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What Is Personal Identity? – Definition, Philosophy & Development
This lesson explores philosophies of personal identity and digs into several key theories on this topic. You will think about questions of human existence that have been debated throughout history and are still debated today.
Definition of Personal Identity
Personal identity is the concept you develop about yourself that evolves over the course of your life. This may include aspects of your life that you have no control over, such as where you grew up or the color of your skin, as well as choices you make in life, such as how you spend your time and what you believe. You demonstrate portions of your personal identity outwardly through what you wear and how you interact with other people. You may also keep some elements of your personal identity to yourself, even when these parts of yourself are very important.
Have you ever struggled with the question, ‘Who am I?’ or thought about who you might become in the future? These questions have been thought about and discussed throughout history, in particular by philosophers who have immersed themselves in the search for knowledge about the nature of being human. Such questions as, ‘What does it mean to be a person?’ and ‘Do I matter?’ have engaged key thinkers and created conversations that we still grapple with in our society. Most people feel they want to endure in some way, both in their lives and beyond death. The philosophy of personal identity aims to address these matters of existence and how we even know we exist through time.
The Philosophy of Personal Identity
How do you know you are the same person you were as a child? Is it because you remember yourself growing within the same body you have now? Or is it because you perceive that you have the same mind? What criteria can be used to confirm you are, in fact, a ‘person’?
When you ask yourself how you know you are the same person you were as a baby, this is a question of persistence. In this context, persistence means our existence across time and how we can prove it. In other words, we perceive that our self ‘persists’ through our life as the same human being, but how do we know for sure? The philosophers Plato and Ren Descartes, as well as many religions, have proposed that we persist because we have a soul, a timeless essence that continues in some form even after the death of our living, breathing human body.
Descartes, in particular, aimed to provide a scientifically-oriented argument for this enduring inner self. He used rational arguments and examples to demonstrate that the mind and body are distinct. He promoted the view that the mind can exist and persist without the body. This distinction between a person’s mind and body is known as mind-body dualism and has been an influential and powerful theory in our society. Here’s an illustration of mind and body dualism by Descartes:
Illustration of mind-body dualism by Descartes
Even today, you may often hear the phrase, ‘body and soul’. This way of thinking has evolved from the ideas of religious traditions as well as philosophical ways of viewing our personal identity.
Development of Personal Identity
Personal identity develops over time and can evolve, sometimes drastically, depending on what directions we take in our life. For instance, a person who at 25 identifies himself as part of a particular political party, of a particular faith, and who sees himself as upper-middle class, might discover that at 65, he’s a very different person. Perhaps he’s no longer interested in politics, he’s changed his religion, and he’s living on less money than when he was 25. Any variation is possible during a person’s life span.
Children developing their sense of self may experiment with different ways of expressing personal identity. This can include various ways of dressing or wearing their hair, and it will also include a variety of ways of behaving and thinking. They might find that some ways of expressing themselves work well and feel right, while others do not last. Throughout life, we have a sense of who we are that continually changes.
According to the philosopher David Hume, living life as a human being leaves only impressions, rather than one stable identity or sense of self. These impressions are the changing, shifting elements of our existence. Think of the various ways you have looked at the world throughout your life. You’ve had a set of experiences and have changed because of them. Hume argued that due to the unstable nature of impressions, personal identity cannot be said to persist through time. We perceive a sense of self because of the way our mind put impressions together and makes sense of them as ‘me.’
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For instance, if you take a vacation every year to a different location, it would be hard to say what ‘vacation’ really is, based on these different experiences. Does ‘vacation’ mean sand and warmth, or an invigorating hike on a mountain? Is ‘vacation’ relaxation or adventure? Unless you have the same experience, year after year, what a vacation is will vary. Vacation is not just one unchanging idea, and, from Hume’s perspective, neither is a person.
Hume challenged earlier ideas about persistence and the psychological and physical continuity theories that had come before him. Physical continuity theory had looked at how we have the same human body we have had during our life and that this helps us know we are ourselves. Psychological continuity theory had focused on how the mind and memories seem to tie a person’s identity together. Hume questioned these theories that talked of an enduring personal identity. Instead, he pointed to the fleeting nature of our experiences and how we are ever-changing.
Philosophers grappling with the topic of personal identity have explored this concept from many angles by asking questions about how you know that you are you. Many of the concepts have left a legacy on our way of thinking as a culture, such as Descartes’ mind-body duality. Some concepts might sound new to you, such as Hume’s argument that we cannot prove a personal identity or self that persists. The debate about personal identity inspires those studying philosophy to ask themselves similar questions asked by philosophers across time: What is a person? Who am I? How do I know that I will continue to be me in the future?
After completing this lesson on personal identity, you could have the knowledge required to:
- Paraphrase the definition and makeup of personal identity
- Highlight the philosophical concept of personal identity
- Discuss Descartes’ mind-body duality and its lasting impact
- Summarize David Hume’s theory on personal identity and understand how he challenged previous theories
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