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Strawson, Parfit and Impersonality1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Scoti Campbell*
School of Philosophy, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia


It is thought by some philosophers that certain arguments developed by Peter Strawson in Individuals show that Derek Parfit's claim in Reasons and Persons that experiences can be referred to without referring to persons is incoherent. In this paper I argue that Parfit's claim is not threatened by these arguments.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 2000

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2 Parfit, D. Reasons and Persons, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon 1986), 210. All references to Parfit will be to this work.).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Shoemaker, S. and Swinburne, R. Personal Identitiy (Oxford: Blackwell 1984)Google Scholar; Lewis, D.Survival and Identity,’ in Rorty, A.O. ed. The Identities of Persons (Berkeley: University of California Press 1976)Google Scholar; Perry, J.Can the Self Divide?Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972) 463–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Williams, B.The Self and the Future,’ Philosophical Review 79 (1970) 161–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Snowdon, P.Persons, Animals, and Ourselves,’ in Gill, C. ed., The Person and the Human Mind (Oxford: Clarendon 1990)Google Scholar; Thomson, J.J.People and Their Bodies,’ in Dancy, J. ed., Reading Parfit (Oxford: Blackwell 1997)Google Scholar; Carter, W.R.How to Change Your Mind,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy 19 (1989) 114CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 Mackie, J. Problems from Locke (Oxford: Clarendon 1976), ch. 6 (esp. §4)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and The Transcendental “I”’ in Straaten, z. van ed., Philosophical Subjects (Oxford: Clarendon 1980).Google Scholar Rey, G.Survival,’ in Rorty, A.O. The Identities of Persons (Berkeley: University of California Press 1976)Google Scholar and Inwagen, P. van Material Beings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1990)Google Scholar also hold views that are somewhat akin to the brain view. (I am glossing over important qualifications that should be made to the physical theories in a proper treatment of them, but these need not concern us here.)

6 See, for example, Johnston, M.Reasons and Reductionism,’ Philosophical Review 101 (1992) 589618CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cassam, Q.Reductionism and First-Person Thinking,’ in Charles, D. and Lennon, D. eds., Reductionism, Explanation and Realism (Oxford: Clarendon 1992)Google Scholar; McDowell, J.Reductionism and the First Person,’ in Dancy, J. ed., Reading Parfit (Oxford: Blackwell 1997)Google Scholar; S. Blackburn, ‘Has Kant Refuted Parfit?’ in J. Dancy, ed., Reading Parfit.

7 Margolis, J.Minds, Selves, and Persons,’ Topoi 7 (1988) 3145, at 36CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The Strawson reference is to Strawson, P. Individuals (London: Methuen 1959)Google Scholar.

8 Parfit, gave no reference for his comment, but he appeared to be referring to The Bounds of Sense (London: Methuen 1966)Google Scholar rather than to Individuals. Margolis, though, was referring to the latter, and for reasons of space I will concentrate on that book in this article.

9 A claim which Strawson argues for later (90-2).

10 This rather unclear claim is the vital premise, the only difference between the no-ownership view and Strawson's view.

11 Strawson also claimed earlier in Individuals that a psychological event can be identified only by reference to the person who has it (41-3). But his claim here was based only on his argument to show that material objects are the basic particulars, and this argument does not justify the claim that a psychological event can be identified only by reference to a person.

12 Or even without a subject of any kind, for of course a subject of experience need not be self-conscious, as is the case with many animals.

13 Shoemaker, S. Critical Notice of Parfit, D. Reasons and Persons, 1st ed., Mind 94 (1985) 443–53, at 446Google Scholar

14 Strawson had earlier argued in Individuals that ‘material objects must be the basic particulars’ (40). The brain theory is compatible with this position.

15 This theory is also compatible with Strawson's claim that material objects are the basic particulars.

16 I do not claim that a behaviorist qua behaviorist is bound to accept claims of this sort, only that the standard bodily theorist who is a behaviorist will.

17 It could also be asked of Strawson whether his somewhat mysterious view of a person is capable of handling such a scenario.

18 Later on Strawson claims that the concept of a person is ‘primitive’ (101 ff), and this may cast doubt on the coherency of (b). However, not only is Strawson's claim here rather unclear, it is also based on his ‘reference’ argument against (a). Moreover, the dependence here is hazy: ‘What we have to begin to acknowledge, in order to begin to free ourselves from these difficulties, is the primitiveness of the concept of a person’ (101).

19 Such a view of persons has been put forward by Johnston, M.Constitution is not Identity,’ Mind 101 (1992) 89105CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Corcoran, K.J.Persons, Bodies, and the Constitution Relation,’ Southern Journal of Philosophy 37 (1999) 120CrossRefGoogle Scholar. My own opinion is that this view is probably incoherent, but as the issues involved in this matter are not relevant to the issue of the impersonality thesis, I shall not raise them here.

20 These theorists will hold that e does not, properly speaking, belong to a brain or body at all, for if it belonged, properly speaking, to both the person and the body or brain, then there would then be two subjects of experience in the one body, which is absurd. This is the basis of the ‘two lives’ objection to this form of the psychological theory, as advanced by P. Snowdon (89-92); Ayers, M. Locke: Volume II: Ontology (London: Routledge 1991), 283–5)Google Scholar; Carter, W.R.; and Inwagen, P. vanMaterialism and the Psychological-Continuity Account of Personal Identity,’ in Tomberlin, J. ed., Philosophical Perspectires II: Mind, Causation, and World (Boston: Blackwell 1997), 312Google Scholar. I have argued in ‘The Psychological Theory and the Human-Person Relation’ (forthcoming) that the ‘sharing’ theory is unable to overcome this sort of problem.

21 ‘The Psychological Theory and the Human-Person Relation,’ forthcoming.

22 ‘Persons and Substances,’ forthcoming.

23 I should like to thank the Philosophy Programme in the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and in particular the Head of the Programme, Tim Crane. This paper was completed while I was a Visiting Fellow there in 1998-99. And this article would not have been possible without the help I have received from the following people: Phil Virgona, Alf Conlon, Rory and Jane Ewins, Robert Newman, Ross and Kate Hannan, and Simon and Mary Bennett.