On Personality by Peter Goldie

The Routledge Thinking in Action series presents accessible but serious philosophical treatments of key live issues, concepts, or ideas. Like others in the series, Peter Goldie’s On Personality is more than an introductory text. He may be introducing the reader for the first time to philosophical disputes on the nature of character or the role of character traits and dispositions to act in specific ways. But he also is a philosopher of stature with firm views on which way the debate should proceed and thus argues forcefully for that stance. So, very much a case of thinking in action. And is there anything more exciting than that?

The initial chapters lay the groundwork of distinctions needed to discuss personality and character (they are different) sensibly. In the middle chapter, Goldie addressed head-on the apparent evidence from psychological research casting doubt on the notion of dispositional characters. He handily fends off the sceptics, I think, but acknowledges in turn the fragile nature of character and the conditions under which we are prone to misascribe character traits. Having secured our talk of character, he moves on to its vital role in our moral lives. On Goldie’s view we are responsible for many of our character traits and this suggests a rethinking of the ordering of praise and blame in particular cases. A proper understanding of character is thus a clear first step for philosophers working through the connections between agency, responsibility, and character.

Goldie concludes the book with a chapter on the role of narrative in the sense of the self. Although he is often described as having a narrativist position, it is clear that he differs significantly from others in the field. Since he accepts a distinction between narrative and what narratives are about, he sees no difficulty in discounting the view that our lives have a narrative structure; rather, he would say, our “lives, and parts of lives, unfold in a characteristic way which can be related in the form of a narrative (but which aren’t themselves narratives).” Narrative (i.e. self-narrative) is crucial for what he calls the ‘Augustinian inside view’. But it is equally important as an expressive indicator for others.

Things move quickly, I think, in this final chapter. You may reach the end rather wishing that there had been time to learn a great deal more about the philosophical treatment of character, personality, and the role of narrative in the idea of the self. But perhaps that is the best indicator of an excellent introductory text. Recommended.

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