Nigel Warburton: The child in the photograph

This piece originally appeared in Humanitie Magazine, Winter 2013 edition.

I recently found an old monochrome photograph taken of me when I was two and a half. It fell out of a book. It was one shot from a polyphoto taken in a department store – one of a scries of about 40 tiny prints taken in quick succession. I’m holding a ball looking up at someone – probably my mother – who is out of shot. I have a huge grin and my eyes are sparkling.

I remember the event vaguely, something about having to go upstairs, and annoyance about not being able to keep the ball, tears too – I think – unless these are pseudo-memories I’ve confabulated around the image. I remember the brown and white striped cotton T-shirt too – a hand-me-down from my sister. I remember the texture of the material.

But I don’t remember feeling so happy.

In fact I’m not sure that as an adult I could ever be that completely happy. 1 don’t recognize what it feels like to be so unreflectively in the moment of joy. To that extent, I’m no longer the same person as the child in the photograph, though there is a vestige of that child somewhere within my memories. Philosophers worry about what happens to people over time. Their outlooks, physiques, and relations with other people change. They age. They lose their teeth, their hair, their minds. In what sense can we say the child of two is the same person as the man of 50 looking at an old photograph and trying to dredge memories, more of feelings than of verifiable facts?

For those who believe in a soul, things are more straightforward. There is a continuing immaterial substance within us, something unchanging at the core that persists behind all the physical and psychological transformations that occur within a lifetime, an immaterial substance that will eventually detach and continue to exist after bodily death. I’m not entirely clear why there might be comfort in knowledge of existence of such a soul if it loses the connection of memory with its past, but the religious often find consolation in the hope that it will find blissful rest somewhere.

John Locke, the seventeenth century philosopher raised this issue of personal identity over time in a famous thought experiment in which he imagined a prince waking up with a cobbler’s memories, and a cobbler waking up with a prince. He thought that it was clear that it wasn’t so much the physical appearance of the prince-bodied person that counted. If the prince had committed a crime, an omniscient God would rightly punish the person with the prince’s memories (so, in this thought experiment, the one that looked like a cobbler, though in normal life body and memories go together).

He suggested that what makes us the same person over time despite change is continuity of memories. You can be the same ‘man’ (by which he meant ‘man’ or ‘woman’) as you were before, that is the same animal, without being the same person. If your memories don’t stretch back to previous years, you aren’t the same person; and indeed, he even contemplated the idea that more than one self might, through different streams of memory, exist within a single body: something like multiple personality disorder.

Locke perhaps overstated the case, but it is nevertheless true that memory plays a pivotal role in what makes us the people that we are. Without memory we can be damaged or destroyed as individuals. As Luis Bunuel remarked in his autobiography My Last Sigh: “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all(…) Our memory is our coherence.”

As anyone who has been close to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s knows, even when memory is wiped clean in some areas, parts of the personality stubbornly persist. There is a sense in which you are interacting with someone familiar, rather than a stranger, patterns of emotion and semi- recognition can still be there despite the gradual erosion of the person you knew.

Something of the child I was in the I am today, if I live to old age. will probably evaporate too. We may think that photographs can preserve our memories, but that is inaccurate wishful thinking. At best they can trigger them, correct our misrememberings perhaps.

Gurus and meditation experts may advocate living in the present, and there is some value in developing a more acute awareness of what is happening now; but what we are is not separable from what we remember. In an important sense, our past as we recoiled it is what we are. These narratives of self are what allow us to project forwards to what we might do and be. Without them, our lives would be meaningless. That’s why severe memory loss is like a foretaste of death.

Image courtesy: anyjazz65, Creative Commons

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