Memory & Meaning

Consciousness subsists in the embodied person



Ready for a trip down memory lane? Even if you aren’t, a birthday can send you on your way! If it’s a septuagenarian birthday, count on it. Still, regardless of your generation, you can do some  philosophical packing before you head out—or get pushed.

For a start, it’s worth noting that there are extraordinary differences in our capacity to remember. Felix Mendelson was playing Beethoven’s symphonies, from memory, when he was only eight years old. This prodigious feat suggests that memory sometimes has a tactile and “motor skills” dimension.

Another prodigy, though, bypassed the tactile. I once saw Victor Korchnoi, the Russian Grandmaster and political dissident, give a simultaneous exhibition. An hour into playing 35 chess games at once, he stopped and replayed one of them from the beginning. It’s a memory that I relish!

Oftentimes it’s an image that makes a memory possible. I still have an image of Korchnoi’s triumph. Of course, the memory image is usually far more ordinary. Right now I have an image of where our car is parked. It’s on the driveway, just where I left it. That’s how I can remember where it is, right?

But be careful. Lots of times I don’t have an image of where the car is parked. Maybe I only remember that it’s on Level P5, near the elevator. Oh, well. In any case, even when I have a memory image, it’s not really the image that I remember. It sometimes happens that I can visualize where I left my keys, except that’s not where I finally remember that they are. (No, I didn’t leave them in the refrigerator!)

Sometimes, too, people turn memory into magic. Toni Morrison wrote, “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” Water does seek its own level, though memory isn’t involved. Water has no memory at all.

Toni Morrison could claim poetic license. Not so John Locke. For Locke, consciousness constitutes personal identity. As far back as one’s conscious memory reaches, so far does one’s identity. He writes, “Had I the same consciousness that I saw the ark and Noah’s flood, as that I saw an overflowing of the Thames last winter, or as that I write now, I could no more doubt that I who wrote this now, that saw the Thames overflowed last winter, and that viewed the flood at the general deluge, was the same self,—place that self in what substance you please….” Who we are, on Locke’s view, waxes and wanes with the continuity of consciousness and just as memory presents it.

Karol Wojtyla, before he was John Paul II, highlighted Locke’s confusion, one shared by many thinkers since the time of Descartes. Thus the philosopher-pope writes that “consciousness and self-consciousness are something derivative, a kind of fruit of the rational nature that subsists in the person.” Our consciousness is not an independent something, nor are we our memory. Rather we are embodied beings. We are someone from our bodily beginning and that same someone until our  bodily death. As such, we are fashioned in God’s very image and likeness.

This teaching of imago Dei comes from Scripture. It is a touchstone of the Catholic philosophical tradition. And we must always remember, and never forget, that it is a teaching that the culture in which we find ourselves routinely rejects. On my most recent septuagenarian birthday, I reflected afresh on this deeply troubling truth.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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