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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.4 (2003) 357-359

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Learning From Disunity

Jennifer Radden

In describing his four cases, Lloyd Wells (2003) throws out a challenge. He asks his readers to recognize similarities between their own more ordinary self-identity and the discontinuous narrative and seeming absence of a steady authorial subject resulting from disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). In light of these cases, he implies, the unity of the self we have unreflectively assumed until now to be universal requires reconsideration. Psychopathology seems to force a sharpening, clarification, and closer conceptualization of our philosophical theories of self-identity.

While acknowledging that philosophical categories and theories of narrative identity can help us to assess the ravages wrought by mental disorder, James Phillips (2003) is also respectful of the contribution of psychopathology to theorizing about identity: he ends his thoughtful discussion of Wells' cases by looking not at how philosophy can enlighten us about psychopathology but at how cases such as these can illuminate philosophical categories. Speculating on the tragic absence of narrative identity in schizophrenia and advanced Alzheimer's disease, Phillips concludes that, as he puts it, psychopathology "reconfigures the contours of our notion of narrative identity and requires a looser, minimized, nonsubstantial notion of the narrative self" and argues for a self that "transcends the limits and loss of narrative identity" (2003, 326).

I also support the approach, shared by Wells and Phillips, that allows psychopathology to clarify and illuminate philosophical concepts and categories. Here, in a handful of footnotes to their insights, I want to point out ways that cases from psychopathology reveal distinguishable elements or aspects of self-identity often confused because, in the normal case, they form an unquestioned and apparently indissoluble unity. One of these is the difference between synchronic and diachronic subjective unity. Another is the difference between the elements of authorship and temporality in conceptions of narrative identity. And last is the difference between what I shall call constitutional identity and self-identity.

Synchronic and Diachronic Identity

The difference between synchronic and diachronic identity, elements so seamlessly blurred in more ordinary subjectivity, is nicely illustrated by Wells' cases. Mary's dissociative states leave her with interruptions in her diachronic identity: the memory of her experiences is fragmented and incoherent. Yet at any given moment, her synchronic unity is unimpaired. She recognizes and can describe the oneness of her experiences and their boundaries; she is aware which are her experiences and which are not. For all her scatteredness and dissociation, as Phillips puts it in describing Mary's case: "there is a strong and [End Page 357] articulate narrator . . . the fact remains that this I is there" (2003, 318).

In contrast, the shy and self-conscious adolescent Edward seems to suffer not from diachronic but from synchronic disunity. (And if anything, as Melvin Woody [2003] points out, Edward's "narrative" seems to fuel the comparisons which so distress him about his uncomfortable and distressing subjective experiences.) Edward struggles to "delineate what's inside my mind and what's outside it . . . " When he thinks about what he sees as a firm boundary around the self in others which is not well demarcated in his own case, he remarks " . . . I completely lose any sense of myself" (p. 330).

Thought insertion or "made" feelings in psychosis provide similar instances of such fracturing of their sufferer's synchronic identity (it is perhaps such experiences that Edward alludes to here; Wells' quotations are too sparse for us to tell). Just as Edward complains of losing any sense of himself, so other sufferers from these alarming conditions complain of losing a sense of the self's boundaries, of possession and mind control, and of being the unwelcome host to alien thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

In normal experience diachronic and synchronic unity—my oneness across time and at a time—form a seamless whole. These cases, where one or the other is compromised, vividly remind us that these two forms of unity must be distinguished.

Narrative Identity

Phillips (2003) explicates an analysis of narrative identity which comprises entwined but distinguishable features: a narrating...


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