Philosphy of Memory

When I sit here looking at the photo in my hand, memories of the times of old flash into my head. This photograph of the outside of my house taken in the year 2018 where I lived from ages 0-4 brings back memories, some I can recall, others people around me retell. I hear about the time our house got robbed while I was in the upstairs bedroom. There are some memories I do recall, yet these ones change every time I try to tell them to myself. I remember the time I had a birthday party and I wore my little blue overalls. I am not sure what I was actually doing, but I have this memory that I was eating blue corn chips out of a big glass bowl my family owns. However, my family tells me I never had a birthday party at my house, we used to always go out to a restaurant. By looking at this picture, I recall memories that are either told to me, or fabricated by myself which leads me to wonder what parts of my memory are actually real. With no way of knowing what the reality of my past is, it is hard to see how memory plays a role in identity. One picture can tell me about myself based on nothing that I can remember or about things I lie to myself about. This means that one’s identity is not defined by one person’s memory or recollection of events but instead someone’s identity comes from the specific person who is recalling that memory and the way they choose to understand it.

In this essay, we will be using several philosophical terms, so we must define several terms. In this essay, identity will be defined as the “distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” Require means that something must need to be a certain way, as in it is a limiting factor in the determination of a certain definition. Memory is the “act or fact of retaining and recalling impressions.”

According to philosopher John Locke, memory is a critical part of consciousness and therefore identity. He argued in one of his essays that “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places” which is his definition of consciousness. In his famed memory theory of person identity, he concludes that memory is both a necessary and sufficient condition of self, and, therefore, personal identity. However, this seems to be an issue when you look into the recent past of your own life. According to Locke, memory does play a role in personal identity because it is hard to believe that someone would exist if they had no memories. Since Locke defines identity-based around consciousness, with this criterion, it can be seen that memory is part of a personhood criterion.

Most people would struggle to recall an event on a given day from beyond two weeks from present let alone months or years before. For example, in several court cases people have been charged with a crime based solely on their inability to come up with a correct alibi at the moment of the crime. However, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who accurately remembers their time, place, and action at a specific point in time in the recent past. Similarly, the photo of my house tells me what the house looked like, yet all the other memories that come from seeing that house have either been fabricated by myself or told to me by others, therefore unverifiable and of little value to my personhood. This means that our recent memory is far from accurate which causes me to second guess the theory of memory from Locke. If memory is this string of facts that make up our lives and identity, how is it that our memory is far from accurate?

In order to find a solution to this problem that Locke’s memory theorem faces, we can look to philosopher Alvin Goldman, creator of the reliabilism theory of memory. He argued that a memory only can be considered as such if it is justified at the time the memory was formed. While the problems with this theory are obvious and glaring, it does make a good point of filtering out extraneous memories. While Locke argued that all of our memories that we can recall makeup who we are, Goldman is deciding that the only memories that matter are verifiable ones. For example, I can remember that time I was six years old and I visited Greece because there is a photo of me at the Acropolis. However, this means that if there is no photo or another person to verify a memory, then the memory did not take place.

While this may work for rare instances such as special occasions, family vacations (etc. etc.) most of our lives are made up of unexceptional moments which are unverifiable by anyone but our own minds. Locke’s gave too much power to the person who is having the memory, arguing that those memories are accurate and make up our personhood. Goldman places too much responsibility on others, declaring that memory is only part of who we are if it is justifiable to others. For example, as stated previously, I know what my house looked like on the outside at the year 2018. That is a verifiable and “accurate memory,” however none of the more important or the more abundant memories in that house are verifiable, therefore all memories except for the outside of the house would not be included in my value of personhood, according to Goldman. This theory of reliability begs the question of “what do we do with memories that others do not share?” Some of our most intimate, important, and life-changing moments happen within us and others are not there to witness these moments. Are these memories not a part of our identity? Clearly, there is a flaw in this theorem.

Instead of these two theories, I believe in the theory laid out by preservationists that memory is defined by the person’s recollection of events in the past, and memory can be shaped and changed by those around us. While your identity is the way you remember things, the way others remember the events depicts how others see you, therefore suggesting that identity is not one perspective but instead comes from infinite other angles, as others reevaluate you through their own recollection of the past. So, identity is formed by the combination of other’s memories of you and your memory of yourself.

I have several memories of living in my house, namely two memories that I frequently recall. The first, is me playing on the red and white tile in the kitchen. Second, me eating chips during a birthday party. However, these memories are different when you ask other people about the events in order to check for reliability. First, my mother tells me the tiles were white and black, contrary to my recollection. Second, I never had a birthday party at my house, we always went to a bowling alley or a pizza house. There are many other memories I do not remember, such as when someone broke into our house. Looking at this photo, all of these come up in my brain. Mixtures of memories of events, other people validating or overturning such memories. Me eating chips on my birthday may not be completely accurate because the person who set up all my birthday parties refused to host one at her own house, however, I may be correct in remembering that I was eating chips in the same way, with the only difference being the circumstance of the chip eating event. Instead, my identity is a mixture of all of these events.

Beyond the memories marked as completely reliable, if I have a memory that others don’t recall, this memory still plays a role in my identity because that memory makes me better understand or explain an event in my brain that others may not be able to confirm. Similarly, the memory that others have of me plays a role in my identity because who I am in the world is not only relevant to me, but I also impact those around me. If someone remembers that time I threw up on them, even though I do not recall that or maybe have only thrown up once or twice in my life, to that person, my identity hinges on that solitary memory of me throwing up on them. Other people’s memories of me impact my identity as seen through the eyes of other people. This means that my identity is not only defined by others, and not only defined by my memory of itself. Memories do not have to be reliable in order to be considered part of my identity and such identity can be made by a mixture of memories.

Some may take issue with this argument. Some say that identity cannot fluctuate: I do not change identity just because I am talking to a different person who ‘remembers me differently.’ Instead, if one’s identity changes it requires time, it does not change based on two people having differing memories of an event. Even though two people may recall something differently from a specific time, it doesn’t mean that both are the reality, therefore they cannot be considered equal parts of an identity. Identity should be the reality of the recollection, and two contrasting memories of a singular event cannot share the truth, therefore two identities may not exist. This means that the memory that is real and reliable is the one that makes up for identity and all other memories that are not reliable are just a fake identity.

While this point is understandable, however, people’s identities change as we gather more information of one another. The first time I see someone, I see their exterior. If someone two weeks later were to recall my meeting with that person, I would not be able to tell the person interrogating me anything about that person I just saw across the bar, other than what they look like. To me, their identity is the “6 foot two man wearing slacks and has brown hair.” Now, let’s assume that I have a conversation with them and learn that they are gay, Jewish, and have family in Africa and has three cats. Their identity to me is no longer as simple as a tall guy with brown hair. I know all this new knowledge plays a role in my description of their identity. This means that identity can change based on how much or which kind of content I know about someone. Therefore, false memories can play a role in our identity because while they may be overturned by a more reliable memory, it is the only reality that is known by a certain person, hence changing the way you and other perceive your identity.

The photo suggests that while my parents remember certain things about the house and moments that we had there, I have another set of ideas that while may contrast with the memory of others tell myself my own story about who I am and the life I have lived. While their view of my identity may say that I am a certain type of person, my own depiction of my past tells me who I am and where I have been, and therefore both are accurate depictions of my identity told from different sides of a story. A combination of memories should make up people’s identity, and that people’s identities are fluctuating. Since people change and grow over time, there is a large spectrum of who people are and their identities. The way people recall things in their personal history define who they are and the impact that they have made on the world.

One thought on “Philosphy of Memory

  1. Brilliant observation. Your parents recollections can be as off-kilter as yours. I know your aunt has a memory of her childhood one way, and I have a totally different recollection–who’s right–so unless it’s recorded or photographed, the past will be only as we interpret or recall them. This makes me think of eyewitnesses who claim to recall details of a person who committed a crime years ago. Was it suggested to them or did they actually recall it. If they did recall it, they’re a lot better than I am because I would never be able to vividly remember details of someone I saw years ago, or even a week ago, let alone what they were wearing or the color of their hair or eyes. Great piece, Hank.


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