SAS Honors Program

Will Count towards the SAS - Philosophy Major and Minor

To “find wherein personal identity consists,” John Locke famously proposes, in the 1694 edition of An Essay Concerning Understanding, first “we must consider what person stands for,” which is, he famously proposes there, “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.” But if mere consciousness suffices for personhood at this or that moment in time, Locke continued, then it must also suffice for tracking a person through time. So again we find that we differentiate persons from their bodies. “For it is by the consciousness it has of its present thoughts and actions,” he concluded, that an intelligent being “is self to itself now, and so will be the same self, 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 discussed and debated throughout most of the eighteenth century, thanks to a veritable Who’s Who of philosophers and theologians. Thanks to an equally notable Who’s Who, it has been similarly controversial among twentieth- and twenty-first-century philosophers. There is a curious phenomenon that separates these two groups, however, from all appearances hitherto unexamined, which is the conspicuous lull in overt inquiry regarding personal identity during the nineteenth and the first half of twentieth centuries. The seminar would be devoted to investigating and elaborating, on the one hand, the reasons why this lull first occurs, why it eventually ends, and how a provocative liminal inquiry is nonetheless discernible in the interim, in Gothic, Sentimental, and Science-fiction literatures for example. Against this background, the seminar would also be devoted then, on the other hand, to investigating and elaborating the ways in which this liminal inquiry, once teased out, may inform the more straightforwardly philosophical debate, not only occurring in the eighteenth century, but also as of the middle of the twentieth.

In the latter respect, again we would look to popular culture for additional instruction. When the concern is taken up again by mid-twentieth-century philosophers, that is, they are motivated in part by a pair of anxieties, shared with their eighteenth-century counterparts, driven now by medical and other technological advances, and reflected provocatively in popular culture. There is the anxiety, on the one hand, that a person might swap bodies with another, voluntarily or involuntarily (for example, Star Trek’s “Turnabout Intruder” (1969); Freaky Friday (1976, 2003); All of Me (1984); Vice Versa (1988); Prelude to a Kiss (1992); The Skeleton Key (2005); and The Change-Up (2011)). There is the additional anxiety, on the other hand, that persons might be duplicable, through bodily duplication, again voluntarily or involuntarily (for example, Seconds (1963 novel, 1966 film); Star Trek’s “Enemy Within” (1966) and “Second Chances” (1993); The Prestige (1995 novel, 2006 film); and Multiplicity (1996)). Add to this the anxiety, also driven by technological advances, in particular in robotics and artificial intelligence, and reflected equally provocatively in popular culture, which is the possibility of artificial persons competing in various ways with “real” ones (for example, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the film version, Blade Runner (1982), and the three sequel novels, reconciling the original novel with the film (1995, 1996, 2000); “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” (1969 short story, 2001 film, Artificial Intelligence); and the Terminator franchise (1984-2015 ff.)).

TRIP MCCROSSIN has been with the Philosophy Department at Rutgers for over a dozen years, working in various ways on the history and philosophy of the Enlightenment, and its legacy in contemporary ethics, politics, and popular culture. He attended college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and graduate school at Stanford and Yale. He's working on several longish bits of writing on the problems of evil and personal identity, and has essays periodically on these and other subjects in several Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He lives in Brooklyn with his twenty-year-old son.


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