III. SOME CLARIFICATIONS
Various objections to this account come to mind, and the following clarifications and elaborations are designed to address a few salient ones.
A. We must distinguish the limits imposed by a person’s conditions of identity on permissible counterfactuals from the limits on change that these conditions may also impose. The claim concerning counterfactuals is that given Gauguin’s artistic career, it makes no sense to think of the very same person as the one who would have stayed in France to become, say, a banker. This is not, however, to maintain that had the actual Gauguin gotten tired of painting and decided to work for a bank, we would have to think of the late-l ife banker as a different person from the early-life artist/ The distance between an artist’s life and a banker’s is not so great that it cannot be traversed within a single life. An artist, following perhaps a midlife crisis, might decide to “start a new life” by joining a bank.
Significantly, the colloquial expression in quotes indicates that the contemplated change is not trivial, and that it may indeed stretch the limits of identity. Even so, the change is tenable, all the more so due to the stipulated midlife crisis. If, following such a radical but identity-preserving life change, we were asked to spell out this hypothetical Gauguin’s identity, to say who he was, we would have to mention both periods and both occupations. This Gauguin isn’t just a painter, nor just a banker, but a painter- turned-banker. So understood, the aspiration to “start a new life” or “turn a new leaf” by changing the course of one’s life is quite different from that expressed by the counterfactual thought “I’d like to have been someone else,” which, if taken seriously, wears its incoherence on its sleeve.
B. Suppose now that prior to his departure for Tahiti Gauguin contemplated giving up painting and taking a job as a banker that had been offered to him. Even if, given Gauguin’s actual choice, it makes sense to deny that he could have been a banker, it seems undeniable that he could have made the choice of becoming one. After all, choosing to go to Tahiti to be a painter rather than taking up employment with the bank is an event within Gauguin’s life and a genuine choice he had made. My account may appear to deny this conclusion. “Can choose X” entails “can carry out (or attain) X.” It would make no sense to say that one could have chosen filet mignon if the restaurant were out of it or if one could not afford it. So since on my view Gauguin could not have been a banker, it would seem to follow that he could not have chosen to be one either. The key to a different conclusion is, however, provided in Harry Frankfurt’s view of the relation between the existence of alternate possibilities (and so the truth of determinism) and freedom of choice. In John Locke’s well- known example (adapted by Frankfurt), the fact that unbeknownst to me the door to my room is locked does not vitiate my autonomy in willingly staying in the room. By the same token, Gauguin makes a genuine choice to forego a banking career and embark on a life as a painter, even though, as it turns out, pursuing the rejected path would not have been a real option for him.19
C. The suggestion that successful Gauguin (SG) is a different person from the hypothetical failed Gauguin (FG) raises a question of transitivity.
It might be pointed out that both SG and FG share the same youth, up to the point of decision. Call that common stretch young Gauguin (YG). Now clearly SG and YG are one and the same person; similarly, FG and YG are also one and the same. But if so, how can SG not be the same person as FG? There are two possible answers. One is to assimilate this situation to cases in which a form of life takes a branching form. The resulting conundrum is familiar, as are the various ways of responding to it, such as espousing a looser notion of identity that can accommodate this type of case. Alternatively, we can contest this picture of how life’s temporal segments belong together. The objection assumes a straightforwardly additive picture: a life consists in the sequential accumulation of temporal segments. However, on the meaning-conception of self I’ve been pursuing, human life, like a text, is to be understood holistically: each segment is what it is, has the meaning or significance that it does, in virtue of its relationship to all other segments of the life to which it belongs, past and future. Just as the beginning of a story is not inert to what follows, so also the young-Gauguin cannot be simply detached from the subsequent life and considered as a common segment of both the successful and failed Gauguin. Rather, matters here are the other way around: given that SG is a different person from the hypothetical FG, we must conclude that they are different persons all the way back, and so deny that they share a common early identity.
D. Following Williams and common usage, I have been referring all along to Gauguin’s failed alter ego by the same name as its actual bearer. Isn’t this an admission that I do in fact consider the actual and the counterfactual figures as one as the same? The usage is indeed liable to mislead by creating the impression that the present discussion concerns the modal logic of proper names. My claim that, given that Gauguin was in fact a prominent painter, he could not have failed, may be construed in this vein as the claim that the name Gauguin necessarily refers to a successful painter, and so as subscribing to the so-called, and now mostly discarded, famous deeds conception of the reference of proper names. Though I doubt that the last word has been said about these issues, and in particular that this conception has been conclusively refuted, I need not in fact enter this fray.20 The reason is that I don’t consider the line of reasoning I am pursuing to be about the name Gauguin at all but about the person. That the name Gauguin successfully fixes the initial reference to a particular painter is not at issue here. Once this has been accomplished (in terms of whatever theory one favors as securing such reference), the questions regarding the status, relative to this person, of the counterfactual artistic failure no longer involve the use of the name since these questions are considered primarily from the first-person perspective. The thoughts whose coherence we’re trying to assess, specifically those regarding regret, would be entertained by that person without recourse to a name, but rather by using the pronoun I. From his standpoint, the fact that the counterfactual figure would bear the same name as Gauguin’s is no more relevant to his identity than, say, Golda Meir’s is to mine.
E. Since successful-Gauguin is defined by his artistic success, he cannot regret his decision. What about his hypothetical alter ego, though? Regarding the unsuccessful Gauguin, Williams asserts that “his standpoint will be of one for whom the ground project of the decision has proved worthless, and this ... must leave him with the most basic regrets.”21 It might be objected, however, that my account effaces this contrast by rendering the two cases symmetrical. Just as success is constitutive of the actual Gauguin, so failure supposedly is of his counterpart. For the latter to regret his decision would accordingly be no less self- defeating or undermining than it would be for the actual Gauguin. This is not the case, however, since success and failure are not symmetrical in this regard. If successful-Gauguin had made a different decision, it would indeed have deprived him of his defining project. But making a different decision would not have had the same effect on failed-Gauguin. The reason for the asymmetry is that defining projects do not form complementary oppositional pairs. Specifically, while “painter” is a recognizable project, there is no corresponding project of “not painter,” one that would play a defining role in most people’s lives. To be sure, some people may turn failure into a vocation and a way of life. If failed-Gauguin were to wallow in his artistic failure and allow it to fester long enough, this could become his defining project. In that case the wish that he hadn’t made the fateful decision would indeed become hollow.22 But in the more likely scenario, realizing that being an artist is not in the cards, Gauguin would have turned to other pursuits, such as becoming a Parisian bank teller after all. Relative to such scenarios, the initial fateful decision to leave for Tahiti is eminently regrettable, seen as a source of gratuitous pain inflicted on family and friends.
F. Not many individuals are as clearly identified with a pervasive and all-consuming project as Gauguin, and even fewer make a move as dramatic and as consequential as his departure for Tahiti. The appeal of Gauguin’s example lies precisely in providing a stark illustration of a constitutive decision that launches a defining project. But this appeal is also a limitation. How typical is Gauguin’s case and how representative of the human condition as a whole? How valuable is the lesson it teaches us and how far does it generalize? The answer is that Gauguin amplifies important features present in other, more ordinary lives as well. First, even if one’s life story is more diffuse, consisting of multiple themes and the product of numerous relatively inconsequential actions and decisions, it is a life story all the same. It might be easier to identify within such a story than in Gauguin’s smaller projects and engagements, different relatively independent subplots as it were, that the agent might regret selectively and piecemeal. But the impossibility illustrated by Gauguin of wholesale regret, regret that in this case would purport to address a large concatenation of such fragments, remains. One cannot coherently wish away the life one has had in favor of another, regardless of the constituents and composition of one’s life. Second, even piecemeal regret regarding relatively discrete junctures in one’s life may be barred by similar considerations. Things are often intricately interconnected, and a seemingly inconsequential decision may turn out upon reflection to have led in fact to much of what has become of great significance to us. Our lives form a web, and by pulling in the spirit of regret on a marginal thread, the whole may unravel.
G. Though Gauguin’s example thus amplifies a more general feature of human life, the fact that his is a decidedly simplified version raises another problem. In the absence of a dominant defining project, it becomes much more difficult to distinguish between identity-preserving and identity- disrupting counterfactuals, and correspondingly to devise a threshold of regret beyond which it loses its subject. Whatever the distinction and the threshold, we should not imagine them as clear-cut. The most we can do in this area is post some warning signs alerting people to a broad and ill- defined yet significant zone, in which certain attitudes that are perfectly intelligible outside of it lose their coherence.