Show

Memory and the Self

Week of: 
January 26, 2014
What is it: 

Ever since John Locke, philosophers have wondered about memory and its connection to the self. Locke believed that a continuity of consciousness and memory establish a "self" over time. Now psychology is weighing in with new research suggesting that the relationship between memory and the self is even more complicated than that. But what's the connection between memory and the self? Can the self be explained strictly in terms of memory? Or might the self be something over and above what memory suggests? John and Ken remember to welcome Stan Klein from UC Santa Barbara, author of The Two Selves: Their Metaphysical Commitments and Functional Independence.

Listening Notes: 

John and Ken kick off the show by noticing that there is a long tradition in philosophy of exploring the connection between memory and the self. Locke, for example, posited that what makes someone the same person yesterday is that they can remember what they did yesterday. Ken wonders whether Locke left something out. Locke might merely tell us what the self does rather than what it is. John retorts that this way of thinking makes it seem as if the self we’re looking for is some mysterious inner agent. Rather, my self is just me. Having capacity to form “I-thoughts” is all it takes to have a self.

Stan is invited to the discussion. He sides with neither the view that there is some mysterious inner self nor the deflationary one where “my self is just me.” A subjective sense of self is necessary to make sense of the content of memories, but there is also a scientifically quantifiable, objective aspect. There is no single, simple, unified version of self -- no locus in the brain we can hope to discover where the self resides.

John, Ken, and Stan then dig into the nature of the relationship between memory and self. Contra Locke, Stan argues that memory and self can come apart. In schizophrenia and other dementias, someone can have memories but not take them to be their own. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s patients without much remaining memory for events can still have a conviction that Alzheimer’s is happening to them. Spurred by audience questions, our hosts and guest go on to discuss the differences between kinds of memory and how we can understand memory as a function of social evolution.

Stan wraps up the show through a more general reflection on the relationship between philosophy and psychology. He considers them to be siblings who have grown too far apart. On one hand, it’s important to naturalize philosophy by reigning in conceptual possibility with empirical possibility, but on the other, psychologists need to use philosophy to ensure they study concepts rather than mere tasks. The study of memory is a perfect example of an area where philosophy and psychology need to work together to achieve satisfying results. 

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:04): Filmmaker Banker White discusses The Genius of Marian, his upcoming film which documents his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:26): Ian Shoales fires off examples of memory in pop culture, from Memento to the Bourne Identity. He then comments on phenomena like selective and cultural amnesia. 

Stan Klein, Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara

Related Resources: 

 

Web Resources

Archived live chat with Stan Klein

(2013) “The Self That’s Left When Memories Fade.” NPR.

Fernyhough, Charles (2012). “The story of the self.” The Guardian.

Keough, Peter (2014). “Alzheimer’s documentary comes close to ‘Genius’.” The Boston Globe.

Klein, Stanley & Shaun Nichols (2012). “Memory and the Sense of Personal Identity.” Mind.

Olson, Eric (2010). “Personal Identity.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Books

Fernyhough, Charles (2014). Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts. ISBN: 006223790X.

Foster, Jonathan (2008). Memory: A Very Short Introduction. ISBN: 0192806750.

Klein, Stanley (2014). The Two Selves: Their Metaphysical Commitments and Functional Independence.

Mathews, Debra, Bok, Hilary, & Peter Rabins (Eds.) (2009). Personal Identity and Fractured Selves: Perspectives from Philosophy, Ethics, and Neuroscience. ISBN: 0801893380.

LeDoux, Joseph (2003). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. ISBN: 0142001783. 

Get Philosophy Talk

Radio

Sunday at 10am, PST, KALW, 91.7 FM, Local Public Radio, San Francisco

Podcast

Individual Downloads  via CdBaby or Itunes.  Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via Iamplify

John Perry and Ken Taylor

Continue the Conversation

Sidebar Menu

Upcoming Shows

  • October 5 : Racial Profiling and Implicit Bias
    Whether for counterterrorism measures, street level crime, or immigration, racial profiling of minorities occurs frequently. However, racial...
  • October 12 : Corporations and the Future of Democracy
    The US prides itself on the strength of its democratic institutions and considers itself a leader in the promotion of democratic values around the...
  • October 19 : Freedom, Blame, and Resentment
    When someone acts without regard for our feelings or needs, a natural response is to feel resentment toward that person. But is that a rational...
  • October 26 : Philosophy as Therapy
    From Plato and Sextus Empiricus to Wittgenstein, many important thinkers have thought of philosophy as a type of therapy. By looking at our way of...
  • November 2 : The Fairness Fixation
    Imagine that your eight-year-old son arrives home boasting that he won the race that day in gym class. Right as your heart begins to swell with pride...

Support Philosophy Talk

DONATE TODAY

Philosophy Talk relies on the support of listeners like you to stay on the air and online. Any contribution, large or small, helps us produce intelligent, reflective radio that questions everything, including our most deeply-held beliefs about science, morality, culture, and the human condition. Make your tax-deductible contribution now through Stanford University's secure online donation page. Thank you for your support, and thank you for thinking!