Personal Identity from A to Z

by Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne taught at the University of Texas where he was Ashbel Smith Professor of Philosophy. He had a distinguished career at several other universities, particularly the University of Chicago and Emory University. His most recent book, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, was published by Open Court.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 209-215, Vol. 2, Number 3, Fall, 1972. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Hartshorne, in 26 steps, builds up his argument for personal identity. He submits that it is in harmony with Whitehead’s view and in some respects close to historical Buddhism, whether Theravada or Mahayana.

Personal identity is a special form of genetic identity and is very different from the more strict identity dealt with in logical systems (since Leibniz first defined it as complete equivalence of predicates). My view of personal identity can be cumulatively built up in the following steps. (On this issue my view is, so far as I can see, entirely in accord with Whitehead’s and is in some respects close to historical Buddhism, whether Theravada or Mahayana.)

a) Becoming is not "being" minus something, but being plus something. Or rather, being is only an abstraction from process or becoming, which is "reality itself" (Bergson). One corollary is that terms like "reality," or "the universe," or "the truth" have no single referent, fixed once for all, but acquire a partly new denotation each time they are used. Whereas "being" contrasts with "becoming," reality contrasts only with the fictitious or merely imaginary. What has happened up to now is not fictitious but real, and is, if you will, being rather than nonbeing. But mere being, abstracting from process, is, as Nietzsche saw long ago, but an empty universal, the common property of all becoming whatsoever. One argument for the primacy of becoming is this: if anything becomes and something else does not, the totality of what becomes and what does not become itself becomes. A new constituent makes a new totality. In other words, the only way to make becoming less than being is to deny that there is any real becoming. Of course many have done this, e.g., Sankara and McTaggart. If the immutable-and-the-mutable is real in both aspects, then what the entire phrase refers to is mutable. It is process which is inclusive, and being is a constituent of this inclusive reality.

b) Becoming is actually discontinuous, though the potentialities for becoming form a continuum. Actuality is always in definite units, and these are not instantaneous, any more than they are spatially punctiform. Proofs for this view have been given by James and Whitehead, using a form of Zeno’s paradox. A proof I incline to prefer is given by von Wright, who does not mention the other proofs.1 In sum, apart from logical niceties, the argument is: a thing cannot have contradictory predicates at one and the same time; but, if change is continuous, no time can be found, unless an absolute instant, in which a process is not both p and not-p for some predicate. And, in an instant, nothing can happen, no change or process can take place. Would Leibniz have accepted this argument? I think he should have, for it is but the spatiotemporal form of his argument that spatial extendedness requires a plurality of unitary entities, one here, another there. Temporal extendedness also requires such units, one now, another then. But in a continuum there are no definite units, only indefinite divisibility. Continuity is a matter of possibility, of ideality, not of actuality. Bergson neatly missed (yet unwittingly gave away) the point with his cinema analogy: the illusion is the continuousness of becoming, the reality is the succession of units. In this doctrine I not only follow James, Whitehead, and von Wright, but also rejoin the ancient Buddhist tradition as well as one of the traditions in Islam.

c) The unit realities or "actual entities" are "experient occasions," that is, analogous, however remotely, to momentary human experiences (occurring normally in the human case some 10-20 per second). This is in partial agreement with the entire "idealist" tradition, much older in Asia than in the West, according to which "matter" is a form of manifestation of "mind" (in the broad or nonanthropomorphic sense) and is nothing simply on its own. My kind of idealism has, however, rather little in common with the Berkeleyan or even the Hegelian forms, for these are essentially anthropomorphic. In the West only Leibniz offers any close analogy (prior to Peirce and Whitehead), and even he in but a few aspects of his monadology.

d) Experient occasions have previous such occasions, whether or not closely similar to themselves, as their data. Thus what memory seems almost obviously to be, intuition of the past, perception is also, though less obviously. Memory and perception are both intuitions of the past. I call the one personal and the other impersonal memory.

e) As many idealists and some realists have held, in becoming datum for an experience or unit-subject, an entity becomes constituent of the subject. Subjects include their objects. Thus an actual entity must "house" its actual (meaning its past) world, must embrace the latter in the "synthesis" forming its own unity. Excluded by this doctrine of synthesis or "prehension" is the view that the data of an experience are merely adjectives of that experience. Instead they are prior experiences which are taken into and thus qualify subsequent experiences; yet in themselves they exist antecedently and independently. Excluded also are the views that occasions can be directly intuited or given to contemporary occasions and the view that data may in some cases be bits of mere matter or merely material processes, "vacuous" of any internal life, feeling, or value.

f) Bergson’s protest against mutually external units of process is justified; but instead of saying that experiences "interpenetrate he should have said: the earlier penetrate the later, but not vice versa. The past comes into the present; the present cannot go back into the past. Where an asymmetrical relation was called for, Bergson used a symmetrical word. This is the nemesis awaiting those who scorn logical analysis and yet use concepts that are either subject to such analysis or are mere poetry and should be left to poets not seeking to convey knowledge.

g) Another symmetrical relation is identity. Hence those who suppose that genetic identity is strict identity are contradicting the meaning of "genetic." It cannot be identity which explicates "time’s arrow," but only some way of being identical and nonidentical; or, to remove the contradiction, of being only partially identical.

h) Since the present includes the past, becoming is cumulative and is a growth and indeed the ultimate form of growth. Here I agree with Bergson and also W. P. Montague, as well as Whitehead, and, in one essay at least, Peirce.

i) However, the cumulativeness is more or less hidden, and hence missed by most thinkers, because of the indistinctness characterizing all experience other than the divine. Leibniz was the first to put this sharply, as he was the first to put so many things (both right and wrong) with full sharpness. All human perceptions (and memories) are indistinct, or as he also, less happily, phrased it, "confused." Only God prehends clearly what he prehends. Whitehead’s "negative prehensions" are his term, perhaps not a very good one, for perceptual indistinctness. (His "transmutation" is the form this weakness of all nondivine experience takes in all but very low forms of experiencing.)

j) Since data are past events indistinctly given in the present we have, but do not fully have, our past. Apart from God’s perceptions, most of the value of the past, the vividness of its more or less intense harmonies and discords, is lost. And so, apart from God, or the mystery of Nirvana, Whiteheadians and Buddhists can agree that all things human and humanly valuable are ephemeral, "passing whiffs of insignificance," as Whitehead phrased it.

k) Occasions fall into sequences, more or less definite strands of becoming, which Whitehead calls societies, and might have called families or tribes. These sequences can be spoken of as genetically identical, provided one realizes that this is much less strict in its requirements than sheer logical sameness. It will not help matters here to distinguish between numerical and qualitative identity. No one is interested in an identity which connotes nothing as to qualities -- at least, no one other than some believers in reincarnation, and indeed not even they. Apart from qualities, all things are identical, for they are all indistinguishable instances of thinghood.

People who today clamor for "identity" are not looking for numerical sameness but for a mixture of qualitative uniqueness, and qualitative overlapping in relation to other persons and the world generally.

Genetic identity, which has only a relatively definite meaning, involves (1) some "defining characteristic" reappearing in each member of a sequence or family of occasions; (2) direct inheritance by appreciably positive prehensions of this character from previous members.

l) The main subdivisions of the class "societies of occasions" consist of the linear or "personally ordered" societies, the familiar example being a stream of consciousness" of a single person, and nonlinear societies, such as a tree considered as a colony of cells. Perhaps each cell is personally ordered but probably not the tree. One form of nonlinear society is that which, unlike the tree, is accompanied by a linear society of "presiding occasions." A live human body with its "mind" or "soul" is the example nearest at hand. Leibniz spoke of the body as a group of monads with a "dominant monad," a human soul. Whitehead’s analysis gets down to the spatiotemporal units, whereas Leibniz is less analytic of time than of space, or if you like, he refuses to take time seriously.

m) Of course Whitehead has no reason to accept Leibniz’s denial of "windows," of interaction, since his units respond to or prehend not only prior members, if any, of their society but also members of other societies. Occasions have perceptions as well as memories, whereas Leibniz restricts literal prehension, without which perception is only a pretense, to personal memory. Whitehead’s theory of perception, and of units of succession, completely disposes of Leibniz s argument against interaction between sequences.

n) What then is personal identity? it is the persistence of certain defining characteristics in a very complex bodily society endowed with a preeminent linear society or "soul." This complex society may be said to begin with conception, or with a late stage of embryonic development, or with early childhood, depending upon the purpose which determines what one takes as its defining characteristic. There is no absolute right or wrong here, and this is one weakness of some arguments about abortion. Did "I" exist at the moment the fertilized egg with my unique chemistry, that is, my gene structure, came into existence? I deny that this is a justified way of speaking, except for the rather trivial purpose of distinguishing between that egg and all others. The egg was not even a vertebrate animal, let alone an animal endowed with actual human thoughts and feelings. It was but a single cell, and man is at the least a multicellular animal with an elaborate nervous system.

o) Another limitation in personal identity is this. Am I myself in dreamless sleep? My body is then real, and my past experiences as past, but what more? Nothing more, I think, if this "more" is supposed to be something actual. Of course there is the possibility, the great probability, of my beginning to dream and then, before long, waking up. But this probability is simply the actual state of my body, taking into account the principle of process or of creativity that every process is destined to be taken up in some suitable form of further process.

p) Well did Buddha (I believe it was really he) say that the identity of the bodily career is stricter than that of the mental career. Contemporary analysts are, I think, right in holding that the persistence of the person includes that of the body; and, I add, the mental persistence is in some ways a more limited and partial one. However, it is immensely important for all that, and involves a considerable measure of strict identity. Always, after a given moment, my vague and potentially clarifiable background of memories will include whatever I experienced prior to that moment. Over and over I go back once more to the same memories, none available in this way to any other stream of experiences; always, if I want to, I can recall that I had such and such a mother and father, brothers and sister, went to such and such schools, read certain books, etc., etc., through countless items of the kind. Always my unique bodily chemistry, as gene-determined, is there, unconsciously influencing all that I think or feel. Always the unique pattern of my nervous system, not quite like anyone else’s but in certain outlines fixed since early childhood, is there, and not there for nothing. Thus a lot of my past keeps penetrating my present. But it keeps its integrity as past throughout. My deeds remain what they were, my failures to act, likewise; my pains and pleasures as they occurred continue to have been just that.

q) On the foregoing view, the failure of substance philosophies is not in maintaining that there is some element of strict identity though change, but in either obscuring the truth that there is also nonidentity in an equally literal and equally numerical sense, or in misstating the relations between the identity and the nonidentity. Is the identical in the different or the different in the identical? Which is the more determinate or concrete reality? There is linguistic precedent for saying that a person is in a state, as though the common element between past and present is but a constituent of the present. But substance philosophies have never been clear and consistent in admitting this. They keep suggesting that the state is in the person, as an adjective belongs to a noun. This is incorrect, unless Leibniz was correct in holding that all of a person’s states belong to him at all times, a monstrously paradoxical view. If yesterday I did not have my today’s experiences, then my today’s reality is a whole of which my yesterday’s self is at most a constituent. Thus I am today, as a total reality, numerically new. Personal identity is literally partial identity, and therefore partial nonidentity; moreover, the nonidentity refers to the complete reality, and the identity to but a constituent.

r) The ethical and religious importance of the foregoing is profound. For if self-identity is partial, then the nonidentity of one self with another may also be partial. And hence altruism is as directly grounded in the nature of the self as is self-interest. I look back upon my past experiences with sympathetic appreciation and forward to my probable future experiences in a similarly sympathetic way, allowing for possible or probable aspects of antipathy, self-hatred, and the like. And I look back upon and forward to the experiences of others (and even of imaginary characters) with similar mixtures of sympathy and antipathy. In principle there is no absolute difference. Always, too, in self relations and other relations, there are causal connections backward and forward, these being prehensive relations, the prehending being always on the effect side and the prehended on the cause side. I expect to remember my present state in my future states and expect my friends, so far as they perceive my present, to remember it also. My awareness of my past tends to be more vivid and direct than of the past of others, but this is no absolute difference.

s) It is the philosophical glory of Buddhism that it saw through the relativity of substantial identity long, long ago. The extreme of missing the Buddhist point was precisely reached in Leibniz’s windowless monads. Ironically, he admired Buddhism, so far (not far) as he knew what it was. A monad was by definition absolutely identical with itself through time and absolutely nonidentical with its neighbors. (I am not forgetting that it "mirrored" them. But this is either contradictory or hopelessly unclear. There is no absolute sameness of the individual though time by any criterion which can justify an absolute nonsameness of different individuals.) The greatness of Leibniz is that he gave clarity to the substance doctrine and dared to draw the consequences. Isle was gloriously wrong, where many were ingloriously so, and therefore ingloriously right as well, thanks to ambiguity and lack of the will to clarity.

t) Leibniz rightly objected to the doctrine of "accidental predicates." To say that a thing has a predicate though it would be that very thing if it did not have the predicate is to speak without any clear meaning. It makes "having" predicates deeply ambiguous. Strict identity means equivalence of predicates, and hence the doctrine of inessential predicates cannot refer to subjects with strict identity. What then short of that? Aristotle tried to say. If we cannot do better than his doctrine of essence, accidents, and matter, we are wasting our time. The world has made some progress in analysis since his day.

u) To reject inessential predicates is not to reject contingency. For since genetic identity is partial or somewhat abstract, and the concrete has always a contingent plus compared to the abstract, of course an enduring individual, i.e., a society or sequence of occasions, can have contingent or inessential members. But the relation of member to society is distorted if assimilated to that of adjective to noun. The most concrete correlates of nouns are actual occasions or experiences. Which predicates are "had" depends entirely upon what actual occasions occur. Contingency is in what subjects, with their predicates, become or are created, not in what predicates get attached to what subjects -- as though a subject were like a hook or wire on which predicates could be hung like garments or hoops. Definiteness, concreteness, belongs to occasions, not to things or persons. My first experience this morning will always have been just that, with whatever predicates it had.

v) A German logician, who was also a fine theologian, Heinrich Scholz, has pointed out, following Bolzano, that temporal designations belong with the subject, not the predicate. It is not that John has the predicate sick-now, but that John-now has the predicate sick. Universals have a certain time independence. For instance, having a temperature of about 104_ Fahrenheit is just that, whether at time t or time t1. But it is not the man simply, but the man-at-time-t that has this property. Individuation is finally spatiotemporal, and perhaps at long last we should join the Buddhists in recognizing this, instead of trying to tuck time designations either under the rug or under the predicate. Here too, Leibniz was splendidly clear, though mistaken. For him high-fever-at-time-t was indeed the predicate, and the subject was just the man, regardless of time. He wisely admitted that this doctrine utterly exceeded our human understanding.

w) There is nothing in the foregoing to imply that pronouns, as they function in ordinary discourse, are in any way inappropriate. For the context of discourse provides the relativities which substance doctrines tend to deny. "I think . . ." may mean the momentary self or ego which just came into reality with, for me, a new thought; it may mean a common denominator of all my momentary selves in recent hours, days, years, or even since I was a child. The same with "he thinks. . . ." Ordinary speech is indeed often wiser than philosophers have mostly been. But ordinary speech, though wise, is without a doctrine of wisdom, and in spite of Wittgenstein I see a role for doctrinal wisdom. But this wisdom about genetic identity can scarcely be found in any of the older traditions, unless the Buddhist. Only Peirce and Whitehead rival ten thousand Buddhists in their insight into the limitations of pluralistic substantialism.

x) Orthodox (Advaita) Vedanta realizes that substantial pluralism is at best less true than substantial monism; but it fails, in my opinion, to see that the radical pluralism of actual entities and the radical monism of God or Nirvana (however one distinguishes these) are the two poles of the real problem, not the ordinary substantial pluralism of common sense, a compromise which bars the path to the highest ethical and spiritual insight.

y) Plato’s Timaeus is the nearest counterpart to Buddhism in the ancient West; for Plato’s cosmos consisted of the universal and elusive "receptacle" and its momentary qualifications, thus allowing for both mysterious ultimate unity and radical empirical plurality. (The unity is somehow also the world soul and creative demiurge, but the plurality is of momentary actualities.) Aristotle, as a great scholar (Chung-Hwan Chen) has shown in a work not yet published, substituted for the receptacle (as subject of changing predicates) the banal plurality of substantial identities, which of course in some sense are real. But the correct sense was never clearly articulated in the entire Aristotelian tradition. Alas, in some ways, the step from Plato to Aristotle was a step backward. Plato’s "world soul," ignored by Aristotle and his followers, was closer to a viable theology than Aristotle’s unmoved mover.

I repeat: it is time to rejoin the Buddhist tradition, the most subtle of all very old international philosophical-religious traditions. Buddha’s insights were appreciated by his disciples, while Plato’s were half lost almost immediately.

z) If the symbols a and b refer to one and the same entity, then the sole difference is in the symbols, or acts of symbolization, not in the thing symbolized. This is strict identity. How vast the contrast between this and the genetic identity, e.g., of Peter Bertocci at age of two days with Peter Bertocci at age of sixty-one years, or even of Peter Bertocci in dreamless sleep with the same man thinking vigorously about personal identity! Those who deny or fail to realize the immensity of the gulf between the two forms of identity condemn themselves to miss the clarity enjoyed by over twenty centuries of Buddhists in many countries, and by a few Western philosophers for some decades, concerning what it is to be an individual.



G.H. von Wright Time, Change and Contradiction. Cambridge University Press, 1968. (Eddington Memorial Lecture)