Both the Sartre and the Merleau-Ponty episodes have me thinking about memory, body, and truth lately. Our memories are indispensable for forming our identities and are the causal path for experience itself and its effect on our identities. So, there’s a piece to this that we can get to by thinking about memory (and the act of remembering) itself and a piece that we can get to by examining our bodies and the effect that expectation and memory have on it. This weekend, just by coincidence (really!), I heard an essay on the radio about memory and a read another about the effects of the mind on the body.
Saturday’s episode of the Wisconsin-based radio show “To the Best of Our Knowledge” concerned the literature of memory and has a particularly interesting interview with Julian Barnes, author of The Sense of Ending,about memory and how it factors into the constitution of one’s identity. Barnes discusses how earlier in his life he thought of memory as being fundamentally distinct from imagination, particularly in having something like truth content. He’s come closer to thinking that they’re much less distinct, in large part because of how we essentially have memories of our own imaginings. (He mentions discussions with his brother Jonathan Barnes who was a professor of ancient philosophy at Oxford and Geneva in this context — that he’s come much closer to what his brother has thought for a long time.) The other interviews in the episode are also well worth listening to about memory — preserving it, writing about it, and trying to find truth in it.
Another piece of this ego/memory/identity puzzle lies is how our thoughts, ideas, and expectations are held in our bodies. This is something of concern for Sartre and even moreso for Merleau-Ponty. In this past week’s New Yorker magazine, Michael Specter gets at it through an article about a new institute created at Harvard University to study the placebo effect called the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. A big chunk of the article is getting to know Ted Kaptchuk, the director of this new institute. For me Kaptchuk shows us how data-driven questioning (i.e., science) helps clarify deeply multifaceted mind-body issues without simplistically turning the human being into a clockwork. Additionally, for a philosopher, the placebo effect is a ripe example of the contingency of our thoughts on our bodies and our bodies on our thoughts.