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!

Thirst For Power and The Philosophy In Macbeth

I just watched the new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with Michael Fassbender. He was an excellent Macbeth. There were some changes to the original play:

The play starts with the witches. This film starts with the funeral of the Macbeth’s child which isn’t in the play. The play doesn’t directly mention the death of a child but it can be inferred.

The play, also, doesn’t show Fleance, son of Banquo, with a sword disappearing into the mist at the end. To me, this implied that Fleance will meet with the witches and kill Malcolm because they said Banquo’s sons would be kings.

In the play, Macbeth is beheaded, the film doesn’t show this.

Brief synopsis of the play:

King Duncan’s generals, Macbeth and Banquo, encounter the witches after the battle of rebellion. The prophesy of the witches is that Macbeth will become King of Scotland and Banquo’s sons shall be kings. Macbeth starts out as a good man but his thirst for power makes him bad. The Macbeths’ plot to kill Duncan and Macbeth becomes King and he has Banquo killed but his son, Fleance, escapes.

Macbeth’s guilt brings on hallucinations and Banquo’s ghost. He then embarks on a reign of terror, Macduff’s family are killed. Malcolm, Duncan’s son, and Macduff decide to lead an army against Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, full of guilt, kills herself.

Macduff and Macbeth fight, but Macduff is the product of a caesarean birth, technically not born of woman. Macbeth knows he is doomed because he can only be killed by a man not born of woman. Macduff beheads Macbeth and brings it to King Malcolm.


Let’s glean some philosophy out of Macbeth. The movie and play are concerned with the effects of evil actions on the mind of the perpetrator.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” This is one of the many “doublespeak” statements in the play. Good is bad and bad is good is a conflicting statement from the witches.

Macbeth because of his thirst for power turns him from fair (good) to foul (bad).

To Macbeth his bad actions our good for him, he becomes King.

Macbeth is weak in character because he can’t conquer his guilt and self-doubt.

He leans on Lady Macbeth’s steely sense of purpose to push him forward to his evil deeds. But after his wife’s death, he is alone and he succumbs to despair.

Time is a big theme in Macbeth. The play is concerned with the limited time allotted to us humans.

How does the future relate to the present? What Macbeth did in the present has consequences for his future, he must endure the guilt in the aftermath.

He constantly refers to “tomorrow” because he thinks it will be a refuge from the past and present. But he has mortgaged the past and present to the future and he finds the future can’t be unconnected from the past.

We all live in a line of yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows, with death the end of the line. Shakespeare reminds us of the temporal character of our life.

I love the speech Macbeth gives when he knows his queen is dead, this is the translation in modern English:

“She would have died anyway, we all die. So, that news was bound to come someday. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, the days creep slowly along until the end. And everyday that’s already happened has taken fools that much closer to their deaths. Out, out, brief candle. Life is a story told by an idiot, full of noise and emotional disturbance but devoid of meaning.”

This speech expresses the utter meaninglessness of life!

An observation on Macbeth and his death, the two words rhyme: He has his head cut off and it is shown on stage while his body is elsewhere. He is in a bodiless state! So, his mind is detached from his criminal body. He was a man with a dual nature, a man of violent action and a man of imagination. The separation of head from body show us this dual nature.

I will leave you with this statement:

Power is dangerous unless you have humility and power will either burn a man out or light him up.