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Identity of Persons

Twentieth And Twenty-first Centuries

In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the issue of personal identity has continued to be a major theme especially in Anglo-American analytical philosophy. The debate is mainly between those who favor bodily continuity and those who favor psychological continuity as constituting personal identity. There is, however, considerable variety within the two main positions. Thus, some proponents of the psychological continuity view assign special importance to some rather than other psychological relations (such as memory). Since the 1970s the debate has focused on a revival of reductionist accounts of personal identity according to which selves are nothing over and above people's bodies and their mental lives. For Derek Parfit the common-sense view that regards personal identity as significant is mistaken. Rather, what matters are psychological relations that are normally but not necessarily connected with the personal identity relation. By arguing that personal identity is not "what matters" Parfit undermines notions, such as responsibility, that presuppose personal identity. The debate about Parfit's reductionism has also sparked off a revival of Kantian arguments about identity. It is argued that the subject should be regarded primarily as an agent and not as a mere locus of experience, and that this emphasis on the concept of agency leads to nonreductionist conclusions about personal identity: the identity of the self as agent is a necessity of practical reason. Another important feature of recent debates in the reductionist context is the introduction of a four-dimensional view of persons. On this view, which goes back to Willard van Orman Quine (1953), persons (as well as physical objects) are extended not only in space but also in time and thus can be said to have temporal parts. That is to say, at one point of time only part of me exists, in the same way in which the parts of my body exist only in their respective spatial regions. The four-dimensionalist view has been criticized from within the analytical tradition as conceptually incoherent and as inconsistent with our common-sense way of talking and thinking about things and persons.

Feminist philosophers have argued that analytical philosophers' reliance on a distinction between psychological and bodily continuity is in effect "marginalizing the body," and they promote instead a view according to which selves are embodied, discontinuous, malleable, and socially constructed beings (James, pp. 31–32). The most influential account of personal identity in Continental philosophy has been developed by Paul Ricoeur in terms of the notion of narrativity. According to this account, our personal identity is not given to us or constituted metaphysically prior to or independently of our activity of making sense of our own self by telling ourselves a story about our own lives. Only this narrative links actions into one and the same person. The view according to which a person creates his or her identity by forming an autobiographical narrative has recently been taken up in analytical discussions.


James, Susan. "Feminism in Philosophy of Mind: The Question of Personal Identity." In The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy, edited by Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Korsgaard, Christine. "Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit." Philosophy and Public Affairs 18 (1989): 101–132.

Martin, Raymond, and John Barresi, eds. Personal Identity. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Noonan, Harold. Personal Identity. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2003.

Oderberg, David S. The Metaphysics of Identity over Time. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

Quine, Willard van Orman. "Identity, Ostension, and Hypostasis." In his From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays. 2nd ed. rev. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself As Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Thiel, Udo. "Individuation." In The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, edited by Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

——. "Personal Identity." In The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, edited by Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

——. "Self-Consciousness and Personal Identity." In The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy, edited by K. Haakonssen. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Udo Thiel

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to IncompatibilityIdentity of Persons - Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Twentieth And Twenty-first Centuries, Bibliography