Phil 89: FYS Special Topics: Personal Identity


Course Number Phil 89.001 (fall 2022)
Title First Year Seminar Special Topics: Personal Identity
Credit Hours 3 credits
Course Descriptions See below
Prerequisites None
Target Audience First-year students with no prior experience with philosophical texts or reasoning
Instructor Professor Jim Pryor (he/him), email
Teaching Assistants None
Course Website
Class Times and Location Tue Thu 12:30–1:45 pm in Caldwell 103
Instructor’s Office Hours Tue Thu 2–3 pm in Caldwell 108A
Course Texts 2 required textbooks and additional readings provided by web links
Course Format Mix of structured presentation and group discussion, with presentation and collaboration components

Sakai, Zoom, and Regular Updates

UNC students enrolled in the course can access the Sakai webpages for this course at

Those pages include the Zoom links for any course meetings you need to attend remotely, and for Professor Pryor’s office hours. These can also be retrieved from this restricted page.

Most of the information for the course will be published here, outside of the Sakai system, and can also be viewed by people not enrolled in the course.

This front web page won’t be updated frequently. Regular announcements, readings, and presentation notes will be posted at this page instead.

General Catalog Listing

This is general information. A description of how this specific instance of the course will be run follows.

PHIL 89. First Year Seminar: Special Topics.

3 Credits.

Special Topics Course. Content will vary each semester.

Grading status: Letter grade.

Description for Our Specific Instance of this Course

You are different now from how you were ten years ago; but still you are one and the same person, who underwent those changes. (You weren’t replaced by an imposter.) What makes you the particular person you are, and the same person as the youth you used to be? What kind of thing is a person, that it can maintain its identity even through such changes? Are we identical to our life stories? Is the idea of a persisting self just an illusion? What would it take for a person to stop existing? Do you have an immortal soul that could survive the death of your human body? Or are you identical to your body? Might it be possible to survive the death of your body by having your brain, or the information in your brain, transplanted into a new body? or into a computer network? Might amnesia or dementia amount to one person’s ceasing and being replaced by another? Would teleportation like they use in Star Trek be a fast means for you to travel — or would that be another way for you to cease to exist and be replaced by a perfect copy? Why do we take special interest in our own continued existence as persons, moreso than the continued existence of people similar to us, or who will push forward our projects? Should we?

Target Audience and Course Goals

This course does not presuppose any prior background or coursework in philosophy.

It aims to introduce you to a range of philosophical writing about the nature of persons and the self, and give you experience analyzing and discussing arguments and writing philosophical papers.

Our class meetings will be a mix of structured presentation and intense group discussion, in which I’ll be both a guide and participant. We will also consult closely about your writing, which will be submitted in several stages.

In addition to the group discussions, you’ll also be learning how to give each other constructive feedback on your writing-in-progress.

You’ll be learning how to engage respectfully and charitably with the arguments of others: both your peers and the historical and contemporary philosophers we study. This includes identifying what the arguments and their underlying assumptions are; learning how to clearly explain an argument; formulating counter-examples and other reasonable objections; and recognizing how a view can best be defended (whether you endorse it or not).

You’ll also be learning how to develop your own independent arguments, objections, proposals, and responses.

Philosophy Courses

All our philosophy courses aim at the acquisition and nurturing of basic philosophic skills. One of the main goals of our philosophy curriculum is to instill and enable the development of skills that are distinct to philosophy, but which are foundational to all forms of knowledge.

These basic philosophical skills involve being able to:

The issues we’ll be studying are primarily in the philosophical subfield of metaphysics (though we’ll also be engaging with philosophy of mind, ethics, and epistemology). Introductions to metaphysics and epistemology like this course aim at the following learning outcomes:

First Year Seminar Program

As part of the First Year Seminars Program, this course will address these Student Learning Outcomes:

Ideas in Action Requirements

This course satisfies the Ethical and Civic Values Focus Capacity (FC-Values). These courses help develop your capacity to think carefully and critically about how to make and justify private and public decisions, and address questions like these:

A recurring theme in our course will be to what extent we can expect harmony between public versus private or first-personal justifications for judgments about identity, and further judgments and decisions based on them. In many cases those two kinds of justification will seem to pull in different directions, and we’ll have to figure out how to reconcile them.

As an FC-Values course, we will aim at the following learning outcomes:


The course is offered by Professor Jim Pryor (he/him).

Professor Pryor’s office is Caldwell 108A. He can best be reached by email, at

Professor Pryor’s office hours are on Tue and Thu from 2-3. (If you have a quick question, you can also ask just after class.) If you’re unable to meet in person, we can also arrange to meet by Zoom. The Zoom link for office hours can be found on this restricted page.

Feel free to drop into office hours to discuss anything you like about our course. I’m happy to talk about paper ideas, continue discussion, and so on. If you do come to my office and I’m already speaking with someone, make sure that we know that you’re waiting for us to finish.


These will be available in the bookstore. You can also buy or rent them online.

Additional readings will be provided by web links. Some of these are in a restricted section of the course website. The username and password for these will be emailed to you, and also announced in class.

In addition to philosophy articles and textbooks/dialogues, we’ll also read some science fiction stories and watch two movies that deal with issues that we’re examining in the course. We’ll discuss all these in class.

Course Requirements and Expectations

It is essential that you attend the class meetings regularly. Material not in the readings will often be presented there, and useful background and framing for some of the readings will also be provided. The University’s Policy on Class Attendance can be found here. In brief, they authorize absences only for some University activities, religious observances, disabilities, significant health conditions including pregnancy, and personal or family emergencies. If these include your situation, then consult the link about how to get your absence approved. (The University Approved Absence Office (UAAO) also has useful information.) If you need to miss class meetings for other kinds of reasons (like a job interview or to attend your mother’s wedding), ask me about it well in advance. In any case, you will be responsible for catching up with missed course content; and permission to miss a class doesn’t excuse you from deadlines for work due before or after the class.

If you develop Covid symptoms, testing is available at Campus Health. At-home tests are also available from several free or insurance-based sources. If you get a positive result from a test not administered by Campus Health, you should also report it to them. In all cases, you should isolate according to recommendations. The UAAO process has been streamlined for students who test positive and must isolate, since that inhibits attendance and participation in your courses. Submit a request using this form (tests administered by Campus Health generate the form automatically).

If you need to stay home during any of our class meetings, try to attend the meeting by Zoom instead.

Since March, masks are optional in most campus buildings, but their use is still encouraged.

See the Policies section below about using laptops or other devices in class.

When you join our class meetings, you are expected to have read any material assigned for that day, and to be ready to discuss it and/or ask questions about it.

It is essential that you ask questions when things in the readings or class presentations are unclear, and be ready to participate when we have class discussions. I’ll expect you to actively engage with each other in class, and encourage you to do it outside of class too. Talking about philosophy is one of the best ways of learning how to do it. Your overall participation will contribute substantially to your grade for the course. See this page on participation for more details. If you don’t plan to participate earnestly, you should not take this course.

Your participation grade will reflect your regular contributions to our class discussion, and also other aspects of how you’re engaging with the course: including some brief writing exercises (more on these below), a collaboration component involving you giving each other feedback on a paper draft (more on this below too), and a presentation component involving several of you being designated to summarize the readings for a class meeting and start discussion. You should expect to have that role about four times during the semester. (For most meetings, three or four of you will share this role, so this offers more opportunities for collaboration.)

There will be reading assignments for most class meetings. These readings are often pretty short, but they all require close study. You should read them carefully before we discuss them in class (even when you’re not a designated discussion-starter), and you’ll need to read them more than once. For most of the readings, you won’t understand the material sufficiently with just a single reading. A good strategy would be to read the assignment once before we discuss it, and then go back and read it again after we’ve discussed it. If you don’t plan to do this, you should not take this course.

Here is a detailed explanation of how you’ll be expected to read philosophy papers.

You will have to submit three brief writing exercises (about a half-page each) for the course, due on Aug 23, Sept 20, and Sept 27 Sept 29. These will be graded one of: High quality/Satisfactory/Low quality. You will submit a more substantial, 3-5 page paper on Oct 13. This will receive a normal letter grade and feedback. You will then have to rewrite and resubmit that paper, improving it in light of that feedback. The rewrites will be due on Nov 3, and will also be graded. You will also write a new 3-5 page paper, again in several stages but with a different process. You will share drafts of these papers with other students in the class by Nov 17, and give each other feedback on your drafts by Nov 22. (The drafts won’t be graded.) Final versions of these papers will be due on the last day of class Nov 29 when our final exam period is scheduled, Fri Dec 2 at noon. (In total, this will all exceed the University requirement of ten pages of writing.)

I will arrange that grading of your work is done without me knowing whose work is whose.

Here is a detailed explanation of how you’ll be expected to write philosophy papers. That page includes a section “How you’ll be graded”; here is more information on how I understand different grades for written work.

There is no final exam for this seminar. The process of collaborating to give each other constructive feedback on your final papers, and revising the papers in light of that feedback, will take over its pedagogical function. Class will still meet during the scheduled exam period for the class (Fri Dec 2 at noon), for a review of the semester, and for further discussion of ideas that you had while writing your papers.

See below about rescheduling paper deadlines.

The University Honor Code applies to all course assignments and petitions for absences or rescheduling. In brief, this means students are expected to refrain from “lying, cheating, or stealing” in the academic context. For more information or to clarify which actions violate the honor code, consult with your instructors,, and/or The Instrument of Student Judicial Governance.

What constitutes “lying, cheating, or stealing” depends on the academic activity.

Your grades for the different components of the course will be weighted as follows:

20% for participation and brief writing exercises 20% first version of substantial paper 1 25% revised version of paper 1 35% substantial paper 2

Grade Appeals: If you feel you have been given an incorrect grade for any part of the course, we can review together how I applied the announced standards. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, you have the right to discuss with our department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies (currently Professor Markus Kohl), or to appeal through a formal University process. You’ll be expected to make a case that the grade reflects an arithmetic/clerical error, arbitrariness, discrimination, harassment, or personal malice. To learn more, consult the Academic Advising Program website, or this summary of University policies.

Most requests that I and other professors hear for changing grades are based on how good/bad it would be for a student to get a given grade; but it would be unfair and inappropriate for justifications like that to succeed.


This schedule lists due dates for assignments and the rough order of our topics. See this other page for course announcements, specific readings, presentation notes, and any minor tweaks to the schedule. Check that page frequently.

Meetings 1-2 / Tue Aug 16, Thu Aug 18
Different notions of “identity”: what this course is and isn’t about
Introduction to the philosopher’s method
Conceptual distinctions
Value of fantastical thought-experiments
Analyzing vs stipulating
Necessary vs sufficient conditions
Meetings 3-4 / Tue Aug 23, Thu Aug 25
Metaphysics vs epistemology
Intro to ontology, individual substances
Dualism vs Materialism/Physicalism
Ship of Theseus
Numerical identity and change
Essential properties
First brief writing exercise due on Tue Aug 23
Meeting 5 / Tue Aug 30
Parts and wholes
Different concepts of “person”
Is personhood essential to you or just a stage in your existence?
Meeting 6 / Thu Sept 1
Introducing Leibniz’s Law
Tue Sept 6
University Well-Being Day, No classes
Meetings 7-8 / Thu Sept 8, Tue Sept 13
Leibniz’s Law arguments for souls
Meetings 9-10 / Thu Sept 15, Tue Sept 20
Soul theory of personal identity
Second brief writing exercise due on Tue Sept 20
Meetings 11-12 / Thu Sept 22, Tue Sept 27
Lockean (memory-based) theories of personal identity
Meetings 13-16 / Thu Sept 29, Tue Oct 4, Thu Oct 6, Tue Oct 11
More on Lockean theories
Third brief writing exercise due on Thu Sept 29
Watch and discuss The Prestige
Meetings 17-18 / Thu Oct 13, Tue Oct 18
Williams’s Puzzle
First paper due on Thu Oct 13
Thu Oct 20
Fall Break, No classes
Meeting 19 / Tue Oct 25
Hume on the Illusory Self
Meeting 20 / Thu Oct 27
Nagel and Parfit on Divided Minds
Meetings 21-22 / Tue Nov 1, Thu Nov 3
Parfit on Survival and What Matters
Watch and discuss Memento
Revision of First paper due on Thu Nov 3 Sun Nov 6
Meetings 23-24 / Tue Nov 8, Thu Nov 10
More Parfit
Meeting 25 / Tue Nov 15
What’s our essence: psychology or biology?
Meetings 26-27 / Thu Nov 17, Tue Nov 22
Narrative identity
Share drafts of Second paper by Thu Nov 17, give feedback by Tue Nov 22
Thu Nov 24
Thanksgiving, No classes
Meeting 28 / Tue Nov 29
Last regular class meeting
Fri Dec 2 at noon
Scheduled exam period for this seminar
Second paper due
Instead of exam, we’ll have a review/discussion meeting

Other Information

Rescheduling/missing deadlines

If you know in advance you’ll have good reason for being unable to submit a paper for a deadline:

What if it turns out that you can’t turn your work in, but now it’s only days or hours before (or even after 😮) the deadline?

Policies and Resources


I reserve the right to make changes to the syllabus, including paper due dates. These changes will be announced as early as possible so that students can adjust their schedules.


I welcome your input about the course at any time. You are welcome to approach me directly. I’ll also provide opportunities for anonymous evaluation and feedback during the term.