I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity (1988)



This book relates work in neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry to questions about what a person is and the nature of a person’s unity across a lifetime. The neuropsychiatry is now dated. The philosophy has three themes still perhaps of interest. The first is a response to Derek Parfit’s powerful and influential work on personal identity, which, like many other people, I discussed with him as he worked it out. I accept his view that there is no ego that “owns” the stream of our experiences, and the unity of a person over time is constructed out of continuities in our mental life. But I argue against Parfit’s view that personal unity thereby becomes less deep or less morally important. The second theme is an emphasis on the importance of self-creation and an attempt to work out how far it is possible. The third theme is about the way self-creation is linked to recognition by other people, and the importance of this for understanding the role of tribalism in human life.

"This book is about what it is to be a person, to think of oneself as an "I". It is about the ways people think of themselves, and how they use these ideas in shaping their own distinctive characteristics. It is about how far we create ourslves."

"When a way of life does not fit with what you think you are really like, you can feel like a plant away from the light, distorted by having to twist and grope towards the sun. This analogy suggests that we might have a genetic programme to unfold, in the way plants do. But no doubt it is too simple to think that "the real me" is genetically laid down. These strong affinities we have for some kinds of life, and the sense of drowning that others give us, are likely to have been created by the interaction of our genetic make-up with thigs we have come across and responded to... We care a bit like trees would be, if they were conscious and could partly choose their direction of growth. Perhaps oaks could not become beeches, and stunted trees could not become giants, but they could influence the angle and direction of their branches. Trees thinking about determinism and free will might find it impossible to assess their own contribution to their final shape."