How can the narrative view of personal identity present a better explanation of the persistence of the self over time than the psychological view?

This essay was written in May of 2017, and has since been adapted for online publication.

There exists a deep and striking need to believe that we can solve the most troubling philosophical questions surrounding personal identity. Perhaps the reason behind the irrepressible urge to seek affirmation for a sustaining personal identity is one of survival. If the sustenance of numerical identity over time is impossible, then our very concept of the self is endangered, which I personally find to be a troubling conclusion. The answer to the problem of personal identity will ultimately determine the kinds of changes we can undergo without ceasing to exist.

In this essay I will draw on purely hypothetical cases, such as brain swaps and memory implants. Although these puzzling cases are largely fictional (albeit carrying important implications), the case of personal identity also asks practical questions like whether our identity can survive simply from the foetal stage to person, and whether life-altering events such as brain damage, disease or degeneration alter our very existence. This essay aims to argue that we should look to the Narrative view to explain personal identity, rather than the (modernised) commonly accepted psychological view.

First it is important to provide clear definitions of the narrative and psychological views in order to bring the debate to an agreed start point. I will then outline the four most crucial features of identity, which I have drawn from Marya Schechtman, key proponent of the narrative view, along with the distinction Ricoeur makes on time and its relevance to the debate. This essay analyses the narrative and psychological views from a practical sense, and aims to reveal the shortcomings the psychological view has in this area. After revealing the impersonality of the psychological view, I then discuss how due to its impersonality it does not offer any meaningful explanation of why the self is actually important. Then, in addressing the four features Schechtman developed, it will become apparent that the narrative view can satisfy our intuitive concerns on identity. I will then briefly touch on an analysis into locating where the self resides, and address the consequences of the vagueness of the narrative view.

The Narrative View: Brief Explanation

We cannot aim to answer the question of personal identity with means beyond or irrelevant to our natural cognitive abilities. As Ricoeur purports, the human self-understanding is fictive, and it is in our nature to describe identity in terms of a narrative. As our very existence is articulated through language and narrative, it is logical that the appropriately fitting narrative theory must be used.

The narrative view argues a deeply personal position, that personal identity is linked to the capacity to construct coherent autobiographical narratives; it requires the ability to tell a cohesive story about one’s life. If a person is able to consider their existence over time, in such a way that it incorporates their past, present and future concerns in accordance with their essence then they can be considered identical.

Essentially it is the sharing of a consistent and cohesive narrative.

The self is constructed in various ways, some actions and features are deeply part of us, whilst others are accidental (what Schechtman calls implicit). The most basic claim of the narrative view is that we constitute ourselves as persons by forming a narrative self-conception according to which we experience and organize our lives (Schechtman, 2007). The construction of self can be an active and ongoing process as the narrative is subject to change as time goes on. Macintyre’s view that there is a specific “narrative unity of human life” is crucial to the narrative view, with the perception of life as “quest” or “journey” (Macintyre, 2007, p.185). Like a quest, narrative structure is teleological, the beginning, middle and end exist because of their purpose. Events in life are given purpose in retrospect and the meaning we attach to them forms an integral part of our identity, and the story we use to explain who we are. Events in life aren’t typically viewed as singular and isolated incidents; instead they are formed as a narrative to serve as a part in a larger sequence of events, and ultimately a greater story. This unique story is deeply ingrained in each self, it is a continual and active process and therefore it is invaluable to each individual.

The claim that we are "storytelling animals" (MacIntyre, 2007, p.183) seems to best explain the intuitive basis that forms the attraction toward the narrative view. The importance between time (and how people persist over time) and the way we naturally interpret time should be considered. A diachronic numerical identity theory is best able to capture the way we consider ourselves to exist over time. Consider time as being available to us in the following two ways; time is available in linear succession, “cosmological time”, that we experience without pause, from birth to death. The other available form is phenomenological time which is time experienced in terms of the past, present and future. As self-aware beings we generally integrate the two forms of time (Ricoeur, 1980). Whilst experiencing cosmological time, we can also separate our current selves and consider ourselves in the past, present and future time. Furthermore, to express both kinds of time as occurring concurrently is to “inscribe” phenomenological time on cosmological time (Ricoeur, 1980). “Today is Anzac day” is to really declare that anchored to this chronological point is a phenomenological remembrance of a past war.

The Four Features of Personhood

In conjunction with this explanation of time, I think these following four features of personhood that generally support psychological theories of identity should be used to judge the theory’s soundness. The features are moral responsibility, prudential concern (the concern for our future state), compensation (that the person making a sacrifice and receiving compensation be the same person) and survival (the basic interest someone has in their own survival) (Schechtman, 2007). A good psychological account should be able to define personal identity in such a way that it practically addresses these four features. It does not appear the standard psychological view can do this in a satisfactory way, whereas the narrative view can.

The Psychological View: Brief Explanation

The generally accepted view of personal identity is an adapted version of Locke’s psychological criterion. This view holds that psychological continuity is required for personal identity to sustain over time. In order for P1 that exists at T1 to exist as P2 at T2, there must be a direct psychological continuation of memory, and so on. The view usually maintains that must be a sequence of overlapping chains of strong and direct psychological connections. To attempt avoiding the objection that this merely presupposes identity and it does not actually prove a person is identical, quasi-memory (q-memory) is also added to the theory. Proponents of this view recognise memory as having a subset, known as the quasi-memory. To quasi-remember an event is to have some memory experience caused in such a way that it appears as the individual’s own memory. In the act of merely remembering an experience that is potentially not theirs, but remembered in such a way that it appears as such, it does not necessitate it forms part of their identity. However beyond this it’s not explained how an individual can discern what is their own real memory, and what is illegitimate. Schechtman notes that there is “no clear way to make a non-circular distinction between genuine, identity- creating memories and delusional pseudomemories” (Schechtman, 2007, p.166).

Numerical identity

Numerical identity is the relation between two occurrences of one thing (person). The aim is to clarify that maintaining numerical identity is possible, and the multiple occurrences of one thing do not constitute two different things but the same thing. The notion of numerical identity and the self relate because when asked, “who did X action?” we must assign an agent (a self) to the action. First we ask, is the agent at t2 the same agent who did the action at t1? If the agent is no longer numerically identical to p1 but must be identified as p2, are they responsible for the action, and if so why, if they are no longer the same? The psychological continuity theory doesn’t seem to be able to provide answers to questions of practical significance. For example, it doesn’t seem to be able to answer why p2 at t2 be responsible for actions committed by p1 at t1? Consider a scenario in which an individual has a multitude of quasi memories they are unable to decipher as illegitimate, there seems less reason why they should have concern for their past actions. Furthermore, why should p2 care about the future state of p3? The psychological view fails to meaningfully articulate why we should have prudential concern for identity. The narrative view says we care about our past becomes it forms the present version of ourselves, and the basis of our self-narrative. We value our present self because current actions directly impact our future self, and although the future self’s life may be cut short at an inopportune moment, future goals form a key part of our current narrative. The special sort of concern we hold for ourselves is that we are an extended narrative ego, and through constantly extending that narrative into the future we are concerned for not only our present self but also our future. It is in the act of narrativising the self into a whole that unifies the self and extends our concern into the future (Schechtman, 2007).

The psychological view is far too impersonal to meet the four requirements of personhood referred to earlier. The psychological view is grounded in the distinction that Locke makes between being a person and being a human animal. That term “person” is a “forensic term” which denotes a being with reason and reflective self-consciousness (Locke, 1993). The forensic feature involves capacity to praise and blame, and the ability to obey laws. This is essentially the final tier in Locke’s requirements that an individual must fill in order to be considered a “person”. It is the possession of these sophisticated cognitive capabilities that determine whether a human animal has personhood. This demonstrates Locke’s interest in an account of identity that explained self-reflection and moral implications in a personal manner, but this seems to fall short in the view as a whole. According to Locke, for a moral agent to exist over time they must possess these abilities and a sameness of consciousness. This is undoubtedly an important fundamental conception of personhood. However, I believe that the impersonal nature of the view is limiting in allowing us to adequately describe personhood, and do not address the questions as to why we actually care about the self in the first place.

The value of treating identity be treated as personal is that it does not fail against the same objections targeting the mechanical nature of the psychological view. I use “personal” here to mean an identity with unique psychological and emotive attachments that are intrinsic to the individual’s being. Narrative actually allows for the association of memories to provide and adequately articulate a true and whole sense of identity. Yet the psychological view seems to present a paradoxically “impersonal” view of personhood.

Asking the question of “who am I?” or more plainly, “what is the self?” entails an answer that concerns the shape of one’s life, with a coherent beginning and ideas about the future. Unless you live with a group of strictly abiding Lockeans, it doesn’t generally entail a mechanical-like answer regarding a bundle of memories, quasi-memories, or a strong thread of overlapping memories, that ultimately do not explain anything inherently unique about the person. It merely says, because I am very much like the “someone” who experienced those prior memories, I should be responsible for them. It is only after addressing why we should be concerned with the self and subsequently the future self, that the objections regarding the psychological view can really be felt and addressed. Placing all emphasis on memory in such a way leads to problems, and without actually addressing why we value the self it makes the topic of persistence redundant. To merely remember is not enough to satisfactorily define personal identity, and therefore its persistence.

Thought Experiment: Memory Implant

The psychological view and its q-memory theory fail against objections such as the memory implant objection. Imagining that some malicious character has implanted the memories of criminal Joe into upstanding citizen John, he is fitted not only with one or two singular events of Joe’s life, but entire years worth of memories. John now has the many quasi-memories of Joe. There are strong memory connections between the events, and John attempts to reconcile this with his identity. Is John responsible for the crimes Joe committed? P1 who committed act X at T1, is not numerically identical with P2 at T2, who committed no act X. Surely John is not responsible, yet he has good reason to think so, after all he remembers committing the crimes and believes it to be him. The psychological view has no strong defence against this objection. Looking to the traditional view, Locke’s only response to the fake memory/memory implant objection is very theological, relying on the “goodness of god” (Locke, 1993, II.xxvii.13/338) to not let such an event occur. It seems difficult to reinterpret Locke past a theological response on this issue, and it is an argument I don’t feel is strong, as it rests on grand assumptions that sit outside the debate.

The modern psychological view uses quasi-memory to explain how the memory implant case would not work. Perhaps in a case where only one to two memories of Joe were implanted, therefore not creating a strong sequence of memories, the quasi-memory theory could quite easily justify why John has no reason to believe he committed the acts. John merely remembers the criminal acts in the right way so that it appears that he was carried out those actions, but he remembers in a weak way, so its easily identified. However all that the quasi-memory case is able to argue against are those with weak memory connections, unlike the case outlined that presents very strong memory connections.

The memory implant objection ultimately reveals the weakness of such an impersonal view of identity, as memories alone are not able to explain why John is not numerically identical with Joe. There must be something more meaningful or at least attaching meaning to the memories the psychological view places so much value on.

The narrative view is able to account for both weak and strong memory connections that are implanted. John is able to recount the constructed story of his life, and the specific actions that led to certain pathways are his own, as they come from the characteristics specific to him. John would be able to comfortably explain why the criminal actions he seems to remember are not his own. They do not cohesively form a part of his distinct narrative, the characteristics of being a law-abiding citizen John has prided his identity, and narrative around does not follow with criminal behaviour. Only John’s core values, beliefs and experiences influence his actions, and he is able to unite these actions with the rest of a coherent story. The uniting of actions to a core identity/narrative occurs on both a phenomenological and chronological time. John is not able to unite the memories of Joe to a coherent story, on the level of qualitative sameness, or making sense chronologically.

The impersonality of the psychological view can easily lead to generalising identity; John can very quickly become Joe. To say that there is nothing really specific about identity other than merely the overlapping chains of memory is problematic. It is problematic in the sense that it falls victim to the memory implant object, but also on an intuitive level of guarding the uniqueness of identity. Whereas the narrative view actually allows us to answer why we can hold experiences as our own.

Facing Objections to the Narrative View

The narrative view believes that personal identity is self-constructing through interpretation of the surrounding world. In effect, the self constitutes itself through the interpretation of facts, absorbing them into a narrative. This is not to say that a person’s narrative is automatically factual, as perceptions and interpretations are often inconsistent with the facts. However it is a misconception that “narrative” must be associated with “fiction”, and that the self is then entirely contingent upon what could very easily be a fantasy. The objection here being that an individual can supposedly tell themselves any story which they see fit, yet this is wrong (Schechtman, 2007). Narratives do not need to be fictional, although they rely upon the emphasis on certain key events, this does not entail a denial or manipulation of facts. First-person perspectives are of course subject to misremembering events, and it is difficult to interpret all facts with a strict objectiveness, but the view allows for some disagreement, unlike the rigidity of the psychological view (Schechtman). The narrative self is ultimately a self-constructed entity that has a “spatio-temporal position that is only grossly defined” (Dennett, 1994, p.4). Perhaps asking where the self resides from a materialist point of view may be a mistake, although the psychological view may well answer it resides within brain. To analyse this reductively this standpoint seems dangerously impersonal and mechanical. The self resides specifically in the form of memories, which are essentially neurons within the hippocampus of the brain. In time technology will advance to the point where we will be able to pinpoint the exact location within the brain region of the “self”. This seems to be a step out of the metaphysical realm and entering the biological.

Further down the biological path, the narrative view struggles to explain individuals who have lost ability to cohesively present a unified narrative. The split brain case, in which the individual’s corpus callosum had been severed creating a rift between left and right hemisphere creates arguably a dis-unified self. Similarly those with schizophrenia or other mental disorders, the narrative view will struggle to maintain their self has persisted over time. It may result in the claim that there is no longer just one self, but instead two, or three, or more.

It seems pre-emptive to conclude the argument at this point as I still feel there is some depth in comparing the two views that is left to be uncovered, perhaps in the route of adding narrative view traits to the psychological view. However, to summarise I believe that the four features Schechtman outlined are non-negotiable, their practicality and value to us is undeniable. A good personal identity must be able to satisfy each feature. In their interrelation, it seems that if a personal identity view is to fail one, it leads to weakening its support of all. Where I think the psychological view first and most crucially fails is in strictly limiting itself to such an impersonal stance. Ultimately this does no favour in addressing any practical concerns like why the self is important, and this leads to a poor answering of moral responsibility, prudential concern, compensation and finally survival. The narrative view satisfies both our intuitive and logical concerns for identity (it’s my view that this intuition is born out of a logical desire for survival) far better than the psychological view. Although there is some vagueness to the view, this is not necessarily a weakness, as shown the alternative can lead to both trivial and troubling results.


Dennett, Daniel C. (1992). The self as a center of narrative gravity. In Frank S. Kessel, P. M. Cole & D. L. Johnson (eds.), Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 4--237.

Locke, J., & Yolton, J. W. (1993). An essay concerning human understanding. London, Dent.

MacIntyre, A. (2007). After Virtue. 1st ed. Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, pp.174-191.

Ricoeur, P. (1980). Narrative Time. Critical Inquiry, 7(1), pp.169-190.

Schechtman, M. (1990). Personhood and Personal Identity. The Journal of Philosophy, 87(2), p.71.

Schechtman, M. (2007). Stories, Lives, and Basic Survival: A Refinement and Defense of the Narrative View. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 60, pp.155-178.