What Shapes Your Personal Identity?


Personal identity is considered by many to comprise of many facets and has a huge range of definitions. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines personal identity as ‘consisting of what makes you unique as an individual and different from others, the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life’, (2010). Ultimately this means that each person holds unique beliefs, ideals or values that impact on how they represent themselves and how they conduct themselves in society. Yet people are continually growing and changing.

The ideals and way in which you view yourself may change as you age or progress through life. Just as time influences you, so will your experiences both present and past. If change is a consistent factor then the argument of individuals’ beliefs or values would change to match. How does a given person make decisions related to what they believe in, what they will stand up for and how they will live their life? Perhaps from family influences, yet it may also be from the experiences you have had previously.  Therefore, what shapes your beliefs or perhaps your whole identity is the experiences you have, and your ability to recall these events.

The memory theory of personal identity states that memory is key in defining a person, (Siegel, 1999) Memory itself is defined as, ‘what we can consciously recall about past events and the way in which past events affect future function’, (Rowlands, 2005). We often use our memories to describe previous events to others, memories that have helped to shape who you are as a person today. But can you really trust your own memory?

Continuing along this thread, if then, your memory is the link to shaping your personal identity, how would you be without your own memories? Or a more complex dilemma of how can you trust your own memories? If your memories are part of what shapes your personal identity, what would be the result if they could be altered, erased or imagined, and therefore not your own? This is the main philosophical theme present in Michel Gondry’s film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, (2004). This film follows the lives of two people, Joel and Clementine whose relationship ends in chaotically and prompts Clementine to erase all her memories of Joel and their life together.


Joel & Clementine


The company which makes this possible is Lucana Inc., who have developed a system/ technique whereby they can erase specific memories from an individual and allow them to begin life afresh. When Joel discovers what Clementine has done in order to move on, he makes the decision to follow suit. However during the process, he realizes just how much those memories of Clementine have worked to make him the man is he. This realization, that he wants to retain all his memories, enables him to begin to fight the progression of erasure.

When exploring this philosophical theme present in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Rowlands helps to define the theory of change related to personal identity. Accidental change theory is defined as a change that is not important enough to end the existence of the thing that changes. Compared to essential change whereby if something undergoes an essential change, or changes essentially, then that thing ceases to exist, (Rowlands, 2005). In the film, the change which Joel and Clementine undergo is an accidental change and therefore both will continue to exist remaining essentially the same as they were before meeting the other.

Despite the bizarre circumstances and a somewhat confusing storyline, the underpinning theme is one which all can relate to. Many factors contribute to developing a unique identity and being able to withstand change. In the words of Rowlands, (2005), ‘Just because you are changing all the time does not mean there is no you.’ (p 93), because really, all experiences will work to change you as a person.




Rowlands. M. (2005). The Philosopher at the end of the Universe – Philosophy explained through Science Fictions Films.  London: Elbury Press.

Siegel, D.J. (1999). The Developing Mind. NEW YORK: Guilford Press.

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. (2010). Personal Identity. Retrieved May 25, 2011, from: http://plato.stanford.edu/search/searcher.py?query=personal+identity


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