Personal Identity

Personal identity deals with philosophical questions that arise about ourselves by virtue of our being people (or, as lawyers and philosophers like to say, persons). This contrasts with questions about ourselves that arise by virtue of our being living things, conscious beings, material objects, or the like. Many of these questions occur to nearly all of us now and again: What am I? When did I begin? What will happen to me when I die? Others are more abstruse. Personal identity has been discussed since the origins of Western philosophy, and most major figures have had something to say about it. (There is also a rich literature on the topic in Eastern philosophy, which I am not competent to discuss; Collins 1982 and Jinpa 2002 are useful sources.)

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Self-Knowledge and Knowledge of the Self

In philosophy, “self-knowledge” standardly refers to knowledge of one’s own sensations, thoughts, beliefs, and other mental states. At least since Descartes, most philosophers have believed that our knowledge of our own mental states differs markedly from our knowledge of the external world (where this includes our knowledge of others’ thoughts). But there is little agreement about what precisely distinguishes self-knowledge from knowledge in other realms. Partially because of this disagreement, philosophers have endorsed competing accounts of how we acquire self-knowledge. These accounts have important consequences for a broad range of philosophical issues, especially issues in epistemology and the philosophy of mind.

This entry focuses on the knowledge of one’s own particular mental states. A separate topic sometimes referred to as “self-knowledge”, knowledge about a persisting self, is addressed in a supplement: Knowledge of the Self.

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Read also: Knowledge of the Self

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Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science

Feminist epistemology and philosophy of science study the ways in which gender does and ought to influence our conceptions of knowledge, the knowing subject, and practices of inquiry and justification. It identifies ways in which dominant conceptions and practices of knowledge attribution, acquisition, and justification systematically disadvantage women and other subordinated groups, and strives to reform these conceptions and practices so that they serve the interests of these groups. Various practitioners of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science argue that dominant knowledge practices disadvantage women by (1) excluding them from inquiry, (2) denying them epistemic authority, (3) denigrating their “feminine” cognitive styles and modes of knowledge, (4) producing theories of women that represent them as inferior, deviant, or significant only in the ways they serve male interests, (5) producing theories of social phenomena that render women’s activities and interests, or gendered power relations, invisible, and (6) producing knowledge (science and technology) that is not useful for people in subordinate positions, or that reinforces gender and other social hierarchies. Feminist epistemologists trace these failures to flawed conceptions of knowledge, knowers, objectivity, and scientific methodology. They offer diverse accounts of how to overcome these failures. They also aim to (1) explain why the entry of women and feminist scholars into different academic disciplines, especially in biology and the social sciences, has generated new questions, theories, and methods, (2) show how gender and feminist values and perspectives have played a causal role in these transformations, (3) promote theories that aid egalitarian and liberation movements, and (4) defend these developments as cognitive, not just social, advances.

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Giorgio Agamben – We Refugees

In 1943, in a small jewish periodical, The Menorah Journal, Hannah Arendt published an article titled “We Refugees.” In this brief but important essay, after sketching a polemical portrait of Mr. Cohn, the assimilated Jew who had been 150 percent German, 150 percent Viennese, and 150 percent French but finally realizes bitterly that “on ne parvient pas deux fois,” Arendt overturns the condition of refugee and person without a country – in which she herself was living – in order to propose this condition as the paradigm of a new historical consciousness. The refugee who has lost all rights, yet stops wanting to be assimilated at any cost to a new national identity so as to contemplate his condition lucidly, receives, in exchange for certain unpopularity, an inestimable advantage: “For him history is no longer a closed book, and politics ceases to be the privilege of the Gentiles. He knows that the banishment of the Jewish people in Europe was followed immediately by that of the majority of the European peoples. Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people.”

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Giorgio Agamben

Giorgio Agamben is an Italian philosopher best known for his work investigating the concepts of the state of exception, form-of-life (borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein) and homo sacer. The concept of biopolitics (borrowed and adapted from Michel Foucault) informs many of his writings.

His strongest influences include Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault. Agamben edited Benjamin’s collected works in Italian translation until 1996, and called Benjamin’s thought “the antidote that allowed me to survive Heidegger”

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State of Exception – Giorgio Agamben

Two months after the attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration, in the midst of what it perceived to be a state of emergency, authorized the indefinite detention of noncitizens suspected of terrorist activities and their subsequent trials by a military commission. Here, distinguished Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben uses such circumstances to argue that this unusual extension of power, or “state of exception,” has historically been an underexamined and powerful strategy that has the potential to transform democracies into totalitarian states.

The sequel to Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, State of Exception is the first book to theorize the state of exception in historical and philosophical context. In Agamben’s view, the majority of legal scholars and policymakers in Europe, as well as the United States, have wrongly rejected the necessity of such a theory, claiming instead that the state of exception is a pragmatic question. Agamben argues here that the state of exception, which was meant to be a provisional measure, became in the course of the twentieth century a normal paradigm of government. Writing nothing less than the history of the state of exception in its various national contexts throughout Western Europe and the United States, Agamben uses the work of Carl Schmitt as a foil for his reflections as well as that of Derrida, Benjamin, and Arendt.

In this highly topical book, Agamben ultimately arrives at original ideas about the future of democracy and casts a new light on the hidden relationship that ties law to violence.

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Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

When Marx undertook his critique of the capitalistic mode of production, this mode was in its infancy. Marx directed his efforts in such a way as to give them prognostic value. He went back to the basic conditions underlying capitalistic production and through his presentation showed what could be expected of capitalism in the future. The result was that one could expect it not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.

The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production. Only today can it be indicated what form this has taken. Certain prognostic requirements should be met by these statements. However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production.

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Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s importance as a philosopher and critical theorist can be gauged by the diversity of his intellectual influence and the continuing productivity of his thought. Primarily regarded as a literary critic and essayist, the philosophical basis of Benjamin’s writings is increasingly acknowledged. They were a decisive influence upon Theodor W. Adorno’s conception of philosophy’s actuality or adequacy to the present (Adorno 1931). In the 1930s, Benjamin’s efforts to develop a politically oriented, materialist aesthetic theory proved an important stimulus for both the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and the Marxist poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht.

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DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy

Manuel DeLanda’s  Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy cuts to the heart of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and of today’s science wars. At the start of the 21st Century, Deleuze is now regarded as the most radical and influential of contemporary philosophers. Yet his work is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. In this already classic work Manuel DeLanda does what the growing host of Deleuzians have falled to do – he makes sense of Deleuze for both analytic and continental thought, for both science and philosophy.

Manuel DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy rapidly established itself as a landmark text in contemporary continental thought. DeLanda here draws on the realist philosophy of Gilles Deleuze to the domain of philosophy of science. As well as contemporary philosophical insights, the book also tackles new developments in geometry, complexity theory and chaos theory to bring new insights to our understanding of a scientific knowledge liberated from traditional ideas of essence.

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Bertrand Russell: Science and philosophy

Russell lived a remarkably full life. The grandson of Lord John Russell who twice served Victoria as Prime Minister, Russell was one of the most influential logicians, philosophers and essayists of the twentieth century. His groundbreaking advances in technical philosophy include his defence of logicism (the view that mathematics is in some non-trivial sense reducible to logic), his discovery of the paradox that bears his name (summed up in the question, “Does the set that contains all and only those sets that do not contain themselves contain itself?”), and his introduction of the theory of types (his way of avoiding the paradox). Among philosophers, he is perhaps best remembered for his theory of logical atomism (the view that the world consists of individuals having properties and standing in relations to one another), as well as for his theory of definite descriptions (a theory that gives an account of reference that helps avoid various puzzles associated with non-existent objects). Among mathematicians, he is remembered, not just for his work in formal logic, but for his theory of logical relations, including his impressively general theory of relation arithmetic.

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