A Nietzschean Interpretation of the Self in Psychological Continuity

By Harry P. Chalklin
2019, Vol. 11 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

There are two views of personal identity that many people find plausible. The first is the psychological continuity view; the second is what I shall call multiplicity views of the self. Despite their plausibility, these positions appear incompatible, as I shall go on to explain. In this essay, I propose the thesis that psychological continuity and multiplicity views of the self can be made compatible by thinking of the self, not as a continuous psychological unity, but instead as a continuous, creative, psychological task a person undertakes to form a self which feels more unified than it previously felt. This essay will advocate that certain remarks by Nietzsche give us some insight into how this might be possible. In particular, the distinctions he makes between persons and selves. If it is possible to make this conjunction, then two of the most contrasting (yet intuitive) views of personal identity are compatible, thus forming a position that could resolve the issue I will discuss in section 2. Call this position: Nietzschean Psychological Continuity - not because Nietzsche himself was sympathetic to psychological continuity, but because the view is essentially a conjunction between an interpretation of his views on the self and psychological continuity.

Two Plausible Views of Personal Identity

Psychological continuity is the view that a person persists through (the continuous exercise of) their mental faculties i.e., they can be identified as the same person through time because they have a succession of mental faculties that persist.1 Given the significant extent to which human physiology changes over time, the greater consistency of some of our mental faculties, such as memory, values, preferences, etc., seems like an obvious choice for where our intuitions about self-persistence ought to lie.2 The evidence for how intuitive this view is across large samples is clear through questionnaire studies. For example, Flavell et al conducted a questionnaire study of 234 university students, in which the results were:

…76% thought the following statement was "probably true," 12% thought it was "probably not true," and 12% checked "no opinion": "Conscious mental events (ideas, percepts, images, feelings) normally follow one another more or less continuously in a person who is awake. They form a kind of 'stream of consciousness', with first one conscious mental event happening, then another, then another." (Flavell et al, 1993, p. 388).

Additionally, in their paper ‘Tracing the Identity of Objects’, Blok et al concluded after their research into how people trace identity that in order for most people to believe that something has persisted, ‘…a later manifestation of a single object must causally grow from earlier ones, so that causality takes precedence over qualitative overlap in properties’ (Blok et al, 2006, p. 27), in a similar way to how psychological continuity operates. Thus, there is some good evidence for the psychological continuity view to be sanctioned based on intuition.

As for the second position, that the self is multiple, this encompasses a range of views. Generally, these views state that each person is subject to their own internal, sometimes conflicting, intuitions and dialogues. There is also a catalogue of sympathy with this, as can be found in the research conducted by Salgado et al, who acknowledge that in recent years ‘…an amazing transformation happened, and the multiplicity of the self began to be widely recognised within psychology’ (Salgado et al, 2005, p. 4). An example of this includes Hermans’ theory of the Dialogical Self (1992), and the position is also brought to attention by Anscombe, who asks:

How, even, could one justify the assumption, if it is an assumption, that there is just one thinking which is this thinking of this thought that I am thinking, just one thinker? How do I know that ‘I’ is not ten thinkers thinking in unison? Or perhaps not quite succeeding. That might account for the confusion of thought which I sometimes feel (Anscombe, 1975, p. 31).

Clearly then, psychological continuity and multiplicity views have some intuitive support in isolation. However, in conjunction, they appear to be incompatible. The problem is well put by Salgado, who acknowledge that ‘[t]he human intuition that each of us has a single continuous entity seems to be paradoxically denied by the recognition that each person goes through several changes during the life cycle’ (Salgado et al, 2005, p. 3). Furthermore, they explain that the ‘…self is considered nowadays as multiple, varied, [and] changeable’ (2005, p. 3), thus they ask, ‘…how can a multiple self still be experienced as a single and permanent person?’ (2005, p. 3). Call this the ‘unity problem’ of psychological continuity. In other words, the problem is that psychological continuity assumes the self to be a single, unified entity, as it persists over time, but if so, how can one also say we are in some sense multiple?

Many people often experience moments of self-disassociation or confusion (as Anscombe describes), acting in a way that seems significantly different from other temperaments they may have. Additionally, one’s values and intuitions are prone, and do tend, to conflict with each other to some degree, particularly in moral predicaments. Such factors suggest that the self is not a unified entity, but a divided one. However, if the self is divided, how can it be said to be continuous as the same self, as opposed to a multiplicity of selves? The unity problem might imply that one is only able to accept either position or deny them altogether, instead of accepting both. I shall propose that there is a way of resolving this tension.3

Persons and Selves

Before explaining how resolving this tension is possible, it is important to grasp the difference between persons and selves in the context of the case being made in this essay. Many people often use the terms ‘person’ and ‘self’ interchangeably. However, to provide a solution for the compatibility issue, it is necessary that we characterise the two notions differently.

A ‘person’ is simply the physical structure, the organism, the unified set of bodily processes that enables the human body to live. This view of persons is summarised simply by Anscombe, when she states that ‘[t]he person is a living human body’ (1975, p. 33). 4 This means the person is independent of any psychological content in the first instance and thus is removed of agency. This will appear counter-intuitive to some readers, as quite often when one is referring to person X, one is commenting on X’s personality, instead of, or in conjunction with, their physical traits. The very fact the word ‘personality’ is used to refer to a person’s character, makes this objection quite sound. However, I want to insist that this is merely due to how interchangeable these terms have become in the English language and would encourage the reader to place such objections aside for now.

A ‘self’, if thought of through an interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy, is a task. It is a task inasmuch as all selves are constituted by multiple ethical orders and psychological conflicts, and the role of the self is to make its own conflicts manageable and coherent. For example, Nietzsche refers to two separate widespread ethical orders in On the Genealogy of Morals (2008a): ‘master’ and ‘slave’ morality.5 He insists that any interesting individual is a conjunction of these two different ethical dialogues, and one’s task in being a self, as it were, is to form an individual that is able to cope adequately with the suffering and tension that, not only these ethical orders might cause, but also all psychological conflicts, and the metaphysical nature of the world generally. Therefore, the self is sourced from the person, and it is an entity that is naturally in conflict. The agency of an individual, therefore, is not based in the person, but in the self; the self is the willing, psychological agent, whilst the person is not. As stated at the beginning of this section, understanding the difference meant between the terms ‘person’ and ‘self’ is necessary in order to provide a solution for the compatibility issue between psychological continuity and multiplicity views of the self. This shall now be explained.

Solution: A Nietzschean Interpretation of the Self

The aim of this section is to show how an aspect of the Nietzschean interpretation of the self, which is discussed in this essay, can make available a reconciliation between psychological continuity and multiplicity views of the self, and thus solve the unity problem. This aspect is that the self is not, in fact, multiple (in healthy human persons), but instead is constituted by multiple conflicts. It is, therefore, this confusion between whether the self is multiple, with the multiplicity of conflicts the self has to manage, which leads to the unity problem. If correct, this can answer the unity problem as expressed by Salgado, namely; ‘…how can a multiple self still be experienced as a single and permanent person?’ (Salgado, 2005, p. 3) i.e. because the self is not, in fact, multiple, but simply manages such a range of conflicting intuitions and changes that it can seem multiple. Therefore, psychological continuity is compatible with multiplicity views of the self, providing those views acknowledge the self is not multiple in a strict sense but instead can feel multiple – in the way Nietzsche seems to describe. Therefore, there is a strong aspect of confusion within humans concerning how our selves are constituted, to which Nietzsche replies ‘[b]ehind your thoughts and feelings… there stands a mighty commander, an unknown wise man – his name is Self. In your body he dwells’ (Nietzsche, 2008b, p. 30). Thus, Nietzsche adheres to the belief that there is a single self per person, despite the fact it can often seem otherwise.

In order to unpack this solution, it is important to recognise that unlike orthodox psychological continuity, the concept of identity I am proposing does not presuppose a unity of mental faculties as a necessity for persistence. However, much of the existing literature on personal identity presents clear reasons to suppose that identity does presuppose unity. If we take the example of a chair, it remains identical with itself over time so long as it is the same unified state e.g. all its observable material parts are still in the initial position they were observed at a time. Thus, if the chair is not identical with itself, one might say it cannot be a unified object and vice versa. This is numerical identity, namely, ‘the relation everything has to itself and to nothing else.’ (Noonan, 2018). However, from a Nietzschean understanding of self, one cannot have numerical identity.

This is because the self is something that continuously undergoes change, resolves internal conflicts, and brings about new ones. Therefore, the self cannot be what maintains numerical identity, and what keeps an individual consistent over time for Nietzsche. Instead, this role is fulfilled by the person. Thus, this view advocates that the person is the same from time 1 to time 2, but the self is not. Consequently, one is then able to insist that an individual maintains and persists with the same identity, due to being the same person. However, they also undergo consistent change due to the fluctuating nature of the self. This is something which psychological continuity is seemingly unable to account for, yet, with these Nietzschean understandings of ‘person’ and ‘self’, it appears it now can be accounted for. Therefore, this is the solution to the unity problem as expressed by Salgado.

Potential Consequences of this Solution

As a result of this solution, one has a means of enabling psychological continuity to account for the persistence of conflicting mental faculties – something which psychological continuity does not clearly account for on its own. Additionally, this view provides some greater clarity regarding the difference between persons and selves, something which has been largely overlooked in a lot of the personal identity literature. However, there are inevitably some objections to the view I have put forward. I have attempted to address two likely objections to this position in the remainder of this section.

The first objection is that it might seem odd to some readers that I have argued the person remains the same over time, especially given how in section 2 I discussed that the human body undergoes continuous physical changes over time. Consequently, how can it be that the person remains the same, if the person is the body, and the body always changes? My response to this would be it is dependent on how one understands sameness. For example, it might be that all of one’s cells undergo multiple replacements throughout one’s lifetime, and so in this respect, it is not obvious how a person could persist over time. However, one could just as intuitively say that given human persons are usually genetically identical to themselves between time 1 and time 2, the individual human body does remain the same over time because the genetics are largely the same. Thus, the person remains the same if we understand a person as maintaining the same genetic instructions to replicate their cells over time. Admittedly, mutations do occur, changing the genetic structure of a person.6 Thus, it is clear this is a contentious issue with the position I have advocated, and what constitutes physical sameness over time is likely an area worth developing further elsewhere. Regardless, I believe one can make a case for persons being the same over time, but a more thorough analysis is required than can be presented in this essay.

The second concern may be the matter of self-creation generally, as an aspect of a multiplicity view of the self. To explain: some see it as a paradoxical notion, in that an object cannot bring itself into existence. Therefore, how is this possibly the case with the self? Whilst I am sympathetic to the logic of this argument, it seems it’s a matter of interpretation regarding the Nietzschean texts, and whether the self does precede the process of self-creation or not. In my view, Nietzsche’s concept of self-creation does not entail that a self ought to be created from nothing. Rather, it is that the self is always present in healthy individuals, and that it is created into a more sophisticated, controlled, coherent entity over time. In the case of Nietzsche, this view seems to be the case when he states that ‘I love him who wants to create beyond himself’ (Nietzsche, 2008b, p. 56), implying oneself already exists before the act of self-creation takes place. Thus, it would appear self-creation does not have to be understood as self-creation from nothing, but rather a weaker concept of creating, such as self-shaping. Self-shaping is the process in which the self already exists as a default of being a healthy human individual, and one can fashion it from what one has available to work with. This, I think, is the appropriate response to the issue of self-creation. Regardless, I understand this is also a complex issue, which may require further investigation beyond the remit of this essay. The crucial point is that whatever notion of self we might have to presuppose for self-creation, it will not be a permanent identity, but perhaps more of a physically realised capacity for reflection, or something that follows this line of thinking.


An account of psychological continuity which understands the self as something which can feel multiple (without in fact being multiple), would greatly benefit the personal identity debate in solving the unity problem identified by Salgado. However, this essay recognises this is only an account of psychological continuity from the perspective of healthy, single-self, human persons, in which persons suffering from dissociative identity disorder (for example) are not significantly discussed. This ought to be considered regarding the extent to which this might impact the success of solving the unity problem. Regardless, I believe that in the context of healthy human cognition, this essay has managed to provide a means to incorporate the conflicting nature of human thought into psychological continuity.

Something I hope to have brought about in this essay is the importance of making strict definitions regarding the terms ‘person’ and ‘self’. As I have made clear, the unity problem expressed by Salgado, and likely other debates concerning personal identity, are perhaps a consequence of these terms being considered synonymous, when this should not be the case. Therefore, regardless of whether I have defined these terms appropriately, I hope that at least the attempt of doing so sheds a light on the importance of making their definitions as clear as possible. I have attempted to address two of the most likely objections I can imagine this view is prone to. Although I believe I have addressed these objections adequately, I also accept that greater detail is necessary in separate documents to optimise the validity of my responses.

Furthermore, I have made a case for the position that psychological continuity and multiplicity views of the self can be made compatible by thinking of the self not as a continuous psychological unity, but instead as a continuous, creative, psychological task a person undertakes to form a self which feels unified, and is unified, even though there are many circumstances within the human experience where this feeling is not the case.


Anscombe, G.E. (1974). ‘The First Person.’ Mind and Language: Wolfson College Lectures 1974, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, p. 21–36.

Blok et al. (2006). ‘Tracing the Identity of Objects.’ Psychological Review. Volume 113, Issue 1, p. 1-30.

Flavell et al. (1993). ‘Children's Understanding of the Stream of Consciousness.’ Child Development Volume 64, Issue 2, p. 387-398.

Hermans, H. J. M. (1992). The dialogical self: Beyond individualism and rationalism. American Psychologist. Volume 47. P. 23-33.

Locke, J. (2008). An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK.

Nietzsche, F. (2008a). On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK.

Nietzsche, F. (2008b). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK.

Noonan, H. (2018). ‘Identity.’ Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity/#5>

Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK.

Salgado, Hermans. (2005). ‘The Return of Subjectivity: From the Multiple Self to the Dialogical Self’, E-Journal of Applied Psychology: Clinical section. Volume 1, Issue 1. p. 3-13.

Williams, B. (1970). ‘The Self and the Future.’ The Philosophical Review. Volume 79, Issue 2. p. 161-180.


  1. Traditionally the mental faculty associated with this view has solely been memory (see Locke, 2008). However, other mental faculties are nowadays widely thought to also be constitutive of one’s identity, such as a person’s likes, dislikes, values, habits, etc., depending on one’s interpretation of which mental phenomena are necessary for persistence.
  2. Although this essay acknowledges there are several objections/concerns with psychological continuity e.g. animalism, the thought experiments of Parfit (1984) and B. Williams (1970), this essay will not discuss any of the classical objections to psychological continuity. However, the potential consequences of the version of psychological continuity I am proposing can be found in section 5.
  3. See section 4. However, prior reading of section 3 is advisable.
  4. Perhaps a person can also be any living body, regardless of the biological species. However, this essay will discuss persons in the context of the human body, for the sake of keeping the philosophical matter of this essay as concise as possible.
  5. This is not to say one ought to be sympathetic to the existence of master or slave morality. They are employed here only as examples of intuitions, ethical orders, etc., that one might find somewhat conflicting during the task of self-creation/self-shaping.
  6. Whatever way in which one chooses to understand the issue of bio-physico sameness, this essay takes it to be invariant over all kinds of psychic change.

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