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Shamsa Khan is from Hertfordshire. She joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in 2016 and the title of her thesis is ‘Can Personal Identity be defined by emotional continuity?’
I heard about Oxford Brookes through school. I was impressed by the amount of resources available to students, including the extensive philosophy section in the library and study areas.
I studied for my BA in Philosophy at Brookes and I loved the department. In particular, the lecturers are very approachable and incredibly supportive, making philosophy fun and accessible and there a number of great philosophy conferences and talks in Oxford. I went to UCL for my MA in Philosophy; I knew I really wanted to come back, additionally, a particular supervisor was an expert in my field of research and I was looking forward to working in such an environment.
There are fantastic resources available at Brookes, not only are there 3 campuses, all with substantial, discipline specific libraries, but as a research student, we are able to use the Bodleian Library. The research degrees department can be contacted through email; also you can go to the office which is easily accessible. The lecturers are always available and happy to help with any questions or concerns.
What constitutes my personal identity? There are two opposing theoretical approaches which attempt to answer this question; the physical and psychological criterion. The first view likens a person’s identity to that of an object, because for a person to be the same at point A and point B, they must be materially similar. The form and body is the key to identity. The latter view takes the body out of the equation, if a person were to switch bodies but still had the same mental capacities, i.e. thoughts, memories then they would be the same person before the switch. The key to identity lies within the psychological capacities of an individual, this suggests that if the body were to be taken out of the equation then the person can still be the same because their mental capacities remain intact and continuous with the person that existed before the body was taken away.
The Lockean memory criterion suggests that we are a trajectory of memories. An individual is the same at point A and point B if at point B one is conscious of/ remembers the thoughts and emotions of the person at point A. [Locke J 1689] David Hume takes a ‘sceptical’ stance to personal identity and states that there is no individual entity that we can call the self when we look inside ourselves. We exist as a bundle of impressions and ideas; the first comes through our senses, emotions and other mental capacities. The latter are thoughts, beliefs and memories which are connected to our impressions. [Hume D 2007] Derek Parfit further subdivides the psychological criterion and presents two distinct ways of understanding it. First psychological connectedness is the holding of direct psychological connections and psychological continuity is the holding of overlapping chains of strong connectedness [Parfit.D 1984 P.206] He believes that what matters in survival is psychological continuity and not identity.
In my approach, I will acknowledge that psychological and mental capacities of an individual can extend far beyond memory alone. Leading to the statement that there is a lack of focus on the emotions, therefore I will narrow my focus to them. The foundation of my proposal mirrors the Humean approach because I also do not think that the we can have an entity which is called the ‘self’ rather it is a bundle of emotions that are continuously moving as we move through our experiences. Additionally, exploring Parfit’s sub-divisions of the psychological approach, I will suggest that personal identity just is emotional continuity, we are an overlapping chain of connecting emotions which shape our perception of the self. I will reference theories of emotion to clarify the way in which I will define it. In particular, the relationship between the physical and psychological criterion evident in William James’ view. He states that one’s bodily expression precedes the emotion.
Additionally, the intertwining of philosophy and psychology is important for my project. This is because I aim to question the methodology commonly used when discussing personal identity; this being thought experiments. These are defined as imaginary cases which often place a theory in an experimental scenario. These sometimes involve bizarre science fiction situations. John Locke asks the reader to suppose that two beings swapped souls causing a switch of physical and psychological characteristics. Furthermore, in Bernard Williams’ paper The Self and the Future, he encourages the reader to imagine a scenario whereby brain and body switching would be possible through a special machine [Williams. B, 1970] and Derek Parfit describes people splitting like an amoeba. The presentation of such cases begs the question: How can we possibly gain a deeper understanding of reality through unrealistic thoughts? In her book, Real People: Personal Identity without thought experiments, Kathleen Wilkes has a sceptical stance toward thought experiments because they violate the laws of nature and are consequently misleading and do not add to our knowledge on the subject area. Like Kathleen, I also find issue with thought experiments because I think a made-up scenario does not help us to gain a better understanding of a theory. Moreover, it isolates philosophy as purely theoretical and incapable of being practised in logical terms, thus we lose the connection between philosophy and reality. To present my idea that personal identity just is emotional continuity, I will need to gain a deeper understanding of the psychological mechanisms underlying the stability of that individual. For example, a person may commit an immoral act which they may later describe as something completely out of character or they lost control. I would state that this is an example of disrupt in emotional continuity and the individual in that instance is not necessarily the same person as they were before, their sense of personal identity has broken down and become disconnected.
An influential work in the field of philosophy of psychology is Jonathan Glover’s book Alien Landscapes, he questions whether an individual’s mental illness can be separated from their identity. Glover also states that awareness of one’s own agency is vital to having a sense of self. [Glover. J,2014.] In my thesis, I would use real-life examples to explain the breakdown of personal identity and psychology plays a key role in this explanation. Glover presents numerous case studies and interview scripts of patients in Broadmoor hospital and I will be using these (alongside others) to analyse the prisoner/ patient responses and determine which key points seem to mould their personal identity. For example, to what extent do childhood experiences shape the individual, what repressed trauma finds itself motivating them and what character traits define that being. The question of what makes an individual the same person at point A and point B is one of the key questions when discussing personal identity, so it is necessary that I discuss instances of a breakdown in this timeline.
In conclusion, I will argue that personal identity is shaped by psychological continuity; a series of overlapping chains of connections. I will use real- life cases (I will not be collecting primary data, I will use existing cases) not thought experiments to explore the breakdown of self. My novel contribution lies in the idea that the term ‘psychological continuity’ may be too vague and we should narrow the focus to the emotions. I will postulate that our emotional responses to experiences shape our sense of self, so personal identity just is emotional continuity, an overlapping chain of connecting emotions.
I enjoy the fact that I can do my own research in a discipline that I am passionate about in an educationally stimulating environment. A challenge would perhaps be issues with finding certain papers but this was easily overcome when the library staff showed me how to access journal articles online through Brookes. Students are able to access a wide range of papers which is very useful.
The research training days are a great opportunity to see what other research is being carried out in the department. Additionally when presenting, it is so nice to hear opinions about my research and any recommended changes. Also there are numerous sessions available about writing techniques, which have prepared me for the write up section of my research degree because I struggle to write academically.