August 26, 2005
Memoro-Politics and the Secularization of the Soul
What is the self? Does a soul constitute the self? Philosophers have struggled with the concept of self for centuries and are still struggling today. Ian Hacking, in Rewriting the Soul, argues that memory has become a surrogate for the soul and the secularization of the soul through the new sciences of memory has led to false consciousness; Hacking’s argument is valuable today because psychologists are still employing techniques of false consciousness, and false consciousness is bad in itself.
The soul has been an important notion in issues of personal identity. It is important to note Hacking’s view of the soul which he describes in the following passage:
Philosophers of my stripe speak of the soul not to suggest something eternal, but to invoke character, reflective choice, self-understanding, values that include honesty to others and oneself, and several types of freedom and responsibility. Love, passion, envy, tedium, regret, and quiet contentment are the stuff of the soul […] I do not think of the soul as unitary, as an essence, as one single thing, or even as a thing at all. It does not denote an unchanging core of personal identity. One person, one soul, may have many facets and speak with many tongues. To think of the soul is not to imply that there is one essence, one spiritual point, from which all voices issue. In my way of thinking the soul is a more modest concept than that. It stands for the strange mix of aspects of a person that may be, at some time, imaged as inner—a thought not contradicted by Wittgenstein’s dictum, that the body is the best picture of the soul. (6).
Hacking’s concept of the soul is the notion we have of our selves that we call personal identity. For Hacking the soul is synonymous with the self.
In Rewriting the Soul Hacking gives a concise history of multiple personality disorder. With the boom of multiple personality disorder some became wary if it was an actual disease. There are those who don’t believe multiple personality is real but rather believe that multiple personality is a result of there being a new description of how to be a person. Hacking writes, “When new descriptions become available, when they come into circulation, or even when they become the sorts of things that it is all right to say, to think, then there are new things to choose to do. […] Multiple personality provided a new way to be an unhappy person” (236). The stories of multiple personality and the description of people as multiples may have led other people to become multiples who wouldn’t if the description wasn’t there. This is a hypothesis that cannot be tested, but it raises the possibility that the power of suggestion may be stronger than we suspect.
After studying individuals with multiple personalities psychologists began to adapt a theory of the self similar to the one John Locke proposed in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
For, since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things: in this alone consists personal identity, i.e., the sameness of a rational being; and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done. (Locke 123)
These views became dominant in the psychological community and are exemplified by Hacking’s description of the opinions of the psychologist Ribot and his colleagues:
Instead of studying a unitary moi, we should study memory. But how do we know that there is no unitary self? The cases of dedoublement, Felida and her successors, seemed splendid for showing that a person was not constituted by a single transcendental, metaphysical or spiritual self or ego. For in those individuals, there was not one single self. Those individuals had two personalities, each connected by a continuous or normal chain of memories, aside from amnesic gaps. At least one personality was ignorant of the other. Hence (it seemed) there were two persons, two souls in one body” (208).
The soul, which had been forever tied to spirituality and lay outside the realm of scientific study, was replaced by memory. Memory became the surrogate for the soul and more people came to hold a view similar to Locke and Ribot’s. Hacking writes that in the late nineteenth century, “Memory, already regarded as a criterion of personal identity, became a scientific key to the soul, so that by investigating memory (to find out its facts) one would conquer the spiritual domain of the soul and replace it by a surrogate, knowledge about memory” (198). The secularization of the soul thus began.
Once memory was regarded as the key element of one’s self psychologists began to study memory in hopes of curing psychological disorders such as multiple personality disorder. It was thought that multiple personality was in part caused by early childhood trauma. When psychologists began to treat multiples they expected to find past psychological trauma in the patient. Many multiple patients began to remember instances of child abuse and/or trauma, but there was controversy as to whether these were real memories the individual had repressed or whether they were false memories. Studies have shown the unreliableness of memory; our memories are unstable and if we are searching ourselves for a memory of child abuse we may create one. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded on the belief that recovered memories are often false memories. This group and the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation battled back and forth about the issue of the accuracy of recovered memories. Both of these groups claimed that there was knowledge to be had about memory, but they disagreed on who had the correct knowledge.
Hacking distinguishes between two types of knowledge about memory: “The facts that are discovered in this or that science of memory are a surface knowledge; beneath them is the depth knowledge, that there are facts about memory to be found out” (198). The fact that there is depth knowledge, that there are facts to be known about memory, was taken for granted by both sides. What they disagreed on was the surface knowledge—what the actual facts about memory were—were these false memories or did the memories individuals recover correspond to true events? The disagreements over surface knowledge can be only that. Who is right? How can we tell?
Hacking suggests an indeterminacy of the past, an indeterminacy of the actions of the past—not just the memories, that makes depth knowledge of memory impossible. Say that a father bathes with his young daughter (the father has no evil intentions). Later when the daughter is grown she may look back on the instance and think of it as child abuse. The daughter attributes an intention to the father that he did not have—the intention to abuse her. Hacking writes, “Old actions under new descriptions may be reexperienced in memory. And if these are genuinely new descriptions, descriptions not available or perhaps nonexistent at the time of the episodes remembered, then something is experienced now, in memory, that in a certain sense did not exist before” (249). The descriptions of child abuse and multiple personality led to new ways to think about the past—and consequently new ways to interpret past actions. Hacking writes:
When we remember what we did, or what other people did, we may also rethink,
redescribe, and refeel the past. These redescriptions may be perfectly true of the past; that is, they are truths that we now assert about the past. And yet, paradoxically, they may not have been true in the past, that is, not truths about intentional actions that made sense when the actions were performed. That is why I say that the past is revised retroactively. I do not mean only that we change our opinions about what was done, but that in a certain logical sense what was done itself is modified. As we change our understanding and sensibility, the past becomes filled with intentional actions that, in a certain sense, were not there when they were performed (249-250).
The desire for treatment of psychological disorders has led to the desire to retrieve repressed memories in order to look for a cause of the disorder. But it is impossible to know whether these retrieved memories recall the event as it actually happened or as it is remembered differently than it really happened under a new description. Knowledge of memory is impossible—but the assumption that it is possible still pervades the sciences of memory.
The battles between the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation were battles over the surface knowledge of memory. Both claimed to have knowledge of memory. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s claim to knowledge was that the memories that multiples were remembering were false memories. The International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation’s knowledge was that the retrieved memories were events that actually happened. Hacking writes, “I see the way in which those movements latched on to trauma as part of a politics of memory legitimated by, indeed made possible by, the new sciences of memory. Although the sciences and the politics mutually interact, it is the underlying depth knowledge—that there are certain sorts of truths about memory and forgetting—that makes the politics possible” (213). Both sides thought that they were in the right—and that what they were doing was best for humanity and the patients. But they did not base these opinions on morals but rather on their knowledge of memory. Hacking writes, “Subsequently, what would previously have been debates on the moral and spiritual plane took place at the level of factual knowledge. These political debates all presuppose and are made possible by this depth knowledge” (198). This is the problem of what Hacking calls memoro-politics. Hacking writes that, “Memoro-politics is above all a politics of the secret, of the forgotten event that can be turned, if only by strange flashbacks, into something monumental. It is a forgotten event that, when it is brought to light, can be memorialized in a narrative of pain. We are concerned less with losing information than with hiding it” (214). Memory became the surrogate for the soul and therefore knowledge of memory became the antidote for the problems of the soul. But cases of multiple personality disorder continues to rise today, and the arguments over whether retrieved memories are false will continue without a solution to the problems of the soul that a multiple faces. Hacking writes:
Since memoro-politics has largely succeeded, we have come to think of ourselves, our character, and our souls as very much formed by our past. Hence, in our times, false consciousness will often involve some deceptive-memories. It need not do so. The Delphic injunction ‘Know thyself!’ did not refer to memory. It required that we know our character, our limits, our needs, our propensities for self-deception. It required that we know our souls. Only with the advent of memoro-politics did memory become a surrogate for the soul (260).
The secularization of the soul is complete and consequently we no longer know how to heal the part of our souls that longs for emotional security and love. Facts about memories will not calm the multiple’s soul. The two sides of memoro-politics are looking to comfort the soul by obtaining a knowledge of memory—but with this approach no such comfort will come.
The treatment of multiples involves retrieving repressed memories and in some cases altering past memories by hypnosis. A person may have developed a multiple personality disorder as a result of a traumatic childhood experience. Some psychologists may convince the patient that the traumatic childhood experience did not happen. When the patient comes to believe this they no longer experience the symptoms of multiple personality. Hacking describes the situation of a nineteen-year-old girl named Bernice who was treated for multiple personality. Bernice told her psychiatrist, Dr. Goddard, that there was incest between her and her father. Goddard theorized that this was this cause of her multiple personality disorder and proceeded to hypnotize Bernice into believing that the incest never occurred. Goddard later concluded that she was healed. Several moral objections can be made to this approach. Hacking writes, “Consider the kind of material that was and was not in the false consciousness of Miss Bernice R. She was reconstructed and built into the male-dominated world of Dr. Goddard, in which few fathers molest their daughters.” (264). Bernice inherited a false view of herself when she was given a false consciousness by Dr. Goddard. Hacking believes that “Self-knowledge is a virtue in its own right” (265). Hacking believes that false consciousness is bad in itself. Hacking writes, “memoro-politics has recently taught us or coerced us to believe that a person, or in older language the soul, is constituted by memories and character. Any type of amnesia results in something’s being stolen from oneself; how much worse if it is replaced by deceptive-memories, a nonself” (264). This type of false consciousness is not healthy for the soul. In fact it is not certain that Bernice was ever full healed. What happens in the past shapes our soul, and if we deny our past we deny our soul. Today false-memory treatment is branching out into the field of dieting. Psychologists have implanted the false memory that eating strawberry ice cream in the past made people sick—thus ridding them of the desire to eat strawberry ice cream (New Diet Trick).
There are also those who feel that multiple therapy itself, regardless if false-memory techniques are used, leads to false consciousness (for they feel that multiple personalities do not exist). Hacking writes, “They accept that the patient has produced this version of herself: a narrative that includes dramatic events, a causal story of the formation of alters, and an account of the relationships between the alters. That is a self-consciousness; that is a soul. […] in their hearts they suspect that the outcome of multiple therapy is a type of false consciousness” (266). False consciousness is bad in itself, and the sciences of memory allow for the possibility of false consciousness.
Hacking’s argument is valuable because it raises ethical concerns about multiple therapy and false consciousness. Hacking offers views from all sides. The area of study is not one where there are clear cut answers. One thing that Hacking makes clear is that “Our memories are not (all there is to) our identities” (221). The soul of a multiple needs nurturing, and it will not be satisfied simply by obtaining facts about memories. The sciences of memory have led to false consciousness through the implanting of false memories. It may have also led to false consciousness by multiple therapy itself. Psychologists and psychiatrists need to seriously question their approaches to treating multiple personalities as well as their science of memory. If we are going to help people to know who they are we must avoid false consciousness. Unfortunately Hacking does not give a solution to the problems of multiple personality disorder, but he does show us that the direction we need to move in should not rely on the sciences of memory.
Hacking, Ian. Rewriting the Soul. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
New Diet Trick: Induce Bad Memory. Aug 3, 2005. Wired News. Aug 4, 2005.