Personal Identity and Memory

What is philosophy about? It’s about the basic questions you have when thinking about the world and how to interact within it. Ex.- Does life have meaning? Philosophers examine these questions and make arguments in favor of different answers or positions.

My current project is approaching philosophy from a different angle, from a work of fiction, namely a film, to see if films can make the basic questions clearer with understandable positions.

I’m of the opinion that philosophical themes in films can make the basic questions and their arguments easier to understand.

In this blog post I’m going to analyze the film, “Memento”, from the POV of personal identity and memory.

This film is about the Psychological Continuity Theory of personal identity. What makes ME, me, are my psychological characteristics. These high-level properties, such as my personality, change slowly over time. Another part of continuity is achieved by Memory. I’m the person I was last year because I can remember having some of the perceptions and thoughts that that person had.

A brief synopsis of the film:

Leonard Shelby is a man whose ability to remember anything short-term for more than a couple of minutes is NIL. He was hit on the head during an attack on his wife, who was killed, along with one of the killers. He wants to find and kill the second attacker. The film is told in reverse to disorientate the viewer just like Leonard is. He uses a system of notes, pictures and tattoos to remind him of what’s happening. He has trouble knowing who he is as he proceeds in his quest.

So, does memory constitute personal identity? Leonard, in Memento, can barely function without his memories.

This reminds me of the theory of personal identity by John Locke. He describes the human mind at birth as a blank state. It then gets filled through experience.

A person is always conscious of what they think. So, if consciousness accompanies thinking, then identity is a matter of consciousness to unite your thoughts. You can repeat a thought of a past action and this is a matter of memory. Personal identity is, then, a set of memories that constantly change.

But, poor Leonard, in the film, had to make notes about his memories to keep his identity in tack. Is he the same person as he was when he had a short-term memory? Or, is he someone different?

All in all, what’s this personal identity thing all about? I guess it’s simply having a series of conscious memories.

In the case of “Memento”, a series of conscious memories can be fused with another, so it becomes a combination of two people, two Leonards, or a combination of true and false.

Man is a poor thing, constantly struggling for self-definition. We try to make an identity from the confusing and conflicting assault of experience. The protagonist in “Memento”, like Man, is constantly worried that he has forgotten something.

Are you confused?

Well, philosophy is an orderly way of discussing subjects that we don’t know much about. LOL!

Also published on Medium.

2 thoughts on “Personal Identity and Memory

  1. Well done Dave. our lives are just a series of memories, and they change over time because we don’t remember the actual event. We remember the last time we remembered it. Sometimes we remember the feeling we had when the event took place. The past is a memory, the future is a wish. All that is real is “NOW”. Live in the “NOW”.

  2. Well written Dave. Tom I agree with his response as well.
    I tell my parents who are both 87. Don’t worry about the past,
    live in the present. They are happy and all there memories
    are mixed up and change. Sometimes they do well. Sometimes
    they are completely off track, I let it go and they go on. If
    we make a fuss or try to correct them (which my brothers
    try to do) they argue and become more confused.

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