Memory and the Self by Spencer F. Boegeman

Are we simply a collection, a bundle of our past experiences? The unity of consciousness that we mentioned in our previous article is the notion that our consciousness has a framework that ties all our past, present and future experiences together. It seems that who we are is more complex than simply a bucket of memories that we cannot always access. Our consciousness and its respective continuity has the “glue”of memory to hold the whole structure together. And yet we still seem to repeat activities for reasons other than for the sake of routine. Why is it that we enjoy rewatching series on Netflix, visiting the same parks and museums repeatedly, listening to the same song over and over again, or eating the same dish? It could be the case that the     dopaminergic high of pleasurable activities impels us to replicate their conditions. Our memories are not infallible and “perfect recall” is pure myth for most of us. Perhaps Nietzsche was correct when he wrote that “the advantage of a bad memory is that we can enjoy the same good things for the first time several times”1.

What is memory and what is its form, function and purpose? And further, how does it relate to general cognition? Memory is a complex notion that has philosophical implications across a wide body of legal, ethical, existential, and epistemological concerns. Memory is both a concept and a process. We will consider some of these aspects in our series of articles on memory including some of the issues with eyewitness testimony, memory enhancement, and memory, and some cultural aspects of memory. Firstly, by focusing on the relationship between memory and the concept of the “self” one can begin to more clearly investigate some of the concepts of consciousness.

Memory is intrinsically tied to the self and to the totality of one’s mind. Memory is a key component in understanding the continuity of the self and the unity of consciousness. Autobiographical memory connects the present self with one’s past actions, perceptions, feelings, and experiences. Memories are closely related to what Hume called “impressions”. There are original impressions and impressions of reflection. Original impressions are the feelings and sensations that we get from our senses. Impressions of reflection are emotions, desires, and sentiments that are reactions to ideas and memories. If you once ate durian and thought it tasted unpleasant, you would be able to reflect on that past sensation and would avoid eating durian. Your original impression of durian was one of distaste and that disposition towards durian would become part of your personality. If you were to suddenly enjoy durian, it would be as if something in your personality changed–you would not be you.

To be an individual with a personal identity, one must be able to reflect on such impressions; a person is someone with combinations of these memories and sentiments. Locke wrote that a person 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”. Leibniz believed that thoughts in memory remain dormant, latent; and only until we summon them up by reflection do they become distinct to us. In regards to perception, this is important because memory stores past representations so that we can resolve present perceptions; viz. memory is necessary for and therefore guides our present attention. Leibniz’s notion is distinct, but related to the concept that Hume presented by means of being able to recall the ideas that result from original impressions. For Hume, being able to introspect into the self simply means to see a collection of memories from our past. Is this who we really are?


1 Nietzsche, F. W. (1997). Human, All too Human, I (G. J. Handwerk, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. §580


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