Essay on P.F.

Strawson’s Individualist Theory
Does Strawson’s individualist theory overcome the problem of numerically identifying people that he says Cartesian dualism presents?
P.F. Strawson, in Self, Mind and Body, presents a criticism of the way Cartesian dualism treats predicate-subject sentences concerning people(Strawson, 2003). Specifically, he argues that Cartesian dualism, in equating the self with the immaterial mind, presents the problem of being unable to numerically identify people since they have no apparent numerical identity in the Cartesian model. As a support for his own holistic theory of individualism, Strawson argues that the only way to overcome this problem is by treating humans as individuals without constituent parts. This essay will assess how successful his theory is at surmounting the problem of numerical identity. The structure of the essay will be as follows: The first section will explain Strawson’s individualist model; the second 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 in favour of a holistic view of individuals which incorporates both the mind and the body as dependent aspects of the self, based on Kant’s analytic philosophy(Strawson, 1959). Whereas Cartesian dualism treats mind and body as separate substances which can exist independently, Strawson’s model treats persons as logical primitives; that is, a person is an irreducible concept that can only be used as part of a description of complex ideas and cannot be analysed in terms of simpler, more primitive concepts. A mind – which in the Cartesian model is 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-primitive concept, which is itself to be explained, analysed, in terms of the concept of a person”. In the individualist model, a person is an ‘atomic’ unit and the true subject of predicate-subject sentences which describe people. To use Strawson’s example from Self, Mind and Body, the statement “Mary’s consciousness was entirely occupied by the thought of how becoming her dress was”, although it seems to refer specifically to Mary’s mind, would not make sense if Mary was not a whole person who is physically wearing a dress, but only an immaterial consciousness. The crux of Strawson’s criticism then follows: a truly Cartesian language which referred to minds but not bodies would be incapable of achieving a reference to an independent and unique person. If a person is an immaterial mind independent 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 as the same person over time. This is because the mind has no apparently enduring features except with reference to a whole person including their body, nor is it spatially exclusive. Strawson argues that, if the self is only the mind, he would not be able to know when speaking to one person, firstly, whether they are only a single mind (a thousand minds could theoretically share the experiences of a single person since they would be independent of separate, identifiable physical bodies) and secondly, whether they are the same mind over time. The latter problem, of re-identification, is derived from Kant; if a mind is independent of the apparent physical continuity of a body, it could be argued that a consciousness is actually a series of different minds in a kind causal chain, so what appears to be the same person over time is actually a series of numerically distinct individuals. The purported solution to this problem is individualism. By treating individual persons as primitives, we can numerically identify them because they must each have only one mind and one body – the mind and body would be derived from the single person, not the other way around. According to Strawson, the antiCartesian’s “recipe for counting individual minds is to count people; for him the identification of a mind presents no greater (and no less) a problem than the identification of a person”. If minds are inseparable parts of persons, along with bodies, then as long as a person’s body is spatially exclusive and persistent over time, so will their mind be. Prima facie, the former condition is true, since two physical objects cannot occupy the same space (one might invoke electromagnetic repulsion or the uncertainty principle to illustrate this) and the latter is also acceptable since a body seems to be a causally contiguous object that endures time and, to a certain extent, change. However, there is reason to question the idea that bodies can actually be reidentified over time. A body is a constantly changing system with tissues and organs gradually recycling the matter they are composed of. This potentially creates a “ship of Theseus” dilemma – if a person is not composed of the same physical matter as they were before, are they still indeed the same person? Furthermore, the problem of change over time may be even more fundamental than this. A person obviously changes their position, shape, structure and other properties constantly, leading us to question whether identity over time is a meaningful 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 be one and the same object which undergoes the change. But if the changing thing retains its identity, then it cannot really have changed”(Copi, 1954). It seems that, under more rigorous analysis, the idea of a body or any physical object having the same actual identity over time is difficult to support. How would the individualist defend against this criticism? It seems that they would have to find something residual in a person which does not change over time. The body changes constantly and consequently may not retain any constant identity; but if the anti-Cartesian were to argue that it is a person’s mind that is the residual aspect of a person, they would have to abandon the criticism that minds alone cannot be re-identified over time. Another defence is

possible, though: what certainly is a residual aspect of a person is the conceptual identity which other people assign to them, and this seems to be what Strawson appeals to when trying to overcome the problem of numerical identity, rather than appealing to the objective persistence of bodies. His essay is rich with references to “ordinary cases” of identification, how identity is “intelligibly” discussed, and he characterises the Cartesian’s dilemma in terms of deriving identity of minds from the concept of personal identity and the consequences this would have for the mind/body separation. As a Kantian, Strawson is not capable of appealing to facts about metaphysical reality, so he appeals to our phenomenal experience of individuals. The consequences this has for his wider argument are unclear; the Cartesian model is not based on social concepts and experiences, since it is meant to be a result of purely rational and introspective inquiry, and hence may not be susceptible to a criticism based on a public, rather than private, concept of identity. As such, the Kantian foundations of Strawson’s model would need to be examined in order to confirm whether it can truly undermine the Cartesian method. In conclusion, it can be said that Strawson’s individualist theory surmounts the problem of numerical identity of individuals faced by Cartesian dualism. However, this is not achieved solely by virtue of its incorporation of bodies into the model of an individual person, but by appeal to the common conceptual identification of people by other people. It could be argued that this social approach to the problem avoids the real issue of numerical identity and has no relevance to Cartesian dualism since Descartes’ meditative inquiry was entirely a private process. To establish the viability of individualism as a solution to the problem of numerical identity would thus require a deeper scrutiny of the Kantian framework on which it is founded.

Works Cited
Copi, I. M. (1954). Essence and Accident. The Journal of Philosophy , 51 (23), 706719. Strawson, P. F. (1959). Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. London: Routledge. Strawson, P. F. (2003). Self, Mind and Body. In S. Guttenplan, J. Hornsby, & C. Janaway, Reading Philosophy: Selected Texts with a Method for Beginners (pp. 28-35). Oxford: Blackwell.

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