof) becomes whichever attribute/s remain regardless of changes to the physical, emotional or psychological self.

    But who has the right to assign an identity if not the individual? If Robert has decided he is not the same person is that that decision alone is enough to validate the assertion? I don’t think so – particularly if we look at subjective identity as the perspective from which we monitor and participate in the world < it could be argued that this perspective, this metalocus is the only thing that retains it's sameness amid your ever changing river. Robert might not like his new body, but I bet he'd still refer to it as 'his' body, which itself implies that such a view of identity is essentially derived from a perceived association of possession. (Enter the no-self interpretation of Hume.)

    The question then becomes one of the legitimacy of the associations we draw between "I" and everything else "not I" – associations inherently biased from and by our unique (if influenced) perspective on the nature of that association, yet associations without which we would have little claim to agency.

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