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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)


Who are we? And who am I? are questions all of us have asked. But as the textbook indicates, “developing insight into the nature of the human self in general and into yourself in particular is a daunting task, underscore by the less-than-successful efforts of the best human thinkers for nearly 3,000 years” (the philosopher’s way by John Chaffee). The biggest issue, however, is that there are so many aspects of person’s life and being that it can get complicated to organize and synthesize a satisfactory answer. Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Locke and Kant have tried to determine what aspects make up the individual’s identity; later on, the movie industry also sought to help us contemplate these questions with entertaining films like The curious case of Benjamin Button, and Final Cut to name two. Psychologists like Sigmund Freud have studied to help find an answer, and scientists have done numerous tests even to animals in search for hidden insights. With so much information it would be difficult to condense everything so we will examine a few of these findings and examples.

During the lectures the class was once asked what they preferred; to see everything in pictures only or in videos. For the most part the answers favored pictures suggesting that people like the allure of a single image and find the journey of reconstructing the memory from that image appealing. This phenomenon correlates to a degree with Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of identity which indicates that we are the ones that construct our “self.” There seems to be something within us that likes the idea that we can create who we are and that is perhaps the reason why we enjoy images and photographs so much. We mostly remember by using flashes of images, not only for practicality but also because we can decide what that image means when we think of it. Seeing my eight-year-old self at a birthday party can mean happiness in one instant and nostalgia, depression, or anger in another, depending on the context.

This love of images and of creating our “self,” is likely the reason why we are so obsessed with looking at ourselves in mirrors. In the movie the curious case of Benjamin Button Benjamin looks at himself in the mirror every so often as his life moves forward and his age backwards. Each time he looks at himself he seems to examine his body, his face, his clothes, and his life. As he continues, he creates an idea of who he is, synthesizes what he’s learned, and develops his philosophy of life. His constant self-reflection in front of that mirror, as ours, is an example in one degree of Rene Descartes’ famous quote: “I think therefore I am.” What that means is that as we get a look into who we are physically and socially we make ideas of who we are, and that becomes who we really are. Our lives get driven by the thoughts and perceptions we make from our physical appearance; which also connects to Hume’s idea that we are not a “self,” but our “self” is simply a collection of experiences and perceptions.

Two examples of this are Michael Jackson and Jocelyn Wildenstein. The two individuals underwent very drastic changes in physical appearance during their lives. People often criticize the two for going over the top with their alterations, but everyone makes changes to the way they look in order to feel better and at times change the idea of who they are. Fashion, race, and athletic physiology contribute to the “image” we create for ourselves, and often that changes if we don’t like who we are, like the teenager who struggles to find their identity in high school by experimenting with looks.

This principle is so crucial that scientists have even found similar identity traits regarding images in other animals. The Mirror Test – where animals are observed while they look at their reflection in a mirror for the first time – indicates that some species can recognize themselves as an individual amongst many. This trait seems to be useful especially in social settings for animals like the great apes and elephants which suggests why it might be important for us as well.

As images like photographs and reflections help us to identify who we are, their long-term effect does as well. Memories – which are the result of many images and videos collected through time in our brains – help us determine our identity in a very powerful way. For people like Terri Wallis who was in a comma for over almost twenty years, the only memories he has were of his 19-year-old self. Once he awoke at 38, he still behaved and thought of himself at 19, and lost all sense of the transition of time. Who he remembered years ago, is who he thinks he is now.

Similar to Terri’s are the cases of Clive Wearing and Jill Price. For Clive who lost his long-term memory, life is literally the 15 seconds that make up the present. He cannot construct a real idea of who he is, what his life is like, or where he’s going. Without memory, he cannot make sense of himself. Jill is completely different; she remembers every moment in her life. Without the filter and vault that Freud refer to as the unconscious, she retains all the good and the bad, and has little power of organizing a clear sense of identity. Her “self” becomes the byproduct of her actual life unlike most of us who construct what our life is as we choose to remember some things and forget others.

Freud’s theory of the unconscious teaches us another lesson about memories and identity. While we have the power to organize our memories into the life we want – Like Kant said – The vault of repressed images will sometimes produce an undetectable influence on who we are. For Allen Hakman (Robin Williams) this was very much the case. In the movie the final cut, his old colleague is angered that the cutters (editors of the life videos that people had implanted in their brain) had such a power to change society and the image of individuals by the moments they kept and cut from the remembrance videos. By the end of the movie, Allen would learn that even a single memory can have a strong effect on how people live their life and how they see themselves and others.

In conclusion, we must reiterate that all the aspects of our lives make it difficult to formulate a concise answer to the question of, who are we? While Images and photographs can help us to create theories, and memories can teach us where to go from there, it is certain that we have plenty of help when we encounter this topic individually. Whether the help comes from movies, psychology, science, or philosophy, we can feel safe that our identity will remain ours and ours alone.


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