I remember me

4 12 2013


picture: commons.wikimedia.org

Ask someone who he is and he will probably point to his body and say something like: ‘I’m John and I’m tall, of slim build and bright eye, and I have long grey hair. I was brought up in Somerset.’ He might go on to say where he went to school, what he studied at university, and who he married.

Who we are is a question that preoccupied the English philosopher John Locke, who was tall and slim with long grey hair and went to Westminster School and then on to Oxford University.  Locke who qualified in medicine and who had many friends and no wife was puzzled about the problem of human identity.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Locke considers the problem of how consciousness relates to identity with some delightful examples that range from a remarkable parrot that can speak Brazilian to a philosophical fairy tale about a prince who exchanges places with a cobbler. Locke also muses on the effects of cannibalism on the continuity of the soul and the attributes of his little finger.

Eccentric as this may sound, Locke was known as a common-sense philosopher and his wide-ranging interests and philosophical work covered almost every area of human thought from politics to freedom, education, human rights and property. His views were hugely influential and informed the writing of the American Constitution.

His thinking on identity follows on from his arguments on how ideas are formed from experience. Locke claim is that we are born knowing nothing, our minds are tabula rasa, blank slates upon which we chalk the marks of experience. There is no such thing as innate knowledge. We are all born equally ignorant.

For Locke, human and animal minds have a starting point of existence, and that remains fixed as part of the identity of that specific mind. Aristotle was born in 384BC and that means that his mind existed then and only during the period that he lived. His mind can’t transmigrate to the 21st century. If you happen bump into someone tomorrow in the Post Office who claims to be Aristotle, you probably aren’t going to be inviting him home to discuss human happiness. Bodies are another matter, though. For we know that bodies do change, and some bodies become unrecognisably altered.

Locke’s enquiry poses many questions. He wonders about oak trees and asks whether an acorn that develops into a great tree remains the same tree. He also muses on horses and considers whether a playful young colt that grows into a mature horse is the same animal even though he now looks completely different. The oak tree is more than its roots, branches and leaves. For Locke, its identity consists of the rather wonderful phrase ‘the vegetable life.’ An acorn, a sapling and an old tree have all partaken of the same life. Young and old are entrained in this life.

My horses now have a completely different shape to when they were born, at present  massive grass bellies, and the particles and cells of their bodies have all renewed themselves many times over. Similarly as the oak trees in their field, they have partaken of the same life; the young colts and the mature horses are on a continuum; young and old have lived the same animal life. When I look at them I see them as they are, but I also remember them as young colts. The arc of their lives is knowable only to someone who has experienced them through time.

When it comes to humans, though, Locke’s ideas get a bit bizarre. He argues that when we say ‘man’ we really just mean human-shaped container. If that human shape had no more reason than a cat or a parrot we would still think of it as a man. A reasoning super-intelligent parrot who spoke not only English, but French, Dutch and Portuguese would still be thought of as a parrot and not a man, however uncanny its powers of speech.

“It is not the idea of a thinking or rational being alone that makes the idea of a man in most people’s sense, but of a body so and so shaped, joined to it; and if that be the idea of a man, the same successive body not shifted all at once must, as well as the same immaterial spirit, go to the making of the same man.”

For Locke, man and person are two entirely different things. Locke’s definition of a person is 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 it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking…’

Locke goes on to say that ‘when we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so.’

In other words, we are our present sensations and our perceptions, and this is what Locke calls the ‘self.’ There is no inner ‘us.’ We cannot be conscious of what we are, we can only be conscious of what we are thinking about, or feeling, or experiencing.

Locke argues that what makes us the same person is not just our body, but consciousness. We need to be aware of our own experiences in order to form a sense of self. Our memories of our childhood form part of our identity, but what we can’t remember is not part of us. The blank parts of our unremembered lives remain inaccessible and don’t form part of who we are.

In order to demonstrate that identity is rooted in consciousness, Locke describes a thought experiment in which he imagines the thoughts, memories and life experience of a prince entering the body of a cobbler. This cobbler would have a prince’s memories, hopes dreams, fears, all of his recalled experiences. Wouldn’t that cobbler then become the prince? Similarly, a prince wakes up with the memories and consciousness of a cobbler, and he feels that he is the cobbler. The fact that he still looks, talks and walks like a prince does not matter. If he has the memories of the cobbler, then he is the cobbler. If the cobbler had committed a crime in his original embodiment and remained unpunished then it is the prince who will go to prison. As Steve pointed out during last night’s seminar, if you are inhabited by someone else then you are no longer you.

Our enquiry touched on beliefs and values as markers of identity. As our beliefs and values can change, it seems that so too can our identity. Most adult people are not the same ‘person’ as they were at six. When I look at a photograph of myself as a twelve-year-old, I’m looking at almost another version of me. What links me to that younger version is a sense of having moved and grown on, in oak tree terms, a branching out. As we grow older we habitually distance ourselves from childhood. As Gordon memorably put it: “when I look back on my life, I remember me.”

This raises the intriguing question: who is the person that we remember? How can we remember ourselves when it is us doing the remembering? And if memory is such a strong indicator of consciousness and identity, as Locke held, then people who suffer from false memory syndrome are condemned to a false consciousness. Locke’s theory of identity led him to conclude that people could not be punished for crimes they could not remember committing. We wondered last night how it would be possible to tell whether someone was lying or not about what they remembered and the implications of this in the law courts. Locke does not consider that forgetting is also part of human identity. Indeed it could be argued that what we forget is perhaps as important to making us who we are as what we remember.


my horses enjoying the vegetable life

more on memory and forgetting here:


The Epicurean Life

13 11 2013


“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honourably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honourably and justly without living pleasantly.”

Mention the name Epicurus and most people immediately think of a well-known brand of fancy preserves and pickles. To most people an ‘Epicurean’ would be someone who indulged in a life of fine wining and dining, someone who preferred to shop at Waitrose rather than Asda, who chose cashmere over acrylic, and whose idea of heaven was a long Sunday morning lie-in reading Nigel Slater or Nigella Lawson: a bit of a foodie hedonist, right?

But were Epicurus (341-270 BC) still alive today, he would certainly not recognise himself from the above description. All right, he might have enjoyed reading Nigel Slater and looking forward to some exquisitely tasty meals, but he wouldn’t be interested in gorging himself or overdoing the wine: Epicurus the philosopher of ancient Greece firmly believed in moderation and living the simple life. He has often been misunderstood mostly because of his key belief that seeking pleasure is the best way to become happy.

For Epicurus there was nothing more pleasant than spending time in a beautiful garden in deep conversation on life’s meaning with his closest friends and followers. In this garden they drank water rather than wine and were kind to each other rather than competitive. Indeed the garden at Epicurus’ home in Athens where he taught his ideas became well-known and established as the school of Epicurean philosophy, much in the same way that the Academy was renowned as the school of Platonic thinking and the Lyceum, the school of Aristotle’s ideas.

For Epicurus the lessons of the garden were a form of practical philosophy. Gathering together people who were interested in ideas of life and death was a way of helping people to work out what they really thought and to overcome their fears and anxieties. Following Socrates, Epicurus recognised that philosophy is most useful when it can be directly applied to ordinary life. Philosophy can help to shed light on puzzling problems and ethical dilemmas and offer clarity. This Epicurean way of philosophy was incredibly popular during his time and is still one of the best models for doing philosophy rather than learning about philosophy.

Critics of Epicurus portray him as an atheist and hedonist, but his philosophy was more nuanced than mere self-centred pleasure-seeking. He believed that some desires were natural and necessary, such as the desire for food, shelter and company, and that we should pursue those desires.

In tonight’s seminar discussion one of the group mentioned that in the aftermath of the typhoon some Filipinos were looting for food and that was something that we considered entirely natural and understandable given the scale of the disaster. Looting for luxury or non-essential goods, however, was not considered natural or understandable, and parallels were drawn with the disaster in New Orleans when some people caught up in that situation used the break down in social structure to their own advantage by committing crime. The question that emerged was: is justice natural? Our enquiry seemed to follow the line of thinking that justice was cultural, thus agreeing with Epicurus who claimed that justice was a social agreement not to cause harm or be harmed. He viewed justice as a form of community policing. People have to first agree on what is acceptable or not acceptable and this code of conduct is then enforced in order to protect the community. This seems entirely reasonable. Most people want to live in peace within their communities and justice is one way to ensure that people know where they stand. In peaceful communities people have no need to loot or form vigilante groups. Chaos and desperation change the rules of justice.

As we have seen in situations of chaos some people cannot resist the temptations of corruption. Is this because they lack natural justice, or is it because they know they can get away with ignoring justice in situations of extremes? Epicurus might have argued that people don’t automatically turn bad when there are no community police around to stop them misbehaving. Instead given a breakdown in any society’s structure, people will see what they can get away with. We can all understand this very human impulse. We can all act impetuously. It’s what makes us sometimes jump red lights or neglect to tell a cashier that she has failed to charge us for the item now in the bottom of our shopping bag. We bend the rules of justice to make make them fit our new circumstances, and we even have a word for it rooted in justice itself: we call it justification.

Epicurus taught that we can learn to understand our desires and so learn how to appreciate all that we have. Once we understand that what we already have can bring us great pleasure then we will be less inclined to want more or feel dissatisfied. If we read the search for pleasure as the search for well-being then these very ancient ideas make sense today. In this reading, Epicurus is a very modern-minded philosopher whose ideas are certainly compatible with contemporary Buddhist thinking about suffering and craving and living mindfully. In terms of offering us food for thought into current ethical living, Epicurus has not yet passed his sell-by date.

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