An Identity of My Own

David Pears

  • I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity by Jonathan Glover
    Allen Lane, 207 pp, £15.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9001 5
  • Choice: The Essential Element in Human Action by Alan Donagan
    Routledge, 197 pp, £14.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 7102 1168 6

The unity of my mind is something that I can appreciate when I use it, but it is hard to isolate and analyse. Without it, I could not have checked that sentence or added this one to it, and yet, when I turn my mind inwards onto itself, the source of its unity remains elusive. Is it something additional to all my thoughts and feelings, wholly au-dessus de la mêlée? What are the vicissitudes through which this anima vagula is capable of maintaining its own identity? How separate is it from the rest of the natural world? That last question forces itself on us not only when we think about the possibility of surviving death but also when we make any ordinary choice in daily life. For whatever people end by thinking after they have studied philosophy and considered the arguments for determinism, there is no doubt that they begin with the conviction that they are genuine originators of their own actions, that when they choose to do them and do them, they could have chosen to refrain and refrained.

These questions are evidently deep and, if they are difficult, it ought at least to be clear in what direction I should look for their answers. Should I look to philosophy or to psychology? Should I turn my mind not onto itself but to its functions, in the hope that they will reveal how its unity is achieved? If I listen to philosophers, I shall probably start by reflecting on my memory, which gives me my sense of my own identity down to the present moment, but perhaps I ought also to include my intentions, because, when I extend this line in thought for a certain distance into the future, my own intended actions help to fix its orientation.

Or maybe the original source of my mental unity is the integration of my various sensory fields at any single moment. I see the fork on my left and the knife on my right and I know how to move my body in space in order to take in the food that I see in the centre, and, at an earlier stage, some other sense may have told me which way to go in order to get into the position to eat. Our philosophical tradition is a very theoretical one and it is easy for us to forget how much our own actions contribute to the picture of the world around us. We think of the world as our stage waiting there for our performance to begin. But the movements of infants exploring their own bodies and the space immediately surrounding them are actions, and, without having performed them ourselves, we would never have learnt to distinguish the actors from the stage. Our own bodies are only a special part of the natural world and their limits are discovered by experiment. This boundary provided Freud with a model when he drew the line between the Ego and the rest of the mind: the inner subject confronts the raw, unworked material of the Id in much the same way that the whole person confronts the external physical world.

But perhaps the integration of sensory fields is a function too close to the centre of the mind to give us a clear idea of the way in which our mental unity is achieved. Maybe we should look further out for the answers to our questions. The lens of the mind can hardly be turned onto itself and it may be easier to appreciate its unifying power if we look at its more distant achievements. There is a school of psychologists who suggest that the real person is not an elusive self au-dessus de la mêlée but simply the sum of the roles that he plays: we are like actors who never come off-stage, and no interview after the performance can reveal our true selves. If this view leaves us too hollow-centred, at least it stretches us to include more of the richness of our actual lives.

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