Four-panel illustration showing different life stages on a tree: a child sitting, a teenager climbing, an adult leaning, and an older person sitting.

This long article in The New Yorker is based around the author wondering whether the fun he’s had playing with his four year-old will be remembered by his son when he grows up.

Wondering whether you are the same person at the start and end of your life was a central theme of a ‘Mind, Brain, and Personal Identity’ course I did as part of my Philosophy degree around 22 years ago. I still think about it. On the one hand is the Ship of Theseus argument, where you can one-by-one replace all of the planks of a ship, but it’s still the same ship. If you believe it’s the same ship, and believe that you’re the same person as when you were younger, then the author of this article would call you a ‘Continuer’.

On the other hand, if you think that there are important differences between the person you are now and when you were younger. If, for example, the general can’t remember ‘going over the top’ as a young man, despite still having the medal to prove it, is he the same person? If you don’t think so, then perhaps you are a ‘Divider’.

I don’t consider it so clean cut. We tell stories about ourselves and others, and these shape how we think. For example, going to therapy five years ago helped me ‘remove the mask’ and reconsider who I am. That involved reframing some of the experiences in my life and realising that I am this kind of person rather than that kind of person.

It’s absolutely fine to have seasons in your life. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s some ancient wisdom to that effect?

Are we the same people at four that we will be at twenty-four, forty-four, or seventy-four? Or will we change substantially through time? Is the fix already in, or will our stories have surprising twists and turns? Some people feel that they’ve altered profoundly through the years, and to them the past seems like a foreign country, characterized by peculiar customs, values, and tastes. (Those boyfriends! That music! Those outfits!) But others have a strong sense of connection with their younger selves, and for them the past remains a home. My mother-in-law, who lives not far from her parents’ house in the same town where she grew up, insists that she is the same as she’s always been, and recalls with fresh indignation her sixth birthday, when she was promised a pony but didn’t get one. Her brother holds the opposite view: he looks back on several distinct epochs in his life, each with its own set of attitudes, circumstances, and friends. “I’ve walked through many doorways,” he’s told me. I feel this way, too, although most people who know me well say that I’ve been the same person forever.


The philosopher Galen Strawson believes that some people are simply more “episodic” than others; they’re fine living day to day, without regard to the broader plot arc. “I’m somewhere down towards the episodic end of this spectrum,” Strawson writes in an essay called “The Sense of the Self.” “I have no sense of my life as a narrative with form, and little interest in my own past.”


John Stuart Mill once wrote that a young person is like “a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” The image suggests a generalized spreading out and reaching up, which is bound to be affected by soil and climate, and might be aided by a little judicious pruning here and there.

Source: The New Yorker

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