Sunday, April 03, 2011

A short query about personal identity

So, in one of my courses, we are in the middle of the standard run through theories of and problems with personal identity. This always makes me reflect on a long-ago graduate/undergraduate seminar on identity with Calvin Normore and a poor, misguided undergraduate—doubtless a tenured professor somewhere now—who wrote a paper with the closing line: "The lion has spoken and I have understood him." 

[The lion was his kitty and it spoke while it was on his lap and I'm still not sure whether that counts as any sort of argument against Wittgenstein's point, but I'm not sure Ludwig was ever altered in the ways that this young man might have been. I believe I have digressed.]

But, more importantly, or more pointedly, I was musing this week on our uses of the word "same". And, what we mean when we claim to be the same person. For instance, I say that I have lived in the same house for the last five years. And, this is true. And, we all know what it means. And, I also say that I have the same sunken eyes as my grandfather. And, this is true. And, we all know what it means. And, without going crazily polysemous. We know that the "same" in the two statements means the same thing in different ways in each case. That is, in part, that the relationship that "same" picks out is context-dependent. 

How does the context determine the relationship in the statement: "I am the same person I once was"? Or, "I am the same man you met in the late '90s"? Is this more like the sameness of my house or the sameness of my eyes?

4 comments:

Kevin Timpe said...

I think it's more like the former, insofar as you're making a claim about numerical sameness, not qualitative sameness. But then again, my pre-theoretic intuitions on this are pretty much buried under inpenertrable layers of metaphysical theories.

Tyler said...

I was thinking of you—and thinking you would respond—when I posted this, Professor Timpe. And, I pretty much knew the way you would respond, or thought I did.
But, here is the concern that remains. You say that sameness of person is more like sameness of house and this is because in both cases we have numerical identity. My next move is to say that I have a pretty good conception of what sameness amounts to in the house case—I am not sure if this is true, because of Ship of Theseus worries, but I am going to bracket those for now—so I know what numerical identity is there, but I was concerned about what sameness of person was already, so I don't know what numerical identity amounts to in that case.
I think that here you go to personhood in terms of living being, and since there is numerical identity in living being, we have numerical identity in person—Locke's mistake was to think that same person came apart conceptually from same man—but then I am going to ask how we individuate living beings. I've got reasons for asking that questions, but I don't want to show my hand until someone declares trump.

Kevin Timpe said...

It's good to be thought of, even in my absence.

(A) Embrance substance dualism--ok, just kidding! or (B) read van Inwagen's "Material Beings," which is the best account of sameness of living organism that I know of.

Tyler said...

As you know, I can't possibly embrace substance dualism, unless it is to more slyly place a dagger in its back. How people convince themselves to stick with that, I will never quite get. :)
I think something along the line of same living being or organism has probably got to be right, as well. And, I may have to read the van Inwagen. And, I'll save for later what my other worry is, though I will say that it has to do with the role of other organisms in our own organism. The worry is too inchoate to fully express.