This post is by Mark Rowlands (pictured below) who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. He has written eighteen books, and a hundred or so journal papers, book chapters and reviews. His most recent book is Memory and the Self: Phenomenology,Science, and Autobiography (New York: Oxford University Press).
Intuitively, it is not unreasonable to suppose that our episodic memories play a significant – but not necessarily exhaustive – role in making us who we are. After all, what could make us the people we are if not the episodes we have encountered on these tracks through space and time that we call lives? And how could these things we have encountered be retained, and so play a role in shaping us, if not through episodic memory? As an intuition this is amenable to several quite different theoretical articulations.
Perhaps the most familiar to analytic philosophers is what I refer to as the metaphysical project
. This project is made up of several, related, strands or questions, but includes, centrally, questions of distinctness (what conditions are necessary and/or sufficient for a person p1 to be distinct from another person ≠ p1?) and persistence
(what conditions are necessary and/or sufficient for a person at time t1 to be the same person as a person at time t2?). The conception of the self that is implicated in this project I called the metaphysical self
. The metaphysical self is not the concern of my book.
Suppose, in contrast, you are asked to write the book of you: to tell the story of who you are: the story of your life. It seems relatively safe to conclude that this autobiography is about something
. Of course, many things are actually captured in these pages: a multiplicity of events and processes. But there is something that these events and processes events all seem to involve: something around which they all seem to revolve. And that something is you.
Your autobiography – unless it is a very peculiar one – would be free of the sorts of concerns that define the metaphysical project. What are the identity and persistence conditions of persons? It is not simply that your book will not answer that question. It won’t even ask it. You might think of your as a kind of epoché – in roughly Husserl’s sense. To write an autobiography is, precisely, to bracket these sorts of metaphysical questions.
Therefore, if we assume that (1) the book is about something, specifically you, (2) you are a person, (3) the book brackets the sorts of questions asked in the metaphysical project, then it seems we are inevitably led to the conclusion that (4) there is an understanding of the person that is not captured by the sorts of investigations pursued in the metaphysical project. The autobiographical self, as I use this expression, is whatever self is captured in your book of you. The autobiographical self is what this book is about.