Friday, December 2, 2011

The issue of Personal Identiy: Wittgenstenian Perspective!

Who am 'I'? How do I know that 'I' am the same person I was 10 years ago. Is Qasim the blogger the same guy as Qasim the 2 year old toddler? This is perhaps the classic example of 'personal Identity'. Philosophers often roam around areas where normal people fear to tread. In fact the issue of personal identity won't even disturb a common man. As most of us look at the whole issue intuitively. However, philosophers don't have much respect for common sense. In the immortal words of Russell, what is common sense but the 'metaphysics of savages'?

Imagine yourself teaching a bunch of philosophy students. Give them the example of a guy whose mind (Person A) has been transferred to another body (Person B). What if my own mind is transferred to another body? Will I be the same person? Or Will it be something new? 8 out of 10 people will likely argue that the A and B are the same person. If you think on the similar lines than count yourself as a Lockean follower. The issue of continuity with regards to personal identity was solved by John Locke with reference to psychology. He argued that personal identity comes from the conviction that we have certain memories of our old self. Similarly, even when we grow up. We grow up with a sense of self-identity because of this very psychological continuity. So far so good. What seems to be wrong with this view some may ask. Well, a couple of things.
Firstly, we don't necessarily have all the memories of our past. Does that mean those forgotten parts are not part of my identity now? Similarly, Psychological theory of self-identity seems to suggest that a person post amnesia is a completely different person. But more importantly, psychological theory seems to thrive on a presumption that 'mind' is something that is independent of our body. However, we know that to talk about 'mind' in the absence of body really doesn't make sense. So, what alternatives do we have?

The alternative school of thought believes in physical continuity rather than psychological one. To put it simply, personal identity doesn't come from any psychological unity but rather physical one. I am the same Qasim because i possess the same body. Surely, nothing can be wrong with this explanation. Well, it doesn't survive the test of skepticism either. Imagine a person 'A' who goes under a sex change operation. Transforms his physical body. Does that mean he is not the same person anymore? The Physical continuity argument seems to suggest the after physical change he is person B and no more person A.

Something seems to be odd here. Even a minor exposition of the existing common sense based theories (Psychological as well as Physical) of personal identity struggle to survive the test of reason. They rather lead to antimony. So, what does Wittgenstein has us to offer on this?

Wittgenstein and Personal Identity:
The issue of personal Identity is the problem of 'first person' for Wittgenstein. His personal remarks on the issue are contained in Blue and Brown Books. The remarks are scattered and his take on the issue is highly radical and unique. I will be using these primary sources for my discussion.

Wittgenstein rejected the Cartesian model of mind altogether. For him the problem was with this whole tradition. There is no such thing as  'inner self' for Wittgenstein. One may ask that if there is no such thing as inner self then how do we identity or re-identify people around us? How does Wittgenstein answers this issue of personal identity. Well, his remarks in Blue Book shed some light on his stance. He believes that it is mistake to think that some metaphysical bedrock provides us with a sense of personal identity. He rejects both psychological theory as well as physical one for providing us with such deep metaphysical grounds. There doesn't seem to be a singular criterion by which we identity ourselves and others. For instance, the personal identity comes from different sources such as bodily appearance, habits, sound of voice etc. The person-hood depends on such contingent and composite factors. There is no singular test but rather an over lapping criterion for personal Identity. The word 'I' doesn't stand for some spiritual unity. In fact think of it as a tool that facilitates us. This is what he denies. There is no such thing as 'inner self'. No such thing as 'physical continuity' too. In simple words, there is no necessary truth or condition that explains the problem of self-identity. In fact for Wittgenstein there is no such problem to begin with. The common language or words are like tools; they facilitate us in everyday everydayness. Therefore, we don't encounter the problem of personal identity in normal life. It is only when we apply these words to uncommon examples or thought experiments when the problem seems to step in. The reason is quite simple. The words were never meant to serve this purpose. As a tool they don't help us in such scenarios. The word 'I' then becomes a mystery. There is no determinate answer to the problem of self-identity for Wittgenstein. We may revise our view of the 'self' as it depends on certain contingent factors rather than some indubitable metaphysical truth. It is interesting to see the resemblance between Heidegger and Wittgenstein here. Both of them rejected the Cartesian tradition. Both argued that the world does not reside in the Self but rather Self is something that resides in the world.


karachikhatmal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karachikhatmal said...

Every time someone explains Wittgenstein to me I feel intrigue and despair in equal measures. I really enjoyed his approach but then wonder about how scary it is.

topcat said...

While it is true that Wittgenstein makes a good case against personal continuity, I don't think the idea of continuity should be conflated with the idea of an inner self.
It is quite conceivable that an inner self exists, even if a new self exists at every moment.