Identity and The Mind


Twenty Second Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2007

Lecture 6   :   23 February

Raymond Tallis

Manchester University



Personal identity is an elusive notion. Some contemporary thinkers question whether it has any substantive reality or even whether it is important. This has potentially alarming implications for our belief in ourselves as responsible agents. Many of the difficulties of pinning down personal identity result from confusing different aspects of a very complex notion. Identity has subjective dimensions: my sense of who and what I am at any given time; and my sense of being the same individual over a period of time. These dimensions in turn have many elements. There are also the external aspects of identity: those characteristics by which, and with which, I am identified and classified by others and which count as objective criteria for my remaining the same person. Since John Locke, many philosophers have sought the basis of personal identity in the mind: in our psychological continuity over time, mediated by memory. More recently, some philosophers have emphasised the role played by the physical continuity of the body. While each approach captures some aspects of identity, neither gets to the heart of matter. What is more, continuity accounts focus on sameness of identity over time and on objective or external criteria for identity rather than the immediate, unassailable moment-by-moment intuition of identity. We cannot, however, understand what it is that confers sameness of identity over time unless we can understand what gives us a sense of identity at a particular time. I will argue that the primary location of identity is a moment-to-moment sense of being myself, which is quasi-tautologous, unassailable and underivable. This is rooted in what I have called The Existential Intuition `That I am this.. .' . `This', in the first instance, is my body. The self-apprehension of the human body, which is neither purely psychological nor purely corporeal, is the common point of origin of the various subjective and objective dimensions of personal identity and of the various senses of what I am now and of what is the same in me over time. The scope of `this' expands beyond the body as the individual undergoes cognitive development and enters a world of possibility and fact, extending into past and future. The Existential Intuition is unique to humans: no other organism apprehends itself, that it is, to the same degree. It is the basis of human freedom and moral responsibility.


Raymond Tallis trained as a doctor at the University of Oxford and St. Thomas's Hospital qualifying in 1970. Since 1987 he has been Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and a consultant physician in Health Care of the Elderly in Salford. In March 2006, he took early retirement to become a full-time writer. Prior to his retirement, he had responsibility for acute and rehabilitation patients and took part in the on call rota for acute medical emergencies. He also ran a unique specialist epilepsy service for older people. Amongst his 200 or so medical publications are two major textbooks - The Clinical Neurology of Old Age (Wiley, 1988) and the comprehensive Textbook of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology (Harcourt Brace, co-edited with Howard Fillitt, 6th edition, 2003). Most of his research publications are in the field of neurology of old age and neurological rehabilitation. He has published original articles in Nature Medicine, Lancet and other leading journals. In recent years, two of his papers have been the subject of leading articles in Lancet. In 2000 he was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in recognition of his contribution to medical research and in 2002 was awarded the Dhole Eddlestone Prize for his contribution to the medical literature on elderly people. Over the last 20 years, he has published fiction, three volumes of poetry, and over a dozen books on the philosophy of mind, philosophical anthropology, literary theory, the nature of art and cultural criticism. Together these books offer a critique of current predominant intellectual trends and an alternative understanding of human consciousness, the nature of language and of what it is to be a human being. For this work, he has been awarded two honorary degrees: DLItt (Hon Causa) from the University of Hull in 1997; and LittD (Hon Causa) at the University of Manchester 2002. He has just completed Unthinkable Thought. The Enduring Significance of Parmenides which examines the nature and origin of the cognitive revolution the inaugurated Western thought. His current work in progress - My Head. A Portrait in a Philosophical Mirror - reflects on the mystery of embodiment. He makes regular appearances on the festival circuit (Hay, Edinburgh, Cheltenham) and lectures widely. In 2004, he was identified in Prospect Magazine as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the United Kingdom. 

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