Time and IdentityReview - Time and Identity
by Joseph Campbell, Michael O'Rourke, and Harry Silverstein (Editors)
MIT Press, 2010
Review by Joshua Mugg
May 18th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 20)

Time and Identity (edited by Joseph Campbell, Michael O'Rourke, and Harry Silverstein) is a collection of essays previously presented at the eighth annual Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference. Although it remains unclear from Matthew Slater's introduction just why "the concepts of time and identity are intimately connected", the discussion in the subsequent chapters illuminates this link (11). Questions that arise in the philosophy of time often require an appeal to a notion of identity, and many questions about identity arise within the context of time. Not surprisingly, the debate between perduance and endurance occupies a central place in this book.

The intended audience of Time and Identity are academic philosophers (namely metaphysicians).  This book will especially appeal to philosophers working on personal identity and selfhood. The essays vary in difficulty, but most require some background in metaphysics. What is most valuable about this volume is that a number its essays aim at clarification or critique of metaphysical debates. As with most debates, metaphysicians adopt certain established positions within the dialectic, and often fail to question whether  one position differs substantively from another.  This book offers several papers that aim to remedy this problem.

The essays are clustered into four groups (with an afterthought): four essays on the philosophy of time; four on identity; four on the self; three on death; and one narrative on teaching metaphysics. Rather than give a systematic account of each article I will highlight some of the paradigmatic strengths and weaknesses of this volume overall.

Lynne Baker and Lawrence Lombard aim at conceptual analysis of the debate between A theorists and B theorists within the philosophy of time. Baker questions whether A theory and B theory are the only options. While she does not offer as detailed an account of her new theory (which she calls BA theory) as might be desirable, her aim to find a way between the two theories should be commended. Lombard criticizes the same debate, arguing that it has yet to be demonstrated that there is any metaphysical difference between eternalism and presentism. He argues that any way we understand eternalism or presentism makes the position trivially true or trivially false. However, to make this argument, he strips himself of metaphysical distinctions that might make the substantiality of the debate apparent.

A better analysis comes from Ned Markosian who questions the validity of the established way of framing the metaphysical debate of personal identity over time. Markosian suggests instead, that to solve the problem of personal identity is to explain "the conditions under which an instance of personhood at t1 is part of the same episode of personhood as an instance of personhood at t2" (138). This allows the 3-dimensionalists more possible solutions for common problems (fissions problems, problems of time travel, and the fetus problem), which gives 3-dimensionalism a fair voice in the debate. Though he himself does not consider it, a further advantage of Markosian's proposal is that this characterization does not demand that persons be objects. His characterization allows a place in the debate for those who think persons are modes of objects.

Barbara Levenbook's analysis of the retroactivity problem is also illuminating. She argues that the retroactivity problem (i.e. how it can be that the deceased can be harmed) depends upon how we understand 'harm'. She (rightly) says that neither the proponent nor the critic of posthumous harm can beg the question when explicating the concept of harm. She concludes that the debate depends upon the acceptance or rejection of the Every Harm Needs a Condition principle, which says that "if someone is harmed or if some event is a misfortune for him, he must be in a harmed or unfortunate condition during his existence" (305).

Time and Identity is not wholly devoted to conceptual analysis. John Perry gives his own account of selfhood. He argues that self is the relation I have that I don't have to anyone else; this relation is identity (229). He uses an analogy of a file folder and the contents of that folder. The file folder is like a self-notion and the folder plus its contents like a self-concept. Because he thinks of the self-concept as a motivating complex, he thinks his account fits well with a Humean bundle theory. This, however, raises a difficulty for his view because different aspects of the system pull in various directions; the self's motivations may conflict. While Perry is optimistic about a solution to this problem on his Humean ontology, I am more skeptical. However, nothing forces Perry to accept bundle theory. He could instead adopt a powers ontology where complex dispositional paring forms a dispositional web (see C.B. Martin 2008). Perry accepts neo-Humeanism too quickly, and his theory would do better to reject it.

Another strength of this book is its (almost surprising) continuity, which is most pronounced in the later half of the book. H. E. Baber's paper concerning the temporal gap between desires and states of affairs satisfying those desires makes an excellent segue from the section on self to the section on death. Furthermore, we see the dialectic unfold before us as Ben Bradley responds to Harry Silverstein's earlier work and Silverstein, in this volume, addresses Bradley's concerns.

The editors include a historical article by Jenann Ismael in which she defends Descartes' cogito argument from Anscombe's criticisms. John Carroll's paper offers a contextualist solution to David Lewis's argument that a time traveler would be unable to kill her own Grandfather, and M. Hinchliff defends presentism from having to deny that if something has a property, then that something exists. These are the three most technical papers in Time and Identity, and Hinchliff's paper suffers from poor organization. Paul Noonan defends his psychological account of self from arguments made by Olson. Because he summarizes the debate thus far, his article will be accessible to those who are less familiar with the debate. N. Tognazzini has a well articulated article in which he argues that the perdurantist can make sense of moral responsibility, but he suggests that further study as to the relation between the temporal parts of persons is needed to move the debate along (a point made by many metaphysicians). The final 'paper' by Andrew Light is a narrative in which he presents a guest lecture in a metaphysics course and discusses pop culture with the class to motivate metaphysical discussion. Although a fun, light read, one is left wondering what the point of the narrative was.

I recommend this book to anyone working in the metaphysics of time, personal identity, or selfhood. The three chapters under the 'Death' section may be of interest to some metaethicists, as they address what must be the case (metaphysically) for death to be harmful or for there to be posthumous harm.


Work Cited

Martin, C.B. The Mind in Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


© 2011 Joshua Mugg


Joshua Mugg is a PhD candidate at York University in philosophy. He specializes in metaphysics (especially dispositionality) and its application to the philosophy of mind. He may be contacted by email at [email protected], and you may find him on academia.edu.


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