If someone loses a limb and the limb is hypothetically moved to a different country, I think most people will agree that the limb is still "part of" the body (i.e., "owned by" that person), even though the body is now in two pieces.

But if someone shaves hair off his/her body and we move the hair to a different country, I think most people will agree that the hair is no longer "part of" the body, even though something that was once part of that body is no longer attached to it.

So why really is that? How do we decide what parts of an entity inherently change that entity if they were removed?

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    The first thing to recognize is that this is basically the sorites saradox. – David H May 24 '13 at 21:48
  • @DavidH : Please explain how this question is related to the sorites paradox. – Vector May 26 '13 at 4:14
  • This may not be the most sensitive/neutral/constructive way to get at the underlying concern -- we may want to consider evaluating less 'loaded' formulations/examples/etc. – Joseph Weissman May 26 '13 at 4:36

Losing a limb really hurts. That's a crude but not unreasonable criterion for parts of our body we consider to be our body (skin inwards, basically) and parts we don't (hair, nails, dead skin). We get sense impressions that build up our knowledge of the world from organs with sensory receptors; we don't get any of that from hair.

While the 'importance' answer above explains why we care, that's strictly a different issue - if I had dreadlocks that had taken me years to grow and style I might plausibly be as upset about their loss as I would about losing a less important extremity, but I don't think I'd feel like I'd lost part of my body.

  • disagree. You can in theory loose your limb without pain. But you will feel discomfort, as walking on one leg or doing your daily routines with one hand is a pleasant thing. – c69 Jun 27 '13 at 21:34

In the particular example given, its the importance of what is lost that is significant. I don't mind losing some hair - especially when I have gone for a haircut at a Barbers. That is the point of it after all. I would mind losing my limb - its something that I can't replace (and I'm not including prosthetics here) and is important for my everyday activity. Its particular individuality is much more apparent than say a strand of hair. Perhaps the significant thing is whether I lose all of my hair, that I would mind. Unless of course I was the kind of man who likes the skinheaded look - the hard-headed look. Hair is a marker of my individuality in a way different to my arm or leg.

The sorites paradox only comes in as to how much hair can you lose until you say that you've lost significant. But hair grows back - which does make some difference. Limbs do not.


Two clear distinctions come to mind:

1) Biologically, hair or a beard is already 'dead': there are no nerves or blood vessels in hair. Any sensation from hairs is because tension or pressure on them reaches nerves in the skin. Not so a limb, which is living tissue.

2) Hair or a beard is continually growing and falling off, so its destiny is to be either cut, or fall off naturally. Not so a limb, which is permanently attached to the body.

I see no connection to the sorites paradox, which deals with the question how an indiscernible quantitative change eventually results in a quite dramatic qualitative change. In Simeon Visser's question quantity is irrelevant: It can be posed even when comparing a large amount of hair to a very small limb.


It's a social agreement to think that this thing is part of you or not. It isn't hard to find civilizations that consider nails and hair as an important part of a man and believe that he may be hurted by manipulating them. Just now you are reading these words from your monitor but don't attribute intelligence to this TV. That's a social convention as well.

Your question belongs to the intersection of psychology and phylosophy, it's why I like it

  • What about an individual growing up and living in isolation? I suggest your answer could only be right if you would stretch the meaning of social beyond what we usually take it to be. – user3164 Jun 24 '13 at 6:01
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    It is not social agreement to think that legs are parts of our body. wtf? Can you cite any reference to that crude view? – Lukas Jun 24 '13 at 9:50
  • @Lukas, information we get through our eyes is like computer video - it's just a sequence of color points. nothing more. it's up to the mind how to interpret it. for example, newborns don't distinguish separate objects at all, moreover - they can't focus their eyes! as Nische said, some (if not most) primaeval people considered their dreams as more real than things they see in the daytime. another primaevals believe that they are parrots - they are mentioned in "Primitive Mentality" by L. Levy-Bruhl. Or they consider body shadow as the part of person - again mentioned in "Primitive Mentality" – Bulat Jun 24 '13 at 19:00
  • @Gugg, such individual will become a "vegetable". Most animals are born with all info required for their living preprogrammed in the DNA. But mammals and birds are different - they have so-called childhood when they learn from their environment. Human is the very special thing - by DNA he is a usual animal. But since he grows in the social environment (in the last 30 thousand years), he learns from this environment and becames part of it (society is a sum of human minds). so he believes only in the things that are benefecial for his DNA or his society – Bulat Jun 24 '13 at 19:46
  • @Bulat I had the only title of the question in mind, but I now see/presume you are responding to the body of the question. Never mind. – user3164 Jun 24 '13 at 20:41

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