Tyler 's Reviews > The Constitution of Selves

The Constitution of Selves by Marya Schechtman
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Dec 14, 09

bookshelves: philosophy
Recommended for: Readers of Philosophy
Read in November, 2009

What does it mean for somebody to possess identity? The failure of modern philosophy to answer this has lead to theories of consciousness that neither resemble nor account for the observed experience of being human. In this book Marya Schechtman traces the source of the failure and gives readers a picture of personal identity that fits with what we actually observe.

The book has two parts: In the first part, called Reidentification, she discusses older explanations of consciousness, starting with John Locke, which have come to be known as psychological continuity theories. In the second part, Characterization, Schechtman proposes the “personal narrative” test as a superior way of defining identity, one which does away with the defects in psychological continuity.

Psychological continuity theories, we hear, fail to describe relations of identity. Materialist reductions of consciousness, such as Parfit’s, state, as an example, that personal identity just doesn’t matter, that it's a kind of fiction. But can this be an adequate account of our identities? No, says the author: Such parts could never account for conscious states such as that of anticipation. Consciousness is phenomenological – the whole is more than just the “reidentified” parts.

On the other hand, features of the human psyche such as the quest for survival, the assessing of responsibility, and the concerns for self-interest, provide unity to consciousness and a real basis for identity. These features the author uses in her strengthened version of identity, one which preserves the person’s character as a “persisting (temporally extended), experiencing subject.” These features help constitute a running narrative that gives identity its actual essence.

I liked the second part of this book better than the first. The idea of a narrative constitution of identity has been taken up by other philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue), so this book addresses a running problem in modern philosophy. The writing is technical in places, but easy to get through once you get going. This is the right book for people wanting to read about the philosophical perspective on personal identity.
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