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.
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.