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Personal identity and the otherness of one’s own body


Locke claims that a person’s identity over time consists in the unity of consciousness, not in the sameness of the body. Similarly, the phenomenological approach refuses to see the criteria of identity as residing in some externally observable bodily features. Nevertheless, it does not accept the idea that personal identity has to consist either in consciousness or in the body. We are self-aware as bodily beings. After providing a brief reassessment of Locke and the post-Lockean discussion, the article draws on phenomenological arguments that show the body as lived, that is, lived as one’s own body, but also possibly as “other” or “strange.” Against what has been claimed in recent writing, especially in literature on Merleau-Ponty, the author argues that the “mineness” of the body and its “alterity” are not two mutually exclusive features. In the final part of the article, the author suggests that the becoming strange of one’s own body may legitimately be considered as a prominent experience of what it means to be a person.

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  1. 1.

    “as far as the same consciousness can extend to Actions past or to come” (Locke 1979, §10).

  2. 2.

    See also Ferret (1993): “la personne P est identique à la personne P* à condition que P et P* ont le même cerveau qui fonctionne.” See also Rey (1976, 58): “we must be made of something, some continuous, sufficiently complicated stuff […] Either we find some bona fide soul stuff, or we accept what the bulk of the scientific evidence endows us with, namely, a brain (and nervous system).”

  3. 3.

    See also § 37 (157): “On this surface of the hand I sense the sensations of touch, etc. And it is precisely thereby that this surface manifests itself immediately as my Body.”

  4. 4.

    In this context, Husserl defines body as “an organ of the will,” and he explains: “Only Bodies [Leiber] are immediately spontaneously (“freely”) moveable […] by means of the free Ego and its will which belong to them.” (Husserl 1989, §38).

  5. 5.

    There are, as Husserl says, the “feelings, the sensations of pleasure and pain, the sense of well-being that permeates and fills the whole Body, the general malaise of ‘corporeal indisposition’, etc.” (Husserl 1989, §39, 160).

  6. 6.

    There is thus no “clear-cut distinction between synchronic unity and diachronic unity” of the self (Zahavi 2014, 67).

  7. 7.

    This is why Merleau-Ponty refers to the immemorial past: “an original past, a past that has never been present” (2014, 252), “the past of all pasts” (87).

  8. 8.

    It may be objected that the two features, diachronicity and stability, do not in fact capture what is at stake here: bodily habits (acquired capacities) make up part of the rhythmical, cyclical time of the body (see Fuchs 2018). Nevertheless, acquired habits are not merely cyclical; they were acquired, and might be forgotten if not activated at least sometimes. Thus, they differ from rhythms such as the rhythm of breathing or heartbeat or the need–satisfaction cycle; bodily habits, and body memory, stand somewhere between the cyclical time of the body and the linear time from birth to death.

  9. 9.

    It is in this context, I suggest, that a phrase from a late manuscript of Jan Patočka’s is best understood: “I do not create possibilities; possibilities create me” (Patočka 2016, 306).

  10. 10.

    For Tengelyi, the alterity of one’s body, “proper” alterity, constitutes but one form of alterity. Apart from it, Tengelyi recognizes a more radical alterity, which comes with the other (Tengelyi 2004, 92–98). Concerning de-personalization and the “wild” character of the bodily experience, see Trigg (2017) and Behnke (2015).

  11. 11.

    When commenting on this passage, Richard Kearney states that because there is an “irreducible distance of alterity at the very heart of our flesh,” the task of a hermeneutic mediation arises, the task to develop what he calls “carnal hermeneutics” (Kearney 2016, 38).

  12. 12.

    Referring to the distinction between sense of agency and sense of ownership, it is fair to say that it is possible to have the latter (an involuntary, passive experience which still counts as one’s own experience), without the former (oneself moving something) (Zahavi 2005, 144).

  13. 13.

    John Russon interestingly articulates this split as a conflict between the “habitual sense of self-identity” and one’s “self-identity at this moment.” There is, according to him, a disparity of “two registers of living a self-identity” (Russon 2015, 94–95).


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This article is a part of a research program funded by the Czech Science Foundation (Project “Personal Identity at the Crossroads: Phenomenological, Genealogical, and Hegelian Perspectives,” GACR 18-16622S).

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Correspondence to Jakub Čapek.

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Čapek, J. Personal identity and the otherness of one’s own body. Cont Philos Rev 52, 265–277 (2019).

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  • Personal identity
  • Phenomenology
  • Body
  • Merleau-Ponty
  • Alterity