What is the problem of self-identity? The question is answered in a rabbit hole of additional questions: How would describe your “self”–that which makes you “you” and different from other people? Is self-identity shaped by interaction with other people, and if so, how much? To what extent is identity self-determined? Are there different senses of self-identity, or are all of them reducible to a single all-embracing “sense”? The very questions we ask to define ourselves, as philosophers Immanuel Kant and David Hume elucidate in their partially contradictory mullings of self-identity, often complicate the definition and tenets of ascribing oneself an identity, broadening a problem with an elusive but supposedly existing solution into a potentially limitless contemplation. The truths of the self-identity problem are rooted not merely in the issue of deciding upon a definition, but of the criterion of the initial question, providing an additional battle of reaching that definition: a process with more than its share of opportunities to include inconsistencies, or personal bias when crafting an ideally universal truth.
Thus, to solve the problem of self-identity, I shall examine the points of Hume’s and Kant’s respective interpretations to find each of their argumentative “blind spots” and where their counterpart has filled those spots in, to form a cohesive rationale for, if not universal, a sufficient solution to the problem of self-identity. Hume associates external contingencies–God, soul, matter, natural law–with every perception of the “self reference” in his so-called Bundle Theory, which suggests that the contents of the mind is drawn from experience. Kant’s definition, formulated in response to Hume, wishes to define a model of the self that would, in addition to Hume’s contingencies, acknowledge physics and mathematics, while simultaneously insulating God and faith. Kant approaches grounding in physics to ascertain what has been identified as self, using “inner sense” to defend the heterogeneity of body and soul.
He believes:”Life is the subjective condition of all our possible experience; consequently we can only infer the permanence of the soul in life, for the death of a man is the end of all experience.” (391) Their divergence is clear: Hume’s definition of self-identity is strictly naturalistic–by nature, we have complete knowledge of and control over ourselves–while Kant’s is metaphysical–suggesting that defining ourselves involves a potentially infinite number of sub-branching and contributing elements. The Lexus Problem can be used as a grounds to test each of their defining problems and solutions. The Problem is concerned with how the self being identified is interpreted within its surroundings, and how evolution–or complete metamorphosis–of that self affects personal responsibility to past interaction. In the Lexus Problem, “Smith” attempts to absolve responsibility to a car payment he made a month before by stating he is “not the same person” as when he originally committed to the payment. Whether, by this, Smith means a metaphorical rebirth, or a Freaky Friday-esque body exchange, or simply a “change of heart” colorfully argued, how is his “not the same person” assertion valid–if at all–within either Hume or Kant’s identity definitions? Hume’s self is a passive observer, similar to watching one’s life develop before us as a play or on a screen. Considering Smith’s case, particularly given Hume’s perception that the concept of self is made of memory and imagination, presumably, Hume would agree that the Present Smith is not responsible for Past Smith’s actions. By altering his interpretation of the past, as one might alter their feelings of a TV show they’ve outgrown and thus see their previous enjoyment of it as though the show were enjoyed by an entirely different person, Hume could argue, based on his philosophical reasoning, that because Past Smith’s actions don’t reflect the desires of Present Smith, that the present Smith should not be held accountable for his previous contracts as if they were made by a single person one in the same, when personal evolution has–figuratively or literally–changed Smith’s mind.
The immediate problem we see in Hume’s argument for this case is that, in using this “change of heart” argument here, does Smith have a claim to any other past commitments anymore? By selectively removing this responsibility–paying $60,000 for a luxury vehicle–does that open the floodgates to removing Smith’s responsibility for other past acts, even responsibilities he would rather keep? What if Smith were a married man? His argument in the Lexus showroom seems bindingly airtight: “Smith is the one who agreed to pay for the car. But, although I was Smith, I am not the same person I was. Therefore, I am not Smith…” Is Smith’s no longer being the “same person” a complete exoneration of all past actions–dating, proposing, marrying his partner… and buying a Lexus included–or the single act of purchasing the car? Hume’s rejection of the notion of identity over time, suggesting that there are no underlying “objects”, no “persons” that continue to exist, merely impressions, would support Smith’s case against paying the Lexus’s first billing installment, because Smith is arguing that, as his desires have changed, his identity has changed. Because Smith no longer desires to pay for the Lexus, lacking that desire has qualified him as a new Smith, in line with Hume’s belief that an identity can change with the changing contents of the mind, selective or otherwise. The key problem with Hume’s definition of self-identity, then, is its faulty real-life application. While one can feel like they are a different person as Smith does, one cannot argue away responsibilities with Hume’s definition because it has no basis beyond personal reality; it may not even have basis beyond a very small part of personal reality, depending on what other aspects one would like to retain. Contradicting the question of “what makes a person the same person over time”, Smith’s conviction that he is not responsible for the Lexus payments is based on a completely tumultuous identity that can change him into an entirely new person from one month to the next: unity of experience and consciousness are integral to the concept of the self, and Smith only recognizes consciousness.
Kant, on the other hand, recognizes a broader use of ‘I’ that refers to the “whole man,” involving both body and soul that makes up a “transcendental ego”. He says that bodies are objects of outer sense while souls are objects of inner sense, breaking identity into two distinct components, of which “outer sense” would compel Smith to pay for the Lexus. Whether or not Smith’s mind truly transformed from the month he committed to the paying for the car and the month where he was asked to honor that commitment, Smith’s physical interaction with the Lexus showroom–representing the “all spatially localized outer objects” aspect of Kant’s outer body definition–makes him liable for the body of Smith and its past interactions, no matter that his inner self doesn’t intellectually identify with its body. Still, though Kant’s definition improves on Hume’s oversights, his version of self-identity is faced with this issue: with Kant’s concluding belief–that the mind is actively manipulating our data of experience, unifying objects, representations, experience, and consciousness–has Smith’s purportedly “changed mind” included the rest of his self in this unification? If, for instance, the Present Smith that re-entered the showroom possessed the social security number, driver’s licence, phone number and other materials of Past Smith that ground humans, federally, to their identities, yet the Present Smith sounded completely different, acted completely different, dressed completely different, have the physical changes that Smith underwent between the past month, and the present month, altered his physical presence enough to absolve him of past physical interaction? Moreover, does “inner sense” have no control over “outer sense” in Kant’s definition, or can there be a personal revolution so profound that, as it is evident even from an outside viewer, that we can conclude a person has become someone different? The problem with Kant’s definition is its coverage: while he provides an example self-identity that includes physical spaces as well as metaphysical thinking, like Hume he still over-generalizes and leaves obvious holes that weaken the definition.The correct “solution” to the problem of self-identity, then, must be a selective combination and tightening of Kant and Hume’s argumentative principles:HUMEKANTEntire contents of the mind were drawn from experience alone.Any idea must be derived from an impression.When we are self-conscious we are only aware of fleeting thoughts, feelings and perceptions; we do not have an impression of the self or a thinking substance.Concludes that the idea of the self is simply a fiction.
“I never can catch myself”We are never aware of any enduring self, we are never justified in claiming we are the same person we were a year ago or a minute ago. Self is not a passive recipient of experiences.The self is actively organizing its experiences as its own experiences.
Synthesising the succession of perceptions and experiences into a unity. To give overall clarification and understanding to what we are perceiving. Self for Kant is essential to self-consciousness but it cannot be found ‘in’ self-consciousness.paraphrased: “True I never find a self ‘in’ my experiences but I can always find myself in that ‘I’ which has the experience.” SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM OF SELF-IDENTITYThe self is actively organizing its experiences as its own experiences.
(Kant) A ‘transcendental’ thread (Hume) holds all of these experiences together, thus creating a mass personal experience that cannot be wiped away on a whim. While one “never can catch” oneself (Hume) in who one is, the act of attempting to do so is added to this mass personal experience and contributes to one’s personal identity, for self-consciousness (attempting to look into oneself) is essential to defining the self, even though the self can never be found ‘in’ self-consciousness (Kant). Though we cannot claim we are the same person we were a year or a minute ago, as we cannot claim we are a different person, we can be a different person if our experiences have culminated to a different person, and that can occur whenever the unity of perception and experiences (Kant) is different from a previous culmination of experiences, never grounding either fully in singular impressions (Kant/Hume) or physical action (Kant).