(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

What does it mean to be a human being—both in a general sense and in the sense of being a specific individual? This is a fundamental and eternal question that has been asked by generations of philosophers. One widely held belief is that one’s memory is one’s identity. Yet what happens if one’s memories are wrong, or were provided by someone else through hypnosis or psychiatric therapy? If certain memories make people unhappy, would they perhaps be better off having those memories deleted? If that were to happen, what would be the implications for identity? Ian Hacking, a philosopher of science, offers some thoughts about these questions. He also considers issues such as the practice and politics of mental illness, the history of psychology and mental illness, and the essence of memory.

Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory begins with an analysis of the history of multiple personality disorder since about 1970. Hacking then focuses on the history of certain types of mental illness during the years 1874-1886, when the prototype of a multiple personality was formulated by the French medical profession and, not coincidentally, the sciences of memory were established. Last, he introduces four theses that link his first two sections and enable him to ask and answer the questions that may have been the real purposes of writing this book. This is a case study to throw light on larger moral issues. The study of multiple personalities is only a means to an end.

When Hacking uses the word “soul,” he is not referring to the immortal entity of theology. Instead, he wants to “invoke character, reflective choice, self-understanding, values that include honesty to others and oneself, and several types of freedom and responsibility.” His soul is a collection of human emotions, not a single essence. It is memories and character. What he sees in the controversy over multiple personalities is an attempt to “scientize the soul through the study of memory.”

Multiple personality disorder is a condition in which an individual has “two or more distinct identities or personalities or personality states. . . . At least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the person’s behavior.” The victim appears to be suffering from amnesia, in that a particular identity will not remember what occurred when the individual was under control of a different identity. These multiple identities may vary in age, intellect, interests, physical skills, and even gender. Most sufferers are women—perhaps 90 percent—and most were apparently subject to abuse as children, especially sexual abuse.

One of the most interesting aspects of the disorder, at least for historians and philosophers, is the tremendous increase in reported cases in less than two decades. Before 1972, multiple personalities were thought to be extremely rare phenomena. A list could be compiled of all instances in the history of Western medicine. Perhaps there were one hundred acknowledged sufferers. Twenty years later, thousands of cases had been diagnosed in the United States alone. Hacking asks what caused this apparent epidemic. Have physicians finally been able to diagnose a condition that had always been common? Given the link to sexual abuse during childhood, was a precondition for the psychiatric community’s recognition of the disorder the acknowledgement by society that such abuse was widespread? If society denied that child abuse was endemic, it could not accept the diagnosis of multiple personalities. Or is the apparent epidemic only that—an apparent epidemic created by a few well-meaning psychiatrists and fueled by sensational media coverage? Put succinctly, is multiple personality disorder a true disease? Psychiatrists do not agree.

Complicating the situation, particularly in the mind of the general public, is the issue of false memory. While undergoing therapy, patients have brought out memories of child abuse which their therapists claim had been repressed. Sufferers of multiple personality are easily hypnotized and very open to suggestion. Critics have asked whether these are true repressed memories or fantasies unconsciously introduced by therapists. To what extent do false memories challenge the validity of the diagnosis of multiple personalities?

On many of these questions, Hacking takes an agnostic position. He does not care whether multiple personality is “real,” although like any good philosopher, he can spend paragraphs arguing what one means by “real.” His concern is how “this configuration of ideas,” as he terms multiple personalities, influences individual humans and society at large. He demonstrates the political, economic, social, and personal stakes involved in the answers. He also...

(The entire section is 1954 words.)