If I lost an arm, I would still be me. If I adopted a religion or changed it, I would still be me. If I had gender reassignment surgery, I would still be me. Is there any change, short of dying, that would cause me to cease to be me ?

'Cease to be me' - to anticipate the obvious comment - is a vague phrase. The very point of the question is to clarify it. I would have a clearer idea of what it is to be me if someone were able to specify what changes if any would cause me to cease to be me.

  • 3
    See Personal Identity and Identity Over Time. Dec 30, 2017 at 12:36
  • Read also about depersonalisation in psychiatry.
    – ttnphns
    Dec 30, 2017 at 12:52
  • @Mauro ALLEGRANZA. If I were satisfied with the literature, with which I am naturally familiar, I should not have put the question. But I appreciate your comment, clearly calculated to help.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Dec 30, 2017 at 13:12
  • Dying may not even do it if some reincarnation views are correct. Dec 30, 2017 at 13:36
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    A common view is that you weren't 'you' in the first place, so nothing is lost even on your death. The idea would be that individuality and plurality does not go all the way down. But this may be taking your question off into unintended realms. .
    – user20253
    Dec 31, 2017 at 13:54

6 Answers 6


I think you are exactly right, we do have to clarify this for ourselves. Don't we replace all the cells in our body every tens years or so? Maybe not our brain cells. And some cells have a much higher turnaround, the lining of our lungs and digestive tract are constantly being sloughed off and replaced, I think. But we nevertheless carry with us the feeling of mental and physical continuity.

The individual qua individual can't find a "me" or an "I". We have to credit Hegel with this insight. The self-definition of the self as self comes when we encounter the other, and the object in general. We have to come against limits to begin to define ourselves.

Then the question is whether the "Bildungsroman" of lived life is enough. This Bildungsroman-process is our education, and the hard knocks we take in life, the education of Spirit/Mind. But in addition to this it seems we have to cast ourselves forward, we need an intention toward the future to maintain the "me"; this we see really in Nietzsche, and the Heidegger of Being and Time, and in Sartre too. The background here is Schopenhauer, and maybe Kierkegaard too, I am no so familiar with Kierkegaard.

But it's complicated in that we tend to fool ourselves into thinking we are unique when in fact we are not. We are captured by the "They", Heidegger, or by our instincts, Freud, everything we think WE are is merely the product of total mediation (Frankfurt School) It's not really our thought, it's something we heard on the news or some such.

When we say "me" or "I" this is a self-reification. And as Adorno said, in all reifications there is a forgetting. We tend to forget not only the history of our life and education, but the totality of the world that is wrapped up into us.

It is sadly possible to see ourselves today merely as a reified object for sale on some market, the job market or the love and sex market. The human in us is crushed down into an object to be marketed, and ultimately to be thrown away. This sort of alienation away from the fullness of Being is kind of ceasing to be.

So now we are lost again, where is the "me"?

The existentialists are probably right that we can (we must), in an atomized world, for our own mental health, and even if it is a fiction, transcend the in-itself by some projection forward (goals, whatever). Even if it is a fiction, we hold ourselves together and organize ourselves by being in and for "ourselves".

The loss of self-organization, or the loss of the necessary fiction of the organized self or me, would be the ceasing to be, or psychosis. It's not so much the physical body, since we discharge and replace the physical body all the time. The end of the self-narrative projected forward would be the ceasing to be.

P.S. The problem today is that the pressure for the narrative is all on us. Society and religion used to provide "the" story, now under postmodernism and in a porous world, we have too many stories, and life is short. The need for the personal story would be less if there could be "our" story, but this would require a less atomized world. We can hope that existentialism is only a solution for this present time in our history.


You might consider looking at Catherine Malabou on this problem today, who is concerned with the plasticity of the brain — both its capacity for growth and dynamic development, but also its potential for destruction, breakdown; dissolutions. Damage to memory and cognition eventually wear away the substrate of “personality” — but even though “you” have been effectively lost beyond recovery, this was all still in a way “you” since these are transformations your organs were always capable of undergoing, part of their internal possibilities. (The plasticity of the brain cuts both ways — allowing us to learn and heal, “route around” damaged components; but also permitting collapse, degeneration, erasure, etc.)


There is a way to cease to be all that you are, and all that you think you are. There is a way to change your core, so that you don't even care about the things that you used to care about anymore.

This way comes with a reward and a price. It is a change that may not be convenient to make in this realm, because of the realm's high demand for sustainability. You will feel as though you are in a vehicle that neither moves forward or backwards.

However, there is no way to change you. Whatever change you make will only be in relation to what you used to be. You will still be you, just a different form of you. It just depends on the question. You will still be defined, and that new definition will be associated with you. But just like toasted bread will never go back to being simply bread, you might not go back to being what you were, either.


Looking at this process of gradual subtraction and your vague phrase, made me think of: https://philarchive.org/archive/FARSSA-2 Delia Graff on Vagueness. And, of course, poor Tibbles: http://metaphysicist.com/puzzles/tibbles/ I do not believe that a) there's a fixed point therefore and b) me is always something to do with a relationship to others, A person is a person through other people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_philosophy

On the subject of b) she is not herself today and for all intents and purposes, he is not himself bear some investigation.

On the subject of the brain and identity, that still seems pretty mysterious (to me, anyway) and would depend on whether one was a dualist, therefore that the me was separable from the flesh. Not many left. I, personally like Dennett: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_our_consciousness but many do not.

I don't think that there's a clear answer to this (one that will satisfy everyone, anyway), but I hope to have provided some food for thought.


Is there any change, short of dying, that would cause me to cease to be me?

If you wish to cease to be you, this question is a twisted form about self realization. There is no such change.

Since you have already explained yourself, I need not explain it further. That changeless 'thing' (not a nothingness) is you. You need not (actually you can't) cease to be you; since it (the very thing you mentioned) is not moving. Also it has not a beginning.

The process is a kind of unveiling. I would say, "It is the releasing of our 'inflated ego'." The things that cease are your mind and the Ego.

Neti neti, meaning, "Not this, not this", is the method of Vedic analysis of negation. It is a keynote of Vedic inquiry. With its aid the Jnani negates identification with all things of this world which is not the Atman, in this way he negates the Anatman. Through this gradual process he negates the mind and transcends all worldly experiences that are negated till nothing remains but the Self. He attains union with the Absolute by denying the body, name, form, intellect, senses and all limiting adjuncts and discovers what remains, the true "I" alone. L.C.Beckett in his book, Neti Neti, explains that this expression is an expression of something inexpressible, it expresses the ‘suchness’ (the essence) of that which it refers to when ‘no other definition applies to it’. Neti neti negates all descriptions about the Ultimate Reality but not the Reality itself. Intuitive interpretation of uncertainty principle can be expressed by "Neti neti" that annihilates ego and the world as non-self (Anatman), it annihilates our sense of self altogether.


"Who Am I?" - Enquiry

For all thoughts the source is the 'I' thought.

The mind will merge only by Self-enquiry 'Who am I?' The thought 'Who am l?' will destroy all other thoughts and finally kill itself also. If other thoughts arise, without trying to complete them, one must enquire to whom did this thought arise. What does it matter how many thoughts arise? As each thought arises one must be watchful and ask to whom is this thought occurring. The answer will be 'to me'. If you enquire 'Who am I?' the mind will return to its source (or where it issued from). The thought which arose will also submerge. As you practise like this more and more, the power of the mind to remain as its source is increased.




Who you are would be interpreted very differently within various schools of thought (not only philosophical schools). But what can hardly be disputed is that there are three 'levels' of recognizing 'you': There is the familiarity with Self, that is recognizing that I am I. Secondly there is the familiarity of the 'Close', the recognition of You by others who know you well. Lastly, the Stranger - could an unfamiliar person recognize You, a second time.

Objectively speaking there must be observables that one would employ to recognize someone. For the Stranger very little would need to change; only your face (phisical facade) or demeanor, and they couldn't recognize You.

Mannerisms, habits, quirks, beliefs, even cognitive aptitudes and attitudes, these all form a rich tapestry that the Close will recognize as you. The Close employ not only objective but also subjective means of recognition. The 'threads that is you' elicit a subjective response In the Close so that you are also part of their self recognition. Thus even if several of the 'threads' of your tapestry are lost or changes, the Close could still affirm the identity of You. The well known case of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage comes to mind where "friends saw him as "no longer Gage"". Yet his friends did recognize him; by the continuity of his facade and the context of his actions and the history of the Self that was Phineas Gage.

One may think that the Self can only subjectively recognize their own identity. Those things that make You familiar to the Close are largely transparent to You. I don't see my face nearly as much as does my family, I'm completely habituated to most of the observables denoted above. "Ubuntu", has been mentioned, where it is held that You are merely a focal point for Others, a sum of external perspectives. But still, how objective can You be about your own identity, habitually taken for granted as it is?

Reading Sigmund Freud one is soon taken with his profound level of self-examination. Though much of his theory has been disproven, the acuity of his introspective observations belies Socrates' lament "I cannot know myself". From Psychology we have this concept: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconscious_mind Which if we explore it yields the discovery that Self isn't a singular perspective. Within the mind are thoughts, emotions more 'threads' to your tapestry, inaccessible to the conscious mind.

I once had the fortuity to see myself, conversing with myself, about myself in the third person, referencing myself by name. Four entities, all of which could be Me, two talking about actualization and development of a third, which would be the only one that would answer to my name. We had the distinct impression that the conversation weren't meant for our ears. Whether "spirit guardians", projections of my mind or hopefully just a strange dream... However interpreted it seems there could be more to Me than a particular perspective and agency. It seems that even if I forgot my name, there would still be someone that can rightly claim to be Me. Even if I lose all my memory there would still be an I in here. In fact there may be many Selves in here that take up the mantle of Me, under certain conditions.

It just occurred to me that identity is only ever affirmed to the Other. I speak of "Me" only to another person. The concept of Me is in a sense hollow, a construct, whereas I AM somehow eternal, indestructible for as long as there is an Observer.

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