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Soul, Self and Personal Identity

May 25, 2007


A smile came into his eyes as contemporary theorist Rob Shields casually mentioned a potentially potent area of research, as if it had just come to him — tracing the history of the modern concept of self. For a moment I considered it but I realized it was far too ambitious. So it was with eagerness that I began to read Martin and Barresi’s (2006) he Rise and Fall of Soul and Self. In it they trace the development (and eventually deconstruction) of Western theorizing of soul, self and personal identity from Plato to Jacques Derrida with impeccable skill, lucidity and logic. They conclude that this anthropocentric project is an exercise in human pride, a western myth of human sense of worth and nobility over all other life forms. While relegating the concept of soul to either folk psychology or religion, and excluding the use of the term in the disciplines of philosophy or psychology, they acknowledge that concepts of soul, self and personal identity have become interchangeable in everyday life. And when the accountant tallies the numbers, in spite of Epicharmus’ argument1 — one is not the same person one was before since everything is constantly changing — debtors are not forgiven their debts because their molecules have changed.

to be continued . . . slow world interrupts . . .

According to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), for instance, language is unstable and lacks an external reference. A student of Foucault, Derrida named his view, Deconstruction; but, he said, even though words and concepts, including the self, are open to question, we have no choice but to use them. Once we are aware that they are open to question, we should put them “under erasure,” that is, never lose sight of the fact that their meaning is ephemeral (Martin and Barresi 2006b).

Notes:

1.

One of the earliest indications of interest in the problem of personal identity occurs in a scene from a play written in the fifth century b.c.e. by the comic playwright Epicharmus. In this scene, a lender asks a debtor to pay up. The debtor replies by asking the lender whether he agrees that anything that undergoes change, such as a pile of pebbles to which one pebble has been added or removed, thereby becomes a different thing. The lender says that he agrees with that. “Well, then,” says the debtor, “aren’t people constantly undergoing changes?” “Yes,” replies the lender. “So,” says the debtor, “it follows that I’m not the same person as the one who was indebted to you and, so, I owe you nothing.” The lender then hits the debtor, who protests loudly at being abused. The lender replies that the debtor’s complaint is misdirected since he—the lender—is not the same person as the one who hit him a moment before (Martin and Barresi 2006:3).

Bibliography and webliography

Kingswell, Mark. 2001. The World we Want: Virtue, Vice and the Good Citizen. Toronto/New York: Penguin. p. 91.

Levitt, Steven D., Dubner, Stephen J. 2005. Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: Harper Collins. p. 92

Martin, Raymond, Barresi, John. 2006. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: an Intellectual History of Personal Identity. New York: Columbia University Press.

Martin, Raymond, Barresi, John. 2006. Excerpt. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: an Intellectual History of Personal Identity. New York: Columbia University Press.

2006b. “Interview with Raymond Martin and John Barresi, authors of The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self.” http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/publicity/martinbarresiinterview.html

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_243f8v533

© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “A history of the soul, self and personal identity. >> speechless http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_243f8v533

One Response to “Soul, Self and Personal Identity”

  1. bwinwnbwi Says:

    Hello, Maureen. Today “identity” occurred to me as a good word to put in the wordpress search engine and that’s why I’m here. I see that you have an interest in the similar concepts of identity, soul, and self and so do I.

    My view is : 1) Personal identity exists in mental/rational reflexivity–the reflexivity of one’s personal history of significant events. I agree with the above,

    “…language is unstable and lacks an external reference (and) even though words and concepts, including the self, are open to question, we have no choice but to use them. Once we are aware that they are open to question, we should put them “under erasure,” that is, never lose sight of the fact that their meaning is ephemeral..”

    But, what if the question–the question that all words and concepts, including the self, are open to question? What if the question is itself the ground of language? What if the structure of ~bb (the structure of not being occurring in being, i.e., the structure that implies being), is both the source and the condition of reflexivity? What then? Could it be that this structure is the source of the “theistic soul,” and/or the condition for all identities, linguistic, mathematical, and psychological? Could it be that this structure is the causal factor in all identities, identities, which, in turn, make possible implication, behavior, and the embedded events that are identified with one’s personal history? Thanks for the opportunity to comment.


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