Personal identity

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved October 16, 2018, from

7. The biological approach

Despite the dominance of the psychological continuity theory, the view that our identity consists in material or biological continuity always had its adherents, and has gained a great deal of momentum in the early part of the twenty-first century. This approach, which has come to be known as ‘animalism,’ holds that each of us human persons is identical to a human animal or human organism, and that our persistence conditions are those of such an organism. What makes someone at t 2 identical to someone at t 1 is that the organism at t 2 is the same organism as that at t 1; psychological connections are considered neither necessary nor sufficient for identity on this view.

This view began to make its mark on the personal identity debate toward the turn of the twentieth century through the work of Carter (1990), Olson (1997), Snowdon (1990) and van Inwagen (1990). The view has gained a great many supports since then, including Blatti (2012), DeGrazia (2005), Hershenow (2005), and Mackie (1999a). In some respects it is misleading to describe animalism as a theory of ‘personal identity.’ At its heart, the view is a view about what kinds of things beings like us – who are both humans and persons – are at the most fundamental level. The central claim is that while the psychological approach to identity assumes that we are most fundamentally persons, we are in fact most fundamentally animals. This, in turn, has implications for our metaphysical persistence conditions. If we are fundamentally organisms our persistence conditions will be biological rather than psychological.

The basic concept is usefully explained by Olson (1997: 27-31) in terms of substance concepts and phase sortals. A substance concept is a concept that an entity cannot cease to fall under without ceasing to exist, while a phase sortal is a concept that can apply for some or all of something’s career. A puppy, for instance, may cease to be a puppy simply by maturing into an adult dog; it may cease to be white-haired by growing a new, darker coat, and it may cease to be spry by becoming old and arthritic. But it cannot cease to be a dog without ceasing to exist. Dog is thus this entity’s substance concept, while puppy, white-haired, and spry are phase sortals. This has implications for the persistence conditions of the entity in question. For something in the future to be identical to this puppy it must be a dog and, more specifically, the same dog. It need not, however, be a puppy, white-haired, or spry.

The issue between animalists and psychological continuity theorists turns on whether our substance concept is person or human organism. Animalists hold that it is the latter, and that person is a phase sortal, describing something that a human organism may be for some or all of its career. Typically, we start off as non-persons (fetuses, lacking the forensic capacities that define personhood), develop into persons and, sometimes, cease to be persons later in our histories (if, for instance, we develop dementia or fall into a vegetative state). Olson (1997) complains that the traditional statement of the problem of personal identity: ‘What makes a person at time t 1 the same person as a person at time t 2’, assumes that anything which is a person can be identical only to something which is also a person. This implies that person is our substance concept, and so begs the question against animalism. The question should instead be put more neutrally as ‘What makes a human person at t 1 identical to something at t 2’, leaving open the possibility that something that is now a person could continue as a non-person, as animalists believe we can. The qualification ‘human’ person is required because animalists allow that there might be other kinds of persons, just as there might be white-haired or spry creatures that are not dogs. If to be a person is to possess the psychological attributes described by Locke (self-consciousness and the capacity for reason and reflection), it is in principle possible that aliens, spirits, and non-human animals could be persons for some or all of their histories. For none of these entities, however, is person its substance concept.

Citing this article:
Schechtman, Marya. The biological approach. Personal identity, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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