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Essay on Strawson's Individualism

Essay on Strawson's Individualism

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Published by Will Harrison
An assessed essay on Strawson's individualist theory. This was submitted for a module on Doing Philosophy in the second term of my Philosophy course at Warwick University.

Marked: 81/100 (1st)
An assessed essay on Strawson's individualist theory. This was submitted for a module on Doing Philosophy in the second term of my Philosophy course at Warwick University.

Marked: 81/100 (1st)

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Published by: Will Harrison on Feb 09, 2010
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Essay on P.F. Strawson’s Individualist Theory
Does Strawson’s individualist theory overcome the problemof numerically identifying people that he says Cartesiandualism presents?
P.F. Strawson, in
Self, Mind and Body 
, presents a criticism of the way Cartesiandualism treats predicate-subject sentences concerning people(Strawson, 2003).Specifically, he argues that Cartesian dualism, in equating the self with theimmaterial mind, presents the problem of being unable to numerically identifypeople since they have no apparent numerical identity in the Cartesian model.As a support for his own holistic theory of individualism, Strawson argues thatthe only way to overcome this problem is by treating humans as individualswithout constituent parts. This essay will assess how successful his theory is atsurmounting the problem of numerical identity. The structure of the essay will beas follows: The first section will explain Strawson’s individualist model; thesecond will outline his problem with Cartesian dualism and his proposed solution;the third will explore the possible problems for Strawson’s own model in terms of numerical identity; and the final section will consider possible defences of individualism.In Strawson’s essay
Individuals
, he argues against Cartesian reductivism infavour of a holistic view of individuals which incorporates both the mind and thebody as dependent aspects of the self, based on Kant’s analyticphilosophy(Strawson, 1959). Whereas Cartesian dualism treats mind and body asseparate substances which can exist independently, Strawson’s model treatspersons as
logical primitives
; that is, a person is an irreducible concept that canonly be used as part of a description of complex ideas and cannot be analysed interms of simpler, more primitive concepts. A mind – which in the Cartesian modelis the primitive “thinking thing” and identical with the ‘self’ – is not a primitive,according to Strawson: “It can exist only, if at all, as a secondary, non-primitiveconcept, which is itself to be explained, analysed, in terms of the concept of aperson”. In the individualist model, a person is an ‘atomic’ unit and the truesubject of predicate-subject sentences which describe people. To use Strawson’sexample from
Self, Mind and Body 
, the statement “Mary’s consciousness wasentirely occupied by the thought of how becoming her dress was”, although itseems to refer specifically to Mary’s mind, would not make sense if Mary was nota whole person who is physically wearing a dress, but only an immaterialconsciousness. The crux of Strawson’s criticism then follows: a truly Cartesian language whichreferred to minds but not bodies would be incapable of achieving a reference toan independent and unique person. If a person is an immaterial mindindependent of a body, they cannot be numerically identified as an individual,i.e. we would not be able to identify or ‘count’ a person as separate from other
 
people the way we normally would, nor would we be able to re-identify them asthe same person over time. This is because the mind has no apparently enduringfeatures except with reference to a whole person including their body, nor is itspatially exclusive. Strawson argues that, if the self is only the mind, he wouldnot be able to know when speaking to one person, firstly, whether they are onlya single mind (a thousand minds could theoretically share the experiences of asingle person since they would be independent of separate, identifiable physicalbodies) and secondly, whether they are the same mind over time. The latterproblem, of re-identification, is derived from Kant; if a mind is independent of theapparent physical continuity of a body, it could be argued that a consciousness isactually a series of different minds in a kind causal chain, so what appears to bethe same person over time is actually a series of numerically distinct individuals. The purported solution to this problem is individualism. By treating individualpersons as primitives, we can numerically identify them because they must eachhave only one mind and one body – the mind and body would be derived fromthe single person, not the other way around. According to Strawson, the anti-Cartesian’s “recipe for counting individual minds is to count people; for him theidentification of a mind presents no greater (and no less) a problem than theidentification of a person”. If minds are inseparable parts of persons, along withbodies, then as long as a person’s body is spatially exclusive and persistent overtime, so will their mind be.
Prima facie
, the former condition is true, since twophysical objects cannot occupy the same space (one might invokeelectromagnetic repulsion or the uncertainty principle to illustrate this) and thelatter is also acceptable since a body seems to be a causally contiguous objectthat endures time and, to a certain extent, change.However, there is reason to question the idea that bodies can actually be re-identified over time. A body is a constantly changing system with tissues andorgans gradually recycling the matter they are composed of. This potentiallycreates a “ship of Theseus” dilemma – if a person is not composed of the samephysical matter as they were before, are they still indeed the same person?Furthermore, the problem of change over time may be even more fundamentalthan this. A person obviously changes their position, shape, structure and otherproperties constantly, leading us to question whether identity over time is ameaningful concept at all. As Irving Copi points out in his article
Essence and  Accident 
: “If an object which changes really changes, then it cannot literally beone and the same object which undergoes the change. But if the changing thingretains its identity, then it cannot really have changed”(Copi, 1954). It seemsthat, under more rigorous analysis, the idea of a body or any physical objecthaving the same actual identity over time is difficult to support.How would the individualist defend against this criticism? It seems that theywould have to find something residual in a person which does not change overtime. The body changes constantly and consequently may not retain anyconstant identity; but if the anti-Cartesian were to argue that it is a person’smind that is the residual aspect of a person, they would have to abandon thecriticism that minds alone cannot be re-identified over time. Another defence is

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