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To What Extent Personal Identity Consists Solely of Appearance

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The stimulus is an extract from ‘The Office’ in which Jim dresses up as Dwight, such that he looks similar to Dwight. The stimulus brings up issues surrounding identity as, when Jim dresses up as Dwight, Dwight considers this ‘identity theft’. Moreover, other people, such as Pam, around the office consider Jim dressed up as Dwight to be Dwight. Therefore, this gives the impression that Jim’s identity is purely made up of his physical appearance. Hence, it evokes the question concerning to what extent an individual’s identity is made up of their physical appearance, and whether consciousness may play a role in making up an individual’s identity. Throughout this essay, I will argue that one’s identity is composed of a mixture between his physical appearance, alongside his psychological continuity, and thus consciousness, an idea explored by Locke (Locke, 1689). I will reach this view by examination of Parfit’s reductionist view (Fields, 1987), and I will build this argument by evaluating Locke’s focus on the consciousness (Locke, 1689). I will also consider the ‘psychological continuity’ that both Locke and Parfit explore, and contrast this with Reid’s response of fading memories (Copenhaver, 2009). Ultimately, I believe that an individual’s identity is composed of both the physical and their consciousness; however, I would place a focus on the consciousness, as this builds a person’s character, and that their physical appearance acts as an initial ‘separatory barrier’ between individuals.

My first approach is that one’s identity is composed of a mix of their physical appearance and their mental state; this idea is one advocated by Derek Parfit. Like me, Parfit believes in a ‘reductionist view’ (Fields, 1987) this can be explained by an analogy: a nation is nothing over and above a number of individuals inhabitation of a territory. Therefore, this idea can be linked back to identity, thus the analogy suggests a person’s identity is defined by the psychological connectedness, such as the continuity of their memories, which act as the individuals in a territory, representing the body. I can extend this idea to an example such as the ‘Ship of Theseus’ (Hughes, 1997), which asks a similar question to mine, if a ship has all its parts replaced is it the same ship? From my reductionist view, it would be the same ship, as the individuals who once sailed it would still see it as the same ship, hence there is a psychological connectedness. It is important to notice that a reductionist view does not see the experiences of the individual as separate to the body, but instead one and a part of the body. Therefore, according to Parfit’s reductionist ideas, identity is composed of one’s physical appearance, however not exclusively their external appearance, but also by their internal chemical make-up and biology, as explored by Dennett (Dennett, 1978). Hence, I can link this concept back to the stimulus; one could somewhat say that Jim has assumed Dwight’s physical appearance, as their physical appearance is similar. Nonetheless, according to this view, Jim has not assumed the identity of Dwight, as their experiences are different, and hence there is no psychological continuity.

A counter-argument to Parfit’s ideas can be found in the philosophies of Locke. Whilst Locke places emphasis on the consistent presence of consciousness (Locke, 1689), Parfit’s view is entirely focused with the physical form. I can use Shoemaker’s thought-experiment to illustrate this issue (Shoemaker, 1991). In this experiment, Shoemaker poses the idea that if I removed person A’s brain and put it in person B’s head has person A’s conscious been transferred to person B’s body or has person B acquired a new brain. On the one hand, Locke would dictate that person A’s conscious has been transferred to a new body, as this is what composes his identity. However, Parfit’s reductionist view would stipulate that person B is a mixture of person A and person B, as they still have the physical form of person B, but have the psychological connectedness of person A. I would largely agree with Locke in this thought-experiment as it seems illogical that the new person could be part of person A and B, as identity is a ‘distinct concept’ (Fearon, 1999). Thus, having evaluated these views against each other, I agree that identity is composed of a mixture between physical appearance, and consciousness; however, I would place the focus on someone’s consciousness, as this makes up their personality, which is a large portion of their identity. Finally, I can link this concept back to the stimulus, and hence this would also suggest that Jim has not assumed the identity of Dwight, as despite appearing physically similar, he has not obtained Dwight’s consciousness or memories which are integral to his identity (Fields, 1987). This conclusion also largely agrees with Parfit’s view (Fields, 1987) as, despite some concern with the physical appearance, I believe he places greater emphasis on psychological connectedness, as can be seen by my application of the ‘Ship of Theseus’, and thus one can dictate that psychological connectedness is an integral aspect of identity.

An alternative approach could be found in Locke’s philosophy. Locke places importance of an individual’s identity on their consciousness (Locke, 1689), which I will define by the ‘subjective character experience’ (Nagel, 1974), meaning that there is something it is like to be that individual. Consequently, this Lockean concept agrees with Parfit’s criteria of ‘psychological connectedness’. However, Locke places his whole emphasis on the individual’s consciousness, explicitly stating that their physical appearance plays no part in the construction of their identity (Locke, 1689). For example, Locke would argue that if I took a person’s brain and put it in a jar, they are the same person as before, as their physical appearance does not matter to their identity, as long as their consciousness remains the same. This idea is contrasted by Dennett (Dennett, 1978) who further explores the view that identity is composed of consciousness, but he posits that identity is inherently linked with the physical form, as he explores this idea of lobotomy in more depth in ‘Where am I?’. Therefore, it is clear that memory and psychology are key in an individual’s identity. Nonetheless, a counter-argument can be found in Reid’s views (Copenhaver, 2009).

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Reid criticizes the necessity for a subjective character experience, and the retention of memories, as he uses the example of memories fading over time. For example, an individual cannot remember the moment they are born, nor can they remember the first year of their life, hence, according to Locke, they are not the same person, as they cannot remember these experiences. This idea can be further exemplified in a person who has Alzheimer’s disease: if Locke and Parfit’s views were correct then a person with this disease would change identity every few hours, which is not true. However, here one can add another dimension to the argument to allow a response to Reid’s views. This factor would be that, if someone has seen you grow up, they could remember your own experience. For example, the carer for the person with Alzheimer’s can remember what they did, and said, one hour ago, so they are sure that it is the same person, with the same identity. Hence, I can link this concept back to the stimulus, this time introducing the character of Pam into the determination of Jim’s identity. This would demonstrate that Jim has not assumed Dwight’s identity, as those who can remember what Dwight did five minutes ago, such as Pam, know that Jim dressed up as Dwight, and is therefore not Dwight, as Dwight was already in the room before Jim entered. Hence, they have the psychological continuity of Dwight’s identity to ensure that Jim is not Dwight.

Hence, having combined the views of Locke and Parfit, and contrasting these views with counter-arguments of Reid and Locke, it is important to recognise that I have reached the definition of identity being that: a person’s identity is primarily concerned with their psychological connectedness, and subjective character experience. However, when a person enters a society, their bodily continuity also plays a role in their identity. This is because it acts as an indicator to other members of society that the individual has an identity, and thus they exist, and might begin to build the individual’s identity in the eyes of other members of society. Nonetheless, if an individual is unable to maintain their psychological connectedness, as explored before, then an objective observer can guarantee their identity, as they know what the individual said and did previously.

Before reaching a conclusion, it is important to, again, clearly define the issue presented in the stimulus. The issue lies in that Jim has dressed up as Dwight, assuming his dialect and mannerisms, thus it raises the issue of what identity is composed, as Dwight believes that Jim has stolen his identity by assuming his physical appearance. It is imperative to also recognise the role of Pam, as I draw to answer the question, as an external observer on the matters at hand, and thus can act as if the carer for an Alzheimer’s patient.

In conclusion, having examined the approaches of several philosophers and applying their concepts to the stimulus, it has become clear that identity is not exclusively composed of an individual’s appearance. One can conclude this by application of Locke’s ideas and Parfit’s reductionist view (Fields, 1987), alongside my slight modifications to it. Jim’s physical appearance is similar to Dwight’s, so are his mannerisms; however, when one looks at the required ‘psychological continuity’ and ‘subjective character experience’ it becomes evident that Jim has not assumed Dwight’s identity, as they still have distinct psychological experiences. Moreover, this idea is supported by my concept of an ‘objective observer’, in this case Pam, who can vouch that Jim is not Dwight, as she can remember what Dwight was doing, before Jim entered the room dressed as Dwight. However, you could criticize my idea as an objective observer cannot necessarily guarantee the psychological continuity of Dwight, therefore Pam can only guarantee that someone who looked like Dwight, and has the same mannerisms, was sitting in the room, before another person dressed to look like Dwight entered. Nonetheless, as Jim has separate experiences to Dwight, and in the ‘confessional’ speaks as Jim not Dwight, it is evident that identity is something beyond the physical appearance. This ‘something’ probably takes the form of the consciousness, as explored by Locke. One could expand on my argument of identity by the use of Annette Baier’s ‘second-selves’ (Baier, 1986), an idea which explores the differing meanings of identity, depending on setting. This idea suggests that, in the setting of society, identity is concerned with the physical appearance. Hence, Baier would argue, that, in this social setting, Jim does assume the identity of Dwight, as his physical appearance, mannerisms and dialect is identical to that of Dwight’s. Furthermore, Dennett may add another, more complex, dimension to this argument of identity in the form of ‘Where am I?’ (Dennett, 1978) which explores the belonging of the consciousness and posits that it is inherently linked with the physical form, thus stipulating that one’s identity must be composed of one’s physical appearance. However, by consideration of the philosophies applied in this essay, of which there are many more, it can be shown that identity is not necessarily exclusively composed of physical appearance, but also involves an aspect of consciousness, as discussed by Locke (Locke, 1689).

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To What Extent Personal Identity Consists Solely of Appearance. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/to-what-extent-personal-identity-consists-solely-of-appearance/
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To What Extent Personal Identity Consists Solely of Appearance [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/to-what-extent-personal-identity-consists-solely-of-appearance/
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