Memory and the Self

25 January 2014

This week, we are discussing Memory and the Self.  Now there is a long tradition in philosophy of thinking that memory and the self are intimately connected.   Locke claims, for example, that what makes me today the very same person as I was yesterday, is, basically, the fact that I can now remember what I did or experienced yesterday.   So memory, for Locke, is what actually determines who I am. 

You can probably spot a pretty big problem for Locke’s theory right away.  It seems to imply that if I don’t remember doing something, then I didn’t do it.   Frankly, though,  I can’t remember half the things I did during certain periods of my youth --- that were spent in… well, let’s say, something of a haze.  But surely it was me, and nobody else, who did all those stupid things.  

It’s possible to patch Locke’s theory a bit – to retain the spirit of it, while departing from the precise letter of it.   You could, for example, think of an enduring person as a connected series of person-stages.  Pretend that there are just a discrete and finite number of such stages for a second.  And suppose that you number them 1…n.   Then you could say that what makes them one and all stages of the very same person, is that the person at stage m remembers doing or experiencing most of what the person at stage m-1 did or experienced.    But you could allow that this doesn’t necessarily hold for distant stages.

That’s plausible enough, but I don’t really want to focus on that aspect of Locke’s theory here – though philosophers have written a lot about it.  Rather, I want to focus on a core idea that Locke, I think, pretty much nailed.    To see what I mean, let’s start with his concept of a person.   A person, he says, is “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places, which it does through only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and as seems to me essential to it.”  It’s  the part about “considering oneself as oneself”  that strikes me as really important.

Now I should say that those with Cartesian leanings might think that Locke leaves out the crucial thing – the self.  Locke, they might say, tells us what the self does, but he doesn’t tell us what the self is.  He tells us that the self is what we might call a self-considering thing, but he doesn’t tell us about the nature of that object.  He tells us neither what it is that is considered when we consider the self nor what is doing the considering when we do so.   Descartes had an answer to that question, of course.  The self is an immaterial substance – a free-standing thing entirely distinct from my body and brain  (though somehow united to them).  This “inner”  substance, he thought, is the thing we know best of all. It is the first object of all of our cognition.   We can doubt the world.  We can doubt the body.  But we cannot possibly doubt the self.

But Locke rightly insists that there is no such thing as the self understood in this Cartesian way.   And he argues, quite convincingly, I think, that even if there were such a thing inside us,  there would be no reason whatsoever to identify it with the person.    Though it may sound like I -- and Locke too --  are denying the existence of the self.  That’s not really so.  What would say is that a self isn’t something that a person has.  A self is, rather, something that a person is.  My “self” is just me.   Your “self” is just you.   A self, therefore, isn’t something inside of you – or your body or your brain. 

The interesting question from this perspective is just what it takes to be a self (or, perhaps, a person).  And this is precisely what Locke put his finger on.   A self or person is just what he says it is. It’s a creature that can “consider itself as itself.”  Or to put it differently, a self is a being that can form what might be called a self-conception, where a self-conception is, roughly, a first-person conception of who and what one is.  

The  “first-person” part is really important here, of course.   It’s connected up with our capacity to think what I like to call “I thoughts”  -- thoughts to the effect that I am such and such.  It’s one thing to think that Ken Taylor is such and such.  That’s something that you and I can both do.  But only I can think about Ken Taylor in a first-personal way.   And that ability to think about myself in a first-personal way is at the core of my selfhood and thus my capacity to develop a self-conception –a conception of who and what I am.

But here’s the interesting thing.  Once you think that having or being a self is nothing but being a creature with the capacity to have I thoughts and to form, on the basis of that capacity,  self-conceptions,  you immediately begin to notice that self-conceptions are, actually, interesting things.   First, there’s no guarantee that our self-conceptions match the facts about us.   I mean for all I have said so far our self-conceptions can be completely or at least partly the result of confabulations and self-deceptions.   Who am I then, really?

Moreover, it turns out that our self-conceptions are remarkable fragile things – as fragile as memory itself.  I am thinking here of the late stage Alzheimer’s patients who can’t remember much before the present moment.  Or consider the schizophrenics who did certain things, remembers those things being done by someone, but doesn’t remember that they actually did it.   What should we say about the self-conception of such a person?  What should we say about who that person is? 

Philosophers have thought remarkably little about such questions, it turns out.  So we thought we’d invite a philosophically inclined psychologist to help us think about the fragility of the self in light of the fragility of memory.    That would be,  Stan Klein, of the UC Santa Barbara.   It should be a fascinating conversation.   Hope you will add your voice to it.    

Comments (23)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 25, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

A Onederful Day

A Onederful Day
I remember walking down a road to the beach and seeing and realizing for the first time the beautiful ocean, the sky, the clouds, the Sun and the birds, the infinite Universe, the grains of sand, is just me. =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, January 26, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Memory is ephemeral; like the

Memory is ephemeral; like the wind, rain and all other immeasurabilities of human experience. Yep, Measure that. Or talk to Allan Combs. He might know now. Or not.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

An afterthought which ought

An afterthought which ought to have been formerly expressed: This post reveals much of the circularity of some schools of philosophical thinking. I recall reading Locke's Essay on Human Understanding several years ago. Two volumes, totaling more than 1200 pages, as I recall. Probably the longest essay on record---but,that is beside the point. M. Locke was nothing if not erudite and exceeding long-winded. His volume of words revealed a love of rhetoric, repetition notwithstanding. I was left wondering what all the kerfuffle was about.
Be Onederful, MJA---be happy, Ken, John and Laura. Love you all,
Newman.

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

The circularity in Locke was

The circularity in Locke was something immediately pounced on by his near contemporaries (e.g., T. Reid):  Memory assumes a self and vice versa.  In part, quasi-memory was proposed  (several hundred years later -- Shoemaker, 1970?) as a way of reining in the tautology of Locke's connectivity scheme.  I discuss this issue at some length with Shaun Nichols (a philosopher from U Arizona) in a paper in Mind (2012), and come to the tentative conclusion that the tautology can be overcome by the potential reality (we have a patient who illustrates this "potential reality") of quasi-memory.  However, another issue with the connectivity of memory argument (e.g., gaps and nontransitivity in the record of recollection) still is a problem that neither Locke nor subsequent adherents can successfully counter.  That was a part (perhaps too well-hidden) of my talk on the radio show.  That is, some amnesics have no recollective ability, yet still maintain a clear a sense of self (synchronic and diachronic).  This, of course, is because the self is a multiplicity --  thus certain memory-based aspects (e.g., my personal narrative) can be impaired without obliterating other (memory and non-memory) aspects of self.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 1, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I suppose I might understand

I suppose I might understand some of what has been set forth here, although words such as nontransitivity, synchronic and diachronic are not in my usual vocabulary. I do get synchronicity because I have read and get (mostly) Yung and VonFranz.We were examining memory and self-ness, though, so I'll offer a couple of elementary thoughts, at the risk of being too simplistic. First, there is self, or, self-ness. This state emanates from birth, through youth; socialization and experience,gain and loss, aging, and ultimately, death. Later, or sometimes sooner, we are faced with memory. Or, more poignantly, the loss of memory---inasmuch as loss of memory causes more problems than retention of memory. So, here it is, in mostly-plain English: When we lose memory, do we also lose our self-ness? No. We may lose our memory, but, those who are with us do not forget what we have done. Or, f they do, it may not have mattered much. That does not negate the selves that we were.

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Sunday, February 2, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

One of the points I made on

One of the points I made on the radio show was that memory and the self are related, but one is not fully dependent on the other.  I gave a few examples of people who have lost their episodic memory yet still maintain a strong sense of self.  It probably would be best for you to look over (its free) the on-line Frontiers paper by me (2014) on "Sameness and the self".

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, February 3, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

No One can truly tell the

No One can truly tell the past, not even One self.  =

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Monday, February 3, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

To "truly" tell what happened

To "truly" tell what happened in the past would require one knew what truly happened (as the standard by which to assess the veracity of one's assumed knowledge of the past).  But that would presume one already knew what truly happened (or had access to such comparative "facts of the matter"), which renders the argument that "no one can truly tell (what happened in?) the past either a stipulation or circular.
Sorry for the philosophy speak (as per H.G. Newman's above stated concerns), but I presume that since this is a forum for Philosophy Talk the audience is interested in discussions that are philosophical in nature/content.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, February 3, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Rather than " a stipulation

Rather than " a stipulation or circular" Mr. Klien, I would call it simply a fact. 
An example of history I read some time ago about Thomas Jefferson underscores this uncertainty.The great  Mr. Jefferson was asked in his later years to write the story of the American Revolution, he responded that he could not remember exactly and failed at the time of the revolution to take any notes.
History any One?  = 

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, February 5, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I do not wish to ignite any

I do not wish to ignite any other firestorms. But, here it is, like it or not: which came first, philosophy or psychology? Answer: I am pretty sure it was philosophy---we learned to think about thinking (philosophy) before learning to wonder WHY we were thinking about thinking (psychology). This seems logical enough, unless there are those who would complexify (sic?) the notion. This blog has prided itself  on questioning everything except the intelligence of its readers and contributors. I think this has mostly been the case. Interdisciplinarism is fraught with disagreement and outright animosity. I prefer to enjoy the discourse, the opportunity to learn, without getting into personal differences. Yes, and sometimes, I don't spell so well either. Sometimes, yule have that...
Newman (add mediator to my profile, if you THINK it appropriate---I do this stuff everyday...)

ddmatta's picture

ddmatta

Saturday, February 8, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I think the idea of "self" is

I think the idea of "self" is more intertwined with the idea of "the other", whether animate or inanimate, than it is with memory. The concept of self is crystallized by contrast with, and through separation from, the concept of the other. Once crystallized, it acts as the basis of future memory material, namely the registration of activities by one agent and their subsequent recall and recognition through that agent. One needs a sense of self to have memory rather than memory to have a sense of self. Memory acts as a reinforcer of the idea of self rather than be its progenitor.   
Probably Alzheimer and Schizophrenia are better investigated as troubles in the concept of self and other, and that translate into partial or total loss of memory, rather than as troubles of memory. 

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Saturday, February 8, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

 

Memory is a complex thing.  There is not a unitary "memory" but rather a multiplicity of types that align under the taxonomy of "memory".  Having looked at the particular memory losses in both patient groups mentioned (DAT and Schizophrenia) we find different aspects of memory impairment conjoined with different pathologies of self.  Thus, there is a relation between aspects of self and aspects of memory. 
Some aspects of memory have no apparent self-referentiality (e.g., procedural): others have different degrees of connection (semantic and episodic, for example) to different components of self-knowledge. 
It is hard to say whether memory presupposes a self or vice versa (this pertains only to those types of memory that enable self-knowledge).  This, of course, is the circularity of the Lockean connectivity argument for personal diachronicity (self as a temporal continuant).  But one thing seems empirically clear -- aspects of self (the content of our self-knowledge) are mediated by memory and could not exist for awareness prior to memory (save for some synchronistic sense, whose existence was fleeting with the passage of the moment).
I do think contrastive considerations (self vs other) come into play in one's self-definition, but there is more to self than contrast.  Moreover, a contrast presupposes contrasting parties, so absent a well-formed knowledge of one's self-characteristics, there is no self to contrast with other.  there is a sense of self (e.g., I am I), but it serves poorly as a basis for making meaningful contrastive assertions.
Finally, the self absent a form of consciousness (self awareness?) is a content searching for a comprehender.  Thus, (ala James, 1890), one needs both a self-as-known and self-as-knower.  Or, in Fichtean term, no subject without object, no object sans subject.  I discuss this at great length in my book of 2014.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 8, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

This post and its ensuing

This post and its ensuing comments have been instructive. Perhaps I might consider going back to school...ok, I considered that---guess I won't, though. Too little time left and too many other more important/critical/significant/ (choose one or more) things to do. My notion of historionicity says we get just what we deserve, no matter where we live; what sort of government we endure (or passively or violently oppose); what sort of theism(s) we espouse; or cultural/sociological idiosyncrisies we embrace. As my doctor, a DO, has told me (in relation to matters of my health): it is all related. Chickens and eggs? All of that early history was rich fodder for debate, but, Darwin showed us that we are beyond such thought experiments and useless rhetoric. We all have our biases and/or disciplinary allegiances. Accordingly, I submit that we are all affected by historionic effect: so simple in its complexity, yet complex in its simplicity. Paradox is a huge, mostly unrecognized aspect of the human condition.
HGN.

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Sunday, February 9, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Technically, philosophy was

Technically, philosophy was an established discipline in university settings well prior to psychology (which only emerged as a separate discipline @ 1869). 
But in terms of less institutionalized ways of thinking, I believe that the two were not clearly separable. Yes there were philosophers as long ago as the fragmentary records of Hesiod, but the content of their recorded philosophizing often was what is (or should be) psychology's concerns.
Even "more modern" philosophizing of Locke, Hume, Reid, Helmholtz and many others was psychology in its essence (though not lab-based empiricism).
But as a science, psychology necessarily follows philosophy -- since there were not scientific stirrings until, at the earliest, @ 1300, and things were not in "full swing" until about the 1700s.
In addition, it is hard to know "chicken and egg".  Did folk wonder about the phenomenology of self and then develop formal ways of approaching that mental experience, or did formal ways emerge first and then get applied to personal phenomenology (which I would consider psychological musing).  Hard, if not impossible to know.  Similar chicken/egg issue surrounds the question of whether we initially became interested (for evolutionarily adaptive reasons) in the minds of others and then turned those insights on ourselves, or vice versa.

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Sunday, February 9, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Don't go back to school. 

Don't go back to school.  Lectures too often tell you what to think (in subtle ways). 
Read, read and read some more.  There always is time (e.g., late at night prior to sleep).  You choose what you want to know and which way(s) you want to go.
It may take time to get "up and running" with terminology and form(s) of argumentation-- but it will "click in", and once it does, things will start to "flow".  You will start to see things you formerly took so-for-granted that you would not have noticed unless you tripped over them (and even then...)

MJA's picture

MJA

Sunday, February 9, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

How refreshing Nature is.

How refreshing Nature is.
When it comes to truth,or the absolute, rather than 3 R's, I would suggest studying nature, Michelangelo pointed me this Way.
A simple walk along a river can reveal everything, even One self. 
Try it and see, =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, February 9, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

My thanks to all who have

My thanks to all who have offered their insights, to myself and each other, regarding the premise of this post. My thanks also to the the creators and perpetuators of Philosophy Talk, which remains tops in my estimation, in this genre of knowledge sharing and creative multilogue. To Mr. Klein I will say: I do read. A lot. Which is why creative discourse attracts me to this forum. As a fellow-musician friend of mine used to say: "we all have our own album to do." I respect all viewpoints, including those whose foci I do not share. I'm pretty content with my own view of the world and pretty certain of the validity of that view. I will, therefore, turn my attention to other notions set forth on this blog. Hope your book does well.
Newman.

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Monday, February 10, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

"Rather than 'a stipulation

"Rather than 'a stipulation or circular' Mr. Klien (sic), I would call it simply a fact"
Unfortunately, I have no idea what you are talking about. I think our conversation has gone as far as it possibly can.
 

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Monday, February 10, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I am not sure what it is you

I am not sure what it is you are responding to.  It seems as though you were mildly agitated by my suggestion that rather than "considering going back to school" you (and anyone) would be better off reading to your own satisfaction.  Simply my expressed opinion to what seemed a query.  I did not intend to imply -- in any sense of "implication"  -- that you did not read - hence I see no need to respond -- i.e., that you already do so.
What is the part about "content in and certain of your views" in reference to?  Are there some specifics about my view of the relation between self and memory you would like to contest?
Sorry, but this is a very confusing exchange.  

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Yes, memory is a complex

Yes, memory is a complex thing.. Sell your book and more, if you can. Academics is a wonderful avenue to publication. You are not confused and neither am I. Be fully aware that science changes and watch your back.Remember that there are two kinds of people: those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don't.
Anymore questions?
If so, consult your academic associates. They MUST have better answers than I. I hope so, anyway...

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

You seem a troubled person. 

"Anymore questions"  (from HGN).
If you mean serious, on-topic queries about the radio show's content, then I have yet to see any from you to which I might offer an answer.  And I certainly can discern no answers relevant to the conversation issuing from your posts.
As for your seemingly disparaging comment that my colleagues "Must have better answers (than do you; HGN)", (a) I would not know and (b) I can't tell since you have not offered any for purposes of comparison.
My comments here are not -- as you imply -- to sell books; I comment because I was invited to discuss the content of the book by the hosts.  I expect intelligent conversation on topic --  not an apparent free-flow of non sequiturs.
By the way, if you had listened to my talk on radio or read the book that appears to infatuate you, you might realize that I find science useful but quite dogmatic and overly restrictive as a world view.
I kindly suggest you stick with your original stated intent and move on to other discussions.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Heh,heh, and, yawn, Mr. Klein

Heh,heh, and, yawn, Mr. Klein. It has been fun, what.

Stan Klein's picture

Stan Klein

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

No use responding to a troll

?

 
 
 
 

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