The Problem of Sustained Personal Identity

In a recent essay a the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) Religion site, Stanley Hauerwas raises the issue of the sustaining of personal identity over time.

It is by no means clear to me that I am the same person who wrote Hannah’s Child. Although philosophically I have a stronger sense of personal identity than Daniel Dennett, who after having given a lecture to a department of philosophy on personal identity, was not given his honorarium. The department refused to give him his honorarium because, given Dennett’s arguments about personal identity, or lack thereof, the department was not confident that the person who had delivered the lecture would be the same person who would receive the honorarium.

A perennial issue in Buddhism, highlighted during the Enlightenment by David Hume, and recently revived by Galen Strawson, this is an important philosophical question. Am I the same person that I was yesterday? Last year? A minute ago? How would I go about demonstrating this?

Buddhism is happy to say that personal identity is an illusion, and a bad idea at that. We’re much better recognizing the deception of these bundles of perception and let it all go. The sooner we drop the attachment to the idea of the “I,” that my continued existence matters and is real, the better off we’ll be (though how I will be better off with no I, I don’t get. It’s probably a sign of my failure to understand Buddhism.).

My answer to this problem is Hauerwasian, though not raised in this essay. It fits with what he’s written elsewhere, at least tangentially. If I knew his work better I could tell you if and where is appeared explicitly.

Two features give us reason to accept out continued identity through time, both missed if we give in to the modern tendencies to solipsism. First, the fact that my identity is narratively constituted. I am I, not merely through the timeless possession of a set of attributes. I am my history.

Second, I am who I am as known by others. I am always in a network of relationships with others. Others know me before I am even aware of myself. I am known before I know.

A consequence of these features is that although I have a sustained identity to the extent that might life is a single story (even if chaotic and sometimes fragmentary) and that I am known by others in the course of the intersection of my story and theirs, my identity is not static. I am not, never have been, and never will, standing still. I am in flux. But I am in flux.

A second consequence is that it is not possible for me to entirely know myself. My story, while it is mine, is always entangled with other stories. Even if I know the entirety of my own story (which I doubt), I do not ever know the entirety of those other stories. Also, since my identity is partially constituted by my being known, and the ones who know me are themselves in flux, my access to their knowing of me is limited. I can know more, I can know less, I can never know all. I always necessarily am partially opaque to myself.

A final consequence I’ll mention ties in to Aristotle’s theory of evaluating happiness. Since it is temporally constituted, my identity is not something that is whole and entire at any particular time. I exist through time; I am a temporal being. My identity must then be understood temporally, and evaluated temporally.

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