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Grant Gillett's Subjectivity and Being Somebody. Human Identity and Neuroethics belongs to the series St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs. This series, under the general editorship of John Haldane, originates in the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews. It wants to represent 'study in those areas of philosophy most relevant to topics of public importance' and hereby advance 'the contribution of philosophy in the discussion of these topics.'
The author of the book, Grant Gillett, is a neurosurgeon and professor of medical ethics at the University of Otago (New Zealand) and has completed a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford. In him this series has found an author who should be in the position to reflect on philosophical questions about the constitution of personhood (i.e. what makes someone a person rather than an animal or plant) and personal identity (i.e. what must remain the same in a person for him to stay the same person). He is also in the position to inform these by certain neurophysiologically possible cases (such as the locked in syndrome) and address ethical issues that seem to bear on a determination of personhood and personal identity.
To summarize it very briefly, Gillett argues that a person is an embodied being (thus not even in essence a mere consciousness) who finds himself in the world. The latter phrase is borrowed from Heidegger. Gillett mainly uses it to denote that it is crucial for human subjectivity that a subject can (physically) express himself and interact with others, as well as that it can narrate its own life in a language and images that it borrows from others. This subject finds itself in a domain of reason and argument and not in a mere domain of causal interactions (2).
Gillett's work covers a broad range of issues revolving subjectivity. I will try to do them justice as much as I can by summarizing each chapter. I will in conclusion say something about its style and accessibility.
After a short introduction Gillett writes a second chapter on the natural genesis of the human subject. In this chapter Gillett contemplates from when on and on what grounds we should think of an embryo or fetus as a human being. This question is often posed in the discussion about whether one should allow for abortion, and if so, till how far in the pregnancy. It is Gillett's contention that we cannot decide on this question by looking at mere physical facts alone. Gillett argues that the answer to this question will depend on the context in which it is posed. Parents who've done everything to become pregnant and need to rely on in vitro fertilization may for instance consider a just formed embryo to already be a human being. Whereas someone whose life could be saved if stem cells were extracted from an embryo in the same stage of conception, may not conceive of this embryo as a human being in the making. In demonstrating this Gillett takes himself to be a neo-Aristotelian. Just like Aristotle he claims that we can determine what something is now by looking at what it will become later. Gillett hereby opposes two views. One is that the question whether human embryos are 'children-to-be or little bits of human tissue'(9) is 'a moral decision rather than something to be decided metaphysically' (ibid.). Gillett contends that these questions are inseparable. The other is that a strict distinction between a nominal essence and a real essence of any given type of thing, as Locke sketches it, would hold.
In a third chapter Gillett develops a narrative theory of identity. He opposes this to 'reductive accounts of our human moral status' (33), which he condemns as 'simplistic and unilluminating.' (Ibid.) A '[n]arrative metaphysics claims that objects and events cannot be individuated or specified independent of the discourses and forms of life in which they appear and in which they attract workable criteria of identification and reidentification. It is not just that things and events are named differently in different narratives (but are 'meta-physically' the same), you cannot determine the boundaries of a thing unless you give the framework within which it can be meaningfully discussed. The relevant narratives then bring values into play so that events take on a significance that otherwise they may not have.' (34) Gillett gives the example of him coming home from work. His daughter calling 'Hi dad' 'is surely part of the event.' (36) But '[o]f the millions of things going on in her brain only some are aspects of [his] homecoming. Which events they are is indeterminate because that event, as such, does not appear in neuroscientific discourse....' (36) This narrative metaphysics allows Gillett to emphasize that the human form is holistic and longitudinal-extended. This means that we'll need to consider different narratives about a being that does not just exist in the moment but has a history and anticipated future so as to define whether a being is a person, who he is, whether he remains the same person and whether it seems more right to prolong or end this being's life. As far as the latter is concerned, we will for instance need to consider whether the personality that was previously associated with the being that is now in a vegetative state would have preferred to continue living like that over death.
In the fourth chapter Gillett reflects on the meaning of the transcendental I of Kant. Kant invokes this I so as to account for the unity of experience. This requires us to work with an idea of an I to whom we ascribe all these experiences. It is often accepted that this I could just find itself in a realm of reasons and must not necessarily be empirically instantiated in a real physical and intersubjective world. Gillett reads Kant in a way that makes this I anyhow into a being that finds itself in such a world. In this way he gives the reader a more general idea of what the real conditions are for the origination of a logical subject.
In the fifth chapter Gillett scrutinizes the view (attributed to Locke) that memory constitutes personal identity. He appeals to Marya Schechtman to argue that a memory is not 'an awakening of an element within a loose causal nexus of relatively atomic snapshots of experience' (87), but already presupposes a real and whole person. This person is again a person in the world. This becomes for instance clear when '[h]uman memory is understood as a colloquy of skills and techniques, some learnt discursively (products of 'second nature') and others a legacy of 'first nature' or neurobiology.' (89) Another way in which this comes out is in the given that memories are not just there as an accessible chronologically ordered stream of consciousness, but are often the result of the causal impact of a real event that gives 'rise to cathexes or resonances – somatic, emotional, ideational, and volitional (aspects of the trace of that encounter).' (103)
Gillett devotes his sixth chapter to an investigation of our personal responsibility for our actions. If, as is often held, actions are only actions when they are preceded by an intention, then our capability of being responsible seems to be threatened by two factors. First off, if we accept that all physical effects must have a physical cause and we also accept that one effect can only have one cause, then no space seems to remain for an intention to cause some physical event. Secondly, even when an intention of mine leads to an action, one can question to what degree this intention is really mine. For how I think and behave will be determined by the culture in which I find myself. Gillett does away with the first threat by mainly replacing the fourfold presupposition (a) that an action is a discrete bodily movement; (b) that there is a mental event which is the cause of the act; (c) that one can fix the time of a mental even on the basis of its reportability; and (d) that the detectable brain event is the cause of the act rather than being a reflection of prepatory moves or neural events involved in acting with intent' (111-112), by the fourfold realization that the nature of intention goes beyond a physical description of bodily movements and confronts us with the character of the agent in that a 'person is (1) an integrated rule follower who (2) uses thoughts to structure (3) their acting in the world so as to generate (4) a lived narrative which is more-or-less coherent and longitudinally integrated so that it constitutes an individual identity.' (120) To the second thought Gillett replies for instance that 'rules do not causally necessitate rule-following' (123) . 'Sometimes perfectly competent thinkers violate the rules for effect' (ibid.).
In chapter seven Gillett examines what the implications for personal identity are when someone is inhibited from really being in the world by physical impairments or interventions. He considers the locked in syndrome, a split brain, psychosurgery and neuroimplantation, and cyborgs ('human-machine complexes that may be humanoid in physiognomy' (161)).
Gillett then goes on to examine multiple personality disorder. He contests that we should yield that different persons are really inhabiting one body here. He says that we should both acknowledge that our forensic intuitions run against this and that there is a social-cultural norm that associates one person with one body. Yet he pays attention to the fact that we, in spite of the fact that reintegrating different personalities into one may not amount to murder of these personalities, it may be a '[d]estructive normative psychological practice whereby a person is forced to fit into our normal forensic framework without appreciating his or her fragility and complexity…'. (193)
In the second to last chapter Gillett contemplates what kind of image of spirituality his discourse renders. He favors a structualist over a more traditional theological view on this spirituality.
In his final chapter Gillett attends to some of the implications of reductionism. One of the questions he poses is how we should interpret the words of an Alzheimer-patient who tells her husband that he has always been a bastard. Are they brought forth by her disease, or should they rather be understood as an expression of a thought that has lingered in her consciousness for some time? I leave the answer to the reader who should be able to deal with it in an informed way after having read Gillett's work.
Style and accessibility
So far for the summary. Let me in conclusion say something about the style, accessibility and depth of this work. Subjectivity and Being Somebody is interspersed with references to quite a range of philosophers. Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Lacan and Parfit are some of the more well-known recurring names. But also less well-known, yet fine contemporary philosophers as Marya Schechtman and David Wiggins get their say. The constant presence of all these philosophers should however not put the not philosophically trained reader off. Gillett knows how to refer in an informed manner (he picks the philosophers he refers to well and represent their thoughts quite faithfully, perhaps with the exception of Locke), and yet make their thoughts accessible for a layperson. He also guides the reader by suggesting which chapter he could skip if he is more interested in practical than in metaphysical matters. In addition the examples Gillett gives should help the reader to think things through himself. Occasionally it could be a bit hard to follow one of Gillett's thoughts through to the end. Not because they are not clear, but exactly because Gillett explicates them in such a manner that it can be a bit tiring to follow his entire thread of explication. But then again, as wide-ranging and sophisticated the philosophers that he refers to are, so straight forward and common sensical is his main thesis: a person develops himself over time in a world that he shares with others and if we want to understand this person we will have to see him as this diachronic being and look at how a certain context does or does not allow him to fully express himself. This should be a thought that the reader can always recur to, to understand a more complicated argument that Gillett is making in favor of this thought.
© 2009 Fauve Lybaert
Fauve Lybaert is a PhD-student in philosophy (2008-2012) at the University of Leuven. She works on personal identity and self-consciousness and writes a dissertation with as title 'Personal Identity and the Formal Self. She is funded by the Flanders Research Foundation.