Volume 13, Issue 2, Fall 1999
The Amnesic Self
The belief that memory is essential to the self is common. Extreme amnesia, e.g., Korsakoff Syndrome, is held to dissolve the afflicted person’s self. This belief is a misconception that rests on a confusion of epistemic with ontological relevance. Epistemically, memory is relevant to the self: a subject’s self-knowledge partly depends on memories of past experiences. However, it is not by virtue of these memories that the subject is a self: ontologically, memory is irrelevant to that status. The fact that an individuals conception of herself as existing through time is wanting does not prevent that individual from being a self at a given point in time. As the past is there whether or not it is remembered, so the self is there whether or not it remembers. If instead we define the self as awareness of being a subject of experience, the self may survive even the most extreme forms of amnesia. Being a self is an important social value, a prerequisite of numerous legal or moral rights. This in itself is questionable, like the social exclusion it may entail. Denying an amnesic person a self is therefore more than a logical mistake: it is a social exclusion that can also be questioned on ethical grounds.