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Jonathan Glover


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

This book has two parts: the first is mainly philosophical, the second mainly psychological, though there is a fair amount of overlapping. The theme that unites them is the nature of personal identity.

Part One covers some of the same ground as Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit, whom Glover acknowledges as a major influence on his thinking, but Glover is more approachable for readers who are not professional philosophers. He makes use of thought experiments to explore the nature of personal identity but also draws extensively on reports of the effects of surgical division of the corpus callosum. This large bundle of nerve fibres connects the right and left halves of the brain and is sometimes cut in order to treat intractable epilepsy. The psychological effects of this seemingly drastic procedure are surprisingly subtle but can be revealed by sophisticated testing. Some commentators have concluded that there are really two minds inside the skull after the operation, and a few even maintain that we are all divided. Glover thinks this is too extreme, but he does find that the "two minds" view probably gives the best description of the situation and that minds may have "fuzzy edges". We are less of a unity than we usually suppose.

Given this potential for fragmentation, can we plausibly claim that there is such a thing as the ego? Like David Hume, Parfit concluded that it doesn't exist, and he also thought that accepting this view largely frees one from fear of death. Glover does not find Parfit's view of death to be particularly consoling. Nevertheless he accepts much of Parfit's case, and the implications of this for our view of our selves are the topic in Part Two.

Philosophers often refer, disparagingly, to "folk psychology", meaning the kind of psychology that most of us (including, probably, most philosophers when they are off-duty) use in everyday life to understand our family, friends, and acquaintances. It is often regarded as inadequate, but Glover offers a modified defence in the form of a sketch of a folk psychology of personal identity. The components of the self include memory, beliefs, and the need to be recognized; from all this we construct the idea of our self.

Given that the self does, in some sense, exist, is it possible to change ourselves, or are we wholly determined by our genetic makeup and the things that have happened to us? Glover discusses this question in his penultimate chapter. He looks at "soft" and "hard" versions of determinism, but seems to conclude that both amount to much the same thing. However, even if determinism is true, this does not imply fatalism. "This is a silly view, whether or not determinism is true. It has the consequence that I may as well drive when drunk, since, if there is going to be an accident, nothing I decide can make the slightest difference. In a determinist world, outcomes are the result of earlier causes, and there is no reason why my decisions and actions should be excluded from those causes."

While this seems to be true, I have travelled in Iran in minibuses driven by people who believed that their fate was already written and that they could therefore overtake on blind bends without altering their (or my) time of death. I did not find this a consoling reflection.

Is there a role for praise and blame in a deterministic world view? Glover concludes that we can still have value judgements, which will be quite similar to aesthetic judgements. "Aesthetic responses parallel to the old desert-based ones could grow up. I could regret being selfish or dishonest in the way I regret having no talent for music or sport. I could judge my actions aesthetically as admirable or appalling, and these thoughts could be charged with feeling." This is perhaps a rather muted conclusion, but probably the best we can hope for in the circumstances.

Much philosophical writing is of interest only to other philosophers. Glover's book is a welcome exception to that tendency, for it deals illuminatingly with topics that matter in "real life".

10 July 2004

%T I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity
%A Glover, Jonathan
%I Allen Lane: The Penguin Press
%C London
%D 1988
%G ISBN 0-7139-0015-1
%P 207 pp
%K philosophy, psychology
%O hardback
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