Real People: Personal Identity without Thought Experiments

I have always thought that the topic of personal identity (PI) was the most fascinating topic in metaphysics and perhaps in all of philosophy. Furthermore, this view was enhanced by the consistently high quality of the PI literature attracting the likes of historical thinkers such as Locke, Butler and Hume – and recent thinkers such as Strawson (Peter), Williams, Wiggins and Parfit: the latter being the master of the thought experiment. 

This brings me to the point of this post. PI lost its allure for me because PI in the Lockean tradition considers the notion of personal identity abstracted from any socio-cultural context. This bloodless abstraction seemed to inform all manner of thought experiments, or as Dennett dispragingly terms them “intuition pumps.” The ever ingenous thought experiments that were generated seemed to take on the character of a parlour game – for a good account of thought experiments see Jim Brown’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry

I’m not out of sympathy with Dennett when he conceives of “intuition pumps” as rationalist thought experiments of wishful thinking philosophers who, neglectful or unaware of empirical evidence, generate premature conclusions. Dennett believes that these “pumps” have skewed theorising about consciousness (it should be noted that Dennett himself is no slouch when it comes to formulating thought experiments – see his “Where am I?”). Now it should be noted that Dennett doesn’t have Parfit and company in his sights but Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” thought experiment and probably Jackson’s “monochrome Mary” thought experiment: both ostensibly arguments against materialism. 

I have been reading Kathleen Wilkes’ Real People: Personal Identity without Thought Experiments (OUP 1988).  In light of the aforementioned comments it should be clear why this book would attract me in. Discussion of this is part of the wider (and ongoing debate) about the relationship of philosophy to science – see the Philosophers’ Magazine Blog – and one comment in particular. Tony L. writes:

Kathleen V Wilkes { Real People] did an excellent job of debunking the mind numbing tendency to engage in bizarre thought experiments, brain transfers, split brains, the non-unitary self, and other exercises in egregious foolishness. Oh, if I only had known about that book when arguing with my MA tutor about the impossibility of creating an exact replica of a person (and so the pointlessness of that thought experiment).

It’s been almost twenty years since I studied PI formally at the University of London. Wilkes wasn’t featured in the University Study Guide then and is not featured now. Why is this? Wilkes was a highly respected and serious minded insider. Not knowing anything about Wilkes I came up with the following:

An obituary for her written by Bill Newton-Smith
An obituary written in Croatian (with a photograph) 
A reference to her by Roger Scruton (cited in Wikipedia):

Kathy was specifically referenced by her colleague Roger Scruton who took her as his model of the English gentleman, arguing that “her virtues were revealed in nothing so much, as her habit of concealing them.”

I’ll have to ask Roger about this. I’d have liked to have met her.