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Personal Identity in Joss Whedon's Shows

Mike Bailey

All of Joss Whedon's shows raise questions about personal identity. Here several major characters from the Whedonverse are subjected to a philosophical analysis.

Do you remain the same person throughout your lifetime? If you do remain the same person, then what is it that stays the same? Is it your physical body, your mind, or perhaps something along the lines of an immaterial soul? These are the central questions in the philosophical problem of 'personal identity’. It asks what it is about us that remains the same and persists through time.

There are three theories that philosophers use to attempt to solve this problem: physical continuity theory, psychological continuity theory, and soul theory. According to physical continuity theory, we are the same person from birth if our body has existed continuously from then until now. Psychological continuity theory states that we are the same person if we maintain the same personality traits and there is a link through time in the form of our memories. Those who hold to the soul theory claim that there is an immaterial soul which remains a part of us throughout our life.

Each of these theories has its adherents and its critics. There are aspects of the material world that make it difficult to determine which of these theories would work as an explanation for personal identity. For instance, the atoms in our bodies continue to be replaced as we age. So, does a 30-year-old have all the same atoms as s/he did when s/he was born? Likewise, our memories rarely match the reality of our past and trauma can sometimes even cause one to undergo a complete personality change.

Things get even more problematic if we include things like demons, gypsy curses, or machines that can implant and remove personalities. The characters in the worlds of Joss Whedon often deal with problems of determining their own personal identity. In some cases, it looks like one person turns into someone else. Sometimes, a character may not even know who they are. In what follows, we will take a look at a few of the characters that inhabit the worlds of the Whedonverse and see if they remain the same person throughout the story or if they become different people. Let's start with the original vampire with a soul.

Liam, Angelus, and/or Angel

Does Liam cease to be once the vampiric demon inhabits his body, creating the evil Angelus? What happens when his soul is returned by the gypsy curse and he begins to refer to himself as “Angel”? Let us look at the different theories of personal identity and determine if we should consider each of these as separate persons or if we should think of them as the same individual.

Since it is said that Angel's soul is 'returned to him', we should think of it as the same soul that was once possessed by the human Liam. Therefore, according to soul theory, Liam and Angel should be considered the same person. Angelus, on the other hand, would be a different person since the demon essence exists as a separate entity.

But if Angelus is a different person, then why does Angel feel remorse for the things that Angelus did? For an answer to this question, we need to turn to psychological continuity theory which would say that all three of them are the same person since they share the same memories and base personality traits. In this sense, Angelus behaved the way he did because of the person that Liam was. Likewise, Angel feels guilt and remorse since he maintains the memories of the demon's crimes.

Though, it gets tricky if we consider that some of these memories have been altered. Angel remembers Dawn even though that memory was created by the monks. Similarly, Angelus has a memory of the Beast even though Angel thought he had never heard of it. These altered memories represent a “break in continuity” and make using this theory of personal identity problematic.

Perhaps the fact that they share the same physical body would indicate that they should be considered the same person. If there was a similar break in continuity of the physical body as there was with their memories, then we would have the same problem as before. If there was a moment when the physical body was destroyed but later returned, then there would no longer be a continuous physical body. (Of course, this is exactly what happens to both Darla and Spike when their physical bodies were turned to dust and later recreated through supernatural means.)

It seems clear within the context of the show that Liam, Angelus, and Angel should be considered different persons. Angel refers to Angelus as if he were a different person and vice-versa. It also cannot be denied, however, that there is a clear connection between them due to their shared memories and personalities. It may just come down to how we choose to look at it. Perhaps a clearer case can be found when Fred is essentially replaced by the entity Illyria.

Fred / Illyria

The being Illyria inhabits Fred in a much different way from how vampires inhabit their hosts. In order for it to do so, it must destroy Fred's soul and change her physical body.

Since Fred's soul is destroyed, according to soul theory, Fred and Illyria would be considered different persons. Her friends come to the realization that there is no way they can ever have their friend back. Their pain comes from looking at the body in front of them and seeing a completely different person.

Physically, she still resembles Fred with a few notable differences. Are these differences enough to consider them different persons? Her physical body does appear to change quite dramatically. Illyria is capable of doing things that Fred was never able to do. She is essentially immortal. It looks as though the moment that she became Illyria her physical body changed on a molecular level.

Furthermore, Illyria is capable of transforming her body into an exact match to the body of Fred. It would seem, then, that there is a connection between the two. However, physical continuity theory says that there should be a continuously existing body. Her change in appearance from Illyria to Fred and back again represents a break in continuity and therefore, through this theory, they should be considered different persons.

Illyria does possess the memories and personality of Fred. It would seem, therefore, that they should be considered the same through psychological continuity theory. Yet Wesley continually insists that she is not Fred and is deceiving everyone by merely acting as her. In his view, Illyria is still there and she is merely projecting the personality of Fred. It is as though the person who was Fred stopped existing and Illyria is able to access what remained behind, like accessing the files on a hard drive. It is similar to the way that actives are given memories and personalities in the series Dollhouse. The next section will discuss this further.

So, it seems clear that we should think of Fred and Illyria as two completely different persons. Everyone who was friends with Fred certainly does. And all three philosophical theories of personal identity would back them up on this.


There is certainly no psychological continuity in the main character of Joss Whedon's series Dollhouse. In fact, during the time she spends as a doll, is a time when she seemingly has no personality or memories. These things can be removed or implanted at the will of her clients, making her look and behave as a different person from day to day. Since memories and personality can be implanted and taken away, there seems to be nothing psychologically connecting all of these persons.

There is, however, an emergent persona that exists even during those times when she is supposedly little more than an empty shell. In fact, she begins to refer to this persona as Echo, which is her designation as a doll. Since her mind is supposed to be a blank slate at this time and since this personality is not one designed or implanted, we should view this personality as her essence or better yet, as her soul. (We see evidence that some of the other dolls are going through something similar, such as when Victor “reveals” his attraction to Sierra.)

It also looks as though, as far as this show is concerned, the soul is linked to the physical body. It is unclear whether or not one could remove the soul in the same way that a personality or memory is removed. It is the thing that remains when everything else is taken away. It is also unclear if this soul can exist outside of the body like one does in the Buffyverse. So it looks like, as far as Dollhouse goes, physical continuity and soul theory go hand in hand.

Determining who one is and the search for the soul are common themes in the shows of Joss Whedon. This is what makes his characters so relatable to us as viewers. We may not be slayers, demon fighters, or actives but we all want to know what makes us who we are and to understand how we change and evolve throughout our lives.

MIKE BAILEY is currently on the final stages of completing his Master's degree in Practical Philosophy and Applied Ethics at the University of North Florida. He has watched, enjoyed, and analyzed every Whedon show from the day each first aired to the day each was unjustly canceled.

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