PHENOMENOLOGY AND PERSONAL IDENTITY
Charles University, Prague
8–9 November 2019
On What Matters: Personal Identity as a Phenomenological Problem
The idea that personal identity is closely bound up with what matters – what is important to us and, more broadly, what meaning things have for us – is familiar from Derek Parfit’s work and the literature it has inspired, both critical and constructive. Though I shall have something to say about the tradition from which Parfit’s work derives, my main concern is to explore the theme in a specifically phenomenological way, since I think that phenomenology has something distinctive to contribute to the question of how personal identity is bound up with meaning. Doing so will require, however, that we make a distinction between personal-identity and self–identity, which I will flesh out in terms of Paul Ricœur’s distinction between idem-identity and ipse-identity. My claim is that ipse-identity has a complex phenomenological structure, best articulated in Heidegger’s account of ‘conscience’ in Being and Time and related works, the upshot of which is that personal-identity is grounded in self-identity: the former is a normative achievement that depends on a structure of selfhood whose essential feature is self-ownership, a concept unintelligible apart from the second-person phenomenology of being the addressee of a call. My argument will be structured as follows. I will first take a brief look at Aron Gurwitsch’s non-egological conception of consciousness will serve to introduce the perspective of transcendental phenomenology, which articulates the idea of a ‘pre-reflective self-awareness’, or ‘minimal self’, a pervasive ‘minenness’ that characterizes all consciousness (Zahavi). Initially setting aside this distinction between idem-identity and ipse-identity, I will turn to an examination of Husserl’s conception of the Person and of personal identity as a temporally developing habitus within the natural and social worlds, oriented towards a flourishing life of reason (Drummond, Jacobs). Consideration of some of the paradoxes (or aporiai) of personal identity found in authors such as Derek Parfit and Bernard Williams will then serve to highlight the specific contribution of a phenomenological approach and will further motivate the distinction between ‘person’ and ‘self’. The rest of the paper will be devoted to explicating the way that the essentially norm-responsive character of ‘selfhood’ (ipseity) grounds the identity of the person by taking ‘ownership’ of the norms that constitute persons as the temporally extended beings they are. Here the argument proceeds by way of a critical engagement with Ricœur’s interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of conscience and finally by way of Mark Okrent’s criticism of Christine Korsgaard’s ‘constructivist’ interpretation of selfhood. My conclusion is that what matters depends on the constitution of meaning, and that the constitution of meaning is, phenomenologically, what is at issue in being one’s own self.
Transcendental Idealism and the Self
In this paper I raise the question what impact, in the context of Husserlian phenomenology, the idealism/realism debate has on (notions of) the self. This question highlights ontological and existential dimensions both of selfhood and of Husserl’s thought. In particular, I will take up the issue of the self as rational agent in order to consider some of the implications I see of transcendental idealism for an account of self. By means of concrete examples, I show that ignoring these implications may significantly distort our understanding of certain social phenomena currently associated with a so-called ‘post-truth’ society. In turn, this will shed new light on the idealism/realism debate, which continues to trouble philosophical work, especially in the Husserlian vein.
The I: A Dimensional Account
What makes the question of personal identity so puzzling can only be understood when it is conceived from a first-person perspective. I have a clear idea of what it would mean to say that I will have experiences in the future, and it does not seem to mean that experiences will take place that possess certain content-characteristics (for example, that they will contain memories of my present experiences), but simply and irreducibly that I will experience these experiences – that is, that they will be experientially present to me –, whatever their contents may be. So it is not a question of the contents of these experiences but of the to-whom of their givenness, and the latter does not seem to be reducible to the former. Experiences have a first-personal mode of being, that is, they exist by being immediately present to a respective subject. So the central questions are what is this subject to whom the experiences are given and what is the nature of its identity across changing experiences.
This to-whom of givenness is not one of the contents of experience or a constellation of such contents, since it is constitutive of the latter’s very being. At the same time, however, it is not a merely postulated transexperiential entity (it is hard to see how the postulation of such a hidden object could account for what makes experiences mine)- Rather, I would suggest, it has its very being in experiencing or experiential presence itself. So I would agree with accounts (most prominently espoused by Zahavi) claiming that the experiential subject in the most fundamental sense is nothing beyond first-personal presence itself (and not a separately existing entity to which experiences are somehow related by being given to a respective subject).
Yet the question is how to conceive of this first-personal presence. When we understand it as a property or a quality of the experiences, the problem is that every experience that has ever been experienced possesses this property, and so it cannot account for what it means that some experiences are experienced by me and not some other subject. So either we have to posit an I in addition to presence after all and conceive of first-personal presence as a relational property (those experiences are mine that are first-personally present to me), or we have to say that past experiences are mine by being first-personally given to me now – which amounts to a version of the memory-criterion of personal identity (yet it does not seem that the content of my remembering past experiences as having been experienced by me is that they are now given to me; so at least this account does not capture what I mean by different experiences being mine and is in this sense phenomenologically inadequate).
By contrast, I would suggest – following Erich Klawonn’s theory of the ‘I-dimension’ – understanding experiential presence not as a property of the experiences but as a dimension (an idea that can also be found in some formulations of Dan Zahavi’s). I am aware of having many experiences at a given moment. That means: I am not only aware of the being-present of this experiential content and of the being-present of that experiential content but of the simultaneous being-present-together of many contents in one presence. This oneness of presence cannot be explained by relations between the contents; rather this presence is to be viewed as a dimension in which the manifold contents together with all their interrelations have their being qua experienced. This presence-realm is the where of the taking-place of the experiences, their actuality-dimension. And – or so I would suggest – while the experiences permanently change, the actuality-dimension in which they have their succeeding appearance by becoming present one after the other does not change but abides – namely, as the where of the stream of the experiential contents, itself not streaming. Then the fact that past or future experiences are mine means nothing other than that they have their presence in the very same abiding subjectivity-realm as that in which I exist right now.
The Self-understanding of Persons beyond Narrativity
Some narrative approaches assume a close relation between narrative and selfhood. They hold that the self-understanding of persons as individuals possessing a set of particular character traits is above all narratively structured for it is constituted by stories persons tell or can tell about their lives. Against this view, it is argued that the self-understanding is also characterized by certain non-narrative and invariant mental features. In order to show this, I will analyse a non-narrative awareness of self-identity over time. I will argue that this basic form of awareness plays a fundamental role for the possibility of a richer form of self-understanding. To further analyse the awareness of self-identity over time, a conceptual distinction between different meanings of identity will be introduced. Furthermore, various mental phenomena will be explored as relevant sources of information for the awareness of self-identity over time, such as certain properties of episodic memories and of acquired skills. It will be argued that the narrative approaches at issue should expand their focus to integrate phenomenological and invariant aspects of the awareness of persons as persisting subjects.
Dimensions of Selfhood between a ‘Minimal’ and a ‘Narrative’ Self: A Sartrean Perspective
Simone Neuber, Heidelberg
Sartre not only claimed (i) that the principle of identity is not constitutive for beings like us; he also (ii) coined the little noticed notion of an ‘identity of indifference’ (identité d’indifference) which is meant to elucidate the being of the being-in-itself in so far as it is not only identical to itself and, thus, not different from itself, but also in-different to itself and other beings. According to Sartre, this identity of indifference is already broken up once we are talking about the being of things-in-the-world; it is, as he said, also broken up once we are talking about self-conscious beings like us.
The above two points might be taken as an indication that Sartre would have refused to talk about an identity of self-conscious beings. But they can also be read as a hint that he would have been happy to talk about it, if granting (i) that this identity functions as a regulative principle and that, by functioning as such, we are (ii) not talking about an identity of indifference (that is, mere sameness), but about a not-indifferent identity; not-indifferent in so far as it is (a) a synthetic unity and (b) somehow related to some kind of commitment.
My paper briefly elucidates Sartre’s ontological foundation for this merely regulative status to sketch some dimensions of this ‘commitment’. Special attention will be given to how it pertains to a commitment to the Other’s perspective in so far as this commitment is manifest in a pre-reflective engagement into ‘acts’-which-are-to-be-self-ascribed. I will end with a brief look at how this kind of commitment relates to Sartre’s notion of mauvaise foi and how it might be taken to indicate a dimension between a ‘minimal’ and a ‘narrative’ self.
Personal Identity and Events
Identity is personal only insofar as we can sacrifice it, as paradoxically affirm Henri Maldiney and Claude Romano, two contemporary French phenomenologists. Identity is personal only insofar as we can see all the constants of our lives, that is, all empirical determinations such as qualities or beliefs that can help to answer the question ‘Who am I?’, in the light of new constellations of meaning (new existential possibilities) brought into existence by events that happen to us. Thus, personal history – not to be confused with a biography that can be narrated – is always a singular history of appropriations of these events. In my paper, I will attempt to elucidate this account of personal identity in which the notion of identity as sameness or continuity has been replaced by that of ipseity (selfhood) conceived differently from Ricœur: ipseity, the very core of the unity of who we are, is defined as a capacity to undergo a change.
Max Scheler on the Layers of Self
Consistent throughout his work as a whole is Max Scheler’s insistence that the most profound experience of the self is the experience of oneself as a finite person. In his Formalism in Ethics and the Non-Formal Ethics of Value (1913 –16), Scheler sharply contrasts his notion of person with the traditional notion of the psyche or ego (Ich). The psyche, according to Scheler, is the object of self-reflection and in particular the object of inner self-reflection. The person, by contrast, is non-objectifiable and consequently can never be fully captured by any single act of reflection or greater totality of acts of reflection. Scheler chooses to describe the person as an act-centre, the centre from which all acts of the person emerge. The person is not reducible to any single act, but can be found in every act nonetheless. What persists over the course of the life of the person from one act to the next is perhaps best described as a unique style. The most fundamental intentional act is, for Scheler, the act of love and it is the act of love that informs all subsequent intentional acts. It is also the act of love wherein the person of another and of oneself is most deeply grasped. Revealed through the act of love is the order of the heart, the ordo amoris of the person. The so-called self of the person is the unique style of loving found in every act of the person.
In his later work, starting with his Sociology of Knowledge (1926), this early account of the person and the self is further problematized by Scheler’s growing emphasis on the role that the life-urge or Drang plays in the constitution of culture (or Gesamtperson) and also the individual person. These later works introduce a ‘new dualism’ between spirit and life. The finite person is the place wherein these two irreducible movements unite in the task of realizing the deeper spiritual values. Because life has such an essential role for the individual person, it becomes necessary to account for the role that the movement of life has in the genesis of the self of the person. My aim in this paper is to clarify this role and how it informs Scheler’s earlier account of the self. While the person as spirit is both atemporal and aspatial, the person as living being both ages and lives within its own natural milieu. My particular interest in Scheler’s later work is in the manner in which the experience of aging and the experience of being a member of a vital community inform the style of loving that Scheler describes as the self. I argue that Scheler’s later work moves in a more concrete direction in the account of self, drawing specific attention to the time and place of one’s life and of one’s self.
When Time Becomes Personal: Aging and Personal Identity
For more than a hundred years now, phenomenology has widely and intensely debated the problem of death and human mortality in general. The most complex problem in this debate is the question how (much) human mortality effects our concept of time and the experience thereof. In this debate, one can usefully identify two camps: one group holds that mortality has little effect on our experience of time; the other group holds quite emphatically that our experience of time would be unimaginable without taking into account the finiteness of our existence.
Taking a step back from this debate, it is quite surprising that phenomenology has not yet thoroughly addressed the problem of aging. With the exception of Max Scheler in ‘Tod und Fortleben’ (1911–14), phenomenologists have cared little about what aging is and how it effects our experience of ourselves, others, and the world in general. It was Jean Améry, not exactly a phenomenologist, who in On Aging (1968) formulates a piercing critique of Heidegger’s concept of time. He argues that we learn nothing about time from death, but we learn something about time through aging. And he continues that time then becomes ‘a question directed at oneself’, the question of time becomes ‘personal’.
It goes without saying that the problem of aging addresses the most fundamental coordinates of the phenomenological method: time, embodiment, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, and even our social norms that grow into the very actualization and discursiveness of our idea of what aging is. In my presentation, I delineate a phenomenology of aging and how this connects with the debate on personal identity.
First, I will claim that aging is not an ontic but an ontological process. Our bodies age, but the process of aging is and exceeds our awareness of our aging bodies. Second, this ontological process takes place on an individual and on a social level, in which the latter is the more primordial layer of this experience. Third, this complicates the question of personal identity since it will raise the question in two ways – namely, who I am for myself and who I am for the others, and, in a second step, how that again shapes the former experience. Fourth, following and going beyond D. Carr (2016), I will claim that aging is tightly connected to a narrative identity which is over and over again re-adjusted. However, it is not just that since we cannot go beyond our bodily limitations. Hence, in a last step, I will go into how this affects Ricœur’s ‘Idem-Ipse’ distinction (Ricœur 1992) and the debates on the ‘minimal self’ (Zahavi 2005).
‘Bodies (That) Matter’: Norms, Identity and the Role of Habit Formation
Judith Butler’s work has been both hailed and lambasted for its claim that gender is performative. This claim, which was originally inspired by J. L. Austin’s speech act theory and Jacque Derrida’s concept of citationality, has been the object of a number of rather polemical debates concerning the status of biological sex, materiality, and embodiment in general. For some, Butler appears to deny the very existence of our biological parts, rendering gender a matter of choice. It is my contention that these debates overlook the fact that Butler’s account of performativity is, at its foundation, a theory about the formation of identity, including its social conditions and implications. In this regard, her account stands in the tradition of Simone de Beauvoir’s anti-essentialist, feminist phenomenology: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ And yet, I will also argue here, Butler’s account lacks a concrete analysis of bodily practices and their performative capacities. In doing so, she risks overlooking how the body is an active, rather than a merely passive, component in the acquiring and resisting of gender norms.
Certainly, one can find phenomenological concepts like ‘situation’ and ‘sedimentation’ in Butler’s analyses. Her illustrations, however, depend too heavily on linguistic performances and discursive appellations. As such, one is not born a woman or a man, but seems to be literally called and subsequently cited into existence as a gendered and thereby ‘proper’ subject, that is, one that is socially recognized and legal.
The identity formation Butler describes relegates the body to a merely passive materialization of gender through external interpellation: either this process is successful (and one can represent without problems one of the two accepted genders) or one is excluded from the normative matrix. Simply put, either one is a body that matters or is not. This analysis seems to leave no room for a positive interpretation of identity. In fact, agency seems only indirectly possible by means of the shifting of norms in the process of citation or as a strategy to subvert gender norms (and thus identity) by means of practices like drag.
This paper seeks to complement Butler’s approach with a phenomenological stance by critically reformulating the relation of norms, embodiment, and identity. As such, I attempt to give the body back the role it deserves in arguing that bodies do indeed matter when theorizing identity formation.
More concretely, I will engage with the problem of how norms ‘work upon bodies’ and how bodies themselves ‘work on’ these norms to change and even create new ones. By focusing on the relation of social norms to bodily practices, this paper seeks not only to shed light on the concrete impact that social norms have on embodiment and their relation to identity, but also to show that identity formation is a dynamic process of generating, appropriating, and inhabiting norms. To this end, drawing on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, I will conceptualize identity formation in terms of (bodily and personal) habit formation.
The argument follows that the repetition and the reiteration of norms, at the heart of Butler’s account of performativity, in fact presupposes bodily subjects who do the repeating, that is, bodies enact those very norms that act upon them. In this respect, identity is based on habit formation, which both preserves and stabilizes prevailing social norms while also presenting an opportunity for changing these norms through their individual enactment.
Locked-In Syndrome: A Challenge to Standard Accounts of Selfhood and Personhood?
A point made repeatedly over the last few years is that the Locked-in Syndrome (LIS) offers unique real-life material for revisiting and challenging certain ingrained philosophical assumptions about the nature of personhood and personal identity. Indeed, the claim has been made that a closer study of LIS will call into question some of the traditional conceptions of personhood that primarily highlight the significance of consciousness, self-consciousness and autonomy and suggest the need for a more interpersonal account of the person. I am sceptical about these claims and will in the following argue that the theoretical relevance of LIS for an understanding of selfhood and personhood has been exaggerated.
Digital Account: The Relation of Online Presence to the Narrative Self
Paul Ricœur’s theory of ipse-identity, focusing on ‘self’ rather than ‘sameness’, provides an avenue to understand selfhood as self-comprehension. Narrative identity uniquely positions the self in relation to others, structures and interprets experiences, and accounts for human agency, accountability, and reasoning. Although scholars have widely debated the constitution of narrative identity offline, the significance of online actions and representations to this theory has not yet been addressed.
Digital technologies are changing our reality into an ‘onlife’ where the separation between physical and virtual identity is blurring and the boundaries of the self are being redrawn. In this paper I argue that online identity presents an emerging digital account, a new dimension of narrative identity. My paper considers the role identity data will play in future narratives, showing the ways it both merges with and contrasts with its offline form.
First, through an analysis Ricœur’s Oneself as Another (1992), this presentation explores the purpose and construction of narrative identity. It looks at how this active, extended project places the subject at the intersection of self-recognition and self-knowledge. It will show the limits and imperfections of any narrative, but establish what makes it a personal account and the role of narrative identity in any discussion of the self. Next, through a detailed investigation of the identity constructed through online services and technologically mediated objects, I will show how data augments traditional narrative identity. Users create a data double as they interact with data-collecting Internet of Things (IoT) objects and access online accounts provided by corporate actors. This living dossier contains a mixture of official biometric, academic, medical, and criminal records, and also unofficial data from browsing history, social media profiles, and personal account data. The existence of aggregated information, dispersed across platforms, institutions, and companies, creates a data history that acts as networked memory. Unlike the physical manifestation, digital memory remains through time without gaps or personal retellings. At the same time, information can be actively accessed for surveillance and commodification purposes, or deleted, by the data holders without the user’s knowledge or consent.
There has always been a first-person narrative as told by oneself, and also a narrative of recognition from others in the third-person view. Now, in addition, digital identities produce a narrative that is created by users, but controlled and shaped by identity providers. The interaction of digital technologies and narrative self must be analysed as a co-constructive project between user and provider. This project aims to show the possibilities of an expanded digital narrative, but also the self’s limits online.