Monday, September 05, 2011

Our identity and our future


The mainstream of the philosophers who discuss the question what makes up our personal identity defend the so-called “psychological view”, which states that our identity is in our memory and our psychological characteristics: a person’s identity remains the same as long as s/he can still remember past facts of his or her life or as long as s/he remained unchanged in other psychological respects between some point of time in the past and the present. In short, what makes who we are, our identity, is fundamentally in our past. I have talked about this before in my blogs and I have also criticized this view, putting forward that our bodily characteristics are as much important as our psychological characteristics are (and why else give many people so much attention to their body and their physical appearance?). Others point to the relevance of factors like the group you belong to, your profession and work, and so on  that have a more sociological character and that refer rather to what makes you here and now than to what you were, as the factors mentioned in the psychological view do.
But how about our future? This may seem an odd question, and I do not want to say that what happens with you, say, ten years after today is important for your identity now. Nevertheless, it may be that the future has a role in making you. An indication of this is given in a study by the Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, which was mentioned by Richard Sorabji in his Self (here I make use of Sorabji for a part). Luria followed for some 25 years a soldier, Zasetsky, who had lost a big part of his memory through a shot in his brain during the Second World War. His amnesia regarded both parts of his episodic memory and abilities like reading and writing. Since he got the injury Zasetsky, spent all his time to regain his life and what he had lost, to rediscover who he was, and to write his efforts down in a diary. This had become his life’s project.
Does this tell us something about our personal identity? Your memory is important for you, that’s clear, but probably more important for you is what to make of your future. Anyway, as Luria comments here, those of his patients that had lost their ability to plan their future disintegrated far more than those who had lost their memories. At least in order to keep your identity intact, apparently more important for you is making plans for the time to come than preserving what you lived through. An orientation to the future may be more relevant for our identity than being conscious of our past, as the psychological view states.

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