- The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity by Patrick Stokes
The Naked Self is a great book. It is good Kierkegaard scholarship and an excellent model of bringing history of philosophy to bear on contemporary metaphysics. After a stage-setting introduction, the book has eight main chapters and a conclusion including questions and answers from an imagined interlocutor. Stokes takes the reader from how “Kierkegaard’s phenomenology of self-experience may… be a useful resource for neo-Lockean metaphysics” (chapters 1–5) to a sustained defense that “Kierkegaard himself is playing a different, and altogether more interesting, game” (140, chapters 6–8).
Stokes’s boldness is evident in his title, which remains mysterious until late in the book (182). Stokes draws on two key passages (from Either/Or and Sickness unto Death) in which Kierkegaard talks about nakedness in relation to the self. Both passages seem to claim, as many recent Kierkegaard commentators (e.g. Michelle Kosch, John Davenport, and Anthony Rudd) argue, that this “naked” self is merely an “arbitrary abstraction” (Either/Or, Stokes, 184) of which one “has no consciousness” (Sickness Unto Death, Stokes, 185). Stokes insists that Kierkegaard does not disavow the naked self but, to the contrary, his narrative conception of self depends on an underlying affirmation of the naked self: “[S]elfhood… is a question of how this [naked] subject now stands in relation to the totality of its earthly lifespan” (24). What Stokes rightly sees as most distinctive about his account, relative to both Lockean continuity theories and neo-Kierkegaardian narrativist approaches to the self, is his emphasis on a first-person, present-tense, “naked” self that is normatively required to “relate to its narrative, as both what it is and yet as something it is not reducible to” (24). I was ultimately unconvinced by Stokes’s argument for this key claim, but my doubt indicates a major strength of his book: at every stage of the argument, Stokes presents objections to his view so fairly that I was sometimes more convinced of alternatives (e.g. those of Galen Strawson, 109, or Rudd and Davenport, 215) than of Stokes’s own view. This fairness toward alternative points of view, combined with its wide-but-focused scope, makes The Naked Self an excellent introduction to both contemporary metaphysics of personal identity and contemporary Kierkegaard scholarship. [End Page 685]
The chapters discuss particular issues in contemporary metaphysics in relation to Kierkegaard’s works. Chapter 1 introduces the issue of personal identity in Locke and in Stages of Life’s Way and Either/Or (A), emphasizing two key notions: “concernment” (to “remember the past… with… concern” ) and soteriology (personal identity for final judgment by God [21, 32, 42]). Chapter 2 focuses on Either/Or (B), Philosophical Fragments, Practice in Christianity, and Sickness Unto Death to develop the key concept of “contemporaneity,” wherein we “experience an event as normatively compelling… in a specifically self-directed way” (64).
Chapters 3–5 shift focus from Kierkegaard to contemporary analytic metaphysics, taking on important debates about perception and memory (chapter 3, focusing on Richard Wollheim and David Velleman), Strawson’s claimed possibility of an “episodic self” (chapter 4), and problems of self-alienation in Marya Schechtman and Derek Parfit (chapter 5). Central to these chapters is Stokes’s Kierkegaardian defense of a normative turn in personal identity. Thus, for instance, he sides with Strawson about the possibility of an episodic self, but he insists that by taking responsibility for our past, we “experience fully moral lives” (116).
Chapters 6–8 argue for Stokes’s reading of Kierkegaard on personal identity, first developing a “present-tense” account of the self from Sickness Unto Death, then arguing against strictly narrativist conceptions of the self, and finally turning back to the issue of soteriology and eschatology. Sickness Unto Death is the primary text discussed from Kierkegaard’s corpus, but Stokes rightly draws heavily from Either/Or and various discourses and notes. Finally, the conclusion offers a summary of the book and deals with three specific objections to the...