The Personal Identity Problem in Philosophy

The personal identity

The personal identity is a huge philosophical problem, notably explored by empiricist philosophers, such as David Hume. Who am i ? Am i the same person over time ?

What is identity?

The identity, as opposed to difference, to otherness, is the character of what, in absolute or relative, can be considered as a unit.

There is no entity without identity: for all A, A = A.

We traditionally distinguish three types of identity:

  • The substantial identity and digital identity

Ex: The Morning Star is numerically identical to the Evening Star. This is Venus.

  • The specific identity and qualitative identity, being the same kind of being.

Ex: All things belong to the same species have common characteristics that make them similar in some aspects (although they are numerically distinct).

  • The identity through time, be a permanent being despite apparent changes.

What is personal identity?

Personal identity is what remains the same over time in a person.

But personal identity implies to have a conscious of this permanence.

Uniqueness: be UNIQUE (originality or personality, in terms of qualitative identity)

What is the criterion of identity over time?

Physiological continuity? (Having the same body)

Psychological continuity? (Having the same memories)

The construction of identity is a process still incomplete, always fragile, always resumed.

“I is another” (Rimbaud)

Identity / Equality / Difference

Some questions

Situation 1: Noah’s Ark

Legend has it that after the flood, Noah’s Ark will be stranded on Mount Caucasus. Suppose that, with careful maintenance, the arch has been preserved to this day. However, following successive repairs made necessary by the ravages of time, no more ironing, no more nails, no more original material of the arch have been preserved.

Is this the same arch?

Situation 2: even Noah’s Ark

Suppose that after the flood, because they had not even use, the Ark has been dismantled by Noah. From Noah’s Ark, all that remains is a pile of planks and other materials.

Can you show the job and say “Here is the Noah’s Ark”?

Situation 3: Always Noah’s Ark

From this pile of planks, it was a shack. Is it still Noah’s Ark?

Situation 4: The Prince and the Beggar

English empiricist philosopher of the seventeenth. century, John Locke, had imagined the following story:

Once upon a time, a young prince who was bored to death in his magnificent palace. Every day at the palace gate, a young beggar was begging. The two young people had about the same age and were very similar. The beggar envied the wealth of the prince, the prince envied the freedom of the beggar. They became friends and one day, the magician’s palace granted their wish: the memories and thoughts of the prince ended up in the body of the beggar, free to come and go in the city, the memories and thoughts of beggar found themselves in the body of the prince, between the pampered palace walls.

After the exchange of body, which is the true prince, who is the real beggar?

Situation 5: Who am I? The criterion of continuity spatitemporelle

It is generally to say that despite the changes, I was, I am and I will always be the same person of my birth to my death. However, since I was born, every cell in my body have been renewed several times.

What makes me say, however, that it’s me, the same person who was born, who grew up that old, who will die? What makes you say the same thing?

Situation 6: Who am I? The criterion of psychological continuity

I had a serious accident and I was suffering from amnesia. On what basis do I have or not keep the same identity?


Cite this article as: Tim, "The Personal Identity Problem in Philosophy, May 30, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, May 30, 2012,

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