As individuals, we stand in a special relationship with time: we not only exist in time as a matter of pure fact, we are moreover aware of our cross-temporal identity and existence. It is particularly worthy of note that we conceive of ourselves as remaining the same persons for the whole of our lives although we quite obviously keep changing throughout - bodily and mentally. It seems perfectly normal to look at a photograph from one’s kindergarten age, to point at a tiny creature and to say: “That’s me”. Even if it is impossible to discover any significant surface similarity, no one would be really surprised by such a statement. How does such a paradoxical phenomenon arise?
That human organisms undergo continual change cannot provide a sufficient explanation. Apparently, different underlying factors are at work here: for one, the peculiarities of self-consciousness and the subjective perspective, and furthermore, the capacity of the autobiographical memory of individuals. To understand the complex phenomenon of personal identity better, one can try to extend particular philosophical approaches and combine them with findings, for instance, from empirical memory research.
The Subliminal Awareness of Being Present
In philosophy, self-consciousness is understood to be the capacity of making oneself the object of one’s own thinking and to establish relations with oneself through specific properties like bodily attributes or traits of character. This capacity is distinguished by particular features that have already been singled out to some extent by philosophers like Immanuel Kant. Manifold and variable states and ascriptions converge in the unitary subjective perspective of a person: we see, we hear, we smell, we have desires, beliefs, memories, emotions and we are conscious of moods. All these different phenomena condense to a homogeneous experience.
The subjective perspective rarely adopts a central position in all this; it much rather occurs in the form of a subliminal kind of awareness of being simply present. This subliminal awareness manifests itself in language, for example, in that the word “I” will normally always refer to the current speaker without any possibility of error on his or her part. Whoever says “I” always refers to himself or herself. Another function of the subjective perspective of experience is to have privileged access to some of one’s own mental states, in particular to sensations. Whoever suffers from a headache knows this only too well.
Reconstructing Entire Lifes
However, can this kind of clear self-ascription of states - this unity-supplying perspective - be expected to apply to temporally past states and situations without further qualification? It certainly does not come to a halt even if confronted with situations from the very distant past. When I claim to have been rebellious in my kindergarten time, I may very well be mistaken because I may, on the whole, have been a good child. Nevertheless, I am definitely speaking about myself at different points in time, and I am thus expressing indubitably an awareness of my cross-temporal identity.