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Paradoxes of Selfhood:  Questions of Identity and Time with a Dash of Heidegger


Paradoxes of Selfhood: Questions of Identity and Time with a Dash of Heidegger


Mihnea Chiujdea

Have theorists of personal identity wrongly assumed the nature of time to be sequential and thereby limited our account of self? Mihnea Chiujdea identifies an alternative conception of temporality, found in the work of Martin Heidegger, as necessary to approach the paradoxes inherent in our selfhood.

Cue two lovers meeting in a dark train station. While they embrace it becomes clear to them that the whole content of their being is found in their commitment to one another; they promise never to let anything separate them again. But things don’t always go as planned and after a few weeks spent together things become unbearable and they split up. They both confess to their friends that their lover was not the same person anymore.

I admit this is a poor attempt on my part at writing short fiction. But it highlights the fact that the question of personal identity - that of remaining the same person over time – is worthy of our attention, especially given the extent to which it permeates the way we relate to others, as well as to ourselves. A contemporary way of phrasing it philosophically is to ask what is sufficient and necessary for someone to be identical with themselves at two distinct points in time. I want to ask whether turning our attention to the nature of temporality would suggest the need to rephrase the way we pose this question. Could it be that it is a false problem that we use to refer to a real phenomenon, namely that we are the sort of creature who has a self? I want to suggest that this is right, and that in order to properly understand the kinds of creatures we are, we need to look to an alternative conception of temporality: a conception that can be found in the work of Martin Heidegger.

One way personal identity has been construed is in an essentialist manner. Following Leibniz’s philosophy this identifies the person with a constant - which is known as a substance - that remains unchanged through the passing of time. This approach has resurfaced today in the Anglo-American analytic tradition where writers explain personal identity with reference to the essential proprieties that form an individual’s core and which are independent of any phenomenon that is subject to change. Here the relation of identity stands between the person at t1 (or in other words the way one is at any given particular moment in time) and the person at t0, namely this unchanging underlying substance. This approach is in line with a number of underlying assumptions in our culture, in particular that we have a soul which outlives our earthly existence. 

Some philosophers, however, only seek to find a criterion that when fulfilled it can be concluded that one is the same individual that they were previously (and vice-versa). Such criteriological approaches fall into two categories according to the element they take to determine the persistence of the person: some identify this criterion with psychological continuity and others adopt the criterion of bodily continuity.

The psychological criterion follows in the tradition of the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that identity depends on memory. Locke’s delight in imagining switching the memories of a prince with those of a cobbler inspired a lot of philosophers to appropriate Sci-Fi scenarios into their work. These can involve brains in vats and memories teleporting themselves. They also tend to broaden the criterion to cover any psychological identity construed more broadly as well as connectedness/continuity. This approach seems immediately attractive in that we tend to think that our actions and behaviour are the result of our intentionality, hence the criterion for personal identity must be psychological. However, because some contemporary writers have conceived of psychologies in terms of brains, this criterion seems not to be clearly distinguished from the criterion of bodily continuity.

The other group of criteriologists tend to argue that our survival is dependent on the survival of our bodies. Some writers claim that being a person is dependent on the soma. Indeed, the only way we encounter other humans is as bodies, so why should we not bind the person that they are to their bodies? Others, however, argue that the survival of our bodies, like that of any other animal, does not explain being a person and that personhood can be conceived of as a passing quality, which is not in fact essential to the kind of being that we are. This explanation also has its merits in that it accounts for such problematic cases where one’s psychic activity is terminated by, say, a dreadful accident, but their vegetative functions remain intact. It would appear that they remain the same individual without being a person anymore.

We plan our days according to minutes and hours that succeed one another and when we recount or reminisce about the past we tend to replace the linear sequence of time with emotional rejoinders that reorganise temporal units in a Proustian manner

While critiquing and discussing the arguments in favour of all of these theories is indeed worthwhile, I want to highlight that they all rely on a conception of time as sequence. When asking whether the person is identical with itself at t1 and t2 or at t1 and t0 (i.e. ad infinitum), it is implied that time is a series of moments that follow one another. This underlying assumption has been taken for granted in the tradition, perhaps because it is also akin to the brute experience we have of ourselves and others. We plan our days according to minutes and hours that succeed one another and when we recount or reminisce about the past we tend to replace the linear sequence of time with emotional rejoinders that reorganise temporal units in a Proustian manner. From a third person perspective, we encounter others at given moments in time, so we judge whether they were the same by comparing our encounter with them at given moments, which succeed one another.

But is this the right way of thinking about time that allows us to explain our being in the world as the sort of creature that we are? I want to suggest that this is in fact not the case. To address this question I want to ask what sort of temporality is akin to the self or explains the way the self is developed.  By the self I am not thinking of anything like a substance or a soul. When I write ‘self’ I refer to that, which answers the question ‘who?’ one is. I hope that it is not too controversial to assert that having a self defined in these terms is something that being a human in the world always implies (save for any deficient state like being terribly impaired, in which case it might not be appropriate to speak of selfhood). If my readers will indulge me in making this assumption, then I think that setting out as a requirement that all debates over personal identity should rely on a conceptualisation of temporality that accounts for the self should not be too controversial either. Here I am not switching from a third person to a first person explanation, I am though mainly interested in a conception of time that accounts for how the first person and self come into being. Let me develop this with reference to the work of the 20th Century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger talked about the (human) being that you and I are as 'Dasein'. Roughly and clumsily translated into English as 'being-there', this word shifts the focus from an analysis of human nature and highlights the fact that we are always in a concrete situation in the world surrounded by other Dasein and equipment, which we use as a part of our existence, what he calls 'being-in-the-world'. Moreover, while we can think abstractly and are capable of scientific reasoning our day-to-day dealings in the world depend on a pervasive and familiarity with it that is non-conceptual. This is not to say, however, that this cannot be discussed philosophically with the help of concepts.

To highlight the defining relation between Dasein and the tools that surround it, Heidegger introduced another neologism: 'being-in'. This does not refer to a spatial relation - in the way the water can be in the glass – but captures the idea that we deal with the world from inside a network of reference, which is set up by the way equipment refers to one another. The structure, in which things get significance is explained in terms of tools, their function, the product of using tools, and the environment where tasks are pursued. To exemplify, a hammer as tool refers to banging nails into wood, in order to build a bookshelf. All these actions and beings have meaning within the environment provided by the carpenter’s workshop. The final element in this chain is the for-the-sake-of-which. This is the final purpose of an activity, for example completing the bookshelf. As the purpose of a task, it can be actualised and then disappear, before being replaced by another such aim.

Heidegger follows the existentialist ethos that Dasein’s essence lies in its existence. However, he refuses the label of an existentialist philosopher and does not boil this ethos down to Dasein’s ability to choose, where choice is seen as a rational activity implying that one weighs the courses of action provided by the situation and decides that one prefers one such course of action. Instead, for Heidegger this means that Dasein’s self-understanding is dependent on the possibilities that it projects onto. By 'projecting into possibilities' what is implied is something like exercising a type of activity that defines one’s self-understanding. This does not mean planning one’s future. For a carpenter projecting onto her possibilities means practicing carpentry, i.e. using the tools that carpenters use, working in a carpenter’s workshop and producing woodwork. Heidegger terms this kind of activity, which provides one with a self-understanding one’s 'for-the-sake-of-which'. This is slightly confusing, as he ends up referring to two things by the same neologism: both the bookshelf that the carpenter makes and actually being a carpenter. It rightly emphasises that the activities that one can practice are provided by the world, understood not in a physical way as the totality of bodies, but as the structure where things gain significance for Dasein.

This is similar to the way the aim of building a bookshelf is dependent on the hammers, nails, and so on. However, this 'for-the-sake-of-which' is not something like a goal that becomes actualised in an end result (like the one described above), but continues to provide a self-understanding that organises the way Dasein relates to its existence as long as it is practiced and thus requires to be practiced continuously. For example one’s for-the-sake-of-which can be being an architect. This generates goals such as getting a job at an architect’s practice, but it does not get actualised and disappear once one becomes a practicing architect. Instead, it continues to arrange one’s priorities, how one relates to others, the tools used, etc.

The facticity of one’s existence is never brute fact for Dasein

However, Dasein is 'thrown'. This means that, on the one hand, one’s possibilities are drawn from the world so one can only exercise those activities that are meaningful in the referential totality that one is in. Projecting on the possibilities of a writer would be impossible for a Dasein living in a world where paper, pens, printers, etc. do not exist. On the other hand, one is always in a state of mind and this influences the way possibilities show up for one. So, the facticity of one’s existence is never brute fact for Dasein.

The third component that makes up Dasein’s structure of existence is 'fallenness'. This neologism attempts to highlight Dasein’s ability to deal with the world skilfully in an absorbed manner. He argues that the more we become proficient in an activity - from opening doors, using hammers to writing philosophy - the less we become conscious of ourselves and of the tools we use, unless these break down and reveal themselves to us. This is an alternative to a theory of self-consciousness, which gives this a central role in our interaction within the world: what Heidegger appears to be claiming is that while self-consciousness is something we are capable of it can be understood as a breakdown of the usual state of absorbed dealing.

This account of the self has a temporal character, because each of the three elements described above, which make up the structure of Dasein’s existence, corresponds to a temporal ekstasis. Ekstases - the Past, the Present, and the Future - are the horizons against which action and entities can show themselves meaningfully for Dasein. They do not describe moments that have not been yet but will be, that have been and are no longer, etc. The self-understanding that one gains by projecting onto possibilities is futural, because practicing a for-the-sake-of-which is like a 'goal' that is never actualised. This makes up the Future as ekstasis. Dasein’s thrownness, that it is always already in a particular mood and its possibilities are drawn out of a pre-existing referential whole, makes up the Past qua ekstasis. This is because Dasein’s mood and the possibilities available to it are always already there while not implying that they are no-longer. Finally, the ekstasis of the Present is constituted by always being amidst and in absorbed dealing with the world and using language, fallenness. These ekstases make up what Heidegger calls originary temporality. This is not sequential, the ekstases form a whole: the Future does not pass into the Present and into the Past; the Past is not no-longer, but it determines the way one can project onto possibilities. They are equi-primordial and account for meaning as well as explain how unity and continuity in one’s life can be explained, how Dasein is able to become someone and in virtue of practicing being this, self-understand. Conceptually, primordial temporality and the elements that it brings together enable us to explain how the self - who one is - is constituted. This does not mean that sequential temporality, or world time (the time measured in seconds and minutes, in which we plan our days and our weeks) is a fiction. Heidegger’s argument is only that, in virtue of the kind of being that Dasein is, there exists a more primordial mode of temporality.

This account of the self through the lenses of temporality is still very innovative and has a lot of potential for development in dealing with various problems that contemporary philosophy busies itself with. There are many questions left unanswered, however. On the one hand, how can we explain the relationship between primordial temporality and world time? Can it be argued that we derive world time out of ordinary temporality? This would be highly dubious. Of course, by providing us with goals, primordial temporality enables us to prioritise action, but it does not explain why our activity is organised in terms of minutes and hours (i.e. sequentially). Equally, what role does intentionality play in this project/projecting that the self is? For Sartre, radical freedom and choice were the nature of human existence. This is one of the reasons why Heidegger refused to be identified with Sartre. For him choice is less a matter of individual freedom as outlined above. My possibilities choose me more than I choose them.

The problem of personal identity depends on an understanding of time as sequential

With very little to offer in the way of resolving these questions I shall end by returning to the problem of personal identity over time. It appears that the way this problem is set up is somewhat flawed, as it does not assume the mode of temporality that is akin to the self, namely non-sequential temporality. This is not an attempt to conflate the self with the person. While I provided a definition for what I mean by the self and I assumed that, by virtue of being Dasein we all have one, the term person can and has meant almost as many things as there have been philosophers who wrote about personhood. Instead, what I am trying to argue is that because it compares the person - whatever that is taken to mean - at t1 with that at t2 or t0, the problem of personal identity depends on an understanding of time as sequential. Under this understanding there need to be moments that succeed one another, in order to compare the person that corresponds to any of them. It thus resists being rephrased in a way that takes into account the mode of temporality that is akin to the self. Or, put differently, an attempt to phrase personal identity in line with the mode of temporality, under which it is possible to explain how the self is developed - non-sequential temporality - dissolves this problem. I will even go one step further and say that it appears that the concept of the person appears to imply the correspondent in sequential time of the self of non-sequential time. But in virtue of being essentially un-sequential the self appears to resist this translation so the concept of personhood does not appear to be necessarily helpful. Perhaps problems of identity through time can only be asked with regard to beings, whose mode of temporality is sequential - like tables and chairs, which have a beginning and an end that follow one another - but not of the sort of creatures we are, the sort who have a self.

This reading of Heidegger is indebted to Hubert Dreyfus’s Being in the World (1991) and William Blattner’s Heidegger’s Temporal Idealism (1999).


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Mihnea Chiujdea is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin and holds a BA in Politics and an MA in Philosophy from University College London. His current research investigates personal identity, temporality, and the self and his thesis is provisionally entitled Paradoxes of Identity: Persons, Selves and Time.  He is also the Philosophy Editor at four by three magazine.