Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768dbb666b-9qwsl Total loading time: 0.428 Render date: 2023-02-04T13:43:07.694Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Article contents

Believing in Reincarnation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2012

Mikel Burley*
University of Leeds


Is it absurd to believe that, in the absence of bodily continuity, personal identity could be retained? Bernard Williams argued for an affirmative answer to this question partly on the basis of a well-known thought experiment. Some other philosophers, including D. Z. Phillips, have accepted, or appear to have accepted, Williams’ conclusion. Yet the argument has the consequence of dismissing as absurd the sorts of reincarnation beliefs which, within their proper contexts, have a meaningful role in the lives of many millions of people. Drawing upon philosophical work by David Cockburn, and also on anthropological studies concerning reincarnation beliefs, this paper questions the extent to which ostensibly meaningful beliefs can be deemed unintelligible in the absence of careful attention to their cultural contexts.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2012

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Williams, B. A. O., ‘Personal Identity and Individuation’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, new series, 57 (1956–57), 229–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar; reprinted in his Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 118CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Williams followed up and endeavoured to clarify his argument in Bodily Continuity and Personal Identity: A Reply’, Analysis 21 (1960), 4348CrossRefGoogle Scholar; reprinted in Problems of the Self, 19–25. In the case of each of these essays, my references will be to the versions reprinted in Problems of the Self.

2 Phillips, D. Z., Death and Immortality (London: Macmillan, 1970), xiCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Ibid., 11.

5 Williams, Problems of the Self, 4.

6 Ibid., 7.

7 Ibid., 8.

9 Williams describes his argument in this way in Problems of the Self, 19ff. See also Williams’ essay ‘Are Persons Bodies?’ (Problems of the Self, 64–81), wherein Williams offers some further thoughts concerning ‘the reduplication problem’.

10 Problems of the Self, 8.

12 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 267Google Scholar.

13 Problems of the Self, 21; Williams’ ellipses.

14 Death and Immortality, 12.

15 Phillips, , The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (London: SCM Press, 2004), 163Google Scholar, n. 10.

16 Phillips, , Recovering Religious Concepts: Closing Epistemic Divides (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 138CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Religion and Friendly Fire (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 55Google Scholar.

18 On this point, Phillips concurs with Norman Malcolm, who writes that, ‘Within the framework of each system there is criticism, explanation, justification. But we should not expect that there might be some sort of rational justification of the framework itself’ (‘The Groundlessness of Belief’, in Brown, Stuart C. (ed.) Reason and Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 143–57Google Scholar, at 152).

19 Phillips, , Faith and Philosophical Enquiry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), 7Google Scholar.

20 Religion and Friendly Fire, 89.

21 Wittgenstein, Cf. Ludwig, Culture and Value, ed. von Wright, G. H. and Nyman, Heikki, 2nd edn (revised by Alois Pichler), trans. Winch, Peter (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 9eGoogle Scholar: ‘For me … clarity, transparency, is an end in itself.’

22 Cockburn, David, ‘The Evidence for Reincarnation’, Religious Studies 27 (1991), 199207, at 204CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Reasons and Persons, 267 (quoted earlier).

26 Cockburn cites the case of Alexandrina Samona, as presented in Stevenson's, IanThe Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations (Tadworth: Peto, 1961), 2021Google Scholar. See Cockburn, ‘The Evidence for Reincarnation’, 199–200. Among similar cases is that of Susan Eastland, reported in Stevenson's, Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation, revised edn (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2001), 7983Google Scholar.

27 Cockburn, ‘The Evidence for Reincarnation’, 205.

30 McClelland, Norman C., Encyclopedia of Reincarnation and Karma (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010), 230Google Scholar. See also Antonia Mills, ‘Reincarnation Belief among North American Indians and Inuit: Context, Distribution, and Variation’, in Mills, Antonia and Slobodin, Richard (eds), Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation among North American Indians and Inuit (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1994), 1537, esp. 28–29Google Scholar.

31 Blackman, Margaret B., During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, a Haida Woman, revised edn (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1992), 145, fn. 1Google Scholar.

32 Mills, Antonia C., ‘A Comparison of Wet'suwet'en Cases of the Reincarnation Type with Gitksan and Beaver’, Journal of Anthropological Research 44 (1988), 385415, at 403CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Mills, Antonia, ‘Rebirth and Identity: Three Gitksan Cases of Pierced-Ear Birthmarks’, in Mills, and Slobodin, (eds), Amerindian Rebirth, 211–41, at 234Google Scholar: ‘Among the Gitksan, families practically vie to have it acknowledged that a well-beloved family member, especially a high chief, has been born among them.’

33 Mills, ‘Rebirth and Identity’, 238.

34 Williams, Problems of the Self, 8.

35 Readers familiar with Wittgenstein's later thought will recognize this conception of the interconnection between the practical use of forms of language and the sense that those forms of language have. The notion of the ‘weave’ (or ‘tapestry’: Teppich) of life, in particular, appears in various of Wittgenstein's works, such as: Philosophical Investigations, trans. Anscombe, G. E. M., 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001)Google Scholar, pt. 2, §i, 148e; Zettel, trans. Anscombe, G. E. M. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967)Google Scholar, §568; and Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 1, trans. Luckhardt, C. G. and Aue, Maximilian A. E. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982Google Scholar), §862.

36 Mills, ‘Rebirth and Identity’, 234.

37 Paramahansa Yogananda held such a belief. I shall elaborate this point shortly.

38 Yogananda, Paramahansa, Autobiography of a Yogi (Kolkata: Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, 1998), ch. 3Google Scholar, ‘The Saint with Two Bodies.’

39 Ibid., 24.

40 Ibid., 26, fn.

41 For an account of reincarnation beliefs among the Kwakiutl (or Kwakwaka'wakw), see Boas, Franz, ‘Sixth Report on the Indians of British Columbia’, Report of the Sixty-Sixth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (London: Murray, 1896), 569–91Google Scholar, esp. 579. See also Mauzé, Marie, ‘The Concept of the Person and Reincarnation among the Kwakiutl Indians’, in Mills, and Slobodin, (eds), Amerindian Rebirth, 177–91Google Scholar, esp. 182.

42 Harkin, Michael E., ‘Person, Time, and Being: Northwest Coast Rebirth in Comparative Perspective’, in Mills, and Slobodin, (eds), Amerindian Rebirth, 192210Google Scholar, at 208, n. 2.

43 Cockburn, ‘The Evidence for Reincarnation’, 207.

44 Several such thought experiments are discussed in, for example, Noonan's, Harold W.Personal Identity, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2003Google Scholar). See also Paul, Ellen Frankel, Miller, Fred D. Jr, and Paul, Jeffrey (eds), Personal Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. the chapters by Edward Feser and Martin Belzer respectively. For criticisms of these kinds of approaches to the philosophy of personal identity, see Wilkes, Kathleen V., Real People: Personal Identity without Thought Experiments (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Believing in Reincarnation
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Believing in Reincarnation
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Believing in Reincarnation
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *