If my brain is damaged, do I become a different person? Catherine Malabou and neuro-identity

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of teaching in a joint Monash-Warwick undergraduate unit examining the theme of identity across the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences. My own contribution was a seminar on the work of Catherine Malabou, entitled ‘If my brain is damaged, do I become a different person? Catherine Malabou and neuro-identity’. Beginning with Theseus’s ship, the seminar examined the use of terms such as “person” and “personality” in relation, principally, to Malabou’s treatment of the Phineas Gage case and Alzheimer’s. Although I had (and still have) serious reservations about Malabou’s position, I argued that she asks fundamental questions and forces us to think through uncomfortable realities.

The seminars from the unit have now been enhanced and re-worked into the book Reconstructing Identity: A Transdisciplinary Approach, which has just been published.

A version of my chapter is available on academia.edu and researchgate.net, and if you prefer not to use those platforms you can just download it directly here (don’t be fooled by the “cart”, it’s free).

 

Abstract

The growing field of neuro-philosophy throws up important issues for our society about how we understand the persistence of personal identity over time: If my brain is damaged or otherwise altered, do I become a different person? This chapter explores some of the work of the French neuro-philosopher Catherine Malabou as she asks, and tries to answer, this fundamental question about who we think we are, giving a non-reductive materialist account of self-identity.

Malabou’s engagement with the cognitive approach to identity is mediated by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s discussions of Phineas Gage, the nineteenth century Vermont railway worker whose frontal lobe was damaged when an explosion sent a tamping iron through his skull. The neuroscientific interest of the case is not in Gage’s unlikely survival but in the indication it provides—or so it is argued—that there is a causal relation between lesions in particular areas of the brain and specific personality changes. Quoting the account of the case written by Gage’s surgeon John Harlow, Malabou insists that “Gage was no longer Gage”, and that the radical nature of the transformation brought about by brain lesion made him a new person. For too long, she argues, we have maintained in the Western tradition that, however form may change, substance remains the same, and the Gage case shows that there is no underlying substrate of identity that persists through the trauma.

In addition to her discussion of the Gage case, Malabou poignantly discusses her own experience of the onset and progress of Alzheimer’s disease in her grandmother, a process which she describes as a “depersonalisation” that rendered her grandmother an “other person”. Malabou brings her sophisticated concept of plasticity to bear on the question of identity, offering an alternative to the perennial philosophical duo of substance and attribute and exploring the implications of situating personhood (rather than just personality) in the brain.

Despite the nuances which her notion of plasticity introduces, however, Malabou’s account of personal identity remains problematic. In this chapter I offer a critique of her position that beings by drawing attention to an irony in the way that the Gage case is commonly interpreted: the claim being made is that identity and personhood are adequately understood through and in terms of the brain, and yet the very judgement which seeks to ground that position – exemplified in Harlow’s claim that “Gage was no longer Gage” – is a third party judgement, an identity conferred within a community of discourse and medical expertise, in a way that at least prima facie invalidates the position that personhood is cerebral. Gage himself, as it happens, thought he was still Gage. I argue that Malabou has implicit within her writing the seeds of a more adequate account which would not understand identity and personhood to be immanent to the material brain but would embrace a broader notion of identity distributed across relationships, institutions and shared common narratives.

Here is a full TOC of the book:

  • Introduction

    Monk, Nicholas (et al.)

    Pages 1-15

  • If My Brain Is Damaged, Do I Become a Different Person? Catherine Malabou and Neuro-identity

    Watkin, Christopher

    Pages 21-40

  • Identity and Psychiatric Disorders

    Omer, Farhana (et al.)

    Pages 41-59

  • Biological Identity

    Moffat, Kevin G.

    Pages 61-82

  • Outside in the House of Colour: A Second Look at Postcolonial and Transnational Feminisms

    Chakraborty, Mridula Nath

    Pages 87-112

  • Gendering the Favela: Brazilian National Identities on Screen

    McDonald, Sarah

    Pages 113-130

  • Queering Identity: Becoming Queer in the Work of Cassils

    Lambert, Cath

    Pages 131-155

  • Forms of Self-Translation

    Wilson, Rita

    Pages 157-177

  • Autoethnographic Journalism: Subjectivity and Emotionality in Audio Storytelling

    Lindgren, Mia

    Pages 183-206

  • Technologically Mediated Identity: Personal Computers, Online Aliases, and Japanese Robots

    Pasfield-Neofitou, Sarah

    Pages 207-242

  • The Role of Narrative in the Creation of Brand Identity

    Ochoa, Gabriel García (et al.)

    Pages 243-263

  • Conclusion

    Monk, Nicholas (et al.)

    Pages 265-272

 

 

French Philosophy Today paperback now shipping

I just received my copy of French Philosophy Today in paperback. You can find it on Amazon here.

Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Catherine Malabou, Michel Serres and Bruno Latour: this comparative, critical analysis shows the promises and perils of new French philosophy’s reformulation of the idea of the human.

See here for chapter summaries.

French Philosophy Today paperback now on Amazon pre-order

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

I am delighted to announce that the paperback edition of French Philosophy Today is now (finally!) available for pre-order on Amazon. The U.S. site has it at $39.95 and most European sites set the price at around €25. Curiously, amazon.co.uk has the paperback at £150, which I assume is a mistake soon to be corrected.

Here is a series of posts I wrote when the book was first published, summarising its content chapter by chapter.

French Philosophy Today to join Difficult Atheism on Edinburgh Scholarship Online

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourI’ve just learned that French Philosophy Today will shortly join Difficult Atheism on Edinburgh Scholarship Online.

This, I hope, will come as good news to at least some of those who have been in touch with me about the price of the hardback edition.

French Philosophy Today reviewed at NDPR

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

French Philosophy Today has just been reviewed over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Here are some highlights:

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s famously defined philosophical production as concept creation. If they are correct, then Watkin’s work is not just a scholarly commentary of philosophy but also itself an inventive philosophical work.

If Alain Badiou, the first French thinker analyzed in the book, is to be believed, then philosophers are his country’s greatest export. Certainly those who want to keep abreast about what is happening in France today in regards to this export should pick up Watkin’s book.

This book is relevant to anyone who is interested in the scholarly methodology and creative enterprise of syntopically reading multiple philosophical oeuvres together. Watkin’s bibliographic thoroughness and analytic meticulousness is impressive. It appears that he has read almost anything of relevance to the topic. The texts he references include not just philosophical works from various eras, schools and geographies but also works from theology, the humanities, social science, natural sciences and mathematics.

Watkin’s formulations are rigorous and precise. Through his careful reading and evaluation of the texts by the five French philosophers, Watkin introduces an arsenal of new conceptual technologies and divisional schemas for understanding the question of the human.

See here for chapter summaries of the book.

French Philosophy Today: Summary of Chapter 4 – Malabou, The Epigenetic Human

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourThis is the fourth in a series of posts providing short summaries of the chapters in my latest book, French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. For further chapter summaries, please see here.

Chapter 4 turns to the question of human identity over time in Malabou. After setting out the stakes of her recent work on epigenesis in Avant demain I point out some shortcomings of her previous accounts of identity over time, particularly in relation to the famous case of Phineas Gage and her experience of her own grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Malabou’s account of epigenesis provides us with a powerful way to re-read this earlier work. Although she moves away from a host capacity account of the human she is – at least in her work prior to Avant demain – trapped in a paradigm which forces her to regard cerebral matter as the ‘host substance’ of human identity and personhood: just as rational thought acted as a gatekeeper of humanity for Badiou and Meillassoux, personal memory as it is encoded in the individual’s brain is the gatekeeper of personhood and identity for Malabou. However, in her recent work she elaborates what she calls an ‘epigenesis of the real’ (AD 261) according to which epigenesis and hermeneutics are extensions of each other, breaking down the division between nature and culture. I draw out the implications of this exciting recent move, using Paul Ricœur’s account of narrative identity as a sounding board for what I call Malabou’s eco-synaptic selfhood: a self understood neither wholly in internal (cerebral) nor utterly in external (narrative) terms.

French Philosophy Today: Summary of Chapter 3 – Malabou, The Plastic Human

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourThis is the third in a series of posts providing short summaries of the chapters in my latest book, French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. For further chapter summaries, please see here.

The transition from Badiou and Meillassoux to Malabou leads us away from a host capacity and to a host substance, namely the human brain. Chapter 3 argues that Malabou manages to avoid a host capacity account of the human by laying out, in her reading of Hegel, a notion of plasticity not as a uniquely human trait but as the possible transformation of all traits. This position harbours an irreducible ambiguity, however, between an escape from the host capacities approach and its hyperbolisation, and according to this latter reading what Malabou offers us is nothing more than a host meta-capacity. Nevertheless, her notion of plasticity does allow her to develop a figure of the human that is universal, material, monist and immanent to itself. In the second half of Chapter 3 I explore Malabou’s determination to initiate a new plastic encounter between philosophy and neuroscience, eschewing both the ‘cognitivist’ position of neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux and the ‘Continental’ resistance to neuroscience of Paul Ricœur, in order to elaborate what she calls her own ‘neuronal materialism’ (Que faire de notre cerveau? 162/What Should We Do with Our Brain? 69) in terms of ‘destructive plasticity’. In an attempt to develop this neuronal materialism in a way that avoids plasticity becoming one more defunct metaphor of the human, I offer a reading of Malabou’s self not as a metaphor but as a movement or tension of metaphoricity.

French Philosophy Today: New figures of the Human, low-res cover

Today I received the first low resolution mock-up of the cover for my new book: French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. Many thanks to Rebecca Mackenzie and Julien Palast for your wonderful work.

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour