The Meaning of ‘Self’: Why Personal Identity is not irrelevant

While I agree with the reductionists’ metaphysical analysis of a ‘person’ and of their concept of ‘personal identity’, I will argue that it is inappropriate and counterintuitive to adapt this position in our everyday life or in the way we perceive ourselves and other persons. Firstly, I will explain the main argument of Parfit’s reductionism and its consequences by focusing on his ‘branch-line case’ argument. Thus, I will emphasise on the ethical and pragmatic dimensions of personal identity in order to refute Parfit’s claim that personal identity is irrelevant. Finally, I will briefly highlight Wolf’s assertion that personal identity does matter in the way we see ourselves and the people around us.

As a proponent of reductionism, in his philosophical work Reasons and Persons, he provoques the reader to engage in a counterintuitive thought experiment ‘the branch-line case’, in which a fictional scanner creates and teleports an identical copy of you to Mars. So, you have one version of yourself on earth and the other version of you on Mars, your ‘Replica’. He goes on by predicting that the original person will have a cardiac arrest and only the Replica will survive, who can take over his life as the same person, by accomplishing his goals and taking care of his loved ones. Consequently, Parfit’s aim is to introduce the reader to a reductionist approach by answering the question ‘How should I relate to my own death?’ with the statement that the survival of the Replica is just as good as ordinary survival because your he can follow everything you started and continue your life (Parfit, 201). It is counterintuitive because what really seems to matter is the psychological continuity of a person and not his personal identity. Specifically, identity over time is defined in terms of certain particular facts about psychological continuity and connectedness. Thus, metaphysically speaking, he rejects the idea that there is more to a person than just his psychophysical elements. Whereas, psychological continuity seems to be more important than physical continuity, as you are still identified as the same person even when your body changes. Logically, he argues against the existence of a further fact or a separate entity differing from mental and physical events, like a soul or a distinct, fundamental self. Moreover, it follows that identity cannot be determinate because it depends on a concept and not on an actual existent entity. In the branch-line case, the question of ‘Am I about to die?’ does not have a right or a wrong answer because the original person might have the impression that he is going to die, but it can be argued that his Replica, who is upholding the psychological continuity of the person, is proof enough for his survival.

While I accept Parfit’s arguments in favor of reductionism from a metaphysical standpoint, my principle aim is to unmask its inability to account for the social and ethical values which are derived from the meaning we attribute to personal identity. In other words, Parfit’s reductionism ignores the importance of personal identity in an ordinary social context, he rather denies its significance by identifying it with impersonal psychological events in the brain. Consequently, accepting a reductionist view, not only on a metaphysical level but also in a pragmatic sense, might result in adapting an alienated attitude towards your environment and yourself. Taking psychological continuity as the most accurate definition of a person, destroys not only the image you have of yourself as an individual but also of the collective ‘self’, who possesses ethical and moral obligations towards other people. A metaphysical analysis doesn’t account for what really matters in life, which you derive from the value of your personal identity and the people around you, neither does it account for moral duties. Parfit depicts personal identity as something merely descriptive, which tells you about certain facts ‘what is’, but doesn’t necessarily explain what you ought to believe or how you ought to behave. In this case, when we talk about ‘person’ it is not sufficient to only enumerate the facts about psychological continuity, but also to account for our individual and social values. It causes confusion about who we are and how we identify ourselves in a social context if personal identity is indeterminate. For example, if my personal identity is only defined in terms of psychological events, it is difficult to ascertain what I owe to other people because they don’t necessarily contribute to my psychological continuity. As in the branch-line case, the fact that the original person is about to die, doesn’t play a crucial part, since what really matters is that his psychological continuity is being maintained by his Replica. Thus, reductionism seems to neglect ethical dimensions or different relationships with people.

Moreover, it arises a difficulty to connect with other people or to identify ourselves with them, once we lose sense of who we are. Necessarily, being a subjectively identified, personal self definitely plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining relationships with other humans. The fact that we are able to communicate our values, goals and expectations to other people shows that we have a sense of who we are as a person. Personal connections and the meanings we attribute to ourselves and to others make our life richer. The fact that we have the capacity to develop and maintain relationships undermines Parfit’s view of seeing the self as something indeterminate. Pragmatically speaking, reductionism doesn’t help us to understand our existence or our place in the world and those of others or other entities in the world, as it is too much surgical. Specifically, it tears the notion of person or personal identity apart to get to the bones of it. Arguably, just by reducing ‘the self’ to psychological continuity, its essential meaning and value gets lost by cutting it into these smaller pieces. Naturally, we cannot really identify ourselves with psychophysical elements, as they seem to be impersonal and too abstract.

Furthermore, this view is also defended by Wolf in her paper “Self-Interest and Interest in Selves”, in which she argues that personal identity does matter. Whether reductionists are metaphysically right in arguing that a person is nothing but psychophysical elements, doesn’t entitle them to make claims about what counts as valuable in our personal life. It doesn’t mean that we should give up or change our beliefs about who we are in a social environment only because of a metaphysical worldview ‘For it seems to me that my reasons for being interested in persons never had much to do with my beliefs about their metaphysical composition in the first place’ (Wolf, 705). Clearly, she goes even further to argue that reductionists’ claims don’t have an impact on us, as they don’t have the power to affect us the way we feel about ourselves and others. Consequently, the self still remains subjective, even if someone, for example, would insist that my existence is only based on psychophysical elements. According to Wolf, it wouldn’t affect my deeply ingrained feeling and the belief that I have about my personal identity.

What defines our personal identity is the feeling of being able to reflect upon ourselves and our actions and respond to other people’s actions, taking their ‘personhood’ into consideration. If I start seeing myself and other people as merely bodies with psychological continuity and connectedness, the whole concept of personhood in a social and individual framework would lose its intuitive meaning.

To conclude, even though reductionists like Parfit refute the idea of a ‘further fact’ or a distinct and fundamental entity ‘the self’, it doesn’t imply that we have to consider or identify ourselves merely as psychological events. Intuitively, we define ourselves through values, beliefs and meaningful connections we have with other people. The fact that we believe in a subjective and identifiable ‘self’ gives our life meaning and purpose. Thus, reductionism only offers a metaphysical or even scientific approach to the question of ‘what is personal identity?’ and though its surgical methods risks to disregard the importance of meanings and values.  





Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press, 1984. Print.

Wolf, Susan. “Self-Interest and Interest in Selves”. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.


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