Second-Decimal Arguments

Jon Elster

  • The Thread of Life by Richard Wollheim
    Harvard, 288 pp, £20.00, January 1985, ISBN 0 06 748875 7

Reading Richard Wollheim’s study of what it is to live the life of a person was a frustrating, painful experience. Perhaps it can best be summarised by saying that while the book goes to great lengths to ensure precision in the second decimal, it leaves us in the dark about the first. Wollheim has a marvellously knowledgeable and intelligent mind. Of the numerous topics discussed here, many are brilliantly illuminated and some receive better treatment than I have ever come across. Yet these displays of ingenuity and inventiveness take place against the opaque background of psychoanalytic theory, which the reader is more or less asked to accept on faith. There are two puzzles here. One is: why should I believe all this? The other is: why doesn’t Wollheim see that he must offer me reasons to believe it? Psychoanalysis is, after all, only one of a large array of theories of the mind, and Wollheim’s version of it only one of the many which are available.

Another, secondary cause of frustration is the elusiveness of Wollheim’s style, sometimes bordering on evasiveness. When he is expounding his own views, without polemical side-glances, he can be perfectly lucid and explicit, indeed a pure joy to read. When he takes a stand on current controversies, he tends to be cryptic and elliptic, briefly marshalling a series of arguments which are rarely elaborated to the extent that would have been necessary to make them persuasive. Moreover, he never engages in polemics against specific writers, books or quotations. His opponents are the shadowy world of ‘some philosophers’, ‘memory-theorists’, ‘contemporary philosophers’. No doubt the initiated will often be able to guess who is intended, but I suspect that no single person alive will be able to figure out all the references. Be this as it may, the indirect style combines with the taking for granted of psychoanalytic theory to create the impression of a book written for a very small circle of readers.

It is difficult to convey the purpose of the book – not only because of its elusiveness but also because of its richness. At one level, it is an argument for the reinstatement of the concept of a person as prior to the mental states which can be predicated of him. Here the implicit target of the polemic is Derek Parfit, whose recent Reasons and Persons offers the most complete statement of the view that the person is ‘nothing but’ a sequence of mental and bodily states related in a certain way. At another level, the book is about the temporal structure of ‘living the life of a person’. A proper understanding of this structure will both help us to explain cases of arrested or otherwise pathological development and suggest ways of coming to grips with our past and with the fact of death. An aspect of the second project is to replace the straitjacket of morality with a philosophy of personal liberation.

The two lines of argument are not fully integrated. Little of what Wollheim has to say about what it is to live the life of a person would be affected if he turned out to be wrong about the nature of persons. This lack of connection is fortunate, since his arguments for giving persons priority over their states are too sketchy to be convincing, and the other project is clearly more important to him. Of these arguments, Wollheim says that the following is the strongest: ‘If it is true that for mental states to arise, they must be appropriately linked to mental dispositions, then they must essentially belong to things that can house dispositions, and this is where the person is required.’ I can’t see why mental dispositions could not simply be lodged in the brain. A person, on this view, would be a series of mental and bodily states. The occurrence of a mental state would also be the occurrence of a certain physical state, which by physical causality would affect the probability of later physical states and the concomitant mental states. I am not defending this view, only using it as an instance of the kind of objection Wollheim would have to counter before his ambitious claim could even begin to persuade us.

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