Personal Identity: Philosophical Views

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Personal Identity: Philosophical Views

Alan Watts once said, "Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite

your own teeth." The task of personal identity is to define a quality of a

human which makes him or her a unique self. The person whose identity is in

question must realize themselves, and other people must identify this person.

In other words, what makes John unique from Bob? One must consider both

internal (mind) and external (body) perspectives. There are several general

philosophical theories of this identity problem. In the following paragraphs

one will find the body theory, soul theory, and a more detailed explanation of

the conscious theory.

One theory of personal identity is known as the body theory. This is

defined as a person X has a personal identity if and only if they have the same

body Y. However there are two problems with this definition. The first is

qualitative. It is necessary to have the same body, but if that body is changed,

is one the same person? Someone's body is surely different at age 40 than at

age 4. Also a problem arrives in alterations to a body. If John goes to war,

becomes injured by a mine, and then has his legs amputated is he not still the

same person, John? Therefore, the preceding definition of body theory is not

sufficient, since it does not account alterations to the same body. Yet another

problem is numerical. If someone were to get a finger chopped off, would that

finger be considered another person? What if a scientist was to use someone's

DNA and replicate another person with the same body? Surely just because there

are two identical bodies, these bodies cannot be the same person. They would

live two different lives. Therefore, the body theory alone cannot be considered

a necessary and sufficient definition when defining personal identity.

Another common theory of personal identity is the soul theory. This

theory is: a person is has personal identity if and only if they have the same

soul. The problem with this theory is arrived from the definition of a soul.

Soul is a very difficult term. It is thought by many to be a spirit that passes

from your body into another realm (i.e., heaven, hell, etc.). However, since no

one has ever seen, felt, touched, smelled, or tasted a soul, it is a mysterious


... middle of paper ...

...m with the body theory is that people's bodies change, yet they still have

the same identity. The main problem of the soul theory is that it is immaterial,

and the whole idea of souls is disputable. Of the three consciousness theories,

the conscious self theory fails in that it is a circular definition. The

conscious experience theory fails in that a human cannot be conscious of

everything of his or her life. Finally we discussed the connected stream of

consciousness theory which is the best description of a personal identity.

Personal identity therefore is made up of a connected stream of consciousness

(i.e., thoughts, memories, actions), and therefore is always changing slightly.

As James Baldwin, a U.S. author once quoted, "An identity would seem to be

arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience."


1 Alan Watts (1915–73), British-born U.S. philosopher, author. Life (New York,

21 April 1961).

2 Locke, John. Personal Identity. Page 69.

3 Locke, John. Personal Identity. Page 70.

4 James Baldwin (1924–87), U.S. author. The Price of the Ticket, "No Name in

the Street" (1985; first published 1972).
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