The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 6

The Experiential Self - 6.1.1
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I. The Past of a Self and the Past of a Person

[1] Philosophers have been so preoccupied with the question of the persistence of the self through time, that they have overlooked the importance of giving sense to the claim that at any one instant a state of consciousness has a subject. The last chapter attempted to make good this omission. But we in turn must not fall into the opposite error of accounting for the self's contemporaneity with its experiences at the expense of failing to account for its persistence through a succession of experiences. Our theory has explained the manner in which the self gives unity to consciousness in one of its dimensions; namely, its total temporary states. We now have to account for the unity in the other dimension; namely, the unity of a succession of total temporary states. To put it briefly, it remains to be shown that the theory I am advancing also accounts for the continuousness of consciousness and the persistence of the self through time. This I shall now try to do.

It is important to be clear on this question about the implications of following the self-approach as opposed to the persons-approach. A person suffering loss of memory may ask himself the question 'Who am I?' Such a person does not know who he is in the sense that he lacks certain autobiographical knowledge about himself such as his name, his home address, his relatives, and his occupation. One in such a predicament may be said to lack knowledge of his personal identity. This is pre-eminently the problem that the persons-approach is concerned to solve. The question the sufferer from amnesia asks himself is a question about his identification, and he would in the first instance be prepared to accept a statement by a third party telling him who he is, although of course he will only feel completely confident about the third person identification when he gets his memory back and it bears out the identification he has been given. The identity of a person from this standpoint is ascertained in basically the same way as is the identity of a material object. For instance a man's identity can be ascertained by identifying

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his finger-prints - assuming there is a record of them. Now it is clearly the case that a person asking himself the question 'Who am 1?' is not at all concerned with the question of his identity as subject of his present experiences. We could go so far as to say that his being a conscious subject is a necessary condition of his being able to raise the question of his identity of which he is ignorant. Thus a person suffering amnesia about his past is not a person who does not know that he is a self. He wishes to find out certain things that are true of the self he now experiences himself as being. Such a person could wonder philosophically what it is to be a self, and that wonder would not be removed upon his being given certain biographical details about himself.

When a person has forgotten his identity he has lost the connection between his past history and his present situation. Finding out who he is is therefore a matter of finding out who he was. The problem of personal identity is therefore one of establishing that a certain person now existing is one and the same person as one who was known to have existed for a certain time prior to the present. The identity of a person from this standpoint is declared in a statement of the form 'He is the one who . . .' where the clause beginning with 'who' gives a description pertaining to the past. It is quite right, therefore, that philosophers interested in the criteria for the identity of persons in this context should concentrate upon memory and upon bodily identity.

But the se/f-approach is not interested in those questions. It is interested in the question of the persistence of the self qua subject of consciousness as it is affected by the passage of time in the present. Our native knowledge of ourselves is a knowledge of ourselves as enduring through time. From this standpoint the person suffering amnesia about his past will not necessarily 'lose sight of himself' during the hours that he desperately attempts to recall his identity. He does not need any evidence or criteria for his being the same subject of consciousness now as he was when he first asked who he was. The self-approach is concerned to explain in what sense the self has an experience of being a persisting self: a self that is capable of outlasting any individual experience it is having and which preserves its identity despite the changes in the experiences of which it is the subject.

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