Wednesday, November 4, 2009

the last self

"And who are you supposed to be?"

Don Draper didn't have a good answer, on the time-shifted "Mad Men" Halloween episode we watched last night. William James would've had something to say.

"Each pulse of cognitive consciousness, each Thought, dies away and is replaced by another. The other, among the things it knows, knows its own predecessor, and finding it 'warm...' greets it, saying: "Thou art mine, and part of the same self with me." Each later Thought, knowing and including thus the Thoughts which went before, is the final receptacle - and appropriating them is the final owner - of all that they contain and own. Each Thought is thus born an owner, and dies owned, transmitting whatever it realized as its Self to its own later proprietor... Who owns the last self owns the self before the last, for what possesses the possessor possesses the possessed."

That's James in the "Consciousness of Self" chapter of Principles of Psychology, stringing hissing sibilants in a succession of confusing mutually-proprietary relations... all of which add up to the fairly simple common-sense claim that we know who we are because we anticipate the continuity of past and present experiences with those of the future. We string all those old versions of ourselves together with a vision of who we may yet become. We entrust past and present to their "later proprietor." That's how persons avoid getting lost.

It's one more way in which "the really vital question for us all is... what is life eventually to make of itself?" There's no way to forge or even detect your personal identity if you neglect your own future.

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