The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 6

The Experiential Self - 6.1.2
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I. The Past of a Self and the Past of a Person

[2] Philosophers concerned with the problem of the existence of the self over a stretch of time have usually for the purpose of argument

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phrased the problem in terms of the continued existence of a self from yesterday to today. We find James, for instance, expressing the belief each of us has of his continuing identity in the statement 'I am the same self that I was yesterday'. 154 Now it might seem arbitrary to choose an interval of twenty-four hours for the purpose of discussion, and equally acceptable to choose a different interval in its place. On this line of reasoning all that is needed is to show that it is possible in principle for a self to persist through time, and that can be shown in respect of any stretch of time. Why not 'I am the same self that I was this morning, or an hour ago, or a moment ago'? In other words if we think only of the time factor, there is no difference in principle whether we are dealing with a very small lapse of time, or a big one. In theory, therefore, the problem of self-continuity is solved as soon as it is shown that a person is the same self as he was a moment ago.

If this reasoning is accepted it is all the more significant that James looks for the continuity between today's self and yesterday's self as opposed to looking for the continuity between experiences closer together in time. Obviously what he has in mind is the possibility that the series of the self's experiences is broken during dreamless sleep. The problem then becomes one of explaining how the series before the interruption is continuous with the one arising after the interruption. (Of course to call it an interruption begs the question, because it presupposes that the two series really are subsections of one and the same series. But the question really is: On what ground can two separate series of experiences be said to form sections of a wider series of experiences?) It is clear that the problem arises when there is loss of consciousness due to any cause, and not only when we are in a dreamless sleep.

It would surely be right to argue that before we can handle the question of the continuity of the self in the face of possible gaps in the continuity of a series of experiences, we should have an explanation of the continuity of the self in relation to those sections of the series of experiences which have no gaps. Only after solving that problem will we be ready to tackle the problem of the survival of the self across the gaps. From this point of view it would be an

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achievement in itself to account for the continuity of the self during a single period of waking consciousness. It would mean that we would have an explanation of what it meant if we said of a subject of a present experience that he was identical with the subject of an experience that occurred earlier in the series. Although self-continuity during waking consciousness is the important issue for the self-approach, and the one to which I shall largely address myself, it is necessary to get clear about the effect of breaks in consciousness on our experience of being selves. By saying something about this issue I can explain just how a problem of self-identity can shade off into a problem of personal identity.

The gaps created in consciousness by dreamless sleep, concussion, passing out, and anaesthesia are by no means as damaging to the continuity of consciousness as they may sound. A gap in consciousness can, for instance, never be experienced as a gap in consciousness by the person whose consciousness is affected. A person may have the experience of losing consciousness, but that is a conscious experience. No one can be conscious of being unconscious. All we know is that we have the experience of losing consciousness immediately followed by the experience of regaining consciousness. It is only by inference that we know that we have been unconscious, or by being told of this by someone else. In a sense, therefore, consciousness does not record its own interruptions, but gives the impression of being unbroken, although it is not.

This phenomenon can best be understood in terms of a distinction between objective time and subjective time. By objective time I mean clock time. By subjective time I mean our personal experience of the passage of time. In subjective time, if I happen to be waiting for someone, even five minutes can seem a long time. On the other hand, if I am enjoying myself immensely, two hours can seem to pass in a flash. Now what I suggest is that interruptions to consciousness are only interruptions from the point of view of objective time. From the point of view of subjective time, consciousness is uninterrupted. If I had been unconscious for a period, I could only find out about it inferentially, or from the testimony of others. The assertion that a certain period of time had elapsed, during which I was unconscious, must have the status of an hypothesis, as far as I am concerned. By contrast, the statement 'I've had to wait ages for you', belongs to subjective time, and is not in any sense an hypothesis. It is a direct report of a subjective impression

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Thus when from the standpoint of subjective time I say 'I arn the same self that I was yesterday' the statement is no more intended to bridge a gap in consciousness than it would be if I had said 'I am the same self that I was this morning'. My recollections of the morning and of the previous night are memory experiences of myself qua subject at the time of recall, and the memory is a memory of the subject of recall also being the subject of the experience remembered. But all this would be true even if the so called 'memories' were delusive. In that case I would indeed be the same self as the one I believed had certain experiences in the past, but whether there was indeed an actually existing person who at the earlier time in question actually had the experiences in question would be another matter. That would be for the persons-approach to determine. Thus on the self-approach one can claim no more than that one is the same self as the one about whom one claims to make a true memory claim, but from the self-approach alone nothing follows about the previous existence of a person and his having had certain experiences in the past.

It follows that the determination of the discontinuities in objective time which must be correlated with the continuities of consciousness in subjective time is strictly a matter for the persons approach. All that one is entitled to say on the subject of the continuity of the self is: 'I am the same self that I "remember" that I was yesterday' - where 'remember' is understood as a memory claim that could be mistaken. I cannot say that I am the same self that I was yesterday if by this I am claiming real existence yesterday. For such a claim can only be made within the framework of the persons-approach.

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Footnotes

154. James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, p. 332. Taken literally the statement 'I am the same self that I was yesterday' is a tautology, since its contradictory 'I am not the same self that I was yesterday' makes no sense. Nevertheless the statement does succeed in conveying the impression we have of our continuing existence through time.
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