Personal Identity and Agency


“I act therefore I am” — anonymous

In previous blog posts I’ve supported John Locke’s account of Personal identity. Briefly, identity is the awareness of a continuous conscious experience extending from birth to the present and extending into the future (links: here, here, here).  Locke’s conception is old, but is, I believe, consistent with modern mind-based views of identity.

Although I believe this conception is powerful, and an essential component of identity, it doesn’t seem complete. Perhaps an additional critical component is a person’s concept of his or her agency. Agency is the ability to act on the world. “I am a person who can do X; I cannot do Y; I sometimes can do Z”. Agency can be in physical, social, biological or cognitive domains. A sense of agency may be accurate or inaccurate. It may be crisp or fuzzy. But some sense of agency may be essential.


Rosie the riveter knows what she can do. Moreover, her identity is her ability to make rivets.

The proposal is that a person cannot conceive of himself/herself as a person without conceiving the ability to interact with the world. Although at present I cannot argue this on more than intuitive grounds, I feel it must be there.  I also don’t feel that agency depends on Locke’s view of temporally-extended consciousness. A sense of one’s agency does not depend on memory of specific episodes of successes and failures. I can feel I can ride a bike or throw a ball without thinking of specific events. For example, I can engage the mental imagery of throwing a ball and say, “yes, I can throw”. These abilities — ball throwing and bike riding — are part of the delineation of identity. In addtion I’d guess that amnestics are not devoid of the sense of personal agency, even if they get it wrong.

leonardLast week I blogged on the movie “Memento” (Memento and Personal Identity). I argued that Leonard, the main character who has a profound amnesia, has a diminished Personal Identity. I would like to qualify that. Leonard (who seems real) has a solid concept of personal agency. He knows what he can and cannot do. And we, the audience, feel he is a real person. Some of Leonard’s identity remains, both for him and for us.

This post is not intended to be a complete treatise. Rather, It’s intent is to raise the question of the concept of agency and personal identity and get responses. Does this feel correct? How does it relate to the thoughts and writings of others? I’d like to hear reactions.

Finally, I’m working on a broader theme: the mental representation of personal power (force) and its relation to a child’s notion of causality and physics. Conceptions of the development and role of agency are part of this project.


10 thoughts on “Personal Identity and Agency

  1. Hi John. I think it’s important to distinguish between personal identity and the “self schema”, that is, the set of beliefs one holds about oneself. The two can be distinguished by the Star Trek Transporter thought experiment — suppose the Transporter malfunctions and produces two copies of me. It seems intuitively that only one of them can be me. However, both of them clearly have exactly the same memories and self schema. That’s not the only way of making the distinction, but it is one of the most compelling. Regards, Bill

    • weskaggs, apologies for not seeing this comment earlier.
      As I see it, agency (self schema) is not the sole defining feature of Personal identity. A continuous spatial and temporal representation of episodic memory (even if not accurate) is critical. I’ve blogged about that elsewhere (links: here, here, here). My solution to the startrek transporter problem: the “reconstituted” self has a discontinuity of the self-timeline. (I think there’s an early 1950s sci fi stories that pre-date star trek, although the star trek transporter seems a common way of describing this). Certainly, the two “selves” that are created have different self tiimelines. Once there is spatial disccontinuity/difference, the two ‘selves’ and their brains are not identical, and the paths they follow will be increasingly different. This can be related to identical twins, starting with identical DNA (but not identical other stuff from the Mom’s egg) but evolving different life experience.

  2. You seem convinced that some sort of agency needs to be there but it is not clear to me what function you attribute to agency. What are the observable behaviors that you think agency is necessary for? If you define agency as the ability to act on the world, then a tree has agency since it can modify the placement of earth and sand around its root, etc…

    • Perhaps I skipped too much. It’s not just agency, but your awareness of your own agency. “See, I can make that ball move”. This is your evidence that you exist and are a real part of the real world. You interact and influence the physical world. In addition to a mind that can observe the physical world, you are part of it. Since you now have an existence in the physical world, you have an identity. The range of your capalities helps to define and refine a particular personal identity. Agency is a person’s ability to influence the physical world. Personal identity, from this perspective, requires a mental, conscious interaction with agency. Perhaps this is restating Derek Parit; I’ll read that again.

      • Jean-Francois, I’m not sure any behavior requires having a ‘mind’ or that the actor has “personal identity”. The zombie argument is hard to refute. A zombie would be just-like a human, capable of human-like behaviors, but without a mind, and, thus, without personal identity. You are the genius programmer who programs the zombie. What can’t the zombie do? I really don’t know. Although an very interesting question, not what I’m addressing. Nor the central issue in “personal identity”. As I recall, Locke defines objects that are specific and have temporal existence as having “identity”. “Personal Identity” are human objects that have consciousness. He focuses on the continuous temporal extent of consciousness as defining feature of a single, particular personal identity, and deals with issues such as legal responsibility. But I don’t recall Locke, or others, addressing the functional value of personal identity, (other than societal and legal).

  3. Let me be more precise. I’m not asking for a behavior that ultimately requires it. I’m asking for what you would think is a behavior that, in humans, relies on it. I won’t come with the zombie argument, I’m just interested in knowing what you think in our everyday lives relies on our sense of agency, without claims about whether or not the same behavior could be present in a zombie.

    • Sorry for mis-interpreting. This is a much easier, and, for me, more interesting question. Mental rehearsal or motor imagery. You are about the try to carry a heavy box up stairs. You look at the box and imagine the efforts and maneuvers it will take and decide whether you can do it yourself or need assistance. You are a football player, and the coach asks you to do a certain maneuver on the next play; you mentally go through the maneuver to see if its easy, hard or impossible. Then you rehearse it a few times. Numerous studies in the last 20 years show that mental rehearsal (motor imagery) invoves activation of almost the same set of cortical motor areas as motor action. For a non-motor scene. You are Obama, asked to convince congress to approve bill x (Syria?). You consider a variety of actions where you think you’re action may work: speech, one-on-one meetings, phone calls. You choose the strategy that, in your imaged scenarios, works best.
      The mental exploration of behavioral options is a key feature of consciousness. Exploration of behavioral options requres an internal representation of one’s agency. This use of mental imagery has major benefits. Programming this into a zombie would be difficult.

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