restricted access Schechtman's Narrative Account of Identity
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 12.1 (2005) 23-24

[Access article in PDF]

Schechtman's Narrative Account of Identity

personal identity, narrative self, memory

I have long been an admirer of Schechtman's sensitive and psychologically realistic account of personal identity. In the present piece, she addresses the issues surrounding personal identity through Locke's view and problems attending that view and the psychological continuity theories descended from it.

She examines the claim that the person is more extensive than the conscious mind and includes aspects of nonconscious mental activity. Schechtman argues that one must have a self-conception that includes a trajectory where present experience unfolds meaningfully out of one's past replete with implications for what one does and how one does it. She locates, in current writing on the self, the idea of a perceiver or narrator self who tries to make sense out of herself as a human being with certain thoughts and feelings and is sometimes at a loss to do so. To this potentially very rich starting point we need only add the fact that a person draws on discursive and narrative skills that have been inscribed in her being to do this narrative, editorial, and judicial task and that many of these skills have been imbibed with mother's milk (and father's voice). From this discursively inscribed set of resources and orientations arise guilt, shame, pride, aspiration, vulnerability, and that crucial sense of who one is as a person among others.

It follows that here we might also find the source of the discontents that induce a person to apply to a psychiatrist or counselor for help with the narrative work required to fashion a liveable self. If Schechtman is right, the cognitive capacities contributing to memory and "keeping track of oneself"(in a deep and satisfying way) are to be found in part in the nonconscious domain rather than the thin layer of consciousness and propositional attitude psychology that enters the mind of an analytic philosopher or a psychiatrist uninterested in depth.

I think she is right and that this paper and her more extensive work on the constitution of self represent a fertile point at which psychiatrists and psychotherapists can begin the task of understanding the nature of identity and the challenges involved in finding one that will serve the unfolding project of understanding and forming the self. I believe that the resources that individuals need for this task are derived from one's rootedness in culture and human relationships where the levels of self that support consciousness can be nurtured according to what Michel Foucault calls the techniques proper to the care of the self. Schechtman has done us a favor in taking the debates surrounding neo-Lockean [End Page 23] views of personal identity and outlining a perspective on identity and memory that can lead us to develop our understanding of the complexity of the human psyche as it roams through the jungle/jumble of discursive life and tries to nourish itself on what it finds there.

Grant Gillett is a Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. He is also a practicing neurosurgeon. His philosophical work is in philosophy of mind and psychiatry, continental philosophy, and bioethics. His most recent books are The Mind and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press) and Bioethics in the Clinic (Johns Hopkins University Press). He works on postmodern and traditional analytic approaches to mind, language, and psychiatry. He can be reached at Dunedin Hospital and Otago Bioethics Centre, University of Otago Medical School, PO Box 913, Dunedin, New Zealand, or via e-mail at