Ricoeur, Paul, Narrative Identity, Philosophy Today, 35:1 (l991:Spring) p.


My purpose in this essay is to outline the notion of narrative identity, that is, the sort of identity to which a human being has access thanks to the mediation of the narrative function. I encountered this problem at the end of the third volume of Time and Narrative' where I asked myself, after a long voyage through both historical and fictional narrative, if there existed a fundamental experience capable of integrating these two great classes of narrative. I formed a hypothesis that the constitution of narrative identity, whether of an individual or a historical community, was the place to search for this fusion between history and fiction. I believe we have an intuitive pre-understanding of this fusion. After all, do not human lives become more readable [lisibles] when they are interpreted in function of the stories people tell about themselves? And these "life stories," are they not rendered more intelligible when they are applied to narrative modelsplots--borrowed from history and fiction (drama or novels)? The epistemological status of autobiography seems to confirm this intuition. It is therefore plausible to affirm the following assertions: a) knowledge of the self is an interpretation; b) the interpretation of the self, in tum, finds narrative, among other signs and symbols, to be a privileged mediation; c) this mediation borrows from history as much as fiction making the life story a fictive history or, if you prefer, an historical fiction, comparable to those biogThis article was originally published Mark S. Muldoon. as "L'identlte narrative."

Paul Ricoeur

raphies of great men where both history and fiction are found blended together. But what is missing in this intuitive apprehension of the problem of personal identity is a clear understanding of what is at stake in the very question of identity applied to both persons and communities. Since the publication of the last volume of Time and Narrative I have become more aware of the considerable difficulties attached to the question of identity as such. Presently, I am convinced that a strong and convincing plea can be made in favour of narrative identity if it can be shown that this notion, and the experience that it designates, contribute to the resolution of the difficulties relative to personal identity as it is currently discussed in broader philosophical circles, especially English analytical philosophy. The conceptual frame under which I shall conduct my analysis rests on the fundamental difference that I see between two major uses of the concept of identity: identity as sameness (Latin idem; English same; German gleich) and identity as self (Latin ipse; English self; German selbst). Ipseity, I shall argue, is not sameness. My thesis is that many of the difficulties which obscure the question of personal identity result from not distinguishing between these two usages of the term "identity." As we shall see, this confusion is not without reason inasmuch as the two problematics themselves overlap on a certain point. The determination of this zone of overlapping will be in this respect of
in Esprit nos. 7--f3 (1988): 295-304. The translation is by


SPRING 1991 73

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greatest importance. I shall begin from the idea of identity-assameness tidcniv. Several relations operate at this level. First. there is the sense of numerical identity where we say that two occurrences of one thing designated by an invariable name do not constitute two different things but one and the same thing. Identity here means uniqueness and its opposite would be plurality-not one. but two or several. This first sense of the term corresponds to identification understood as re-identification of the same. The second sense of identity-as-sameness is the idea of extreme resemblance where we see that X and Y wear the same dress. that is. dresses of such similarity that they can be substituted one for the other. The opposite of this sense of identity is difference. These first two ideas are not external to each other. In certain cases the second sense serves as the indirect criterion for the first one when re-identification of the same is the object of doubt and argument: in such instances one does one' s best to point out material evidences (photos. imprints. etc.) or. in a more problematic case. the recollections of a witness. or the concurring testimony of several witnesses. present a very great resemblance. for example between an accused now present before the court, and the presumed author of an older crime. in order that the man present today and the author of the older crime are one and the same person. The trial of war criminals gives us examples of similar confrontations. One knows the risks in such situations. It is precisely the weakness of the criterion of similitude in the case of large distances over time which suggest another notion that is at the same time another criterion of identity, namely. the uninterrupted continuity in the development of a being between the first and last stage of its evolution. For instance, we say that an oak is the same being from its acorn stage to its age of maturity: this is the

same for animals from birth to death and for a person in so far as he or she exemplifies the species from fetus to old age. The demonstration of this continuity functions as an additional criterion along with that of similitude in service of numerical identity. The opposite of identity taken in this third sense would be discontinuity. Now with this third sense there is the need to take into account change over time. It is in function of this major phenomenon from which the fourth sense of identity-assameness arises. namely. permanence over time. It is with this sense that true puzzles arise in that it is difficult not to assign this permanence to some immutable substrate. to a substance. as did Aristotle. and as Kant confirms when. in moving from an ontological plane to a transcendental one. he asserts. in the categories of understanding. the primacy of substance over accidents: "All appearances contain the permanent (substance) as the object itself. and the transitory as its mere determination. that is. as a way in which the object exists.": One recognizes here the First Analogy of Experience which corresponds in the order of principles. that is, the first judgements. to the first category of relation which is precisely called substance and whose schema is the "permanence of the real in time. that is. the representation of the real as a substrate of empirical determination to time in general, and so as abiding while all else changes. It is exactly this fourth determination which causes problems to the degree that ipseity, the self. appears to cover the same space of meaning. But this determination is irreducible to any of the above determinations. as verified by the difference of opposites: the opposite of numerical identity is plurality whereas the opposite of identityas-permanence is diversity. The reason for this discontinuity in the determination of what is identical is that identity-as-uniqueness does not thematically imply time as is




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the case with identity-as-permanence. And this latter sense is what we have in mind when we affirm the identity of a thing. of a plant. of an animal. of a human being (not yet considered as a non-substitutable person). How does the notion of the self. of ipseity, come to intersect with that of sameness? To begin to unfold the notion of ipseity is to look into the nature of the question to which the self constitutes an response. or a range of responses, This question is the question who. distinct from the question what. It is the question we preferentially pose in the domain of action when. in searching for the agent, the author of the action, we ask. "who did this or that?" Let us call ascription the assignation of an agent to an action. In this way we attest that the action is the possession of the one who did it, that it is his or hers. that it belongs to one's own self. Onto this act, still neutral from a moral point of view. is grafted the act of imputation which takes on an explicitly moral signification. in the sense that it implies accusation, excuse or acquittal. blame or praise, or, in brief, an estimation according to "the good" or "the just." One might ask however why we employ this awkward vocabulary at the self rather than that of the ego? Very simply because all grammatical persons are subject to ascription: for example, to the first person in confession, the acceptance of responsibility (I did it); to the second person in warning, advice, and commandment (you shall not kill); and to the third person in narrative, which will occupy us more precisely shortly (he says, she thought, etc.). The term self, ipseity, covers the range opened by ascription on the plane of personal pronouns and all the other deictics which depend on it: adjectives and possessive pronouns (my, mine, your, yours, his, hers, etc.) and adverbs of time and place (now, here, etc.). Before marking out the region where the question of the self crosses that of the same,

I want to emphasize the break which scparates idem and ipse as being not only grammatical. or even epistemological and logical. but really ontological. I agree with Heidegger in saying that the question of Selbstheit belongs to the sphere of problems relevant to the sort of identity that he calls Dasein and which is characterized by its capacity to interrogate itself about its own mode of being and thus to relate to being qua being. In this same sphere of problems belong such notions as being-in-the-world, care. beingwith, etc. In this sense Selbstheit is one of the existentialia which fit the mode of being of Dasein. just as the categories in the Kantian sense fit the mode of being of the entities Heidegger characterizes as Vorhanden and Zuhanden. The break between ipse and idem finally expresses the more fundamental one between Dasein and vorhandenl Zuhanden. Only Dasein is mine, and more generally a self. Things, given and manipulated. can be said to be the same, in the sense of identityas-idem. This being said, the self intersects with the same at one exact point, precisely with regard to permanence over time. Indeed it is legitimate to ask what sort of permanence belongs to a self in light of ascription, whether it be for a character defined by a certain constancy of its dispositions, or, which one recognizes in light of imputation by the sort of fidelity to self that is manifest by the manner in which one keeps promises. And however close in appearance this selfconstancy (maintien de soi) (to translate with Martineau the expression Selbst-Stdndigkeit by Heidegger) seems to be to the permanence over time of the idem, it is indeed a question of two meanings which overlap without being identical. The problem which concerns us henceforth proceeds precisely from the overlapping between the two problematics which arise when we have to deal with the question



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of permanence

over time.

My thesis


Fact View ." What I essentially insinuation that a hermeneutic



is the

this point on is a double

one: the first is that

of ipseity

most of the difficulties which aftlict the contemporary discussion of personal identity result from confusion between two interpretations of permanence over time: the second is that the notion of narrative identity offers a solution to the aporias concerning schematic personal identity. Rather than make a necessarily review of the difficulties

would amount to nothing more than the positing of a Cartesian ego. itself identified as a "further fact" distinct from mental states and corporeal facts. It is because mental states and corporeal facts have been beforehand reduced to impersonal events that the self belong to takes on the appearance of a further fact. The

self. I will argue. does not simply

linked to the prob-

lem of personal identity and the solutions which have been offered in English philosophy since the time of Locke and Hume, I have chosen as an appropriate adversary. Derek Parfit, author of an important work entitled

the category of events and facts. Parfit himself however moves toward such a decisive position on two occasions. The first is when he isolates the strange characteristic experiences of what he calls the constituent of a personal Ii fe as being some-

Reasons and Persons,'
The force behind Parfits work is that it draws together all the consequences of a methodology sonal vant facts which being permits based only an imperwith the releon either a description of identity.

thing possessed by a person. The entire question of owness, which governs our use of personal ducible adjectives, comes back to the quesdescription of an tion of ipseity in so far as it is at once irre-

to the impersonal

psychological or physical criterion. According to his "reductionist" view. "the fact of a person's holding identity over time just consists of certain more particular in the facts. and

objective connectedness or to the fantastic hypostatizing of a pure ego taken for a separate further fact. The second occasion is more noteworthy. I I' connectedness. whether psychic or physical. is the only important concerning identity. then. says Parfit. sonal identitv is not what matters." audacious plications. assertion namely has important the renunciation thing "perThis of the

that these facts can be described without either presupposing the identity of this person. or explicitly claiming that the experiences in this person's life are had by this person. or even explicitly claiming that this person exists. These facts can be described in an impersonal way." What I question in Parfit's position does not concern the coherence of this impersonal approach. but its affirmation that the only contrary alternative would be "a Cartesian Pure Ego. or pure spiritual substance."? My thesis. says Parfit, "denies that we are separately existing entities. distinct from our brains and bodies. and our experiences. But this view claims that. though we are not separately existing entities, personal identity is a further fact. which does not just consist in physical and/or psychological continuity. I call this the Further

moral im-

moral principle of self-interest and the adoption of a sort of quasi-Buddhist erasure of identity. But. I will ask, to whom does identity cease to be important"? Who is called upon to examine for themselves the assertion of the self if not the self which has been put between parenthesis in the name of an impersonal methodology"? But I have a more important reason to take seriously Parfits book. This reason concerns the systematic employment of what he calls puzzling-cases, which are essentially drawn from science-fiction but emphatically introduced into this domain of investigation. It is recourse to these imaginary cases which will



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bring us shortly to a narrative interpretation of identity which I will oppose to Parfit's solution. In my elaboration of this narrative identity, I will propose in particular a confrontation between the puzzling-cases of science-fiction and those puzzling-cases found in literary fiction. The important point here is that the puzzling-cases are essentially posed by an imaginary technology applied to the brain. The greater part of these experiunrealizable and

interest tween

if it were denied two sorts

a confrontation


of fiction,


and literary fiction that the narrativist thesis brings into play. That narrativity offers here an alternative solution is already forshadowed, or if one wishes, pre-comprehended, in the manner by which we ordinarily speak of life as a story. We equate about life to the story or stories we tell apit. The act of telling or narrating

r-ients are for the moment

may never be so; but what is essential is that they are conceivable. Three sorts of experimentation are imagined: transplantation of the brain; bisection of the brain; and the most

pears to be the key to the type of connectedness that we evoke when we speak, with Dilthey, of the "interconnectedness of life"

ally a question unity,

des Lebensi. Is this not reof a fundamental narrative

remarkable case, fabrication of an exact replica of the brain. It is with this last experiment that we shall momentarily stop. Let us suppose that a replica is made of my brain and from my suppose body so exact that it is indiscernible real brain and body. Let us further

as claimed by Alisdair McIntyre in After Virtue, where he speaks about the narrative unity of a life?" But whereas relies principally on the stories McIntyre told in the

course of and in the midst of life, I propose to make a detour through the literary forms of narrative and more narratives. precisely through over time, in ficby stothose of fictional of connectedness, The problematic

that this replica is sent to the surface of some planet where I myself am "teletransported" and encounter Furthermore my replica. let us suppose that in the

of permanence

or, in short, of identity, level of lucidity tional narratives

finds itself raised to a

course of the voyage my brain is destroyed and that I do not rejoin my replica; or that only my heart is spoiled and that "I" rejoin my replica intact, who promises me to take care of my family and my work after my death. The question is to know if, in either case. I survive in my replica. As one sees, the function of these puzzling-cases is to create a situation such that it is impossible to decide if I survive or not. The repercussion of an indeterminate response undermines the belief that identity. either in the numerical sense or in the sense of permanence over time, must always be determinate. If the response is indeterminate. says Parfit, it is the question itself which is empty, therefore implying the conclusion that identity is not what matters. My conception of narrative identity opposes itself term for term to the arguments of Parfit, But this dissent would be of little

and also perplexity that is not achieved

ries immersed in the course of life. Here. the question of identity is deliberately posed as the outcome [I' enjeuj of narration. According to my thesis, the narrative durable character constructs the of an individual, which one

can call his or her narrative identity, in constructing the sort of dynamic identity proper to the plot [/' intrigue j which creates the identity of the protagonist in the story. It is primarily in the plot therefore that we must search for the mediation between permanence and change, before being able to transfer it to the character. The advantage of this detour through the plot is that it furnishes the model of discordant concordance upon which it is possible to construct the narrative identity of a character. The narrative identity of this character will only be known correlaNARRATIVE IDENTITY


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tive to the discordant concordance of the story itself. Where the confrontation with Parfit becomes interesting is when literary fiction produces situations where ipseity dissociates itself from sameness. The modern novel abounds in situations where one usually speaks of a character's loss of identity in exact opposition to the fixity of the hero which characterizes folklore, fairy tales, etc. One could say in this regard that the great novel of the nineteenth century, as Lukacs, Bakhtine, and Kundera have interpreted it, explored all the intermediary combinations between the complete overlap of identity-assameness and identity-as-ipseity and the complete dissociation between the two modalities of identity that we are now going to discuss. With Robert Musil, "the man without qualities." or rather without properties, becomes, at the limit, unidentifiable. III The anchorage of a proper name becomes ridiculous to the point of becoming superfluous. The unidentifiable becomes the unnamable. Musil's novel amply verifies that the crisis of identity of the character is correlative to the crisis of identity of the plot. One can generally say that to the degree the narrative approaches the annulment of the character in terms of identity-as-sameness, the novel loses its properly narrative qualities. To the loss of identity of the character corresponds a loss of the configuration of the narrative and in particular a crisis of its closure. There is thus a repercussion of the character on the plot. It is the same schism, to speak as Frank Kermode does. which at once affects the tradition of the identifiable hero and the tradition of configuration with its double valence of concordance and discordance. The erosion of these par .idigms affects at once the figuration ofthe character and the configuration of the plot; for instance, in the case of Robert Musil, the decomposition of the narrative form. in parallel with the loss of the PHILOSOPHY TODA Y

character, crosses the limits of narrative and draws the literary work toward the vicinity of the essay. It is not by chance then that so many modem autobiographies, such as that by Michel Leiris for example, II deliberately distance themselves from the narrative form and rejoin a literary genre that is much less configured, namely the essay. We should not however misunderstand the significance of this literary phenomenon. It is necessary to say that even in the extreme case of the loss of identity- as-sameness of the hero, we have not left behind the problematic of ipseity. With regard to the category of the subject. a non-subject is not nothing. Indeed, we would not be interested in this drama of dissolution and we would not be thrown into confusion by it if the non-subject were not still a figure of the subject, even in the negative mode. Let us suppose someone poses the question. "who am IT Even if nothing or almost nothing is the response. this is still a response to the question who, simply reduced to the nakedness of the question itself. We can now compare more precisely the puzzling-cases of science-fiction and those of literary fiction. The differences are numerous and striking. First, narrative fictions remain imaginary variations around an invariant; the presupposed embodied condition constitutes an insurpassable mediation between the self and the world. Characters in a play or novel are similar entities to ourselves in that they act. suffer. think. and die. In other words. the imaginary variations in the literary field have for their horizon our unavoidable earthly condition. We should not forget what Nietzsche. Husserl, and Heidegger have said about the earth; it is not to be understood as a planet, but rather. as the mythic name of our being-in-the-world. Why is this so'? Because fictions are imitations-c-as erroneous and aberrant as one wishes~of actions. that is. they speak of what we already know as action and


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interaction in a physical and social environment. By comparison. Parfit's puzzlingcases are imaginative variations which make even the invariant of a hermeneutic of existence appear as contingent. And what is the instrument of this distortion'? Technologynot actual technology but the dream of technology. Where the imaginative variations of fictional narratives deal with the variable relations between ipseity and sameness. the imaginative variations of science-fiction deal with sameness alone. the sameness of one thing. of one manipulable entity. the brain. An impersonal understanding of identity thus appears to depend on a technological dream in which the brain has first to be taken as the substitutable equivalent of the person. The true enigma is therefore to know if we are capable of conceiving those variations where corporeity. as we know it. in joy and in suffering, could be taken for a variable, a contingent variable, without which one could not transpose our terrestrial experiences into the same description as the case in question. For my part I ask myself if we are not doing violence to what is more than a rule. a law, or even the state of things, but rather the existential conditions under which exist rules, laws, and facts. This violation may be the ultimate reason why these experiments are not just unrealizable but. even if realizable, why they should be forbidden. A second difference is striking to me. Regardless of all the sophisticated science-fiction experimentation, the subject who is treated is dealt with without any relation to another. in the sense of another person. Only my (") brain and an experimenting surgeon are present. I am alone and prey to the experimentation. The other. who takes on the figure of a giant. is difficult to distinguish from an executioner. As for my replica. it does not act in the capacity of an other. In fictional narrative. on the other hand. interaction is constitutive of the narrative situation: in this regard

A. J. Gerimas has good reason to take the conflict between two narrative programs as an inexpungable semiotic constraint of the narrative field." In this sense the fictional narrative does not overlook the fact that ipseity and otherness are two existential correlatives. But I hasten to come to the major difference between the usage of science-fiction in the treatment of the problem of personal identity in analytical philosophy and that of literary fiction in the hermeneutic of narrative identity. Novels and theatre pieces do have their own puzzling-cases. especially in modem literature. But they are not puzzling in the same sense. Compared to Parfit's "impersonal conception." the sort of indeterminacy iindecidahilite]that literature evokes is not such as to render the question itself empty. On the contrary. the question who is intensified as a question by the lack of a response. If it is true that the answers to the question who. typical of the problematic of the ipse. borrow their content from the problematic of the idem (question of who. answers by what) the puzzling-cases proposed by literary fiction tend to dissociate the question of ipse from a response as idem. Who is "I." when the subject says that he or she is nothing'? Precisely a private self in need of an identity-as-idem. This suggestion that I formulate on the plane of narrative configuration is not without reverberation [rcrclltis.\·CII/Cllf[ on the plane of figuration of the daily and concrete self. In the application of literature to life. what we transfer and transpose in the exegesis of ourselves is the dialectic of ipse and idem. In it resides the purgative virtue of thought experiments carried out by literature. not only on the plane of theoretical reflection. but on that of existence. You know what importance I attach to the text -reuder relation. I always like to cite the beautiful text by Proust from Time Regained: "But to return to


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myself. I was thinking more modestly about my book and it would not even be true to say that I was thinking of those who would read it as my readers. For, as I have already shown, they would not be my readers, but the readers of themselves, my book only being a sort of magnifying-glass like those offered by the optician of Combray to a purchaser. So that I should ask neither their praise nor their blame but only that they should tell me if it was right or not, whether the words they were reading within themselves were those I wrote .... ,,/3 Refiguration by narrative confirms this aspect of self-knowledge which goes far beyond the narrative domain in that the self does not know itself immediately, but only indirectly, through the detour of cultural signs of all sorts, which articulate the self in symbolic mediations that already articulate action, among them the narratives of daily life. Narrative mediation underlines this remarkable aspect about knowledge of the self as being an interpretation. Appropriation of the identity of a fictional character by the reader is one of its forms. What the narrative interpretation properly provides is precisely "the figure-able" character of the individual which has for its result, that the self, narratively interpreted, is itself a figured self-a self which figures itself as this or that.

It is in this light that I place what I have come to call the purgative virtue, in the sense of Aristotelian catharsis, of the thought experiments set before us by literature, and more precisely by the limiting cases of the dissolution of identity-as-idem. In one sense there is a moment where it is necessary to agree with Parfit and say that "identity is not what matters," but we cannot disregard the fact that someone must utter the statement. The phrase "I am nothing" must maintain its paradoxical form; "nothing" would not mean anything if it were not assigned to an "I." For what indeed is an "I" when I say that it is "nothing," if not a self deprived of the aid of sameness? Is this not the meaning of many dramatic--even terrifying--experiences in relation to our own identity; namely the necessity to go beyond this experience of nothingness of the identity-as-permanence, this nothingness being equivalent to the zero degree case in the transformations dear to the heart of Levi-Strauss? Many narratives of conversion pay witness to such nights of personal identity. In these moments of extreme self-divestiture, the empty response, far from rendering the question empty, reinforces this question and maintains it as a question. What cannot be abolished is the question, "who am IT


I. Paul Ricoeur, Temps et recit, Tome 1II (Paris: Editions du Seuil. 1985). Translated Time and Narrative, cago Press. 1988). 2. Immanuel Kant. Critique (If" Pure Reason. trans. Norman by K. Blarney and D. Pellauer as University of Chivol. 3 (Chicago:

8. Ibid .. p. 217. 9. Alisdair Mcintyre. After virtu« (Notre Dame. Indiana:

Notre Dame University

Press. 1984).

10. Robert Musil. L" homme sans qualites (Paris: Seuil. 1979). [Translator's note: a partial translation of this work appears in Robert trans. P. Papers of a Living Author, under the title of "The Man without Character" Musil. Posthumous

Kemp Smith (New York: SI. Martin's Press. 1965). p. 212 (AI82. B224). 3. Ibid .. p. 184 (AI43. BI83). 4. Derek Parfit, Reasons Press. 1984). 5. Ibid .. p. 210. 6. Ibid. 7. Ibid. and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon

Wortsman (Hygiene. Colorado: Eridanos Press. 19X71. pp. 107-14.[ II. Michel Lciris. Manhood: A Jouruevtrom the Fierce Order ofvirilit». Grossman Publishers. DaI'. and Oars as Night. Childhoo.t into

trans. R. Howard (New York: trans. R. Sieburth (Hygiene.

1963): and. M. Leiris, N ight, us



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Eridanos Press. 19R7). Structural Semantics: An Attempt at

Semiotic Theory. trans. Paull. Perron and Frank H. Collins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1987).

12. A. 1. Greimas.

Method. trans. Daniele MacDonald. and. A. 1. Greimas. On Meaning:

Ronald Schleifer. and 13. Marcel Proust. Time Regained. (London: Chatto & Windus. trans. Stephen Hudson Selected Writings in 1966). p. 415.

Alan Velie (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1984):

University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637/Universite de Paris, France

Vol. XXII I No. 66 I Mexico, diciembre 1990 SUMARIO Articulos WESLEY C. SALMON, Scientific Explanation: Causation and Unification propiedades SERGIO MARTINEZ, Mas alla de la presuposici6n newtoniana: genuinamente disposicionales en la rnecanica cuantica ANA ROSA PEREZ RANSANZ, Azar y explicaci6n. DOROTHY EDUARDO Application MERRILEE chaeology. Discusiones LEON OLIVE, Sobre causaci6n Notas bibliograficas Libros recibidos y unificaci6n segun Wesley Salmon EDGINGTON, H. FLiCHMAN, Instances Explanation, A Crucial Causation Distinction:

Algunas observaciones and Laws Initial Data and Law in Ar·

H. SALMON, On the Possibility

of Lawful Explanation

CRITICA, Reuista Hispanoamericana de Filosofia is published in April, August and December. All correspondence should be addressed to CRITICA, Apartado 70·447, Coyoacan, 04510·Mexico, D.F. Mexico.



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