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Fr. 706

January 15, 2016

4. If our intuitions about individual identity stem from psychological essentialism, can we nonetheless check candidate principles against those intuitions?

We should take this opportunity to recall the most important aspects of Mogensen’s methodology. The author seeks to determine whether any one criterion affords us the conceptual means to distinguish central traits from peripheral traits across all cases. For this, it is necessary to subject each criterion to a twofold test. First, Mogensen selects test cases which represent the full range of possible instantiation from trivial to important, from unlikely to the most common and applies to the criterion to each case. Secondly, he then checks the criterion’s application in each case against intuitions about individual identity. After eliminating all candidate criteria, the author opines that individual identity is an illusion owing to psychological essentialism.

Indeed, it is to this second step that we would now like to call attention as intuitions about individual identity seem to possess a doubled status in the text. This holds insofar as intuitions about individual identity both are illusory and enable us to evaluate candidate criteria for soundness. It is reasonable, prima facie, to question whether an illusory formation can be used to check for soundness. Represented in reductive fashion, the problem consists in the following:

a. Intuition about individual identity is illusory.

b. Verification of candidate criteria proceeds from intuition about individual identity.

c. Verification of candidate criteria proceeds from illusion.

Certainly, we might simply attribute this to an effort to show that intuitions about individual identity are, at their root, incoherent and unavailable as a conceptual resource. Accordingly, Mogensen’s method would take on a more performative cast and would illustrate just how those intuitions are unable to sustain inquiry into individual identity. But nowhere does the author note such an intention, and we can wonder whether, like elsewhere in philosophy, intuition is left to do too much of the heavy lifting. After all, individuals’ intuitions can sometimes diverge on important matters.

Moreover, if the means of apprehending individual identity are ultimately illusory, we might ask whether they are not themselves likely to mislead as to the nature of individual identity, obscure a more modest notion thereof, or preclude a rehabilitated notion thereof. Again, the author’s verdict has a greater reach than perhaps he is aware and could preclude other more tenable versions of individual identity. In a word, where identity and self are concerned, it behooves thinkers to proceed carefully where intuition is both suspect and witness and called to testify against itself.  There may yet remain some rational issue to the dilemma.





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