Issue #11 February 2018

Ships, Persons, and Hegelian Selves

Francis Bacon - Three Studies for a Portrait of Lucian Freud

The Problems of Identity

In very simple terms by identity we often mean some enduring unifying principle which serves as a telling mark that an object is the same through change. Were things unchanging and unalterable, we would have no question of recognizing identity, but alas the natural world denies us this ease of satisfaction. Depending on the object being inquired about, if identity is taken as externally posited by us upon it, the unifying principle may differ based on the complexity of the object’s total constitution as a unity. Certain objects have multiple determinations of unity which can at one moment or another be privileged as the connecting link and mark of the bearer of identity.

The Ship of Theseus

“The Ship of Theseus” is an example given as an introduction to the problem of identity in philosophy 101 classes. If the ship of Theseus is crafted and over time every piece is replaced eventually no original physical piece of the ship of Theseus remains. Can we say, then, that this ship is still the ship of Theseus, or can we not? This example forces one to question the body identity theory at the very least, but it is quite different to the personal identity question, for in the case of the ship the object in question is itself an arbitrary artificial being. The ship is not a ship of its own account, but rather through our own external work on its materials, i.e. we relate to it as an artifact which originates as a concept in our minds and which is realized through an activity of crafting.

The problem of reduction to material or formal identity

The ship of Theseus has an identity at first through its historical becoming in connection to Theseus and its stable material form. As it moves across time and space it remains unified as an entity, carrying the marks of its slow wear and tear on its material body. It is what it is as the historical body that it is, and it is not difficult to identify it. Now, to the first issue: What happens when this body’s material substance — its individual parts — is changed over time such that none of the original material remains while the form remains the same? Is it still the same ship?

Organic Identity

With a living body we are not left to question whether the body really is a unity and what unifies it — the living body itself enacts and shows its own unity against any skepticism we may have. The organism actively relates itself to itself as an act of self-identity as a whole through parts and thus affirms its individual and species unity. With the changes of the body in material and form over time we have (usually) no question as to whether it is the same being or not. With organisms we have no problem accepting it is an identical being that is different, for with the biological we have concepts which require it to remain identical in difference: growth, maturation, aging, et cetera. This identity, however, fails to be ascertained in any one moment or part of the living being and is only grasped in the link of the generating process. The fetus that becomes a baby that becomes an adult person is one and the same not because we deem it so, but because as an organism it has posited itself so.

Personal Identity

The identity of a person is most complex. As a living being, it overcomes problems of the ship of Theseus, but it has its own new problems: a person is a conscious being with memory and a conception of itself as well as a conception which others have of them. With memory and thought the subject itself does the work of linking itself to itself over time and space in an explicit concept. With body and memory a person identifies themselves to themselves, yet there are problems with ascertaining an unquestionable marker of identity even with such capacities.

The Hegelian Self

Concepts are for Hegel structures of developmental unities, and to be a self necessitates the form of such a unity. Let us see what Hegel says of the self as subject (Hegel uses the terms interchangeably in many places) in the brilliant and famous Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit.

The Process of Personal Identity

The identity of personality is of a complex nature far beyond any mere reduction to a single or even few determinations. As already stated before, identity is through difference. Hegel says:

To be a person, to be a self, and to be identical is to be a process of being unified through difference and otherness.

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.


February 2018


Nietzsche’s Rift: Heidegger’s Pathway to Thinking

by Justin Richards

Chaplin’s Stuttering Body. The Utopian Potential of Film

by Timofei Gerber

Ships, Persons, and Hegelian Selves

by Antonio Wolf

Navigating Post Truth: Nietzsche Contra Plato

by John C. Brady