Personal Identity (Fall 1999) / Notes / Quinton's broader psychological theory

Quinton's broader psychological theory

14 October

The main point

The goal of this session was to put Quinton's view on the table: the structure of his theory, how it avoids objections made against Locke, and the arguments that motivate the cleaned up psychological account (the possibility of body-switching and the particularity argument).

Since most of this was distributed in a handout, I won't repeat myself here.

We took a detour in discussion that I thought was fruitful. If it seems that we didn't really discuss Quinton, that's OK. Williams's objections will apply directly against both of Quinton's arguments. In other words, we'll given Quinton a critical workout when we talk about Williams.

Questions about Quinton's arguments

We spent a lot of time on Quinton's formulation of his psychological criterion and less time on his arguments in favor of the family of psychological theories.

If you want to look more specifically at Quinton's arguments, here are some points you might consider (these are things we would have talked about had we not gone on the detour).


Quinton's argument turns on what particular third parties would say about what happened to the Pole and the Scot. That raises at least these questions.

First, would the argument have been different if he had appealed to the first person perspective? Would it be more persuasive if he had asked you if you could imagine waking up "in" someone else's body? Most of us find that kind of thought experiment very appealing.

Note that Quinton's main opponents, those who think a person is identical with a human body, will depend on third person evidence. That's because at time 2, the person in the Pole body will insist that he's the Scot; someone who believes he remains the Pole (person = body according to this view) will have to insist that he's making a mistake and that third parties who insist he is the Pole are right. So perhaps Quinton was showing that his side of this debate could prevail even on the other side's favored ground of argument.

Second, is Quinton right that the opinions of the particular third parties he singles out would provide the best evidence of what had happened? His suggestion is that the friends and loved ones of the Pole and Scot know them best as persons and so would be in the best position to answer questions about personal identity with regard to these two.

But there's another side to that: the friends and loved ones would also face enormous pschological pressure to say that a body switch had happened. These people want very much for their friends to be relatively whole and sane. Are we sure that they won't be unconsciously influenced to reach the answer they hope is true?


This argument brings out an important part of the appeal of psychological theories: it's thought that our psychologies make us unique.

I think premise (2) is false. I've carried a particular coin around in my pocket for years and care very much about that very coin, not just a coin with similar features.

What about premise (3)? Can't someone become fixated on a particular body? What about a particular body part: "this is the hand that pulled my daughter from the river."

Does the discussion of the twins (pp. 66-7) strike you as odd? Doesn't it suggest that there's no distinction between qualitative and numerical identity for psychological states? If there were such a distinction, wouldn't Quinton have just said: the one twin has these psychological states, the other has those qualitative identical yet numerically distinct, psychological states? If there's no such distinction, how do our psychological states make us unique again? We'll see Williams push this point next week.


Our detour concerned continuity. According to Quinton, a person is an indirectly continous series of soul-phases. Soul-phases are the collection of psychological attributes "belonging to the same momentary consciousness." Two soul-phases are indirectly continuous if and only if they are part of a chain of soul-phases, each of which is directly continuous with its immediate predecessor and successor.

So when I enjoy a deep sleep or when I daydream or when I focus especially hard on a problem and lose connections with the previous (or subsequent) psychological states, what happens? Do I die?

It's remarkable that such an everyday thing as sleep poses such a huge problem for these guys.

What we spent a lot of time talking about was whether it would be a bad thing for a psychological theory simply to admit that persons are unlike material objects in that their identity over time does not require a continuous, uninterrupted chain through time. After all, one of the main attractions of psychological theory is the fact that consciousness, which seems like such a defining element of a person, seems quite different from physical or immaterial substances.

On the other hand, tossing continuity overboard would have some unpleasant consequences. It would mean that we're admitting that my existence is gappy. When I'm taking a nap and the phone rings, my roommate can truly say "he's not here." (Hmm, interesting strategy for dealing with telemarketers.) There might even be some unpleasantness regarding multiple beginnings: if I go out of existence for a while, do I begin again when I come back? If so, how can I be the same person, given that everything has just one beginning?

Then again, perhaps the "no two beginnings" principle isn't such a great one: it's not a new watch when the repairman puts it back together.

Multiple personality disorder and you

Kristie made the point that normal consciousness is gappy: you concentrate on something and lose track of time. I said I thought she was right and noted the continuity between concentrating and multiple personality disorder. Here's more than you probably want to know.

The book I referred to is called Rewriting the Soul by Ian Hacking. It's about how the science of psychology came to categorize and understand what it calls "multiple personality disorder." It's a marvelous book, by the way: the content is interesting and the writing style is quite snappy.

Hacking suggests that what we call multiple personality disorder is continuous with a number of phenomena that are relatively familiar and were not characterized as parts of a disorder even quite recently. Trances and intense concentration, for example, involve dissociation from one's normal stream of consciousness. They are very mild versions of the dissociation from normal life that multiple personality patients suffer but they are still versions of the same phenomena.

In short, trances, daydreaming, distractibility, and intoxication are fairly normal stuff, especially to college students.

In this vein, you may be interested to know that, according to Hacking, this is the average distribution of scores on the standard psychological test for dissociative disorder (the DES):

normal adults and alcoholics 4
phobics 6
college students 14
schizophrenics 20
post-traumatic stress disorder patients 31
multiple personality disorder patients 57

In other words, you're likely to be closer to schizophrenics in terms of your susceptibility to dissociation than a "normal" adult (or an alcoholic) would be.

Is that a scary thing? No. It means that you've got active minds, you're imaginative, and you can get lost in what you're doing such that you forget your "normal" life. That's great! As Hacking puts it "I dread the thought of teaching a class with an average score on the DES of less than 15" (Rewriting the Soul, p. 104).

Source: Ian Hacking. Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Science of Memory. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

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