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Strawson on why Cartesian soul violates the concept of identity


To: Anthony L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson on why Cartesian soul violates the concept of identity
Date: 3 April 2007 10:44

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your email of 27 March, with your University of London Diploma essay in response to the question, 'Strawson says that a Cartesian is committed to thinking that a dualist reduction or analysis of the idea of a person is possible. Explain what Strawson means. Assess his reasons for thinking that such a reduction or analysis is not possible.'

In answer to your question, I can say that this is not one of your best essays, mainly because you have failed to grasp the point of Strawson's argument (2c). However, I do think that giving you a ranking would hinder rather than help you in the exam. Above all else, you need to be sharp. It might turn out that what you thought of as one of your weaker topics has a question which you know that you can write a great essay about - maybe there's a clever point or twist which you have just been thinking about.

Do give yourself plenty of time to evaluate the questions and decide, not simply on the basis of 'what is my best topic' but rather 'have I got anything interesting to say about this?', or, maybe 'How confident do I feel at this moment that I can do the question justice?' You WILL know.

You've missed the point of the essay question. I might as well state this bluntly, as it is not helpful to you otherwise. The point is in Strawson's dictum, 'no entity without identity'. This is a conceptual claim. You have interpreted it as a sceptical challenge ('how do you know that you are one consciousness rather than a thousand?'). However, the point has nothing whatsoever to do with scepticism. The only way that scepticism could arise is if there IS a difference between being one consciousness and being a thousand (at a time or over time). And the point is that there isn't.

The game of dice perfectly illustrates this. We know that causation fails as a criterion of identity because two things acting simultaneously can bring about a single effect. If the point was a sceptical point, then there might be a thousand Steves or one Steve and Jane will never know (never know how all the Steves laugh with one another at her false assumption, or how God laughs while Jane converses with a thousand identical Steves, thinking there is only one).

But the point is not a sceptical point. It is logical. There is no difference, because the qualities of consciousness as such do not have the capacity to identify a unique individual. Only spatial position can do that. That is why there cannot, logically, be an entity whose properties are purely conscious properties.

You seem to imply at one stage that Strawson is unable, using his notion of a single entity, a person, with two kinds of properties to explain the phenomenon of multiple personalities. I don't think that this is correct. In principle, the same human body can, in Strawson's terms, be different persons at different times. However, this possibility does suggest an argument which you could turn back on Strawson. Given that we do want to allow for the logical possibility of multiple personality disorder, what are the defining bounds of a 'person'? Say, Jane is subject to big mood swings. Her new boyfriend Steve notices this and coins two names, 'Janie' and 'Jane'. During these mood swings, 'Janie' tends to forget things that 'Jane' did and vice versa. At what point would this show that we were dealing with two rather than one?

This is similar, in principle, to the question of counting clouds which I may have mentioned in a previous email. If there is no entity without identity, how can there be such a thing as a cloud, given that it is often impossible to say, with any degree of accuracy or confidence, how many clouds you can see in the sky?

Does this show that we have to allow the notion of 'vague objects'? A vague object is an entity with an identity, but it is a vague identity. Does that make sense?

I'm not terribly convinced by your examples of 'analysing' statements about persons into statements about bodies and statements about minds. Obviously, one can make a gesture at doing this as you have done but it is a different matter entirely if the task is to COMPLETELY get rid of any statements about persons. However, this point is more difficult (as Strawson concedes) and doesn't have the same knock-down effect as his 'no entity without identity' claim.

If you understand my objections here, this could still be a good topic for you in the exam. But if you don't, or are not sure, then perhaps it would be best to avoid it.

I won't do with you what Strawson used to do with me (and a lot of other graduate students according to the legend) which is to say, 'I am right, go away and think about it.' I'm not that self-confident.

All the best,