What Is Personal Identity? - Definition, Philosophy & Development

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  • 0:01 Definition of Personal…
  • 1:20 The Philosophy of…
  • 2:56 Development of…
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Lesson Transcript
Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

This lesson explores philosophies of personal identity and digs into several key theories on this topic. You will think about questions of human existence that have been debated throughout history and are still debated today.

Definition of Personal Identity

Personal identity is the concept you develop about yourself that evolves over the course of your life. This may include aspects of your life that you have no control over, such as where you grew up or the color of your skin, as well as choices you make in life, such as how you spend your time and what you believe. You demonstrate portions of your personal identity outwardly through what you wear and how you interact with other people. You may also keep some elements of your personal identity to yourself, even when these parts of yourself are very important.

Have you ever struggled with the question, 'Who am I?' or thought about who you might become in the future? These questions have been thought about and discussed throughout history, in particular by philosophers who have immersed themselves in the search for knowledge about the nature of being human. Such questions as, 'What does it mean to be a person?' and 'Do I matter?' have engaged key thinkers and created conversations that we still grapple with in our society. Most people feel they want to endure in some way, both in their lives and beyond death. The philosophy of personal identity aims to address these matters of existence and how we even know we exist through time.

The Philosophy of Personal Identity

How do you know you are the same person you were as a child? Is it because you remember yourself growing within the same body you have now? Or is it because you perceive that you have the same mind? What criteria can be used to confirm you are, in fact, a 'person'?

When you ask yourself how you know you are the same person you were as a baby, this is a question of persistence. In this context, persistence means our existence across time and how we can prove it. In other words, we perceive that our self 'persists' through our life as the same human being, but how do we know for sure? The philosophers Plato and René Descartes, as well as many religions, have proposed that we persist because we have a soul, a timeless essence that continues in some form even after the death of our living, breathing human body.

Descartes, in particular, aimed to provide a scientifically-oriented argument for this enduring inner self. He used rational arguments and examples to demonstrate that the mind and body are distinct. He promoted the view that the mind can exist and persist without the body. This distinction between a person's mind and body is known as mind-body dualism and has been an influential and powerful theory in our society. Here's an illustration of mind and body dualism by Descartes:

Illustration of mind-body dualism by Descartes
mind body dualism

Even today, you may often hear the phrase, 'body and soul'. This way of thinking has evolved from the ideas of religious traditions as well as philosophical ways of viewing our personal identity.

Development of Personal Identity

Personal identity develops over time and can evolve, sometimes drastically, depending on what directions we take in our life. For instance, a person who at 25 identifies himself as part of a particular political party, of a particular faith, and who sees himself as upper-middle class, might discover that at 65, he's a very different person. Perhaps he's no longer interested in politics, he's changed his religion, and he's living on less money than when he was 25. Any variation is possible during a person's life span.

Children developing their sense of self may experiment with different ways of expressing personal identity. This can include various ways of dressing or wearing their hair, and it will also include a variety of ways of behaving and thinking. They might find that some ways of expressing themselves work well and feel right, while others do not last. Throughout life, we have a sense of who we are that continually changes.

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Additional Activities

Personal Identity Writing Activities

Short Essay Prompts

For this activity, respond to the following short essay prompts. Since these are short essay prompts, only 2-3 well-developed paragraphs are needed. However, it is important to develop a clear plan before writing in order to write clearly and concisely.

Prompt 1: What elements comprise a person's personal identity?

Prompt 2: How can a person's identity change over time? Provide specific examples.

Prompt 3: Describe the difference between physical continuity theory and psychological continuity theory.

Prompt 4: How do Plato and Descartes explain persistence?

Prompt 5: Do you agree with Hume's theory of impressions? Why or why not?

Example response to Prompt 1:

Many elements comprise a person's personal identity. These elements relate to what makes us who we are as humans. Some of these elements are a choice and others we are born with or have no control over.

Some aspects of our personal identity include our skin color, ethnicity, religion. A lot of the time, our race and ethnicity play a significant role in how we see ourselves, especially if we feel that we are different from the majority of those who live in the same community. Our religion, which is more than likely the same as our parents, also shapes how we see ourselves. For the most part, we don't have control over these elements of personal identity. Of course, one can always change religious beliefs, but if you were born into a family that holds certain beliefs, you will likely carry these beliefs with you into adulthood.

While there are several elements of our personal identity that we have no control over, there are also many elements that we do have control over. We can choose how we want to express ourselves through clothing, hairstyle, piercings, and tattoos. We can also put ourselves in certain situations that will change our perception of ourselves. For example, one can travel alone and learn what it takes to be independent and completely responsible for one's life. Of course, there are certain experiences that we have no control over, such as the loss of a family member, or experiencing love. These experiences also shape who we are and how we view ourselves.

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