Personal identity

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved September 20, 2018, from

6. Methodological Concerns

Psychological theories of identity have also been criticized for the crucial role they give to fanciful hypothetical cases in their development and defence. As we have seen, both the initial arguments for, and the further refinement of, psychological theories depend heavily upon the use of cases involving fictional technologies or bizarre occurrences - body switches, fission, memory transplants and suchlike. A variety of concerns have been raised about this method (see Thought experiments).

Bernard Williams (1973) demonstrates that different ways of describing the same case can evoke vastly different intuitive responses, raising worries about the reliability of the intuitions generated by these stories. Kathleen Wilkes (1988) argues that the critical hypothetical cases are underdescribed and that this makes the intuitions they yield suspect. More generally, she objects to the science-fictional aspects of these cases. Worlds in which teleportation and body swapping could occur would be so different from our own, she argues, that there is little reason to believe that our judgements about identity in these worlds tell us anything interesting about our identity. She thus suggests that we abandon the methodology of science-fiction scenarios and instead look more closely at real-life cases that raise questions of personal identity (e.g. multiple personality, mental illness, hypnosis, split brains).

The question of whether the use of thought experiments is legitimate and fruitful in philosophy in general, and in the philosophy of personal identity in particular, has continued to draw a great deal of attention. Some have suggested that although thought experiments may have some value in pursuing questions of personal identity and related issues, the limitations on this approach should be carefully heeded and we should be careful to acknowledge that they may not provide straightforward data in the way that they are often taken to do (See, e.g., Dennett (1990: 17-18); Häggqvist (2009); Schechtman (2014)). Others have explicitly defended the use of methodology e.g., Beck (2014).

Citing this article:
Schechtman, Marya. Methodological Concerns. Personal identity, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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