What Is Personal Identity? - Definition, Philosophy & Development - Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com (2022)

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Personal identity is the concept of self that develops and evolves over time. Explore the definition of personal identity, how it develops, and various philosophical concepts, such as persistence, mind-body dualism, and impressions.Updated: 07/12/2022

Definition of Personal Identity

Personal identity is the concept you develop about yourself that evolves over the course of your life. This may include aspects of your life that you have no control over, such as where you grew up or the color of your skin, as well as choices you make in life, such as how you spend your time and what you believe. You demonstrate portions of your personal identity outwardly through what you wear and how you interact with other people. You may also keep some elements of your personal identity to yourself, even when these parts of yourself are very important.

Have you ever pondered the question, 'Who am I?' or thought about who you might become in the future? These questions have been thought about and discussed throughout history, in particular by philosophers who have immersed themselves in the search for knowledge about the nature of being human. Such questions as, 'What does it mean to be a person?' and 'What is my purpose?' have engaged key thinkers and created conversations that we still grapple with in our society. Most people feel they want to endure in some way, both in their lives and beyond death. The philosophy of personal identity aims to address these matters of existence and how we even know we exist through time.

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The Philosophy of Personal Identity

How do you know you are the same person you were as a child? Is it because you remember yourself growing within the same body you have now? Or is it because you perceive that you have the same mind? What criteria can be used to confirm you are, in fact, a 'person'?

(Video) Who am I? A philosophical inquiry - Amy Adkins

When you ask yourself how you know you are the same person you were as a baby, this is a question of persistence. In this context, persistence means our existence across time and how we can prove it. In other words, we perceive that our self 'persists' through our life as the same human being, but how do we know for sure? The philosophers Plato and René Descartes, as well as many religions, have proposed that we persist because we have a soul, a timeless essence that continues in some form even after the death of our living, breathing human body.

Descartes, in particular, aimed to provide a scientifically-oriented argument for this enduring inner self. He used rational arguments and examples to demonstrate that the mind and body are distinct. He promoted the view that the mind can exist and persist without the body. This distinction between a person's mind and body is known as mind-body dualism and has been an influential and powerful theory in our society. Here's an illustration of mind and body dualism by Descartes:

Illustration of mind-body dualism by Descartes
What Is Personal Identity? - Definition, Philosophy & Development - Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com (7)

Even today, you may often hear the phrase, 'body and soul'. This way of thinking has evolved from the ideas of religious traditions as well as philosophical ways of viewing our personal identity.

Development of Personal Identity

Personal identity develops over time and can evolve, sometimes drastically, depending on what directions we take in our life. For instance, a person who at 25 identifies himself as part of a particular political party, of a particular faith, and who sees himself as upper-middle class, might discover that at 65, he's a very different person. Perhaps he's no longer interested in politics, he's changed his religion, and he's living on less money than when he was 25. Any variation is possible during a person's life span.

Children developing their sense of self may experiment with different ways of expressing personal identity. This can include various ways of dressing or wearing their hair, and it will also include a variety of ways of behaving and thinking. They might find that some ways of expressing themselves work well and feel right, while others do not last. Throughout life, we have a sense of who we are that continually changes.

According to the philosopher David Hume, living life as a human being leaves only impressions, rather than one stable identity or sense of self. These impressions are the changing, shifting elements of our existence. Think of the various ways you have looked at the world throughout your life. You've had a set of experiences and have changed because of them. Hume argued that due to the unstable nature of impressions, personal identity cannot be said to persist through time. We perceive a sense of self because of the way our mind put impressions together and makes sense of them as 'me.'

For instance, if you take a vacation every year to a different location, it would be hard to say what 'vacation' really is, based on these different experiences. Does 'vacation' mean sand and warmth, or an invigorating hike on a mountain? Is 'vacation' relaxation or adventure? Unless you have the same experience, year after year, what a vacation is will vary. Vacation is not just one unchanging idea, and, from Hume's perspective, neither is a person.

Hume challenged earlier ideas about persistence and the psychological and physical continuity theories that had come before him. Physical continuity theory had looked at how we have the same human body we have had during our life and that this helps us know we are ourselves. Psychological continuity theory had focused on how the mind and memories seem to tie a person's identity together. Hume questioned these theories that talked of an enduring personal identity. Instead, he pointed to the fleeting nature of our experiences and how we are ever-changing.

Lesson Summary

Philosophers grappling with the topic of personal identity have explored this concept from many angles by asking questions about how you know that you are you. Many of the concepts have left a legacy on our way of thinking as a culture, such as Descartes' mind-body duality. Some concepts might sound new to you, such as Hume's argument that we cannot prove a personal identity or self that persists. The debate about personal identity inspires those studying philosophy to ask themselves similar questions asked by philosophers across time: What is a person? Who am I? How do I know that I will continue to be me in the future?

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson on personal identity, you could have the knowledge required to:

  • Paraphrase the definition and makeup of personal identity
  • Highlight the philosophical concept of personal identity
  • Discuss Descartes' mind-body duality and its lasting impact
  • Summarize David Hume's theory on personal identity and understand how he challenged previous theories

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Personal Identity Writing Activities

Short Essay Prompts

For this activity, respond to the following short essay prompts. Since these are short essay prompts, only 2-3 well-developed paragraphs are needed. However, it is important to develop a clear plan before writing in order to write clearly and concisely.

Prompt 1: What elements comprise a person's personal identity?

Prompt 2: How can a person's identity change over time? Provide specific examples.

Prompt 3: Describe the difference between physical continuity theory and psychological continuity theory.

Prompt 4: How do Plato and Descartes explain persistence?

Prompt 5: Do you agree with Hume's theory of impressions? Why or why not?

Example response to Prompt 1:

Many elements comprise a person's personal identity. These elements relate to what makes us who we are as humans. Some of these elements are a choice and others we are born with or have no control over.

Some aspects of our personal identity include our skin color, ethnicity, religion. A lot of the time, our race and ethnicity play a significant role in how we see ourselves, especially if we feel that we are different from the majority of those who live in the same community. Our religious beliefs, which are more than likely the same as our parents, also shape how we see ourselves. For the most part, we don't have control over these elements of personal identity. Of course, one can always change religious beliefs, but if you were born into a family that holds certain beliefs, you will likely carry these beliefs with you into adulthood.

While there are several elements of our personal identity that we have no control over, there are also many elements that we do have control over. We can choose how we want to express ourselves through clothing, hairstyle, piercings, and tattoos. We can also put ourselves in certain situations that will change our perception of ourselves. For example, one can travel alone and learn what it takes to be independent and completely responsible for one's life. Of course, there are certain experiences that we have no control over, such as the loss of a family member, or experiencing love. These experiences also shape who we are and how we view ourselves.

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(Video) PHILOSOPHY - History: Locke on Personal Identity #2

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FAQs

What is personal identity definition philosophy & development? ›

Personal identity is the concept you develop about yourself that evolves over the course of your life. This may include aspects of your life that you have no control over, such as where you grew up or the color of your skin, as well as choices you make in life, such as how you spend your time and what you believe.

What is personal identity in philosophy? ›

Psychologists use it to refer to a person's self-image—to one's beliefs about the sort of person one is and how one differs from others. In philosophy the term normally refers to philosophical questions about ourselves that arise by virtue of our being people, questions that may otherwise have little in common.

What means personal identity? ›

Personal identity is the unique numerical identity of a person over time. Discussions regarding personal identity typically aim to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions under which a person at one time and a person at another time can be said to be the same person, persisting through time.

What is the meaning personal identity by John Locke? ›

John Locke holds that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity. He considered personal identity (or the self) to be founded on consciousness (viz. memory), and not on the substance of either the soul or the body.

What are the 5 aspects of personal identity? ›

List 5 aspects of personal identity.
  • your interests.
  • your likes and dislikes.
  • your talents and abilities.
  • your values and beliefs.
  • your goals.

Why is developing a strong understanding of your personal identity so important? ›

“Having a well-developed sense of self is hugely beneficial in helping us make choices in life. From something as small as favorite foods to larger concerns like personal values, knowing what comes from our own self versus what comes from others allows us to live authentically.”

How important is personal identity? ›

Firstly, maintaining self-identity is important because it strengthens your character. That is, when we know who we are, have confidence in our self and are able to identify our strengths, we emerge as stronger individuals. Secondly, it keeps us unique and distinguishes us from everyone else.

How do you write a personal identity essay? ›

For an identity essay to have impact, it should cover different facets of your identity from your name's origin to your character, principles and values. Your friends, family, community and culture are also part of your identity. They are a part of shaping your identity as well and an integral part to your essay.

What is personal identity examples? ›

Personal identity is about how you see yourself as “different” from those around you. Hobbies, education, interests, personality traits, and so on. Favorite foods, the roles you hold—“I'm the oldest in my family.” These are the things that make you unique from other people.

What is Hume's view on personal identity? ›

(3) Hume believes that the common belief in personal identity results from human nature, and points out that the belief is neither a result of sense or of reason, but rather a result of imagination. Hence, there is no justification for the belief in personal identity.

What is the philosophical perspective of John Locke? ›

John Locke's philosophy inspired and reflected Enlightenment values in its recognition of the rights and equality of individuals, its criticism of arbitrary authority (e.g., the divine right of kings), its advocacy of religious toleration, and its general empirical and scientific temperament.

What is personal and social identity? ›

Whereas social identity refers to people's self-categorizations in relation to their group memberships (the “we”), personal identity refers to the unique ways that people define themselves as individuals (the “I”). For example, this might include people's personal interests and values.

How is personal identity formed? ›

Various factors make up a person's actual identity, including a sense of continuity, a sense of uniqueness from others, and a sense of affiliation based on their membership in various groups like family, ethnicity, and occupation.

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3. Individualism: Is it a good or bad thing? | A-Z of ISMs Episode 9 - BBC Ideas
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