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Design for Living

The Thread of Life

by Richard Wollheim
Harvard University Press, 288 pp., $20.00

Richard Wollheim has written a highly original book, which addresses the most basic questions about ethics and the ends of life. He deals with fundamental issues about what it means to be a person. But he takes up these issues from an unusual angle: what does it mean to “lead the life” of a person? The “simplest way” of expressing the scope of his inquiry, Wollheim says, is that “there are persons, they exist; persons lead lives, they live; and as a result, in consequence—in consequence, that is, of the way they do it—there are lives, of which those who lead them may, for instance, be proud, or feel ashamed. So there is a thing, and there is a process, and there is a product.” And he adds: “The central claim of these lectures is the fundamental status of the process. In order to understand the thing that is the person, or in order to understand the product that is the person’s life, we need to understand the process that is the person’s leading his life.”

In asking this question, Wollheim has made a shift that brings philosophical reflection into new territory, and has produced one of those rare works that extend the limits of philosophical analysis. We all lead our lives, and, of course, we put some considerable thought into doing so, even if only intermittently and inconsistently. But by virtue of its self-imposed limitations, philosophical analysis, at least in the Anglo-American world, has had the greatest difficulty dealing with the thinking we do in leading our lives, thinking in which all of us nevertheless as human beings irresistibly engage. Anglo-American philosophers have analyzed the metaphysical nature of persons—the abstract question of what it means to be a person—but a kind of cordon sanitaire has held philosophical reflection away from our condition as beings living in relation to past and future.

Certain Continental philosophers—notably Heidegger and Sartre—had made this their concern, but before Wollheim’s book adherents of the specifically “analytic” tradition to which he belongs have remained for the most part curiously debarred from doing so. So in asking his first question—what is it to lead our lives?—Wollheim is in a sense breaking through a barrier. The extension of philosophical territory that he proposes may not be an unalloyed good. There are enemies of philosophy who might see it as an unmitigated disaster, and even its friends are forced to admit that this kind of project may go badly wrong.

What has caused this resistance? Something, I think, deep in the tradition of empiricism and rationalism, which still has a powerful grip on Anglo-American thought, in spite of the frequently announced revolutions and liberations from it. This is the ideal of the person as a timeless, disengaged observer, who can inspect his own actions and life from the standpoint of eternity. This ideal, which Wollheim attacks, has been so powerful that it has ended up coloring not only philosophical analysis but even our own self-image.

One of the best places to see how this ideal has distorted our understanding of the person is in the work of David Hume. There is a certain irony in my choosing Hume as a target of Wollheim’s argument, because Wollheim himself confesses a quite different attitude: “The philosopher of the tradition,” he writes in the preface to his book, “to whom my intellectual debt is deepest is David Hume: I hope that this is obvious.” In a sense it is obvious, once one has read the book. For one of the most original aspects of Wollheim’s thought is his wish at once to remain within the tradition of antimetaphysical, antireligious naturalism that Hume so persuasively embodied and at the same time to free philosophy from Hume’s empiricist errors.

This is what makes the important difference between Wollheim’s work and that of those Continental philosophers, especially Heidegger, with whose antiempiricist philosophy Wollheim shows striking parallels, as I shall note below. In his attempt to promote a naturalism purged of empiricist errors—to rescue, as it were, Hume from his own bad theory of human knowledge—Wollheim reminds us of John Stuart Mill, who sought to rescue utilitarianism from Bentham’s one-sided understanding of the ends of human life, which he saw as the highest possible balance of pleasure over pain. As we shall see, Wollheim’s theory is open to the charge, frequently leveled against Mill, of trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. It is no accident that Wollheim feels a strong affinity for Mill’s philosophy, and vigorously defends Mill against this very charge.

The bad understanding of the person as a disengaged observer reaches an extreme expression—almost a parody—in Hume’s famous discussion of “personal identity,” of what it is to be a person. Hume approached this question as an empiricist and accordingly tried to discover observational evidence that such a thing as his self existed, much as he recommended we do when ascertaining the existence of anything else. He claimed, however, to be unable to find any experience based on “inner observation”—observation of his mind—which corresponded to the “self.” “For my part,” he wrote, “when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure”;1 at no time did Hume succeed in perceiving or observing the self. He offered the notorious conclusion—which he confessed was not really satisfactory even to him—that, so far as he could ascertain, what is commonly called the self is nothing more than a name for a collection or “bundle” of such “perceptions” as he found when inspecting his own mind—heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred. In other words, to use Wollheim’s language, Hume argues that the identity of a person, and, by extension, the unity of a person’s life, can only be explained as a kind of “relation” that holds between independently identifiable “perceptions” of the kind Hume described.

It is against this theory, or rather its contemporary derivatives, such as the one argued by the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit in his recent book,2 that Wollheim argues persuasively. The unity of a person’s life, he says, cannot be understood by the relations between the events that make it up, such as my feeling pain or pleasure today and hatred tomorrow. On the contrary, he says, it is not possible to identify two events as part of the same person without already referring to that person, or presupposing that person’s existence. But if this is so, then any “relational” theory is a mistake. As he writes, “once it is recognized that persons necessarily enter into the events that make up the lives of persons, a purely relational theory of a life will not do. For, in addition to the relation that holds between different events in the same life, some supplementary requirement must be laid on who enters into these events.” And “what should be required is that one and the same person enters into each and every event that belongs to the same life.”

The basic error of viewing the person as a bundle of impressions was already nailed by Kant. Hume’s entire analysis, he noted, assumes that the person can be exhaustively understood through passively registered experiences—the sort of “perceptions” Hume experienced when he tried to observe his own self. Hume said that he always stumbled on some particular perception without ever observing his self. But Kant noted that what is irreducible to such passive perceptions is the fact that we, as persons, do more than passively receive perceptions; we do things, we act. More specifically, as human agents, we are aware that it is up to us to act, and that certain issues concerning our lives and how we are to lead them lie before us—not only issues of abstract philosophy but such commonplace issues as what job we are to take or what political group we should join. If this is so, Kant said, human life can never be understood by a mere enumeration, however exhaustive, of passive experiences such as feeling hot. Any adequate description of human life must make reference to our projects and careers as active beings. The Humean view unavoidably leaves out any sense of the shape of the issues that face us, and it is only because these issues include those concerning our lives as a whole that we have the peculiarly central notion of self and personal identity that we do have. For beings who can undergo identity crises, the question of “personal identity” cannot be understood just according to the criteria by which we group passive observations.

With his opening question—what is it to lead a life?—Wollheim brings us onto the terrain Kant has prepared for us. What can philosophy say here? One thing it might do is to help define the general scope and form of the issues that typically make up human lives. Wollheim makes three important preliminary points concerning what it is to lead a life.

The first point Wollheim argues is that at issue for me, among other things, is the shape not just of segments of my life but of my life as a whole—my career as an active being pursuing projects that are important to me. It follows from this point that I must see my life as a unity, a whole. It is a mistake bred from the discredited Humean conception of a person, Wollheim says, to think that I might just as well decide not to see my life as a unity, and to treat my remote past and distant future as though they belonged to someone else—a suggestion recently renewed in Parfit’s book.

Some might think that we can, in thinking about personal identity, follow the kind of strategy we occasionally use in discussing the identity of physical objects like pencils or cars. From the perspective of an observer of such a physical object, we can always imagine identifying their boundaries differently, depending on our interest, and so at arriving at different, but not incompatible, descriptions of what these objects are. For me, a car is one indivisible functional unit; but for a garage mechanic it may be a collection of varied pieces. The important things for him are carburetors, or transmissions, not Mercuries or Toyotas. It might appear that we could exercise the same freedom in defining persons, and thus to look at ourselves, as Parfit does, as complicated collections of events.

Why does Wollheim think this is a mistaken approach? Because when we see how we lead our lives as agents pursuing projects of concern to us, we become aware that we face certain issues we cannot get away from, issues that concern how we are going to live the rest of our lives, and what, as a consequence, our careers as a whole will amount to. If I have an unsavory past, I might decide to treat it as something so foreign to my present identity that it may as well be that of another person. Or I might have a philosophy of living for the moment and not concerning myself for the distant future. But these are not ways around Wollheim’s point; they are unsatisfactory answers to the inescapable question of how I am going to lead my life. They are ways of interpreting my life as a whole—as marked by a radical break, or as the life of a Sybarite.

  1. 1

    A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, part 4, section 6.

  2. 2

    See Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1984), which was reviewed by P.F. Strawson, in The New York Review, June 14.

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