Staying Alive: Personal Identity, Practical Concerns, and the Unity of a Life, by Marya Schechtman (Oxford), $56/£35
In her new book Staying Alive Marya Schechtman continues her investigations of personal identity – the question of the conditions under which a single person persists. In an earlier book, The Constitution of Selves, she argued for the centrality of narrative in understanding what a person is, but she has had abundant and very interesting second thoughts. She now proposes a new approach, the Person Life View (or PLV). Whether PLV unlocks, or is a step to unlocking, the problem will only emerge after the close examination this book will receive.
In the introduction Schechtman stresses one of her main themes. She wants an analysis of personal identity that is connected, in some way, to its “practical significance”, “inherently and not just accidentally”. Two questions are thereby raised. First, what does this mean exactly? Second, why should we agree with it? Schechtman’s aim is to answer these questions in the course of the book.
In the first four chapters, Schechtman engages with, and in some cases, cherry-picks from, various philosophers. She scrutinises the Lockean tradition, including Locke himself but also the neo-Lockean Parfit. Schechtman’s view is that Locke’s consciousness account – which says that psychological continuity is needed for a person to persist – is too restrictive to provide an adequate “practical” analysis. The neo-Lockeans develop the psychological analysis in such a way that they quite fail to link their analysis to the practical.
In chapter 2, Christine Korsgaard and Eric Olson are scrutinised, both offering non-practical analyses of personal identity. She tries to make it seem plausible that they have missed something. In chapter 3, the main focus is on Hilde Lindemann’s interesting book Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. Schechtman credits Lindemann with attempting to develop an analysis that recognises the richness of the involved practical concerns, and the importance of social recognition, and of humanness. Schechtmann proposes that we are left with a serious problem – the problem of multiplicity: how can we develop an analysis that does justice to the evident multiplicity of elements involved in being a person?
In relation to this problem, Schechtman proposes, in chapter 4, that we borrow from Jeff McMahan the concept of “time-relative” interests, and also from an expanded version of her own previously endorsed narrative theory. The narrative element must involve others’ narratives about someone as well their own self-narratives, and in some cases, others’ narratives are the only ones relevant – say with infants and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
In chapter 5, entitled “The Person Life View”, Schechtman begins her positive account. The initial slogan is: “to be a person is to live a person life”. To unpack this she starts with normal encultured humans like us, and distinguishes three elements in such a life: the attributes of the individual enabling him or her to engage in a person life, the activities in the life, and the social and cultural “infrastructure” which are the backdrop to the life – for example, how the rest of us treat the person. According to Schechtman humans who have what she calls “atypical developments trajectories” qualify as persons because of the application of the third element – others treat them as persons – e.g., by giving them names and clothes etc. Schechtman’s next move is to employ PLV to analyse personal identity.
In chapter 6 she starts by attempting to define the continuities involved in a person continuing to exist along the lines of a cluster of characteristics where it is a matter of enough of these continuing together. She develops this view by considering what PLV’s verdict is for standard puzzle cases. Suppose the cerebrum from one individual is transplanted into a second skull. According to Schechtman, PLV generates the verdict that the person goes with the cerebrum – the main biological continuities in normal human life are lost, but there are psychological continuities, and there are the continuities of how we would treat them.
In the case of fission (where the two sides of the brain are transplanted into two awaiting bodies) she proposes that if it happened rarely then since we would treat them as two persons – although with some practical difficulties – there would be enough continuities for them to count as persons. But paradoxically, if such cases became common her prediction is that society would change, and the new social practices would no longer be person-supporting.
In the final chapter she supports her theory by explaining how it can reject animalist arguments against PLV. The main objection to PLV from animalists seems to be that PLV says there’s a person and a non-identical animal sitting in my chair right now, and it’s hard to make sense of them occupying the same place at the same time. Schechtman thinks that there are various options. One is to describe the case in terms of a constitution relation – the person and animal are not simply two, since one is constituted by the other.
A second option is to say about ourselves (or persons) what van Inwagen says about, for example, chairs: that there are no such objects (or substances) even though sentences apparently referring to them can be true. But if there are strictly no such things as ourselves, then there is no problem of coincident entities. A third option is to deny that human animals are really substances; they do not actually exist, but we have a language that merely seems to refer to them. Schechtman’s preference seems to be for this third option.
I hope that I have conveyed how radical and original Schechtman’s Person Life View is. She is an elegant and clear writer. She has thought her views through in an impressive way, and offers considered responses to the objections that will occur to people. It is a significant achievement to have constructed a new approach at this stage in the debate.
I have space to raise two reservations. One aspect of PLV is the role of other peoples’ reactions. Putting it crudely, the difficulty is that how others react to something seems to be determined by their view or interpretation of it, which might be quite erroneous. Thus someone might quite fail to recognise what is a person and kill them for food. Or someone might think wrongly that an object is a person and treat it that way when it is not a person. One candidate for such elevation might be Locke’s infamous parrot. In the light of this it seems quite hard to place weight on the responses of others in the analysis.
A second troubling aspect, for me at least, is the way that Schechtman’s second two responses to the challenge of animalism, in chapter 7, involve taking seriously the idea, beloved by certain philosophers, that they can just say “Well, we have realised that there are really no such things as chairs, or persons, or human animals (though please do not stop speaking about them).” Responding very crudely – who is more likely to be right? More or less the entire human race, including the great geniuses of modern evolutionary theory, or a philosopher exploring the contents of the universe from an armchair in the dark? If we take these options away, then Schechtman is left with the constitution response, which she does not really seem keen on.
These queries are crude and certainly not the end of any story. Schechtman’s book is enjoyable to read, and highly original and interesting. It deserves to be investigated very carefully.