The Reliability of Memory


I teach a course on personal identity, and one of the authors we read is John Locke, the 17th-century English philosopher who tells us that our memory constitutes who we are. He poses the following thought experiment: if a prince and a cobbler were to exchange memories, so that the body of the cobbler carried with it the prince’s memories and the prince’s body carried the cobbler’s memories, who would be whom?

Locke tells us that, to other people, the cobbler’s body would still seem to be the cobbler and the prince’s body would still seem to be the prince, but from the internal perspective – which is the one that matters – the cobbler would think he’d landed in a new body, and the prince would think the same. That is, this would be a body transplant for the cobbler and the prince, whose identities would have travelled to new bodies, the princely identity cobbled onto the cobbler’s body; the cobbler’s identity nobly arrayed.

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A good forgetting,