If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Mind: Personal Identity (The Narrative Self)

In this video, Elisabeth Camp (Rutgers University) introduces the narrative view of personal identity and its major problems.

Speaker: Dr. Elisabeth Camp, Associate Professor, Rutgers University.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

[intro music] My name is Elizabeth Camp. I teach philosophy at Rutger's University and today I want to talk to you about Narrative Theories of Personal Identity. Personal identity is one of the first and most fundemental questions of philosophy. Who am I? What makes me, me? These questions are inherently compelling and their bound up with practical matters that each of us must decide for ourselves. But when philosophers turn to the question, their answers often feel disappointingly abstract. They typically approach personal identity as a special case of a more general topic in metaphysics by asking, "what are the conditions on the preservation and annihilation of this entity?" And they typically answer the question using the standard method of far-fetched thought experiments. So, let's imagine a woman, Aletha. She was born in Alpaso, let's say, works at a pharmaceutical company, likes spicy food, and kick-boxes for fun. Now, let's ask if her body were annihilated, and a molecule-for-molecule replica was simultaneously created on Mars, would it still be her, not just someone fitting the same description, but HER? Now imagine that all of her memories and desires were switched with the Queen of England's. Which one would be HER? What if the two hemispheres of her brain were transplanted into the skulls of two cadavers? Who would SHE be? These are interesting questions. But the leading views of personal identity, that I am my body and that I am a thread of overlapping psychological states have a hard time coming up with consistent explanations of all of these cases. More distressingly, though, they don't even address the questions that led many of us to care about the self in the first place. The kinds of features that they propose for what makes me "me" are basically the same as what makes Aletha "Aletha" and what makes you "you." They thus explain why each of us are individuals, in the sense of being numerically distinct, because we're located at different spatiotemporal locations, and we have different other properties, but the same point goes for billiard balls or, at least, for rabbits. They don't even begin to explain WHY the differences between us are interesting, and important. This is where the Narrative View of personal identity comes in. It starts from the idea that we're fundamentally sense-making creatures: "homo narrans," as John Niles puts it, "tellers," instead of homo sapiens, or "knowers." On a narrative view, who I am is given by the story I tell about myself or maybe to guard against rampant self-deception by the story that an especially honest, reflective version of myself would tell. Think about the sorts of things we tell each other on first dates and at parties and in our memoirs. Where we come from, what's happened to us so far, where we are headed. When I ask myself, "Who am I?" I'm asking how to shape the story of my life so it hangs together into a meaningful, well-rounded whole. Because the narrative view treats selves as constructed out of a multitude of remembered details and plans, it explains our sense that some actions and features are deeply part of us while others are accidents: say, that Aletha's love of science is central to her identity, while working at BigPharma is just a way to pay the rent. It also explains the profound intuition that making a "self" is an active, ongoing process. So perhaps, as a teenager, or in college, Aletha might describe herself as "from the Barrio," but later, she might decide that she just happened to be born there, that it doesn't define her, or even much matter. Finally, because it focuses on the particularities of INDIVIDUAL selves, and their specific places at given moments in an overall life's journey, the Narrative View explains the intimate, intuitive connection between figuring out who we are and what we should do. The best action for Aletha, now, is the one that most-fully actualizes the particular "self" she is in the midst of becoming. Maybe this means going back to graduate school. Maybe it means starting a non-profit. Maybe it means saving up to buy a house. Only she can decide, and different decisions may set her off on very different paths, producing later selves with incompatible interests and values. Given how explanatorily rich it is, it shouldn't be surprising that the Narrative View has been endorsed by a wide range of philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, historians and literary critics. However, there's a problem. What the Narrative View REALLY explains is the identity and significance of LIVES NOT the identity and significance of SELVES. What is the problem? Well, the most basic feature of a narrative, as Aristotle tells us, is that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Narrative structure is teleological. Events in the narrative hang together and gain their significance because of their relation to the story's end in helping to bring it about, stymieing its culmination, and so on. But because the Narrative View DEFINES a self in terms of the narrative that it is embedded within it ends up holding the meaning and the value that self hostage to the story's end. One problem is that many lives, maybe even most, end at inopportune times either cut short too early, or dragging on after their main work is done. Intuitively, we don't want to say that these narratively uncompelling ends render the "selves" who lived those lives less worthwhile in retrospect. Further, someone like Aletha might have a rich, robust, morally praise-worthy SELF even if she lacks any grand life-story to tell. She might have always known she'd be a scientist. She might have just stumbled into close friendships and cool hobbies helped lots of people, and have a deeply ingrained sense of spiritual peace all along. These are all qualities that make for a good self, but they might not add up to the specific "Beginning, Middle, End" temporal structure that makes for a good story. The model of the self-made man, waging his way through the world on a quest to discover and actualize his truest being is a compelling one. But it is also peculiarly western and romantic. It shouldn't serve as the standard for defining and evaluating personhood in general. Given these problems, the natural question to ask is whether some other alternative might explain the significance and constructedness of particular selves in a way the the standard philosophical views of personal identity don't even pretend to do. Here, I think a different literary trope suggests itself: the self as a character. Much as on the narrative view, the character view holds that when we construct our own selves, and interpret those of others, we look for more than a pile of qualities. We try to make that nexus of behaviors, habits, commitments and memories hang together into a comprehensible whole, a "coherent texture of being" as Iris Murdoch says. Achieving such coherence of character can be a deep, ongoing challenge. Nietzsche calls it, "a great and rare art." And telling stories is one common tool we use to do this. But these stories typically concern short episodes WITHIN our lives not our lives as a whole. Moreover, some people are lucky enough, or doomed enough, to have coherent selves more or less from the get-go, or to evolve them slowly without much self-reflection. Stories help, but they aren't necessary for self-hood. The appeal to either Stories or Characters might make us worry whether the selves we construct through interpretation are really real. What if we really are just piles of properties, differing from each other in endlessly trivial ways, but without the deep patterns that are supposed to make self-hood significant? What if the construction is all a fiction? In some sense, I think this is right. The reason why the standard views of personal identity don't explain what makes Aletha "her" and me "me" is because there isn't any deep, metaphysical difference between us besides that we are numerically distinct and have lots of different properties, many of them totally trivial. But this isn't how we actually do, or possibly can live our lives. We ARE sense-making creatures, and making important choices, forming deep attachments to other people pursuing long-term projects, all of these require us to decide what we, ourselves, care about even if it doesn't matter to the universe at large when examined coldly and objectively from the outside.