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History and Non-Identity

ERI Building - Room 149 (1st Floor)
Monday 9 December 2013 (16:15-18:00)

Dr Darragh Byrne (email:

Philosophy Society 2013-2014

Guy Kahane (Oxford)

History and Non-Identity


When we look back at history, we find a long list of calamities—horrific violence, barbarity and catastrophe. When we look back at these past tragedies, we cannot help but feel sadness and regret. By contrast, most of us are glad that we, and those we care about, exist. But on reflection, we can see that these two attitudes are in tension. If things had taken a different, and better turn, and these past tragedies were somehow averted, then you and I would almost certainly not be here. If we regret past tragedies, can we still be glad that we exist? And if we are glad that we exist, must we stop regretting even the most horrific of past evils?

Leibniz first drew attention to this tension, and it has been discussed more recently by Robert Adams and Saul Smilansky. In a sense, it’s an instance of Parfit’s non-identity problem, applied to the past instead of the future. In this talk, I will explain how this tension arises, and show that it merely reflects an even deeper problem inherent in history itself: when we think of one possible course of history as better than another, and when we ascribe value or significance to actual historical events, our claims are ambiguous between conflicting impersonal and person-affecting senses. But the impersonal perspective leads to an absurd and unpleasant view of the past. And on a person-affecting perspective—a perspective that cares for the people who had actually lived, loved, and suffered—there is only a limited way in which the past could have been better. I will end with remarks relating this problem to the question of why and how history matters.

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