From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on personal identity, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s worth noting that there is no single best book on personal identity. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best philosophy books on personal identity in no particular order.
A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality – John Perry
Publisher description: Perry’s excellent dialogue makes a complicated topic stimulating and accessible without any sacrifice of scholarly accuracy or thoroughness. Professionals will appreciate the work’s command of the issues and depth of argument, while students will find that it excites interest and imagination. –David M. Rosenthal, CUNY, Lehman College
Persons and Personal Identity – Amy Kind
Publisher description: As persons, we are importantly different from all other creatures in the universe. But in what, exactly, does this difference consist? What kinds of entities are we, and what makes each of us the same person today that we were yesterday? Could we survive having all of our memories erased and replaced with false ones? What about if our bodies were destroyed and our brains were transplanted into android bodies, or if instead our minds were simply uploaded to computers?
In this engaging and accessible introduction to these important philosophical questions, Amy Kind brings together three different areas of research: the nature of personhood, theories of personal identity over time, and the constitution of self-identity. Surveying the key contemporary theories in the philosophical literature, Kind analyzes and assesses their strengths and weaknesses. As she shows, our intuitions on these issues often pull us in different directions, making it difficult to develop an adequate general theory. Throughout her discussion, Kind seamlessly interweaves a vast array of up-to-date examples drawn from both real life and popular fiction, all of which greatly help to elucidate this central topic in metaphysics.
Personal Identity – Harold W. Noonan
Publisher description: Who am I? What is a person? What does it take for a person to persist from one time to another? What is the relation between the mind and the body? These are just some of the questions that constitute the problem of personal identity, one of the oldest and most fundamental of philosophical questions. Personal Identity, Third Edition is a clear and comprehensive introduction to these questions and more. Harold Noonan places the problem of personal identity in the context of more general puzzles about identity, discussing the major historical theories and more recent debates. The book also includes essential historical and philosophical background to the problem of personal identity as found in the arguments of Locke, Reid and Hume among others.
The third edition of Personal Identity has been thoroughly reviewed in light of advances in the latest literature and research. This includes significant revision to the important problems of the simple and complex distinction and its relation to reductionism; temporal parts; and the distinction between perdurance and endurance theorists. Noonan also includes an up to date examination of personal identity and memory and personal identity and animalism, particularly the work of Shoemaker, Parfit, Olson and hybrid theorists.
Personal Identity – John Perry
Publisher description: This volume brings together the vital contributions of distinguished past and contemporary philosophers to the important topic of personal identity. The essays range from John Locke’s classic seventeenth-century attempt to analyze personal identity in terms of memory, to twentieth-century defenses and criticisms of the Lockean view by Anthony Quinton, H.P. Grice, Sydney Shoemaker, David Hume, Joseph Butler, Thomas Reid, and Bernard Williams.
New to the second edition are Shoemaker’s seminal essay “Persons and Their Pasts,” selections from the important and previously unpublished Clark-Collins correspondence, and a new paper by Perry discussing Williams.
The Oxford Handbook of the Self – Shaun Gallagher
Publisher description: Research on the topic of self has increased significantly in recent years across a number of disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, psychopathology, and neuroscience. The Oxford Handbook of the Self is an interdisciplinary collection of essays that address questions in all of these areas. In philosophy and some areas of cognitive science, the emphasis on embodied cognition has fostered a renewed interest in rethinking personal identity, mind-body dualism, and overly Cartesian conceptions of self. Poststructuralist deconstructions of traditional metaphysical conceptions of subjectivity have led to debates about whether there are any grounds (moral if not metaphysical) for reconstructing the notion of self. Questions about whether selves actually exist or have an illusory status have been raised from perspectives as diverse as neuroscience, Buddhism, and narrative theory. With respect to self-agency, similar questions arise in experimental psychology. In addition, advances in developmental psychology have pushed to the forefront questions about the ontogenetic origin of self-experience, while studies of psychopathology suggest that concepts like self and agency are central to explaining important aspects of pathological experience. These and other issues motivate questions about how we understand, not only “the self”, but also how we understand ourselves in social and cultural contexts.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding – John Locke
Publisher description: In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1690, John Locke (1632-1704) provides a complete account of how we acquire everyday, mathematical, natural scientific, religious and ethical knowledge. Rejecting the theory that some knowledge is innate in us, Locke argues that it derives from sense perceptions and experience, as analysed and developed by reason. While defending these central claims with vigorous common sense, Locke offers many incidental – and highly influential – reflections on space and time, meaning, free will and personal identity. The result is a powerful, pioneering work, which, together with Descartes’s works, largely set the agenda for modern philosophy.
A Treatise of Human Nature – David Hume
Publisher description: David Hume’s comprehensive attempt to base philosophy on a new, observationally grounded study of human nature is one of the most important texts in Western philosophy. It is also the focal point of current attempts to understand 18th-century philosophy The Treatise first explains how we form such concepts as cause and effect, external existence, and personal identity, and how we create compelling but unverifiable beliefs in the entities represented by these concepts. It then offers a novel account of the passions, explains freedom and necessity as they apply to human choices and actions, and concludes with a detailed explanation of how we distinguish between virtue and vice.
Reasons and Persons – Derek Parfit
Publisher description: Challenging, with several powerful arguments, some of our deepest beliefs about rationality, morality, and personal identity, Parfit claims that we have a false view about our own nature. It is often rational to act against our own best interests, he argues, and most of us have moral views that are self-defeating. We often act wrongly, although we know there will be no one with serious grounds for complaint, and when we consider future generations it is very hard to avoid conclusions that most of us will find very disturbing.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Personal Identity and the Self – Carleton University
- Personal Identity and Ethics – Tulane University
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Personal Identity
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Personal Identity
- Advice on philosophy of personal identity
- What should I read to learn about all the different theories of personal identity?
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.