Certainly your past experiences will affect how you perceive the world, process events, think about things, and behave but do you think the high level thinking required for the conception of self needs time or can it be instantaneous? Imagine someone who literally not remember more than 30 seconds ago, so as it were, their life is forever in the current moment. What is their conception of self like? This hypothetical person could still experience qualia such as pain and pleasure, and could still have wishes and plans, but I wonder what about their sense of self -- has anyone ever written about this problem before?

Besides having time continuity in the past, what happens when the sense of self has no future? Imagine you knew that the world was about to end in a few hours. Most people would resort to hedonistic pleasure seeking which I would argue is animalistic in nature and requires no self.

Is the higher level thinking required for the concept of self dependent on forward and backward continuity or could there be such a thing as an 'instantaneous' self?

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    Although you don't cite specific literature, what you are asking for it probably narrow enough in scope to be reasonably answered. However, you'll still need to specify what you mean by self / "sense of self" in order to determine whether this is more of a philosophy question as opposed to a psychology one. And for the record, HM is a real example of a person you described in your hypothetical. :)
    – stoicfury
    Aug 1, 2012 at 5:37
  • Well given that a sense of self happens in the brain: as long as the neural nets that process the information about the sense of self are activated then there is a sense of self. If the sense of self does not necessarily happen in the brain then it depends on where-how it happens which is anyones guess
    – Jo Rijo
    Oct 24, 2012 at 0:03
  • “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” - Wittgenstein
    – Xodarap
    Oct 24, 2012 at 16:43
  • While Wittgenstein's quote has value, it has little bearing in the current context. Strictly speaking, someone who "lives in the present" possesses a memory of "previously present moments". Timelessness rules out things such as past and future.
    – danielm
    Oct 26, 2012 at 19:35
  • Imagine that hypothetical person looking at a continuous video playback of his room, displaying things exactly 30 seconds older.
    – user2411
    Oct 28, 2012 at 17:51

2 Answers 2


On those matters, I know of Augustine of Hippo:

Edmund Husserl writes: "The analysis of time-consciousness is an age-old crux of descriptive psychology and theory of knowledge. The first thinker to be deeply sensitive to the immense difficulties to be found here was Augustine, who laboured almost to despair over this problem."

You can see more references, mentioning Augustine and others (like Kant), at


Personally, I can't realise conscientiousness without a dimension of time. Without time there's no dynamical causality, there's no movement.

Once there's time, the personal passage of time is subjective to the living creature. Without a reference for the passage of time, 30s can be whatever. A given unknown living creature may evolve in such a ambient where in our 30 seconds it would be able to consciously process much more causal relations than our brain is able to do in the same time.

You talk about a person that can only remember its last 30s, while also able to feel pain and pleasure. You must realise that such a feelings are higher brain functions that come up after a long process of evolution, and ultimately these feelings are evolutionary memory, it is unconscious brain work compelled by the evolutionary process.

The 30s memory you talk about is the conscious one. Whatever short memory one gets, once the living being is able to take any action foreseeing its consequences it has a self. Once it takes action to stop a continuous pain of hungriness, for example, it must have a self sense.


Perhaps of some general use, in addition to the above mentioned philosophers, is Aristotle's treatment most notably in his De Anima. He distinguishes between creatures which possess no memory and which react to images (in modern parlance, we might understand image as a kind of synthetic "stimulus" resulting from the combination of the stimuli of individual senses), and cease to react as soon as the image fades. This kind of response to image is not dependent on memory.

The question of whether a self exists apart from memory depends of course on what is meant by self (spotaneous, not instantaneous, is the word you're looking for) and what you mean by memory. Is self what some psychoanalysts or Buddhists might call an ego or false self, a social construct? Is the self the individuated substance of the subject, one which can be actualized? What is self in relation to intellect and memory? What is the psyche?

Back to the Stagirite: the first book of the Metaphysics talks about experience as a function of memory. If a person has absolutely no memory of ANY kind that extends beyond 30 seconds, then clearly things involving experience, e.g. language, art, science, become nearly impossible especially if we assume that experience requires the memories that produced it to persist (the self here is understood as the soul whose existence, of course, does not depend on experience, but precedes experiences and is actualized through experience).

  • If the self was considered like a self-manipulating and self-managing information system and personality-simulator in other words a self-sustaining set of necessary processes it could not exist in an instance, it could only be EXISTING 'within' a duration..
    – user128932
    Jun 13, 2014 at 19:03

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