For some reason the subject of diaries has come up several times in my life lately. Actually the subject of unexpected death has been on my mind, for a variety of reasons, and that led me to think of diaries. The thought of unexpected death is no doubt what led me to finally draw up a list for my sons of my retirement accounts and so forth, so that if, as I euphemistically put it, anything happens to me, they’ll be able to find all the accounts for which they are the beneficiaries. While I was at it, I made some notes about disposing of my things, and noted in particular that I would like my sons to destroy my diaries after I am gone, except for a couple of journals I once kept for the sole purpose of recording the notable events in their early lives. (It’s safe to assume they would have gotten rid of my private papers unread anyway, but still I figured it wouldn’t hurt to write it down.)
This reminded me of my mother’s diaries, which my father threw away after she died. I’ve never asked him about this but I’m guessing he was honoring a request from her that no one else ever read those diaries after she was gone. I can understand that entirely, of course, having just made a similar request myself, and I’m glad my father protected my mother’s privacy. But I can also understand why it could be upsetting when someone’s diaries are destroyed after they’re gone: It’s like a last part of themselves that they left behind has been removed. I don’t believe in an immortal soul, but I do believe that my mother left parts of her self or her identity behind when she died, not just the diaries she wrote for herself but letters she wrote to others, and the memories that each of us have of her. Douglas Hofstadter, in I am a strange loop, writes about a concept of the self that remains behind even after death, not in any supernatural sense but in the sense that mental states or patterns peculiar to a person can be recreated in other brains.
This article from Philosophy Now gives a nice overview of various concepts of personal identity, beginning with Locke’s idea that we are who we remember ourselves being (which I find useful as a starting point, but not the whole story). Philosopher Bob Harrison discusses some of the legal and psychological meanings of identity, and then wonders whether selves are not conventions, useful conventions (like speed limits or legal drinking ages) that nonetheless are not related to a real entity that exists in the outside world. In closing he writes about the idea of the extended mind, in which the tools we use to support our cognitive processes (e.g., a notebook kept by a hypothetical Alzheimer’s sufferer as an aid to memory) can be considered to be part of those processes, and so a part of ourselves.
To the degree that I kept a journal to help me remember past events and feelings, a believer in the extended mind could argue that destroying the journals after I’m gone is akin to destroying a part of my self. (I guess if it’s my self I have the right to ask that it be destroyed after the more substantial parts of my self are gone.) I’m not sure I would agree that mental tools are really part of anyone’s identity, but thoughts committed to writing (both personal diaries and published books, which are not merely attempts to communicate but also mental edifices built to house part of the contents of a unique mind) can allow an unusually direct access to the thoughts of another person. Maybe they’re best described as a peculiarly powerful adjunct to identity.