Personal identity

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved October 19, 2018, from

11. Other Views

While the bulk of the philosophical debate on personal identity has focused on the relative merits of psychological continuity theories and animalism, a variety of other views have also been developed. One of these is the narrative account, which says that the unity of a person’s life should be understood in terms of the unity of a narrative. This view is often conceived as an alternative to psychological continuity theories with the relation of narrative continuity substituted for that of psychological continuity, which is seen as too superficial to capture the complexity of inner life. There are a wide variety of narrative views and these can vary a great deal with respect to specific details. General hallmarks of the view include a holistic approach to identity which opposes the psychological continuity theory’s reductionist approach. Just as the nature and significance of an event in a literary narrative is essentially tied to the broader context in which it occurs, narrative theorists argue, the nature and significance of events and experiences within a person’s life depend on the whole of the life in which they are embedded. The notion of a fully independent ‘person time-slice’ is thus rejected. In conjunction with this, holism narrative theorists emphasize the role of meaning in defining personhood and personal identity. It is characteristic of the life of a person on this view that it is infused with significance. The understanding of ‘significance’ in this context ranges from quite thin (human lives must be intelligible) to very strong (human lives must contain a unified theme or telos). The narrative approach is one of the places in the personal identity debate where analytic and continental perspectives interact in interesting ways, since analytic versions of the view tend to include a hermeneutic perspective and continental versions to address questions that are framed in basically analytic terms. Because these views focus on the way life is lived as well as on how it is experienced, they tend also to include more focus on embodiment and social interaction than do psychological continuity theories. Defenders of the position include Davenport (2012), Lindemann (2001, 2014), McIntyre (1984: 204-225), Ricoeur (1990), Rudd (2012), Schechtman (1996), Stokes (2015), and Taylor (1989).

There have been vigorous objections raised against the narrative approach. The fundamental argument is that human lives are natural events while literary narratives are artifacts, with a completely different logic. It is therefore both misleading and dangerous to assume that our lives should take the forms of narratives. Critics argue that lives are not unified in the way literary narratives are; they do not have plots and it is not the case that each event within them must have symbolic or thematic significance. Objectors also argue that while some people may think of their lives in narrative terms, others do not, and live perfectly good lives nonetheless. According to these critics, thinking of our lives in narrative terms threatens to limit our possibilities causing us to accept oppressive social roles, and distracting us from immersion in daily life. Prominent opponents of the narrative approach include Strawson (2004), Lamarque (2007), and Vice (2003). There is continued back-and-forth on the nature and viability of the narrative approach to identity.

Minimalist accounts of personal identity represent another alternative to the two major views. Like narrative accounts, these views argue that psychological continuity theorists have identified the wrong psychological relation to constitute personal identity. Where narrativists find psychological continuity too simple to do the job, however, minimalists see the relation as too complex. What is required for the continuation of a person, on this view, is the continuity of mere sentience or basic consciousness which constitute a core self. While we may care a great deal about the kinds of connections outlined by psychological continuity theorists (e.g. memory connections and continuities of character) these are not necessary for one’s continuation. All that is required, on this view, is that consciousness continue in the way that it does in a case of total amnesia and in animals that are not capable of reflective self-consciousness or narrative thought. Minimalism has emerged from both phenomenological (see Consciousness, phenomenology of) and naturalist perspectives. A prime example of the former form of the view is found in Zahavi (2007); the latter is seen in McMahan (2002: 3-94) and Unger (1990).

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