The seductive promise of security: memory as a foundation for identity.

“Life without memory is no life at all… “
Oliver Sacks. The man who mistook his wife for a hat

A person’s singular identity is often construed as an interior narrative which chronicles life’s sensibility of continued ownness. But how can this inner chronicle thread together life’s episodes, particularly those we don’t experience such as birth and death, without the witness of others? Our loved ones’ recollections ‘fine tune’ our memories; similarly, our episodic memory relies upon the critical co-witness of others to appropriated events.

This dependence upon intersubjectivity, which I have explored in a number of ways so far, is further complicated because not all non-pathological humans naturally align themselves with a personal story which narrates the continuance of their lives.[1]

The memories our lives rely on are part autobiography and part biographical.

The memories our lives rely on are part autobiography and part biographical.

Some lives, described as episodic, are predisposed to recognise possession of a past ‘from the inside’, but display no sense of life as a narrative.[2] An accompanying minimal interest in their past or concern for their future serves to dilute any sensibility of a ‘self’ accordingly. Of course my argument is that one’s identity-sense may not be dependent upon conscious interest but nevertheless find equilibrium in a recognisable habituation of engagement with the world through unthought preferences, posture and participation in the world.

The narrative role of memory as a guarantor of human identity is first explored systematically[3] in Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.[4] According to Locke, continuity of identity is safeguarded, by way of an ironically Cartesian ’straightjacket’, in consciousness, delineated practically as memory. Consciousness, says Locke, perpetually accompanies thinking, enabling one to distinguishing oneself from all other thinking things; ‘in this alone consists personal identity…  and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person…’[5]

I have made the case for a significantly broader classification of personal identity and the critical factor which enables singular distinctiveness to accrue to each one. Personal identity is holistically felt and presented in the living body, not merely in conscious thought.

The identity of each human person is found in an essentially embodied intersubjective intentionality embedded in the world. In this existential space identity is won, individuated and lost precisely in the project of appropriating the world; the background empirical world and equally the historiocultural gender-specific concrete reality of one’s Lifeworld.

This appropriation is driven, uniquely for each identity, in the particularised manner in which a desire for significance is fulfilled and a capacity for purpose is expressed and furthermore, the manner and means by which an equilibrium is achieved between these two primordial traits. One’s sense of identity I have argued is that ongoing audit of this requisite equilibrium, undertaken holistically and the meaning one acknowledges has accrued to one’s life as a result. Locke’s diffidence towards consciousness is insufficient given the fragility of human memory.

It is a central argument of this thesis that the identity of a person consists in their activation of an intentional arc through which the world is appropriated and that this is by means of an intentionality that has the capacity to be both operatively subconscious and rationally conscious. It is not however safeguarded by memory and consequently must be repeatedly reaffirmed and renewed through a sampling of that intentionality.

For Locke there is recognition that human physical identity is individuated and maintained through retention of a person’s functional organization at an atomic level. A human most significantly however, is an intelligent thinking being aware of itself, as itself; the same thinking thing in different times and places, and so unsurprisingly it is consciousness that constitutes the  ‘person’ as distinct from ‘humanness’, and continuity of personhood is found in their unique individuated consciousness retained throughout existence. Consciousness of participation in past actions equates to owning them and identification with that person who instigated and perpetrated them. This even extends to things done whilst asleep or otherwise unconscious. In terms of personal identity then, for Locke, memory is all.

To what extent are the formative events of our lives, scrumping say, part of us to the end.

To what extent are the formative events of our lives, scrumping say, part of us to the end.

Fifty years after Locke, Hume acknowledged the import of memory as a criterion for identity, but disputed that any distinct human impression supported the notion. Hume argued that repeated remembrances build up the semblance of identity.[6] Memory creates rather than validates identity. For Hume the idea of continuity of being, is the by-product of imagination rather than memory, and this lends empirical weight to Hegel’s rationalistic conjecture that self-consciousness is essentially desire, desire for selfhood. My view is not that Hume and Hegel are entirely wrong, but that they miss the significance of that colossal investment each human person nevertheless makes in the maintenance of selfhood, and the urgency with which one’s identity-sense monitors this endeavour. My human identity is a construct, imaginatively built upon the embodied intersubjective intentionality embedded in the world which this questioning being harmonises as mine. Nevertheless it is not the exclusive domain of consciousness and it is not rendered indubitable by it.

Whilst there is something compelling in Hume’s skepticism regarding a tangible core human ‘self’, his radical empiricism goes too far. Though there may not be a permanent central ‘I’ that governs my life, this does not mean that there is no primordial drive which desires permanence and to which an accretion of meaning attaches as a result of one’s appropriation of the world in expression of a primordial purposive capacity and an equiprimordial desire for significance. Memory is a poor safeguard for the integrity of that centeredness but a rich resource for its construction.  Indeed Reid also criticised Locke’s position highlighting the circularity caused by memory’s fragility. He questioned the implications for identity when our several selves contemplate each other’s existence and asserted that memory is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity metaphysically speaking.[7]

Locke’s theory implies that a breakdown of memory entails discontinuity of identity. Of course this criticism in turn hinges on the assumption that there can be such a thing as a discrete private identity. In my view one can have personal identity to the extent that one’s identity-sense can successfully sustain an experience of ownness. Were personal identity not an intersubjective accomplishment however, memorial fragmentation would herald the cessation or dissolution of identity.

Suppose a gallant officer to have been flogged for robbing an orchard when a schoolboy, to have captured a standard from the enemy in his first military campaign, and to have been promoted to the rank of a general at the end of his career. Suppose also, suggests Reid, the admissible possibility that on capturing the standard, he was conscious of having been flogged at school, and when made a general he was conscious of having captured the standard, but that he had by then completely forgotten his flogging. Reid concludes that if the man flogged at school is the same person who took the standard, and he who took the standard is the same person who was made a general, this should entail that the general is the same person as the boy flogged at school. However, ‘the general’s consciousness does not reach so far back as his flogging’, therefore, ‘according to Locke’s doctrine’, he is not the person who was flogged. Problematically ‘The general is, and at the same time is not, the same person as him who was flogged at school’.[8]

Was the mature General  only comprised of the formative events of his life that he was able to recall?

Was the mature General only comprised of the formative events of his life that he was able to recall?

Thus, if memory plays the vital role Locke posited, the general who remembers his exploits as an officer but not his misdemeanours as a boy cannot be the same person as the latter, even though he is the same person as the officer whose recollection of childhood is intact.[9] Even if memory were infallible, it cannot constitute proof of identity when the concept of memory depends conceptually on the presence of identity. It becomes clear that my identity unifies the memory impressions I have, encrypting them as ‘my’ memories. It is furthermore the mechanism with which I filter these memory impressions for my purposes and for significance to me.

This last aspect is relevant to the almost universal phenomenon of ‘childhood amnesia’[10] which entails that few people remember anything prior to three years of age with subsequent years barely memorable either. Certainly one can identify physiological reasons for this, such as the insufficient brain maturation before the age four or five which means that the ‘dentate gyrus’, a small part of the hippocampus, fails to facilitate the flow of signals to areas around it that retain them. Even so children retain some memories from experience before maturation is complete.

Scholars have gone on to suggest that the erosion of childhood amnesia coincides with development of the ‘cognitive self’;[11] the ability discerned in the youngster between eighteen and twenty four months to distinguish themselves from others. Some have argued from extensive tests over the course of ten years that our identity-sense helps us to organise our memories thus aiding recall. Considered phenomenologically, it is not surprising that memory can begin to accrue to the young only when there is an identity-sense it can adhere to. In fact what can one select to retain as of memorial import for one’s life if one has not yet begun to unify one’s sensory experience? Such a cognitive unity can only then begin to express a desire for being and identify at least tacitly those experiences for retention that are useful to oneself and significant for oneself. Thus an emergent identity-sense would seem to play a significant role in enabling memory but even so ‘memories continue to be sparse long after the point at which a toddler can recognise his or her reflection’;[12] further explanatory factors must apply.

Researchers argue that in addition to brain development and the advent of a ‘cognitive self’ the development of language is also vital. One study confirms in part, the sentiments of Merleau-Ponty regarding language acquisition years before when he argued that ‘The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world’,[13] in concluding that ‘You have to have a word in your vocabulary before you’re able to set down memories for that concept’.[14] Merleau-Ponty is arguing that in addition to conscious memory the body retains a gestural pre-conscious memory of meaning. The compelling idea follows that one’s identity-sense provides a structure to which memories can accrue and language serves to extend this construct with some kind of ‘memory scaffold, anchoring the details in a format we can call up years later’.[15] This consciousness-dependent notion is that much more convincing when supplemented with the idea that one’s body-subject retains this memory holistically and through revisited explorative narratives, language is enabled to reclaimed it. Indeed the research goes on to affirm that in a recursive manner language does not just appropriate the past memorially, ‘talking about the past… also fosters development of a sense of self’. To argue that one’s harmonising of the world is sensed holistically is to affirm the creative role, but not the validatory role, of one’s unifying desire to be, one’s memorial narrative of experience and one’s narration regarding one’s own identity. What ensues is autobiographical memory, though not as a validatory guarantor.

Words and meanings, like memories are the creative elements with which we shape our lives.

Words and meanings, like memories are the creative elements with which we shape our lives.

Sartre’s twentieth century critique marginalises the role of memory further in that he argues that memory cannot be possessed at all. As I have shown, he argues that a conscious person is free, a fluid self-determining centre of distinctness and memories, like preferences, merely reveal a person’s primary existential project. Having judged that consciousness is a nihilation, Sartre asserts that one must conclude that ‘to be conscious of ourselves and to choose ourselves are one and the same’.[16] To some extent I agree but it is not in fact necessary to assume that one only chooses oneself consciously. In fact memory may be said in retrospect to supply the conscious narrative for a prior-to-conscious choosing that has already taken place.

Our lives, are malleable and stylised, like the memories that underpin them.

Our lives, are malleable and stylised, like the memories that underpin them.

According to Sartre, we may through conscious choice live in bad faith, rejecting correction of wrongly constructed reminiscences because we cannot embrace what we once were. Memory is a matter of our truth which has validity on a personal plane rather than objectively.[17] Remembrances are lived and legitimated when they represent adequately the performance of my project which takes up, in my view, the tension between being what I am not yet and interrogating what I am.

Here then, in Sartre’s objection, is disclosed  the role of memory. The ‘self’-actualising human being, an identity-sense desirous of harmony, attempts to incorporate the disjunctive stimulus of each given moment and to encompass time through projecting Being from itself upon time.[18] Memory is a creative tool employed by one’s identity-sense to stem the fragmenting tide of time and etch in the sands anew the outline of its fragile harmonisation of significance and purpose in appropriation of the world.

Memory is neither the criterion nor guarantor of continued identity over time,[19]  though a primordial human desire for such harmony persists. Human identity, incessantly, re-opens time to reclaim its ‘what it is to be’, a singular embodied intentionality embedded in the world. Though memory cannot safeguard identity, this most creative tool sculpts identity.[20]


Memory, rich in texture as it undoubtedly is, enables us to sculpt our identity-sense.

Memory, rich in texture as it undoubtedly is, enables us to sculpt our identity-sense.

[1] Galen Strawson, Against Narrativity, Ratio (new Series), XVII 4 December 2004 0034-0006, 428-433. In fact, each of us are positioned somewhere on a spectrum between a ‘Episodic’ and’ Diachronic’ experience of the ‘self’, Ibid, 430-45-, Strawson explores this issue advising us in the final word not to conclude that Diachronicity is a necessary condition of a properly moral existence, nor of a proper sense of responsibility. How he asks do Episodicity and Diachronicity relate to Narrativity? In response he advises us to suppose that being Diachronic is at least necessary for being Narrative,  since its true by definition that if you’re Diachronic you’re not Episodic and conversely, it follows that if you’re Episodic you’re not Narrative.

[2] Strawson, 2004, ibid

[3] Henry, E. Allison, Locke’s Theory of Personal Identity: A Re-Examination Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 27, No. 1. (Jan. – Mar., 1966), 41

[4] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, Fontana Library 1964), 212

[5] Ibid, 449

[6] David Hume, Treatise of human nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford, OUP, 1951, 259

[7] Rebecca Copenhaver, Reid on Memory and Personal Identity First published Wed Mar 18, 2009, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,, accessed 18:13, 14th November 2010

[8] Essays 276, Ibid

[9] Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, in Works of Thomas Reid, ed. Sir William Hamilton, 8th edition (Edinburgh, 1895), 11, 351

[10] Weir, K. Our forgotten Years , in New Scientist, 43

[11] Mark Howe, in Weir, ibid, 44

[12] Howe, in Weir, ibid

[13] Merleau-Ponty, M. PP, 2006, 214

[14] Morrison, in Weir, ibid

[15] Weir, ibid

[16] Sartre, 2005, 484

[17] Ibid, 647

[18] Luchte, 2008, 115

[19] For an interesting discussion of an argument for abandoning criterialism and the implications that ensue from this see ‘There Are No Criteria of Identity Over Time’ Trenton Merricks, Noûs, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 106-124

[20] This term is explored in Abraham. H. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, London, Penguin Arkana, 1993 as indicative of a strategic and therapeutic choice to choose, see pages 40-50. I borrow it here to depict instead the default intentionality of human identity.


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