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Shaping The Self

Sally Latham examines the construction of identity through memory.

I’ve kept a diary in one form or another since about the age of twelve. Sometimes a few words, sometimes pages and pages, but either way every day of my life is documented – apart, that is, from the ages of fifteen and sixteen. As with all teenagers, these were my angst years, and in a grand gesture of would-be liberation, symbolic of new beginnings, I burned them. The intended significance of the event was somewhat eclipsed when I set off my parents’ fire alarm and I realised that burning paper in my bedroom was exceedingly stupid. But anyway, those years are now lost, except for what I can recollect or others can tell me (which is pretty much the case for most people other than those who keep a daily diary).

Recently I spent some time looking through my old diaries. Sometimes forgotten memories were brought to the surface, but at other times I was reading about things I believe actually happened, because I wrote them, but of which I nevertheless had no recollection. At times, these recorded events reshaped my current self-perception: on some occasions they made me consider myself to be a better person than I otherwise currently thought, and at other times a worse one.

What constitutes our personal identity over time has long been the subject of debate, but how much influence can we have over our own identity and self-perception?

The ‘memory criterion’ of identity is usually attributed to English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). This interpretation of Locke is the subject of debate, but nevertheless it is the most popular interpretation, and the one that will be adopted here. Locke distinguishes a ‘person’ from a ‘man’. The ‘man’ means the organism, an animal like any other, whose identity over time consists in its continuity of biological life. This means that although parts can be gained and lost (we grow and shed skin cells, for example) there must be continuity within this change for us to be talking about the same man.

Concerning the identity of the person themselves – the thinking being – perhaps surprisingly for his time and culture, Locke claims that personal identity is not tied up with the soul. This is because he thinks that the same soul could in fact play host to different consciousnesses. It is your consciousness which makes you the same person over time; specifically it is the continuity of your memories.

The continuation of personal identity through memory is crucial for justice. For instance, in order to properly see the consequences of our actions and maintain our full responsibility for them, we must be able to contemplate our future selves as connected to the person about to carry out an action now, and we also must remember an action for it to qualify as really being ‘me’ who did it. (However in practical terms, since we cannot check the accuracy of someone’s memory, the courts often end up punishing a man who was demonstrably physically connected to a crime, regardless of his memory claims.)

The implication of Locke’s memory criterion for identity seems to be that my identity changes over time as my memories fade, or perhaps reappear after a period of absence. One famous objection to Locke’s view along these lines was from Thomas Reid (1710-1796). I’ll give an adapted version. Suppose that as a ten year old I am given a bike for Christmas. When I am thirty, I am given an iPhone for Christmas, and I can remember being given the bike. When I am eighty, I can recall being given the iPhone, but have no recollection of being given the bike. The argument is that according to Locke’s memory criterion, the eighty year old ‘me’ is the same person as the thirty year old ‘me’ but is no longer the same person as the ten year old who received that bike. The thirty year old is the same person as the ten year old as they can remember the bike. However this cannot be true according to the rules of logic. The eighty year old (A) is identical to the thirty year old (B) and the thirty year old (B) is the same as the ten year old (C), but the eighty year old (A) is not identical to the ten year old (C). But the laws of logic state that if A=B and B=C then A=C. So Locke must be wrong.

A standard response to this objection is to refer to chains of interconnected or overlapping memories. The eighty year old does not have to be directly connected to the ten year old through memory, provided there is a chain of memories, intertwined so to speak. Admittedly I sometimes struggle to remember what I did a couple of weeks ago, but hopefully the day after I could remember what I did, and the day after that I can remember the day before, and so on.

A different problem with the memory criterion is that of false memories. It might seem that the very term is a contradiction: either we remember truly, or we don’t remember at all. But it is certainly possible to have a first person experience of remembering being present at an event when one was not present, and this could be indistinguishable from a ‘real’ memory. If I woke up with vivid apparent memories of being Lady Gaga and performing at Wembley, wouldn’t this make me Lady Gaga the person (if not the physical woman) according to Locke’s criterion of identity?

Again, we can reply to this with a qualification. Perhaps the state of consciousness we are experiencing as a memory needs to have an appropriate causal relationship with the event being experienced for it to be called a genuine memory. So unless my ‘memory’ of singing at Wembley is caused by my actually singing at the concert, then it’s not a memory at all, and can’t be included in Locke’s theory.

We could also revise Locke’s theory to incorporate an appeal to a causal dependance on broader psychological factors going beyond memory – to include beliefs and character, for example (see Sydney Shoemaker, Personal Identity, 1984, with Richard Swinburne). This revised theory would say that a future being will be me if this being’s future psychological states are dependent in a typically human way on my current ones. In other words, this future being can be said to be psychologically continuous with my present self provided there is a chain of suitably connected psychological states.

Self-Identity Through Memory

The above is old ground, and most people would agree that memory is an important part of our identity, whether or not they would go so far as to say it is either sufficient or necessary for it. But my question now is, how much influence can we have in shaping our identity and self-perception through memory?

As we go through life we forget some things and remember others. Often this seems to be an involuntary process. Indeed there are many things we may wish we remembered, and many we wish we could forget.

In social terms, anthropologists and sociologists widely believe that the collective memory of a group is a social construction. There are those in society with the power to construct the collective memory: we are reminded of what is deemed to be important to group identity through media, religion, ritual, and taught history. Of course there are extremes of this, where the history books have literally been rewritten. But the collective memory of the World Wars, and other significant historical events, are maintained and reinforced in folk culture, so that even those of us who were not present at those events have mental images of them, and they are important in shaping social or national identity. For more on this, see the work of Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945).

Could the same be true of individual memory and self-perception? If one keeps a diary, there exist potential triggers for memory which otherwise would have been lost, or at least inaccessible. Say I sit and read the diary entries for my eighteen-year-old self. There may be events I had forgotten that I now recall. Let’s say there’s an entry for some hilarious student prank, such as stealing a shopping trolley and riding it down the street. I read this entry and I think, “Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that night.” One interesting implication is that, according to a straightforward understanding of Locke’s criterion – that is, should we take a direct memory criterion rather than an interconnected memory view or a broader psychological view – the student who stole the trolley ceased to be me, and then, when I read about the incident, became me once again. This rescued memory also affects my immediate self-perception. I may think to myself “Wow, I’m actually an idiot.” Reading about past events in my life may also help me to understand my current beliefs, actions and character.

The element of choice now becomes even more important. The ill-advised burning of diaries was an active decision not to remember – a cutting of ties with a previous self one wants no connection with, so that they can have no impact on one’s future self. On a lesser scale, when I sit down each night to write the day’s events, I have a decision to make. What I write will affect my future identity, my self-perception, when I read it back. This is the case for either a memory criterion or for a broader psychological interpretation. If one takes a strict interpretation of Locke, then at a future date when I use these words as a memory trigger, my present self will become identical with a future self whose memory is triggered. What I choose not to include runs the risk of being forgotten, and so of ceasing to be ‘me’ at a future date. (If we take the interpretation of overlapping or interconnected memories as being sufficient for personal identity through time, then forgotten memories are less important.)

There are questions raised here to which I do not have answers. There is certainly an implication to consider. I can actively shape my future self by modifying my future memory, based on what I decide to record or not record as future memory triggers.

Mind Games

If we take a broader psychological interpretation of the nature of identity, what I later read about my current endeavours will also affect my sense of identity in terms of my self-perception. If I read the pages of a diary and then think better or worse of myself, or even change my beliefs, would this qualify as the psychological connectedness we mentioned, in which the psychological state of my future self is caused at least in part by the psychological state of my present self? Here we could even remove memory completely, and concentrate solely on self-perception rather than continuity of identity. For instance, I could, at the age of eighteen, record a completely fictitious day, specifically intended to make my eighty-year-old self think in a certain way about their identity.

It is also worth thinking about identity in the context of social media, where we carve out a public record of our identity on sites such as Facebook. What we expose to public scrutiny is often carefully selected, and photographs of a night rather forgotten are hastily untagged in order that we may erase them from our digital identity. Unfortunately, participation in social media does put the construction and maintenance of individual memory, identity, and self-perception at least partly in the hands of others.

It seems that what we remember of our past is a huge factor in identity, whether as a strict link ensuring a link between past and present selves or as part of a broader psychological approach where my present psychological states can in some way affect my future psychological states. What I find most interesting is that when we consider a diary, whether the old-fashioned written journal or a digital version, the link can be lost and regained, and also manipulated to actively shape our future selves. So when I sit and write a diary tonight, I must ask myself … who exactly do I want to be?

© Sally Latham 2015

Sally Latham is a Philosophy and Anthropology lecturer at Birmingham Metropolitan College.

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