Speaking for Ourselves

Raritan: A Quarterly Review, IX, 68-98, Summer 1989. Reprinted (with footnotes), Occasional Paper #8, Center on Violence and Human Survival, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York, 1991; Daniel Kolak and R. Martin, eds., Self & Identity: Contemporary Philosophical Issues, Macmillan, 1991.


Nicholas Humphrey, Daniel C. Dennett

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"Thus play I in one person many people, and none contented". Richard II
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In the early 1960's when the laws of England allowed nudity on stage only if the actor did not move, a tent at the Midsummer Fair in Cambridge offered an interesting display. "The one and only Chameleon Lady," the poster read, "becomes Great Women in History". The inside of the tent was dark. "Florence Nightingale!" the showman bellowed, and the lights came up on a naked woman, motionless as marble, holding up a lamp. The audience cheered. The lights went down. There was a moment's shuffling on the stage. "Joan of Arc!", and here she was, lit from a different angle, leaning on a sword. "Good Queen Bess!", and now she had on a red wig and was carrying an orb and scepter.. "But it's the same person," said a know-all schoolboy.

Imagine now, thirty years later, a commercial for an IBM computer. A poster on a tent announces, "The one and only IBM PC becomes Great Information Processors of History". The tent is dark. "WordStar!" shouts the showman, and the lights come up on a desktop computer, displaying a characteristic menu of commands. The lights go down. There is the sound of changing disks. "Paintbrush!", and here is the computer displaying a different menu. "Now, what you've all been waiting for, Lotus 123!".. "But it's just a different program," says the schoolboy.

Somewhere between these two scenarios lies the phenomenon of multiple personality in human beings. And somewhere between these two over-easy assessments of it lie we. One of us (NH) is a theoretical psychologist, the other (DCD) is a philosopher, both with a long-standing interest in the nature of personhood and of the self. We have had the opportunity during the past year to meet several "multiples," to talk with their therapists, and to savor the world from which they come. We give here an outsider's inside view.

(The whole paper is now available in Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren, Essays on Designing Minds, MIT Press and Penguin, 1998.)