How can there be personal continuity through one or more lifetimes?

Introductory remarks

The question of this module is: How can there be personal identity through one or more lifetimes? In framing the question just this way, I am opening up a can of worms. Much of this module will be examining some of those worms one by one. Philosophy does, after all, have much in common with oligochaetology, that branch of biology that concerns itself with the study of worms.

In the introduction to a collection of papers on the problem of personal identity, Amélie Oksenberg Rorty outlines the major issues that are explored by different philosophers who deal with the issue of person identity.1 Among those issues are:

  • What is it that makes human beings distinct from other beings who have features in common with human beings? For example, how do human beings differ from chimpanzees, robots, human corpses, business corporations, and hobbits?
  • Given that human beings have so many features in common, what are the criteria that allow us to distinguish one individual from another?
  • What are the criteria for establishing that an individual is the same individual in different contexts, or under different descriptions or at different times?
  • What are the features that a person must have to continue being exactly the person she is psychologically? What does it mean to have an essential personality? What characteristics, if lost, would require her to think that she was no longer the same person she used to be? Usual candidates for essential characteristics are such things as core values, preferences, tastes, plans, hopes and fears. A biological individual might, for example, retain the same DNA and fingerprints, and have access to the memories of her former life and yet feel that after, say, a deeply traumatic experience or a religious conversion, she would never again be the same person.

This notion of having an essential self raises the interesting question of whether human beings can change their essential features. Normally, philosophers think of essences as properties that cannot be lost without existence as a particular thing or kind of thing itself being lost. And yet many have argued that the essence of being human is that we can, as individuals, choose to change our essential properties. Charles Taylor, drawing on observations made by Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre and Harry Frankfurter says that a person can be defined as “one who can raise the question: Do I really want to be what I am now?”2

In his book Selfless Persons,3 Steven Collins made extensive use of the thinking of the philosopher Derek Parfit as a means of discussing problems in the Buddhist doctrine of non-self (anātman). Since Collins’s work appeared it has come to be a standard practice to discuss classical Buddhist claims about personal identity in the framework of Parfit’s work. We shall take a look at the issues that Parfit raised later. But before looking at Parfit, it may be helpful to review some of the ideas of John Locke, since his way of looking at personal identity has framed the way the problem is thought about in European philosophy.

  1. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, The Identities of Persons (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1976). ↩︎
  2. Charles Taylor, “Responsibility for Self,” ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, The Identities of Persons (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1976). ↩︎
  3. Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). ↩︎

Works cited

  • Collins, Steven. Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg, ed. The Identities of Persons. Berkeley: Los Angeles: London: University of California Press, 1976.
  • Taylor, Charles. “Responsibility for Self.” ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, 281–299. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1976.

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