For normal purposes we identify persons also in the same way according a central place to physical peculiarities. If I am alleged to have been at a certain place at some time it will usually be because someone has seen me and knows what I look like or can provide a reasonably full description of me or of some distinctive peculiarity of mine to someone who is familiar with my appearance. This could be a vital part of evidence in a criminal case especially if confirmed should that seem necessary in an identification parade. I am picked out by the person who claims to have seen me. My physical appearance is decisive. In serious matters like a crime attempts will be made to substantiate eye-witness reports of this kind by yet more reliable physical marks such as finger prints. I am identified by some reliable means of identifying my body. This is also how we make persons known to one another — ‘May I introduce Mr Brown’ that is the person who is standing in front of us or whom I specify if need be by a glance in his direction. ‘And which is Mr Smith?’ — he is the person reading the paper in the corner.
4. The Self as Described — and Memory
There can be little doubt that we do identify ourselves all the time both for ourselves and for others by description. For normal purposes this is all that is required. This takes the same course in essentials as identification in the external world. We may indicate which table is in need of repair or to be disposed of by saying ‘the round table’ or ‘the square table’. This will be in a context this room or at least this house where the description rules out any possibility of confusion. In the last resort we must have recourse to physical location. Two objects may be identical in all the respects of which we can think two tables of exactly the same colour shape size weight the same material etc. There is no way in which we can say that one is different from the other. But one is in front of the window one by the fire. If this were not the case if there is no way in which one is different from the other and they are in the same place exactly then we have one table and not two. We do not always have explicit reference to spatial location in distinguishing physical objects. A vase may be unique if it is the only one of its kind actually made by a famous artist. It may also be the only one of its kind that I have ever seen or the one that I bought. But we can at least conceive an exact replica of any physical object. Physical location would then be the only means of distinguishing the two and even if it is not expressly invoked it will figure in some way the making of the vase by the artist in some particular place at some time or the physical transactions involved in buying it etc. But without going further into this particular issue it is evident that we identify physical entities by some peculiarities which we can describe. They are distinct because of the sorts of things they are. They must have some distinguishing mark.
We do not always however think expressly much less exclusively in physical terms. ‘Who is Brown?’ — ‘Oh he is the person who is always disrupting the meeting by asking preposterous questions you will recognise him’. We may also be described in many ways including physical peculiarities for other purposes than identification. People want to know what we are like not just who we are. Novelists present their characters in this way sometimes directly and sometimes in the mirror of the opinion of one of the other characters — Mrs Bennet so Jane Austen tells us pronounced Mr Davey on her first experience of him as ‘a most disagreeable horrid man not at all worth pleasing. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him’. Some characterisations in life or in fiction are more reliable than others not excluding the opinions we may form about ourselves. But whether they are sound or not in particular cases there is nothing inherently unsound or improper in making such descriptions of ourselves or of one another. In applying for a post it is not out of place to give some indication of where my interests lie and it is usual for others in testimonials or references to give some opinion of my character and attainments. What then are we doing in such cases? Who or what is being described?
It seems plain if the main submissions I have been making hitherto are sound that when we proffer descriptions of physical appearance or peculiarity we are not strictly describing a person. Many writers of today question this not only when they hold frankly corporealist views but in other ways when in accordance with what they take to be a philosophy of common sense they think they can properly speak of strictly seeing a person’s anger or pleasure or watch him enjoying himself smoking his pipe. Followers of Cook Wilson as well as advocates of modern identity theories are apt to think in these terms. But if I am right in all I have hitherto maintained about the radical difference of mental and physical processes it must be insisted also that accounts of my appearance are just accounts of physical properties however important these may be as indications of what the mental states are like. It is pleasing to be handsome and awkward to be unprepossessing or lame or deformed or blind. But these even the blindness as a physical peculiarity of my eyes etc. remain physical properties however much they may affect my happiness or the course of my life in its properly mental form in other ways. They may matter enormously for me as other bodily features matter for me — my health for instance — but they are not strictly descriptions of me as a person except for rough and ready purposes. It is not me that is tall or lame but my body.
It was said of a person once that ‘his squint is mental’. But all that this meant was that the squint was in some ways symptomatic or an indication of an attitude of mind possibly in some measure a cause of it. This is a matter on which I have said enough earlier in The Elusive Mind and earlier in this book. Whatever we may say in ‘ordinary language’ or for day-to-day purposes the ‘wedge’ in Professor Strawson’s term is inescapable for common sense and philosophy. But in that case we must surely look for what appertains to persons as persons in accounts of properly mental properties of actual states of mind or character. We shall therefore leave strictly physical descriptions aside as not directly relevant to our present concerns.
There are two ways in which we may have descriptions of properly mental reality. One is when we give an account of what is occurring at a particular time or what has occurred in the past in the way of some mental event or experience. I may report that I am now thinking the thoughts which I try to put on paper and that I am also glancing occasionally out of the window to look at the trees outside or sipping a cup of tea etc.; half an hour ago I went out for a walk last year on a certain date I went to a play. Although these involve physical activity they are in the first place accounts of what my experience including all I set myself to do has been like. We ascribe similar experiences to others just as they learn about mine from what I say or observation of me or other indications of what I have been doing. How we come to ascribe experience to others since no one has any experience other than his own is as was noted a matter of the proper explanation of what we observe. But in essentials in what we report the account we give of the course of our own experience is not substantially different from what we report of other persons. I learn that my neighbour has been thinking about philosophy too or about his holiday or that he has been mowing the lawn. In all these cases we have been describing what in fact has been happening though as mental descriptions they only include directly what our states of mind were like including all we were setting ourselves to do and our perceptions and sensations.
In practice much of this description will include an account of physical processes as well. In almost everything we do including severely intellectual activity there will be the close involvement of mental processes with physical ones as already stressed. Sometimes this will be more overt than at other times; when I go for a walk or play a game the physical involvement is very evident but even if I am just puzzling something out ‘in my head’ and sitting (or standing) still I at least maintain these bodily postures and I may do much besides like frowning or wrinkling my forehead — and all this involves physical processes of which I have no proper awareness such as all that goes on in my brain. But in the present context all that concerns us is the description of various experiences or mental occurrences as such.
With this we may contrast the sharply different way in which we may describe ourselves (or others) in terms of how we are prone to react on various occasions. I may describe my likes and dislikes my hobbies my accomplishments and my failings and so on. Instead of saying that I am thinking about philosophy at the moment I may just say that I am a philosopher or interested in philosophy that I am fond of swimming and am good at a certain stroke that I am much attached to my friends but have no fondness for certain others that I am kind or ill-tempered as the case may be (or others may say this about me). Mrs Bennet was describing how Mr Davey had actually behaved at the ball but it could just as well indeed it strongly inclines to become a sketch of his character as it struck her. We can say a great deal in that vein about ourselves or others. We read people’s characters or say what they are like.
The term in most common use here is ‘disposition’. But we also use ‘character’ or ‘nature’. We may be ‘good-natured’ or naturally kind. ‘Character’ is sometimes reserved for the more basic ingredients in our dispositional system but it is also often used for the system of our dispositions as a whole. When we offer descriptions of persons in these terms we are not describing anything they are actually doing or undergoing. If I am judged to be a very ill-tempered person or known to be fond of swimming or a powerful swimmer this does not mean that I am in a temper about anything at the moment or that I am swimming now. It means only that I am easily put in a bad temper that I take opportunities to swim when they offer and enjoy it that I have a certain competence as a swimmer and so on. These are accounts of general traits of character and skills or accomplishments; they say what I am prone to do or capable of doing given the proper occasion and inducement.
We do not know anything about our skills and other dispositions directly not even in one’s own case. A man’s character or nature is not something he can directly inspect as we might examine a machine and discover very fully in some cases what it can do. An expert mechanic could judge with some nicety what the acceleration of a car will be although he will wish to confirm his judgement by testing it. No one’s character is open to him in this way nor is it so to others. This was why those philosophers like Professor Ryle who gave an account of actual conduct and experience entirely in dispositional terms denied that we have any private access to our own minds. We know nothing directly about dispositions and skills. We must go in the first place to what our actual experience is like to what we actually find ourselves doing or undergoing in some way. Our bodies may indeed be examined and much may be learnt in this way in some respects affecting the kind of experience we may have. An oculist may find the eyes of his patient to be quite healthy and be assured thus that he is in no danger of losing his sight. Another doctor may forecast protracted pain from some bodily ailment. Perhaps he would forecast also a state of tension and irritation. How far we can go in this way on the basis of advances in neuro-physiology is uncertain. For while much may be anticipated on the basis of physiological evidence alone about possible perceptions and sensations once we pass beyond this to matters like irritability and forbearance many other factors are involved — the course of our thoughts and understanding shaping themselves largely as was noted by what is inherent in their own determination affected in turn by training education individual influence and the influence of environment in more general ways. It seems in herently impossible short of the complete identification of persons with their bodies to have an exhaustive neuro-physiological science of character. In practice we learn what sorts of persons we ourselves and others are by observing how we conduct ourselves and react on specific occasions.
We learn that someone is considerate because we find him being considerate in a variety of situations we learn of the fortitude of another by noting the way he bears himself in adversity or distress we learn that someone is courageous or daring because he acts that way and likewise we know by their deeds or frames of mind that persons are callous timid cowardly or cruel. They may not always behave cruelly or be cowards but that is what they tend to be and in describing them as such we ascribe a certain nature or character to them. That is what it means to have a certain character and whether physiology helps or not the main recourse is to what we can establish from particular observation. We have no other access to character.
The position here as has often been noted is akin to the way we learn the properties of physical things. We learn that the glass is brittle not because we can inspect the brittleness as such but because we have learnt in specific observation how glass of a certain composition is affected by blows or pressure. This may itself be explained by more basic scientific knowledge we may deduce much from basic principles but the principle is the same. We discover the way things are not by inspecting general properties as such but from specific instantiation. The parallel must not however be closely pressed at all points. For the relation between one trait of character and another will depend on affinities between the sorts of things they are as properties of conscious or at least sentient beings. The level of rationality will have much importance here and this is why we generally expect one virtue to carry some others with it. There are relations inherent to what our dispositions are in themselves although we can never be too rigid in such matters. Character is complicated a normally courageous trait of character may fail before some particular kind of danger and we may not always be able to count on the kind-heartedness of a normally courageous person. Some characters are much more integrated than others and all are affected by particular circumstances in their development.
What is of most importance for us in our present concern is that we are able to describe ourselves and others in the sense of determining what our dispositions are like. This will extend to natural aptitudes and acquired skills and to the emotional states we are likely to be in as well as to the likes and dislikes inclinations and aversions which tend to lead more directly to action. How reliable we are in assessments of this sort in our own case or that of others is a moot point. We are prone to much bias and there is much that escapes the casual observer. The expert on the other hand may be caught upon some narrowness of his own preoccupation or preconceptions. We rely extensively on writers of fiction to be our guides in the vastly complicated world of the play of characters on one another. But we all of us form rough estimates of what we ourselves and others are like in the present sense sometimes presupposing some general things about the sort of creatures we are and sometimes forming an estimate of some particular person perhaps in some specific regard like his capacity to be a teacher or an administrator.
There is hardly any need to stress the importance of the way we recognise one another’s natures and describe them to ourselves and others. This is the very stuff of living. Whether we put our thoughts in words or not or articulate them in some other way we live in communities of persons who deal with one another on the basis of what they take one another to be like. Without this there could be no society but only chaos. Our understanding of one another is imperfect but without some reliable measure of it we could do nothing together. In our closer relationships the impressions we have of one another are of profound importance. We are loved or reviled on the basis of them. We have an ideal of what we should be or of what we would like to be. This need not be understood in terms of a rigid type as in Plato’s Republic but we all have notions of what it would be best to be and the qualities to cultivate and to avoid. On some views most of all in religion it is thought that our existence has the purpose of our attaining in the ‘vale of soul-making’ to a distinctive refinement of mind and character but this may be achieved in simple unostentatious ways as well as in conspicuous ones. At a more modest level life would lose most of its savour and enrichment were it not for varieties of interests and attitudes which make up distinctive personalities.
There can be no doubt therefore that we require to know and to understand one another in distinctive ways and so to ascribe traits of character to ourselves by which we are distinguished. But what sort of ascription is this? To whom or to what are our various peculiarities ascribed? In the corresponding case of the ascription of properties to external things we may take one of two courses either a realist insistence on objects altogether different from our own presentations but involved in the coherence or system they present or some way in which the reality of objects is found in the pattern or system they present. The first way is ruled out where mental properties are concerned for neither a causal argument nor a simple recourse to alleged common sense will give us any notion of what sort of entity it is that could be reflected in the patterns of either our actual mental processes or our dispositions. The analogy with properties of external things as a realist sees them yields no result here which is perhaps why Kant was reluctant to think of the subject of experience as ‘a thing in itself’. No schemata of mental properties points to a reality beyond them.
Can we then simply ascribe our dispositions to some system of our dispositions as a whole finding no reality for them that is not in turn dispositional itself. This I submit is also out of the question. For dispositions considered in themselves have a singularly tenuous or shadowy existence. They are meaningless apart from the experiences in which they are embodied. They have no solidity of their own. But in all the particular experiences in which our dispositional traits are actualised there is as we have seen the essential awareness of the self which has the experience and which is peculiarly involved with it as the experience distinctively its own while at the same time being everything that it is in itself independently of having this particular experience. Everyone it was urged knows his own distinctively ultimate existence in this way. But if our dispositions have no significance apart from the experiences or on-going mental events they regulate and if in all actual experience there is the further awareness of oneself the descriptions which an account of our dispositions offer must surely be a description of the self which in its basic distinctness eludes all possible description. My dispositions are very much indeed quite essentially my own; it is for me to be proud or ashamed of them but they so belong to me as the person whom I also know at any time to be irreducibly distinct.
We may bring this out in another way. Our dispositions change. I may transfer my interest in one game to another or drop my interest in games altogether. I may become a kind-hearted person after being spiteful and cruel a religious person after being wholly secular or the reverse. I may become as it is sometimes put ‘a different person altogether’. But all this will still have happened to me I shall have changed my ways. Compliments or reproach will be due to me it is for me to feel elated or ashamed or remorseful. This means that I remain in the most basic sense the same person before and after these changes.
Attempts have been made to account for these changes in terms of affinities of structure and relation between earlier dispositional states and later ones; and I shall shortly be considering some recent attempts to include all that matters in self-identity under the cover of relations between the changes of our states of mind or our dispositions. But for the moment I stay with the more direct presentation of the picture as I see it and what appears crucial here is the awareness we have of ourselves as the unique beings we are if this is allowed in having any experience. To account for relations between states of mind or dispositional traits without reckoning with so central an item as each one’s initial awareness of himself would appear to be a very quixotic torturing of ourselves to solve a puzzle in disregard of the most obvious clue that presents itself. We may exercise great ingenuity in the process but hardly that which conduces to philosophical insight and understanding of the best kind.
For the same reasons we have to move very cautiously when people speak of ‘a pure self’ and ‘an empirical self’. There may be no serious harm in this terminology but it could lead us very seriously astray if it led us to suppose that there actually are two selves. There is only one self known most explicitly as the subject or agent in our on-going mental states but it is the same self which has the on-going state as peculiarly and essentially a state of itself and has its dispositions liable to change as they are as dispositions of the one being which each one knows himself to be. To think of an ‘empirical self’ as some kind of adjunct to the ‘pure self’ which I am essentially would be to so detach my dispositional self from the self which I really am as to make it peculiarly difficult to see how my dispositions could affect my states of mind or conduct. We must not forget that they are only known in that determination.
We need not thus be daunted by seeming to be committed to the paradoxical view that in one very obvious sense any person may be described by himself or others and in another more fundamental sense may not be described at all. Philosophers have often found it their business to take the sting out of seemingly serious or fatal paradoxes as when H. A. Prichard and W. D. Ross1 maintained that in one sense a person may have acted rightly on some occasion and in another sense not. They maintained that these two senses of acting rightly are quite compatible. In the same way it is held here that we certainly can identify ourselves by description in ways that have great importance for ourselves and for all who have to deal with us — we may be so described in terms of our physical appearance (or other bodily features) or of our particular history or of our characters and dispositions. But this in no way diminishes the force of insisting also that nothing specific can be said in the same way to indicate just what it means to say that this is a description of me or that it fits me. The initial clue here is the awareness of himself that each one has in his own case — and on that basis ascribes to others in ascribing experience to them.
To consolidate this position and to remove further possible sources of objection we have however one further major hurdle to surmount. The self is known to itself it has been urged in the course of having any experience however we delimit it. But how can we be certain that the self or subject which so presents itself at any particular time is the same as the self which we find in another experience? How do we establish our continued identity? In what sense am I the same person now as entered the room an hour ago and was out having breakfast before that and visiting some other town yesterday and so throughout my life? How do we know or what is involved in saying that the pain I have now is had by the same person as had a like pain (or was at ease as it may be) yesterday. How are these two pains mine but not the similar pain which my neighbour had yesterday. How do we bind our own experiences together and thereby the dispositions they manifest over a period of time as distinctly our own. Might not the self which has the experience at some particular time and which is thus more than that particular occurrence itself be simply a phenomenon which manifests itself in each experience as it happens?
The oddity of this supposition will be evident at once. But we cannot leave the matter there. There are substantial considerations which may be firmly adduced in support of the continuous identity which we all assume in practice and which cannot in my view be conceived exhaustively in relational or structural terms.
Prominent among these are the considerations already noted adduced by Kant and his followers. Our experiences are not random; on the contrary we apprehend ‘a world of objects’ as has been noted which become intelligible to us and which we are able in some ways on the basis of our understanding of them to manipulate. This enables us to live in the world as we do. But for this to be possible there has to be more than coherence and system in the world which we do apprehend in this way we must ourselves transcend the fleeting momentary presentations of the world or the flow of events as it proceeds we must in some fashion stand away from all this and hold it together in our thoughts in a way that would not be possible if we did not live on ourselves as the same conscious subjects from one phase to another. To ascribe qualities to objects which are only partially disclosed in our presentations at some time as when the coloured surface is seen in perspective and further deemed to be part of a desk sufficiently solid to hold our books and to lean our elbows on to write with other sides weight and so on to hear the footfall outside as a footfall all this requires the understanding of what is presented now which is only possible when we make it meaningful in the light of previous experience. But for that to work we must be the same in the previous experience on which we draw as we are now. How else could our past experience help us now?
The alternative would be that one experience or even one presentation however we understand that should communicate something of itself directly to the next as in some forms at least of the theory of association of ideas or of traces in the brain. These suppositions initially implausible as they are have been so extensively criticised in their traditional forms that it would be idle to go over that familiar ground again. I shall shortly as I noted be looking at counterparts of the same suppositions in our own philosophical scene. Here I will only note how strange and unfortunate it is that treatments of this theme ranging from Bradley’s notable chapter I book II part II volume I of his Logic to books and articles by H. J. Paton A. C. Ewing and C. A. Campbell should as it appears at least be so little heeded today.
It has however already been intimated that the Kantian approach in itself is inadequate. A mere formal condition of experience a logical pre-requisite is not enough — least of all ‘an imaginary focus’. It is also apt to set us on the perilous slope so fatal to much idealist thinking which leads to the ultimate elimination of ‘finite centres’ by absorption in the unity of the one whole or absolute. The self must be ‘something’ and I wish now to pursue the implications of all that has already been said on this score and especially of the awareness that each one has of himself in the distinctness of his own being — I want to pursue this further in supplementation of the strictly Kantian approach by an expansion that relates specifically to the question of our continued identity.
To this end recourse must be had to the way we may be said to remember. A distinction must be drawn between two ways in which we may remember. One is the way we retain some information or understanding we have acquired. I remember the multiplication table and how to add and subtract. In the same way I have remembrance of past events. I remember that it was King Alfred who fought the Danes that the battle of Waterloo was in 1815 and a vast array or a web perhaps we should say of similar things. Most that we may be said to know or believe is of this kind. We have a vast ‘storehouse’ of such knowledge on which we may draw at will. But there is also a sense in which I do not remember any of the past events listed here. I do not remember King Alfred fighting the Danes or the battle of Waterloo — I was not there. I remember that Plato was a philosopher and I remember well much that he taught and other things about him. How we justify this and how far such remembrance is sound does not concern us now. For in a more fundamental sense with which we are to be concerned I certainly do not remember Plato — he lived long before I was born.
We pass then to the strict sense of memory in which I may sensibly say that I remember having my breakfast a short while ago having a car ride and picnic yesterday afternoon and other events much earlier in my life. There is also much that I have forgotten in my life although I know in other ways that it must have been. But there is much of which we say that we properly remember. Nor does this apply merely to episodes in my own life — I may remember a boat-race which I watched and which would certainly have mattered more to others the participants especially than to me; I may remember an accident in which someone was badly hurt. In this sense what I have called the strict sense of remembering I can only remember something in which I myself participated in some way at least as an observer. However strong my grounds for believing that something happened — and perhaps very recently — I cannot say that I properly remember it if there was no sense in which I was there. I may have been told what happened as near the event as makes no difference — a workman repairing the roof of my house falls off the ladder and someone rushes in to tell me. I may give evidence in such a case but I certainly could not truthfully say that I remember his falling — I did not properly witness that I saw or heard nothing of it myself. What we strictly remember are the things which we ourselves undergo or observe.
In the cases when we do say that we strictly remember we seem to be harking back directly to the past event. This is not an easy matter to present. There can be no question of claiming that we actually bring back the past event. My eating my breakfast was over and done with half an hour ago. I do not literally live over this experience a second time when I remember it. However we may think of time or play about with notions of a time machine etc. there is not the slightest requirement to suppose that we live through the past event anew every time we recall it nor does it seem in the least likely or even meaningful to suppose that time is reversible in that way. All the same there is some ‘recall’ of the past event. I do not simply have strong reasons for believing that I had my breakfast half an hour earlier. There may be such reasons — the tray is still there I am reasonably replete I normally have breakfast before I settle down to work the waiter collects my tray and is pleased with my saying how good the breakfast was and so on. There may be any amount of evidence of this kind but it is not on the score of that evidence however irresistible that I say that I remember eating my breakfast. I have no thought of evidence of any kind — I just remember.
This does not mean that I remember everything about eating my breakfast. There will be much to which I have not attended sufficiently for it to make more than a passing impact. Nor will I in the normal course of things remember eating my breakfast this morning for very long. Unless there is something very special about it the memory will quickly fade. But as long as I do remember it and when I actually summon up a remembrance of this and of other things past there seems to be nothing in between. I can this morning recall at will the event of eating my breakfast and the waiter coming in later for the tray. If I give evidence on the basis of it this in itself will not require any corroboration although in other ways corroboration may be valuable. But my own evidence is taken at its own value just because I offer it as something I witnessed. If I am asked ‘How are you so certain that the waiter took the tray away’? I reply ‘Because I saw him’ it is enough that I am certain that I saw him and if pressed as to why I am so certain now I can only answer ‘Because I distinctly remember it’. The memory is clear without intermediary. I do not look for evidence because I remember it so well — it was very recent and my recollection is firm and unclouded. I put every reliance on it and others will take it as substantial testimony if they are assured of my integrity. Evidence of an eye-witness is usually exceptionally strong.
The strength and clarity of my recall of past events especially recent ones does not mean that my witness is in all respects impeccable and can never be questioned. I may in the first place have been mistaken at the time. I do indeed very clearly remember the waiter coming into the room but perhaps it was someone else very cleverly disguised to impersonate him. As I am busy at work and so just take a casual glance I do not penetrate the disguise and I may have no reason to suspect it. Detective stories rely much on deceptions of that sort. Mrs Miggs2 gave very firm evidence that Plant (the suspect) was in his room at the critical period of the murder she heard him poke the fire just as he always did answer the telephone and use his typewriter she had seen him enter his study and leave it later. It seemingly presented an unbreakable alibi which foxed Inspector French till almost the last minute when the faintest of marks on the window suggested how the suspect may have left the room by a rope-ladder and let in a well coached impersonator. In spite of her clear memory and her integrity as a person not open to any suspicion herself her evidence was wrong when she insisted that Plant was in his room all evening.
Even so it was not the recollection as such that was mistaken the lady had heard the fire poked the telephone answered the familiar padding about the room. It was not her memory that had been tricked but her understanding at the time of what was going on in the room above. It is possible also for someone to be tricked in this way or to trick himself after the event itself. It is always perplexing when eye-witnesses of undoubted integrity swear that they saw something from where they were standing which it can be proved in due course they could not possibly have seen from just where they were there was some obstruction or the vital occurrence happened just beyond their vision round the corner. The delusion is a genuine one and it could come about possibly because at the time their imagination and their expectations on the basis of what they presumed to be happening filled in the gaps mistakenly in what they actually observed or because they were sufficiently suggestible to honestly conclude that the denouement which the facts they did observe clearly portended or the record as it became known later or other strong evidence had in fact been what they had actually observed at the time.
But here again it is not the memory proper which is at fault. The deluded person has put a further interpretation on what he does in fact correctly remember. He has allowed his memory to play him false because he has allowed himself to read more into his proper recollection than is strictly there. Some persons due to vivid imagination or their being very suggestible or strongly disposed to believe certain things are more easily deluded in these ways than others. But it does not follow even in these cases that there is not a considerable element of genuinely recalling some aspects of a past event.
The issue at this point is apt to be unduly clouded by the fact that for most persons the recall of past events carries with it very lively and vivid images. I visualise the waiter collecting the tray and if I have any doubt about it I play the still familiar scene over in imagination and set my mind at rest at once — ‘Yes of course it happened I can still very clearly see it all in my mind’s eye I have a vivid picture of his beaming smile when I complimented him’. Yet this vivid picture is not the memory. Perhaps I could never remember so well without the picture. But there are persons who disclaim having mental images at all and even if this is due to faulty introspection the seeming absence of much reliance on the picture confirms our view that the picture is not the vital factor. Vivid picture or no what I am assured of when I have a firm recollection most of all a recent one is that such and such happened.
The picture or image is in any case only a slice of the total event like a still from a film — the waiter standing at the door or holding the tray. But what we recollect is the total event in its complexity. The image is itself often incomplete it varies and in time grows dim notwithstanding that our remembrance itself is still very vivid; ‘like yesterday’ we say of some distant event very clearly marked in our memories.
It does not follow that the memories proper are always sound or infallible. There is a hard problem about the fallibility of memory. Some try to settle this on strictly linguistic grounds — we can have no use for ‘memory’ they hold unless there are some reliable memories. This seems to me very unsatisfactory. We may decide to use the word ‘memory’ for cases where the possibility of error is ruled out or where in fact there is no mistake. But this itself does not prove that in practice there must be some sound or genuine memories. As far as this goes all memory may be wrong. If that were indeed the case the basis for most that we believe would crumble for it seems that we have to depend on memory at some stage our own or that of other persons to establish any factual claim; and this itself is sometimes advanced as the proper validation of memory claims in general. That also seems to me questionable philosophically and it seems also out of accord with the way we ourselves from day to day regard memory claims. We certainly do not trust our memories normally because memory claims have generally been found to be sound and that is not because of the sophisticated reflection that this in itself presupposes memory but because it is out of accord with the feel of having a memory of something. The memory state itself seems to exclude all doubt — as regards what is strictly remembered. I may be wrong in my view at the time of what was going on — as when I thought the impostor a genuine waiter. But that does not put the strict recollection itself at fault.
Are we then to conclude that our memories guarantee themselves? The disconcerting factor here is that there seem to be unmistakable cases of misremembering. Some of these seem a little less awkward than others and we can perhaps cope with them with less strain on what we normally tend to think. Take the case of our seeming to remember some event in our childhood. I seem to remember being stung by a bee at a picnic when I was very little. But it may be that I have this impression because I have been told about it so often that there is a firm picture of it in my mind and I take this to be a proper memory. That is not altogether surprising for as we have seen images have an important role in the total process of remembering and they could masquerade as memory proper. When the recollection is faint we may wonder whether we are not being imposed upon in this way by a mental picture which has grown out of many tellings of the event. When memories are more fresh we rule out this possibility. I have no reason to suspect that I am conflating my picture of the waiter with an unfounded recollection of his collecting the tray. The memory is very firm and clear.
And yet there seem to be cases of misremembering in mature normal experience. Absent-minded people not only forget very easily what they have done or where they have put things but think also they remember doing things they could not have done. I have mislaid my watch let us say. I am also certain that I had it in the class this afternoon ‘I remember’ I say ‘taking it out and putting it in front of me’. I conclude that I must have left it behind or lost it on the way home — ‘I remember I had it’ etc. But later in the evening I change my coat and lo there is my watch. It was there all the time. When my wife comes in she tells me that she found my old coat lying around with my watch in it and upbraids me for being so careless. I could not therefore have put the watch in front of me and yet I seemed to have a firm impression of remembering putting down my watch on the table as the class began. In senility or forms of insanity this may become a common delusion. George IV we are told ‘remembered’ fighting in the battle of Waterloo. What account do we give of such cases and how fatal are they to the notion that some memories at least guarantee themselves?
The explanation in the case of my watch for example would seem to be along these lines. Finding that I do not have my watch I conclude somewhat rashly that I must have left it behind — I always carry it with me so I must have had it in the class. This sparks off the picture of what normally happens and that is so clear that I take it to be a firm recollection. Does this take the sting out of this and similar cases of misremembering? It seems to me that it does. My recollection of putting down my watch had certainly the normal feel of a proper recollection that is what it seemed to me to be. But how could this come about could there be a mistaking of the spurious for the genuine unless there were genuine cases and these also the most common. That appears to me to be the answer and for the present at least I shall take it as sound that notwithstanding instances of misremembering we do have in most cases of seeming memory a genuine calling to mind of a past event or at least of our experience of it and the way it seemed to us and that this normally guarantees itself.
What follows then for our main thesis from there being reliable memories of the sort indicated? The main point is that when we do recall a past occasion we recall it in its fullness not only as an occasion when something we remember happened but also as one in which we ourselves were involved; and this may be spelt out more explicitly by saying that we not only recall what went on in the past but also recall it as including on our own part the same awareness of ourselves then as we have now. I recall if I may repeat this crucial point having the same awareness of myself in the past occurrence as I have now of the distinct being I now find myself to be.
This seems to establish beyond the possibility of any dispute my continued identity in all the occasions in the past of which I have a firm recollection and this can with every reasonableness be extended to the vast variety of cases of which I have every confidence of being able to summon up a remembrance if I turned my mind to it. This ensures my continued identity over considerable stretches of my life from early years. What then of the rest? How can I build up around the experiences which through firm recollection I can clearly ascribe to the self I am now the other occasions of my life of which I have only indirect knowledge from the evidence available to all? This is the question to which I turn now.
From the book: