February 2014

Stepping into the River of Personhood

Hacking’s book Rewriting the Soul is an example of what I think philosophy has finally managed to accomplish in modern times: reconciling empirical science with pure thought. It’s like breath of fresh air. He uses the case studies of people with dissociative identity disorder to discuss what it means “to be a person”, among other things.

His conclusion (I think… since I’m still pondering over this book) is that not only are we shaped by our memories, but by the “descriptions” that are placed on ourselves by an externality and even ourselves. Also, we don’t just act, we act with intention. If I punched you, an outside observer as well as the victim of said punch are both likely to ask, “Why did you punch him/me?” Various answers could be given: maybe because I don’t like you; maybe because I have a mental disorder; maybe because you were also punching me; or maybe because I was trying to stop you from killing another human being. All these descriptions change the way we think about actions.

I think Hacking applies this to personhood too. So it’s not just the memories that shape who you are–it’s how you describe yourself, which is based on how other people describe yourself, which is based on how you describe yourself, which is based on… well you get the point.

I wonder, then, how Hacking would respond to the age old problems of what it means to be a person, such as Heraclitus’ “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” as well as the Ship of Theseus–if a ship made out of 100 planks sails out into sea, and returns having all of its parts replaced, is it still the same ship? At what point did it cease to be the Ship of Theseus?

I have a feeling that Hacking would respond to both these problems similarly: it is the same river, and it is the same ship. For what is a river, really? Not only is it just a stream of flowing water, but this concept of “river-ness” is a description constructed by humans and placed upon naturally or unnaturally occurring phenomena. It may be different in composition, as in at any given time new water is swiftly flowing in replacing the old, just like how humans are composed of their own “water”, i.e. their memories. But at the same time, we have created the social construct of what it means to be a “river” and have used it as a prototype, as Hacking said–e.g. a flowing body of water, located in one place (i.e. not subject to teleporting randomly from one spot to the next), deep enough for ships to sail on, may freeze over in winter, etc.

Likewise for the Ship of Theseus. Even though the composition of the ship changes over time (the planks), it still manages to fit with our construct of what it means to be a “Ship of Theseus”. And even though it may come back to port completely transformed, according to Hacking, it can be said that it is the experiences it has gone through that have shaped just exactly what the ship “is”. It may be a different ship in terms of composition, but we still consider it as the same ship because of the construct. If that makes any sense.

So the way that I see it, Hacking seems to argue X + Y = Z, but over time as the ingredients X + Y change or are added upon we might get something like X + M + N… but that still equals Z. I am still Brendan, but that Brendan is certainly very different from my 12-year old self. Or even the self that was 2 seconds ago typing this sentence.

Anyway, we all know that it’s best to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so if I ever by some freak accident bump into him (maybe at UBC since he used to teach here… in the 60’s) then I will definitely ask him!