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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.4 (2003) 347-352
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Idem, Ipse, and Loss of the Self
The case histories of Dr. Wells and the comments on them require first of all more conceptual clarity. In this article I will first introduce, with Paul Ricoeur, a distinction between idem identity and ipse identity. Then, I will discuss the merits and pitfalls of applying narrative theory to pathologies of the self. Behind the discussion on the breakdown of narrative unity, deep questions loom, most notably about conceivability and meaning of the notion of breakdown of self-relatedness as such; and about the moral basis for clinical action given the lack of a self to treat. These questions amount to the acknowledgment of a normative component in the concept of self and personhood, which can not be accounted for by idem identity solely.
Individual and Structural Identity
Let us begin with identity. When I identify a tree, at least two aspects, are implied in the act of identification. The first aspect concerns the recognition of the tree as member of a certain class (or family) of living things. In the tree we recognize certain features, or aspects, that are typical for this particular class (or family) of trees. This recognition is based on similarity or sameness. The second aspect in the act of identification consists of the recognition of the tree as this individual tree. We are dealing here with a basic, rather mysterious capacity: the capacity to distinguish one individual entity from the other; or: the capacity to know individuals.
Both aspects, the recognition of similarity and of individuality, are interwoven in everyday acts of identification. So, we discern the specific features of a particular tree against the background of an overall (or general) image of trees. At the same time we recognize these general features given our capacity to distinguish one tree from the other. There are, accordingly, two sides in the concept of identity: structural identity and individual identity. Individual identity refers to the uniqueness of a thing and structural identity to the properties a thing shares with others things.
This distinction can be applied to human beings, but only in a certain way and to a certain extent. So, John is a human being, and as a human being he has both distinctive and general features. However with regard to John himself, that is, the particular person I aim at when I speak about John, the picture is slightly different. Individuality and similarity (universality) refer here to one and the same person. The uniqueness of John is now commonly referred to as numerical identity. There is only one singular John. Even if there were a John with the same birth date, fingerprint and DNA profile, this would be another John, John 2 so to say. This uniqueness is sometimes articulated in terms of the position John 1 and John 2 occupy in the space-time continuum. Because John 1 and John 2 cannot occupy the same spatiotemporal position, [End Page 347] they must be separate, two distinct entities. This is of course a limited view on uniqueness of persons; so, we will have to say more about this in a moment.
The structural (or general) characteristics of John, the John-ness of John so to say, is commonly called qualitative identity. Qualitative identity consists of the sum of all those enduring properties which could serve as criterion to distinguish John from other persons in the world. Qualitative identity, however, does not completely coincide with structural identity, mentioned earlier. This is obvious from the fact that the John-ness of John refers to those structural (enduring, general) properties for which only this particular John qualifies, whereas the human being-ness of John refers to the properties John shares with all other human beings. So, in those cases in which the structural dimension of identity refers to only one entity, for instance in the case of the John-ness of John, the emphasis is not on intersubject similarity but on intrasubject similarity. This intrasubject similarity refers to continuity in time and to...