Philosophy about Face (transplants)

UPDATE  Despite the number of RSVPs, so far I'm expecting only 4 people to attend.  I hope it's clear to people that we're using (what used to be only) a thought experiment as a departure point--really, we're talking about What Is "Face"?  Recognition, reputation, deception, self-presentation.  Unless you want to take it another direction.  Please update your RSVPs!

Talking Heads:  "Seen and Not Seen"

He would see faces in movies, on T.V., in magazines, and in books....
He thought that some of these faces might be right for him....And
through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his
mind....Or somewhere in the back of his mind....That he might, by
force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal....The
change would be very subtle....It might take ten years or so....
Gradually his face would change its' shape....A more hooked nose...
Wider, thinner lips....Beady eyes....A larger forehead.(This is what David Byrne's face looks like! :-)

He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other
people....They had also molded their faced according to some
ideal....Maybe they imagined that their new face would better
suit their personality....Or maybe they imagined that their
personality would be forced to change to fit the new appearance....This is why first impressions are often correct...
Although some people might have made mistakes....They may have
arrived at an appearance that bears no relationship to them....
They may have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish
whim, or momentary impulse....Some may have gotten half-way
there, and then changed their minds.

He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake.


I doubt Descartes ever wrote about face transplants, but we won't let that stop us!  Let's talk in our usual freeform manner, but rather than a philosophical theme keeping us in a discernible neighborhood, our touchstone this time will be the latest medical breakthrough.  It will be an opportunity to apply any of the themes we've discussed, or anything you've read or thought about on your own, to a real-world problem.  And your friends say philosophy was a waste of time!

Face transplantation is no longer science fiction, though it was during a discussion of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that I learned that at least two have been performed recently.  At the moment, the recipients won't "pass" for their (deceased) donors, but is there something eerie about reusing a body part so closely associated with identity?  Assuming the benefit to the tragically disfigured outweighs others' queasiness, how should we train our minds to conceptualize this transfer?  Or if we simply cannot, how would we rationalize putting limitations on it?  Note that we won't confine ourselves to current applications of face transplantation, but imagine where the technology might proceed, and what further issues might arise.

After focusing on concrete phenomena for a while, we'll choose one or more of the themes that have come up, to explore in greater depth.  I'm excited to see what effect this provision of context will have on the meeting.  Perhaps it will create an initial consensus of some sort--but never worry, we can always find something to reveal interesting differences among us.  It may suggest future themes, too (in fact, this discussion is a prelude to "Nature", for April).

There is no assigned reading (and I haven't done any yet), but you are encouraged to post links to this event.  I recommend writing a blurb either summarizing the article's relevance, as that will induce people to read in a philosophical context.  Other than the departure point, however, this will be just like our monthly meetings.

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity and ruin.”

“I am alone and miserable. Only someone as ugly as I am could love me.”

― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein


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  • Harlan L.

    With regret, family plans have changed and I won't e able to make it tonight. Look forward to the next one.

    March 25, 2014

  • Gary J.

    Sorry...I won't be able to make this one.

    March 25, 2014

  • Jay C.

    As J. Alfred Prufrock observed:

    There will be time, there will be time

    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

    There will be time to murder and create,

    And time for all the works and days of hands

    That lift and drop a question on your plate;
    Time for you and time for me,

    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

    And for a hundred visions and revisions,

    Before the taking of a toast and tea.

    1 · March 24, 2014

  • Jeff G

    Here's a word we'll probably use a lot: doppelganger (a ghostly double or counterpart of a living person). ...And monsters can be quite lovable:

    March 21, 2014

  • Deborah B.

    Sounds intriguing but won't be able to come.....

    March 20, 2014

  • Harlan L.

    Here's an article about a notable recent face transplant. It's very, very risky during the operation and later there's the risk of autoimmune rejection.
    Here's the Wikipedia on the topic:
    Here's an article on how face transplants work. I haven't read it yet, so I don't vouch for it:
    Seems to me there's a lot in this topic about bad luck, courage, desperation, shunning, compassion, and scientific advance.
    I just had a few moments and got curious about this enticing topic. I'm sure there's a lot of stuff from a philosophical point of view that I haven't even begun to think of.

    March 20, 2014

  • Harlan L.

    For those who have prosopagnosia like Oliver Sacks and Chuck Close, it wouldn't make a nose worth of difference. I think what really counts is being able to get a brain transplant into a young body. Have to read up on the discussion topic; I really have no idea about it.

    March 20, 2014

  • Laura M.

    Jeff - you and I met at another philosophy-related meetup a year or more ago and I joined your meetup here and always love reading your writeups. I'm down on the peninsula, which makes it kinda hard to get up to your meetups. But this topic and your writeup are making me think I just gotta find a way to join you for this one.

    March 19, 2014

  • Laura M.

    Coincidence? I just received a spam email with a subject line telling me that celebrities are faking facelifts.

    March 19, 2014

  • Jay C.

    You're testing for limits, aren't you.

    Challenging my theory that no matter how off-putting the announced topic, our group will turn it into gold.

    1 · March 19, 2014

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