Thursday 2 February 2017

Memory and the Self

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.

At least, it is part of what the book is about. It is also about episodic memory, and its role in the construction of this autobiographical self. The idea that episodic memory plays a significant role in the making of the autobiographical self faces two problems. The first is obvious: we forget. A lot. We have all lost far more episodic memories than we have retained. Imagine a four-dimensional collage made up of experiences. If complete, the collage would tell a story – the story of you.

However, the collage is very far from complete. The collage is largely made up empty spaces where experiences used to be. Worse, the experiences that remain have been tampered with – altered, amended, revised. At least, this is a reasonable inference we can draw from the recent work on memory reconsolidation conducted by Nader and others, and classic studies of flashbulb memory conducted by Neisser and colleagues.

Following Plato, we were tempted to think of memory as akin to wax. The soft wax of short-term memory quickly hardens into solid long-term form, and the resulting memories are relatively impervious to modification by outside influences. This, we now know, is false. If we do want to think of memory in terms of the wax metaphor, then we have to accept that any act of remembering involves a re-softening of the wax, leaving our memories in a labile, pliable state in which they are susceptible to revision.

The problem, therefore, is not simply that the collage of experiences is vastly incomplete. More than this, even the experiences that remain are likely to have been modified – sometimes to the extent that they bear little resemblance to the experiences that were initially present. The story told by the collage would, at best, cover only a fraction of your life and would also be, in varying degrees, inaccurate – and, on some occasions at least, simply false. It is as if you wrote a supposed autobiography where most of the sentences were redacted and the ones that remained were a mixture of the inaccurate, the misleading, and the downright false. How could this book – or this collage – tell the story of you? That is the problem the book seeks to address.

The answer to the problem, I argue, forces us to rethink the idea of the content of episodic memory. The content of memory is not what we have taken it to be. This is where the metaphor of the collage or book leads us astray. You are, I argue, in your episodic memories in a way you can never be in a sentence that describes you or a picture that contains you. You sculpt the contents of your memories out of the marble blocks of episodes. The content of your episodic memories, thus, always bears the indelible stamp of you. You are always etched into the content of your memories – you have to be for those memories to present episodes as ones you formerly encountered. If your memories make you who you are, it is only because you are already in them.

I have just described the beginning and – belated spoiler alert – the end of the book. As with most philosophy, however, the journey is the most enjoyable part – and, anyway, the end doesn’t make much sense without it. Prominent landmarks on this journey include a novel form of memory that I christen Rilkean memory, after the Rainer Maria Rilke who provided a powerful statement of the idea.

A Rilkean memory is an act without content: the content of the memory has been lost but the act lives on in a new, mutated, form. Wittgenstein and Husserl both put in multiple appearances along the way. And there are also some attractive cameos from Marie-Henri Beyle – around the time he was developing the pen name Stendhal – Milan Kundera, and many others.

1 comment:

  1. I am really interested in the idea that we choose memories in the form of diary-keeping. Reading an old diary can either trigger a memory that was hidden and shape self-identity in the present or even if not triggered we may believe the event took place anyway and this can still shape our identity now. How much choice do you think we have in the narrative of our selves?


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