“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.
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.
Last 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.