This course is being offered as a main campus classroom course in Spring 2014. The description has been approved by the instructor for that offering. Use description for general information only after Spring 2014.

Course Description

GLS 592: Inner Life, Personal Identity, and the Self

Instructor: Patricia Turrisi

What do I mean when I refer to the “I” who has the same identity whenever I make claims about this “I”?  What exactly remains continuous in “me” over time and circumstance and what distinguishes “me” from everyone else? Does anyone who refers to the “I” they claim to be have something in common with everyone else who does so?  Did “I” exist in some other form before “I” in this form was born, and will “I” continue to exist after “I” die?  These questions are at the core of the problem of personal identity.  Many would prefer to have the problem solved once and for all with the conclusion that each of us has his or her own “I” and that “I” is the same from birth to death and possibly even beyond.  Alas, it is not so, but not for the reasons you might think – the problem has actually been solved many times over but the general anxiety that each and every one of us may not have his or her single and continuous for a lifetime and beyond personal identity has not been assuaged.  This course explores that anxiety and its remedies, with a critical examination of the satisfaction provided by the remedies.

History, criminology, anthropology, religion and arts and letters provide a range of concepts of the self that are far from universal. This course critically examines philosophical proofs of personal identity in the light of the hypothesis that the degree of compliance with the requirements of personal identity is not universally distributed.  In what ways is a strongly coherent personal identity adaptive, either biologically, socially, culturally or otherwise?  In what ways might a more loosely constructed or more occasional personal identity be adaptive? 

One remedy to the problem of personal identity is to solve the problem in a way that passes tests of reasonableness.  Close study of changes in the material composition and life-stages of individuals over passages of time in any living thing shows unambiguous interruptions in form and composition, so philosophers do not believe the requirements for having or maintaining personal identity reside in physical or biological properties.  Even DNA mutates from infancy to old age.  Because of the changeableness of the body, philosophers have generally concluded that personal identity exists in the form of subjective experience, that is, in the inner experience of consciousness and self-consciousness. But is there any warrant that inner experience is continuous within even the same human being?  John Locke, the first and most persuasive proponent of the existence of personal identity as a subjective experience proposed that persons are identical to themselves insofar as they consciously (in the present) recognize the self who was conscious in the past.  That is, when “I” (in the present) recognize the consciousness who had such and such a thought (in the past), “I” (in the present) is the selfsame “I” as the “I” who had that thought in the past.  “I” now am a continuation of “I” who once was.  While his demonstration of personal identity is moderately persuasive, what of those occasions when “I” feel dissociated from thoughts or actions attributed to “me”?  The defense of personal identity in the Lockean self is strewn with counterexamples and odd exceptions such that only a small percentage of one’s time as a human being might be truly identified as belonging to one particular personal identity.  What of the rest of one’s life?  Are each of us an island of self-identical personhood only at low tide?   This course surveys the counterexamples and odd exceptions that surround personal identity.

Moreover, if we consider the human experience of manufacturing and employing sophisticated artifacts in the external world, it must be said that some ideas written on Locke’s blank slate affect all subsequent ideas as to how and even whether they will find a place in the inner life of the self.  A stock of one’s own personal experiences of past events recollected through conscious acts is only one repository of memory.  In fact, we are also storehouses of genetic memory, and family, tribal and place memory.  We establish (create, arrange, externalize, concretize) mental constructs in the form of material objects with relatively greater durability and permanence than the immaterial thoughts from which they originate.  We likewise preserve the memory of the past in documents and other media, libraries, museums, public monuments, domestic residences, and in transient cultural phenomena such as cuisine, clothing, language, hygiene, mating behavior, child-rearing and “civilized” manners and customs.  Human beings are unique insofar as we not only adapt to the external world of our environment and the other species who co-reside there, but we re-define the environment to which we adapt through the manufacture of physical artifacts and a cultural context that frames their meaning.  Finally, this course interprets the “self” each of us acquires from the perspective of its meanings within particular environments of our own making.

Last Update: October 14, 2013


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