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Interdisciplinary Honors Seminars

Personal Identity in Philosophy and Popular Culture

Professor Tripp McCrossin, SAS - Philosophy
TH 8:10A - 11:10A
Honors College Room S124
College Avenue Campus


One of the ways to think about what philosophers do is to imagine them tending to concepts we use routinely in thinking to ourselves and speaking with one another, but which remain controversial even after more “scientific” folks have had their say. There have been many such concepts in the history of philosophy, among them the concept of “person.”

Thinking about “persons” is, by the conventional standards of the history of philosophy, a relatively recent concern, which emerged only in the late seventeenth century. John Locke added to An Essay Concerning Understanding’s second edition, which appeared in 1694, a brief discussion, the first of its kind, in which to “consider what person stands for.” Locke famously wrote, “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking, and as it seems to me essential to it.” What his perspective is most famous for in particular is the idea that persons and bodies can come apart. A person exists and persists, he insisted, “as far as the same consciousness can extend to actions past or to come, and would be by distance of time, or change of substance, no more two persons, than a man be two men by wearing other clothes today than he did yesterday, with a long or a short sleep between.” Locke’s perspective was immediately controversial and remained so throughout most of the eighteenth century and, after a hiatus during which it was eclipsed by alternative nineteenth-century approaches, has been so again since the middle of the twentieth.

The seminar will be devoted to the history of the controversy, as reflected in both philosophical discourse and popular culture, and in light of at least three sorts of anxieties to which a Lockean perspective appears vulnerable. On the one hand, a person might swap bodies with another, voluntarily or involuntarily — Star Trek’s “Turnabout Intruder” (1969), for example,Freaky Friday (1976, 2003), All of Me (1984), Vice Versa (1988), Prelude to a Kiss (1992), The X-Files’ “Dreamland” (1998), The Skeleton Key (2005), and The Change-Up (2011). On the other hand, persons might also be duplicable, through bodily duplication, again voluntarily or involuntarily — Seconds (1963 novel, 1966 film), for example, Star Trek’s “Enemy Within” (1966) and “Second Chances” (1993), The Prestige (1995 novel, 2006 film), and Multiplicity (1996), Black Mirror’s “White Christmas” (2014). Finally, there might develop such things as artificial persons, competing in various ways with “real” ones — Frankenstein in its many incarnations over the years, for example, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and its two film adaptations, Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 (1982, 2017), and three novel adaptations in the interim (1995, 1996, and 1999), and Westword, the original film and two sequels (1973, 1976, and 1980), and the ongoing television adaptation (2016, 2018).

Syllabus choices regarding what popular culture the seminar will address in particular will be driven as far as possible by seminar participants’ backgrounds and preferences, but will surely include at least the FrankensteinBlade RunnerWestworld, and The Prestige storylines.

TRIPP MCCROSSIN, teaches classes in the history and legacy of the Enlightenment, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy, and in contemporary ethical and political issues and popular culture. He strives to organize them to be as thoroughly conversational and exploratory as possible, and to relate philosophy as often as possible to the cultures we live in, and in this spirit, contributes periodically to essay collections published in several "popular culture and philosophy" series. He studied at the University of Michigan and Stanford and Yale Universities, and before coming to Rutgers in 2003, worked for some years in the labor movement.

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