Saturday, November 7, 2009

still exploring

So... "persons may get lost," in the absence of the philosophically-correct account of psychological continuity and personal identity.

But are we really concerned that people, real flesh-and-blood humans, might literally wander off the reservation and not know who they are, where they've been, where they're going?

This came up in one of my Intro classes last week, before I began to think about my assignment to comment on a paper at the Tennessee Philosophical Association's annual meeting today that raises the specter of lost and confused persons wandering in search of continuity and identity.

Most of the freshmen were puzzled, as I confess that I am too. Is this a real question? Is anyone really afraid that if philosophers don't say the right things about personal identity, then it might get misconceived and-- shudder!-- "persons may get lost"?!

They were reassured, I think, to hear their professor say that one can fail to give an adequate conceptual account, can fail to tell a complete and compelling story about "who I am" without then instantly vanishing in a puff of metaphysical dereliction.

They were reassured not because they were worried about getting lost themselves, but because they questioned the safety and sanity of any philosopher for whom this question might actually precipitate an existential crisis.

Are those who puzzle over personal identity and psychological continuity, in the manner of Parfit, Shoemaker, and Unger quite clear on the distinction between metaphysical puzzle and existential problem that is so important to existentialists, pragmatists, radical empiricists, and others who think common sense can be a buffer against the worst debilities of sustained reflection?

It would be thoughtful (in the sense of considerate, constructive, practical) of philosophers to attempt to say something helpful to Intro students and naive pragmatists about why this style of approach to the perennially inconclusive puzzle of personal identity is constructive and worthwhile. I am assuming that it must be, but still don't know quite how to say it with conviction.

William James famously declared: "The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means." There is an immediacy of perception and self-recognition that only a mind debauched by too much (or the wrong kind of) learning can easily discount. That's why he wanted to give voice to something whose acquaintance he was sure we would have to make non-verbally. There is on this view a vital core of life that words and concepts cannot reach. "I must deafen you to talk..."

The immediacy in question is purported to reveal relations, and qualities of experience, that are personal, intimate, and first-hand. The distinctiveness or '"subjectivity" of persons, the felt-but-not-spoken texture of incommunicable conscious life, is said to be much warmer and much less subject to loss, than is dreamt of in the philosophies of those who would treat knowledge (including personal self-knowledge) as an exclusively intellectual and/or aesthetic phenomenon.

Professor Naylor: "Unless the Personal Continuity Theory can either articulate and defend a middle ground of neither too much nor too little psychological continuity or else find some way to avoid one of the horns of the dilemma, it will be possible for persons to get lost..."

Well, perhaps. But I'm tempted to think that the "lost" will be only those persons who were already lost in the misapprehension that self-knowledge occurs primarily in the brain, or in an unstable relation between the ever-vanishing present and a past or future glimpsed darkly. What of our embodied, natural relations to actual (though changing) places and persons and social structures, to former work environments, to colleagues and co-workers old and new and hypothetical?

When I revisit a place whose shape and significance are irrevocably imprinted on me-- a place, for me, like the University Student Center where I used to be nominally "in charge" (and where today I'll play the role of credentialed pontificator)-- and find myself whisked back to an earlier instantiation of myself, in an instant... well, that's not simply a matter of robust or sparse psychology, is it? My personal identity is inseparable from my past, present, and future social identities, and these are embodied and located in space and time beyond mind.

Or as James might have said: beyond the ever-flowing stream of consciousness, beneath all the selectively-attentive, alternately transitory and stable flights and perchings that sustain our selfhood (such as it is), we have no fixed or core "person" to lose. Persons are explorers, made and re-made by their places, making and re-making those places as they go.

One more thought, for the New England transcendentalists among us: self-possession can be viewed as a quality of self-reliance, in the Emersonian vein. If you're committed to being that kind of non-conformist, the kind not overly-- critics say not sufficiently-- wedded to its own historicity, then you'll be doubly unworried about losing the hobgoblin of self-consistent personhood. You'll be an explorer too. And maybe you'll be lucky enough to arrive back where you started and know more about it. Where have we heard that before, Mr. Eliot?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have two things to say...

If you aren't sure who you are, you might as well work on who you want to be. ~Robert Brault

Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves. ~Henry David Thoreau

Personally I like this topic, there are no answers only questions!
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