Identity Over Time – Persons and Circuses

Circus Identity, Personal Identity

Throughout the semester, we have thought about circus history: how it began, how it has grown and developed, how it is defined, whether it qualifies as an art-form, etc. We have considered the circus as entertainment, as an activity, as a business. We’ve talked about the circus as a transformative experience, as an aesthetic experience, as a mere spectacle, and as high art. Underlying many of these discussions was the idea of a single thing – the circus – and how it is identified through the ages.

In short, we’ve been concerned with questions of circus identity: what is it that makes something a circus? And what is it that makes something the same circus over time?

Philosophers are often concerned with issues of identity. In particular, some wonder about the identity of persons.

Are you the same person you were 20 years ago? Are you the same person you were yesterday? Will you be the same person 50 years from now, even though you will look radically different? Are you the same person as someone who looks exactly like you? What is it that makes you you?

These are all questions concerning personal identity: what is it that makes something a person? What is it that makes something the same person over time?

At first, these questions may seem relatively straightforward. But a little reflection shows that not only are they difficult to answer, they are also difficult to understand.

Differences in ‘same’ – Quantitative and Qualitative Identity

Suppose you have two fashion-conscious friends, Harry and Barry, who have created quite a stir at a party. When you ask why, you are told,

“Harry and Barry are wearing the same shirt!”

You may think this explains why people are talking, but the statement is ambiguous – there are two ways to interpret it.

On the usual understanding, Harry shows up in one shirt, Barry shows up in another, and the two shirts look exactly alike. This situation may be a fashion faux-pas, and a bit embarrassing for certain fashionistas, but it isn’t exactly an astonishing occurrence.    

On an alternative reading, there is only one shirt, and Harry and Barry are both wearing it. This would be something to talk about.

To alleviate the above kind of confusion, philosophers distinguish between two different kinds of sameness: quantitative and qualitative identity.

Quantitative (or numerical) Identity is the relation that a thing has to itself. I am quantitatively identical to myself, you are quantitatively identical to yourself, Mohammad Ali is quantitatively identical to Cassius Clay, etc.

For anything x and anything y, if x is quantitatively identical to y, then there is just one thing, x, which is also y.     

Qualitative Identity, on the other hand, is a relation that one thing can have with other things, provided that they have all of their properties in common. Two juggling balls, for example, could be nearly exactly alike: they could both be of a particular size, they could both be round, both black and yellow, filled with millet, used in a particular act by a particular juggler, etc. Yet since they are two, they are not quantitatively identical; they are only qualitatively identical. The two objects share the same qualities or properties.

For anything x and anything y, if x is qualitatively identical to y, then whatever property x has, y has as well.

Go back to the example with Harry and Barry. In the first case there are two shirts, one of which is worn by Harry, and the other of which is worn by Barry. The two shirts merely look alike – they are qualitatively, but not quantitatively, identical. In the second case, there is only one shirt: the shirt that Harry is wearing is quantitatively identical to the shirt that Barry is wearing.  

Being the Same Person 

Keeping in mind the above distinction, let’s go back to some of the personal identity questions, and think carefully about how we are to understand them:

Are you the same person you were 20 years ago?

Clearly, the person you are now is not qualitatively identical to the person of interest 20 years ago. You’ve probably changed a lot in 20 years! You’ve lost some hair, you’ve gained some hair, your hair may be a different color, cut, style, or length. You have probably lost some weight or gained some weight, lost some muscle or gained some muscle. Your body composition in general has probably changed a great deal, both the things that people can see, and the things that they can’t. You’ve certainly lost lots of skin cells and generated new ones, you might have gotten taller or shorter, your stature or posture might have changed, as well as how you walk around and move. So if the question are you the same person you were 20 years ago? is supposed to be equivalent to are you qualitatively identical to the person you were 20 years ago?, the answer is clearly NO.

Are you the same person you were yesterday?

You might think that this question would be easier to answer in the affirmative. Are you qualitatively identical to the person you were yesterday? Well, pretty much, yeah. Most people who know you and have seen you recently will recognize you today. You have not grown 3 inches since yesterday, or gained or lost 50 lbs, or changed your look dramatically. Maybe some of you have just gotten a new, wild haircut, or undergone a radical physical transformation in the last 24 hours, but the majority have not.

Still, you have probably changed a little.  Your hair has grown just a tiny little bit. A few strands of your hair have fallen out. You have lost some skin cells, and you’ve probably generated some new ones. In some small (and not usually noticeable ways), you have visibly changed since yesterday. So, strictly speaking, you are NOT qualitatively identical to the person you were yesterday.

Finally, let’s consider this question:

Are you the same person as someone who merely looks exactly like you?

Well, if by ‘same’ here we mean qualitatively identical, then the answer, oddly, might be YES. If you and another person look alike – if you are both a certain height and weight, have the same hair color, cut, style, if you dress the same, have the same facial features, etc., then you and this other person are qualitatively identical.

But this doesn’t seem to be at all what we mean when we are asking whether you are the same person! Intuitively, you and a twin (or clone) may look exactly alike, but this doesn’t make the two of you the same person in the usual way we understand the phrase ‘same person.’ So the expression ‘same person’ in these questions about personal identity cannot mean qualitative identity.

Does it mean quantitative identity? Think about the questions this way:

Are you quantitatively identical to the person you were 20 years ago? Are you quantitatively identical to the person you were yesterday?

The answer to these questions seems to be: YES.

Are you quantitatively identical to someone who merely looks exactly like you?

Intuitively, NO.

So given the distinction between quantitative and qualitative identity, questions about personal identity seem to be best understood as questions about quantitative identity.

But here’s where things get strange: we said above that for anything x and anything y, if x is quantitatively identical to y, then there is just one thing, x, which is also y.  Yet if x just is y – if x and y are just one thing – then x and y must be exactly alike.  If Harry and Barry are wearing a quantitatively identical shirt, then there is just one shirt that they are both wearing. Obviously, this one shirt looks exactly like itself! How could it have a property or feature which it also does NOT have?!

In other words, if x and y are quantitatively identical, then x and y are qualitatively identical. (This is sometimes known as the Indiscernibility of Identicals.)

But we said earlier that the expression ‘same person’ in questions concerning personal identity cannot mean qualitative identity. What is going on?

How else are we supposed to make sense of questions of personal identity? And what is it, exactly, that makes persons the same over time?

Bodies and Souls

One strategy is to ignore for now what makes the same person over time. Concentrate instead on what makes something a person at a single moment. We can then examine whether our thoughts about what a person is in a single moment also applies to our concept of persons extended over several moments.

For example, some people think that persons are identical to material, human bodies (where ‘bodies’ includes ‘brains’). What makes something a person, some argue, is having a particular sort of material makeup, looking and acting a certain way, and being made up of certain material (skin, bones, muscles, brain cells, etc.). A person is a hairless biped that has a brain that works in a certain way, which enables it to think and say things. Crucially, a person is a particular human material body.

Yet as we discussed earlier, human bodies constantly undergo change over time. We gain and lose physical parts in just a few hours, over days, and certainly after many years. There may be small bits of our body that stay with us from birth until death, such as your fat cells, half of your heart, neurons, and the core of your eye lens (check out this short episode from NPR).  But few of us think that persons are identical to these small, enduring bits. And the rest of our body is constantly shrinking, growing, losing parts, and regenerating.  So personal identity over time cannot be mere sameness of body.

Another suggestion is to think that persons are identical to souls. A soul is typically understood as a non-extended, aspatial, non-physical thing, which thinks, feels, judges, deliberates, and so on. Souls are the center of our psychological selves, and account for our rich, inner mental life.

Initially, it may seem that the soul view of persons makes better sense of personal identity over time than does the view of persons as mere bodies.  If persons are souls, then persons are only temporarily associated with human bodies. Our body can change, grow, shrink, lose parts, and regenerate as much as it needs to. If persons are identical to non-physical souls, which are merely ‘occupying’ a physical body temporarily, then the mutability of the body is irrelevant – the soul remains the unchanging constant.

You are the same person you were 20 years ago – despite all of the physical changes – because you and the person 20 years ago have the same soul. You are not the same person as someone who merely looks like you because you and this mere look-alike have two distinct souls.

However, some argue that we have merely swapped one mystery for another. Questions of personal identity may seem to have been answered, but now we have a bunch of new questions: Does the soul change at all? How can we tell? Our thoughts and beliefs certainly change over time. Things we used to believe were true we now believe are false. We are sometimes happy and sometimes sad. Our memories fade, our opinions shift, our judgments harden or soften. If souls are the locus of our thoughts and feelings, then do souls change when our thoughts and feelings change? It is usually merely stipulated the the soul is immutable. But why think that this is true? And how can we be sure?

Also, if the soul changes along with our changing mental life, then the problem of personal identity merely returns, only this time we cannot physically see the entity and change in question.

Moreover, aside from saying what souls are NOT (not spatial, not extended, not physical, etc.), what exactly are they? It is stipulated that they are the psychological center of persons, but how? What are they made out of? How do they move, or stay put, or persist? How do they occupy a body? Where in the body are they located? Where do they come from, and where do they go? You might think that these are unfair questions, since they are loaded with spatial and temporal concepts, and souls are often stipulated to be neither. But we have difficulty thinking of things in this world in any other way. And aside from mere stipulation, how can we verify that any of the claims about souls are true? If you claim that you are the same person as that little kid 20 years ago because you both have the same soul, how do you know? Psychologically, you are probably very different from that person 20 years ago – different beliefs, desires, tastes, feelings, etc. You may not even remember much of that person 20 years ago. So how can you be so certain you have the same soul?

As [clowns] get older they get better…They get sadder, too, but that has to happen naturally, as the soul replaces the body.  – Andre Riot-Sarcey in The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall.

One last consideration: whatever answer we give concerning persons, we would like to be able to generalize to other things. Persons are not the only entities that survive and change over time. Remember: we started this discussion by thinking about circuses, and circus identity. While it is understandable that answers to questions such as what is it that makes something the same circus over time? and what is it that makes something the same person over time? will be somewhat different, the hope is that there is some kind of uniformity to the answers given. But what is the equivalent to the soul view when it comes to circus identity?

Does the circus have a soul?

Some Questions

What do you think? What do you think makes you you? Is it having a particular physical body? A particular soul? Your body changes, your thoughts change, yet you presumably think that you’ve remained the same person over a long stretch of time. What accounts for that? And what about a circus? Circuses change acts and performers and locations and audiences in the way that you change physically and mentally. What is it that makes something a circus despite this change? And what makes something the same circus over time? Are these questions about personal identity and circus identity even comparable? Or do you think think they are best left separate?


Suggested Reading

***Originally published Nov. 10, 2017; updated Oct. 30, 2018

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