When I talked with my philosopher last night about this entry last night, we thought at first that I would try to do a short summary of metaphysics, as in “everything in metaphysics.” That was a mistake. Hello, metaphysics has been around since at least Thales of Miletus (one of the Pre-Socratics).
So instead, we picked something from within metaphysics to talk about today. This is an analytic approach to the issue of identity. I am very open to doing a continental discussion of an issue within metaphysics if any of you would like to suggest something, but I need some direction because my knowledge of continental philosophy is limited to existentialism, literary theory, and a smidge of American Pragmatism (why I know something about AP is a weird story, so I won't go into it).
Anyway, today we will look at identity.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Identity credits Irving Copi as defining the problem of identity through time with two statements:
1. If a changing thing really changes, there can't literally be one and the same thing before and after the change.
2. However, if there isn't literally one and the same thing before and after the change, then no thing has really undergone any change.
This is too technical, so let’s super-simplify these statements:
1. If a thing that can change really changes, it’s not the same thing it was before the change as it is after the change occurs.
2. However, if you have such a thing that is not the same thing before it changes and after it changes, then there isn’t really ONE THING that has changed (it is two separate things: (1) Thing 1: the thing before and (2) Thing 2: the thing after).
To simplify further, let’s look at some examples.
What happens to the same person over time, even if one’s body changes? What if you lose your memory or are involved in an accident that damages your brain and alters your personality? One of the most common examples that philosophers learn that looks at these questions is that of Phineas Gage.
You may have encountered Mr. Gage in a psychology class, because this example also pertains to behavioral studies. If you remember, Mr. Gage worked on the railroads in the mid-1800s as a foreman. He survived a terrible accident, in which an iron rod was driven through his head. This accident destroyed most of his brain’s left frontal lobe.
After the accident, Mr. Gage’s personality was completely changed. His friends knew him before the accident as a naturally intelligent person, well-balanced, and a good business man. After the accident, they noted that he had become selfish, prone to profanity, and intellectually childlike.
This example seems to point to a person (a thing) that is a different person before an event (Thing 1) than they are after the event (Thing 2).
Another example that I like is from philosopher John Locke. In philosophy-world, the problem is referred to as “Locke’s Socks” (the best name EVER for a philosophy problem).
Locke has a favorite sock that happened to develop a hole in it one day. He wondered if the sock would still be the exact same sock if he was to apply a patch to this hole. If the answer was yes, it would be the same sock, then he wondered if it would be the same sock if there was another hole that required another patch. And then (extreme example time), what if the socks became gradually so holey and then patched to the extent that all of the old material from the original sock had been replaced with patches? Would this still be the same sock?
Also, are you exactly the same person that you were when you were five-years-old? Does this mean that the person you were at five is a completely different person than the person you are right now?
Practical Application: Questions you could ask your analytic metaphysician
1. Do you think that the Philosiologist’s super-simple explanation of the problem of identity through time is too simple? Is it missing certain important points?
2. Do you think examples like Locke’s Socks tell us anything important about the problem of identity?
3. Which philosophical figures do you align yourself with in this debate?
4. Are there any approaches that you feel are deeply mistaken in this debate?
This is a very simplistic look at the problem of identity. If you want more reading material on this subject, you might try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Identity and Time” or the Wikipedia article on “Identity and Change.” Just a warning, the SEP article is muy technical for most of us, so beware!
 Gallois, Andre, "Identity Over Time", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/identity-time/>.
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