Minds, Memes, and Multiples

Journal article by Stephen R.L. Clark

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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 3.1 (1996) 21-28


Abstract: Multiple Personality Disorder is sometimes interpreted as evidence for a radically pluralistic theory of the human mind, judged to be at odds with an older, monistic theory. Older philosophy, on the contrary, suggests that the mind is both plural (in its sub-systems or personalities) and unitary (in that there is only one light over all those lesser parts). Talk of gods and demons has been a way of arranging elements of human mind and motivation. The one light, or center, is something which requires mental discipline to discover rather than being immediately obvious. This indeed is what even Descartes (sometimes blamed for introducing the notion of a simple, transparent self) really intended. Discovering or uncovering the Self is a psychotherapeutic as well as a philosophical imperative.

Keywords: consciousness, gods, Multiple Personality Disorder, passivity, thought alienation.


Multiple Personality 1

The phenomena popularly identified as evidence of "multiple personality disorder" are strangely attractive. The stories suggest that those who provide, who are, the evidence for this disorder are usually in acute distress, but those who wish to believe in it find the idea almost exhilarating. Most of us would rather wish to think that we had undeveloped possibilities, that it would be exciting to be a married academic today, a celibate bus-driver tomorrow and a teenage hooligan on Sundays. The impulse to put aside our duties, or our habits, can be a powerful one, and only the sober thought that we would not, after all, succeed in keeping our lives separate keeps us single. The notion that there are people who take the risk, that our bodies could house a multitude, is one we would wish to believe. At the same time, we wish to remember that such divisions bring their own problems, and as easily suspect that those who apparently succeed in dividing themselves up must have suffered serious trauma in the past, and be plagued by missed appointments and self-hatred in the present. Some of us believe that "multiple personality" reveals a truth about us all, that none of us is actually the simple, heroic self that we pretend: "the self" is only an occasionally concordant swarm of impulses, easily divided. Others of us suspect that it is a wish to avoid responsibility, and guilt, that causes some of us to pretend not to be the selves that actually we are (see Rycroft 1987).

On earlier occasions (notably Clark 1991b), I have myself expressed some doubt about reports of Multiple Personality Disorder, and suggested that they should be seen as fictions or dramatic representations (whether by the patient or the reporter) which should not be judged as "true" or "false," but rather as "interesting" or "pernicious." Stephen Braude, in a recent excellent book, seems at first to side with the true believers: it is absurd, he suggests, not to believe the many reports of fugue, discordance and fully developed multiples (Braude 1991; see also Wilkes 1984, [End Page 21] Brennan 1990). Maybe a few such reports are over-credulous: it would not be surprising that the occasional clever criminal successfully pretended not to know what an alien other did with his body. But there are, he says, too many independent records to disbelieve, and not only the distant stories of Miss Beauchamp (Prince 1908) or Eve (Thigpen & Cleckley 1954, 1957). Since the 1970s the number of reported cases has been rising again. It may be that some, many, or all the cases are artifacts, in the sense that the doctor's expectations helped to produce or develop the varied personalities: "when a client walks into the therapist's office and sits down, the expectation framework of the therapist immediately comes into play" (Crabtree 1985, 211; see also Hawthorn 1983). But the evidence is also compatible with the thought that psychotherapeutic fashion now allows the therapist to notice, rather than invent, the phenomena. Multiples often wish to conceal their condition, it is said, and only observers alerted to the possibility will notice them. Conscious or half-conscious role-playing, which would perhaps be less philosophically interesting, cannot explain more than a few of the cruder cases.

In short, I find myself persuaded by the evidence that Braude adduces for hypnotic trance, fugue and multiple personality disorder over the last century and a half. Some of the episodes, as Braude remarks, "demonstrate standards of experimentation on human subjects which many today would find ethically suspect" (as a good many people did then): Hippolyte Bernheim of Nancy (18401891), for example, drives pins into a servant girl's eye, pinches, and sexually assaults her. After bringing her out of trance, he encourages her to recall what had happened, and to be "ashamed." Unfortunately, she neither hit nor sued him. Sally, as Braude does not note, accused Prince--justly--of treating her like hell (Prince 1908, 560): of treating her, indeed, as a demon to be exorcised. It is not altogether easy to trust such researchers: if they are scoundrels, may they not also be liars? On the other hand, people who were willing to take apparent evidence for possession seriously (whatever explanation or interpretation they offered) could more easily notice "multiple personalities." Again, a large majority of MPD patients report a history of sexual abuse, especially incestuous: therapists willing to take those histories seriously, as fact, may also be sympathetic to the patient's self-dissociation from those histories, rather than suspecting them of lying on both points. It will not do, of course, to infer that everyone "suffering" from MPD, has such a history of abuse: even without such extreme traumas, it may be that people find an alternation of personality and memory useful in their everyday affairs. In Midgley's words, "some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self [that is, the personality] who is capable of undertaking it" (Midgley 1984, 123)! If almost all MPD victims are seen to be traumatized and unhappy, it may be because these are the unsuccessful cases, and that there are better organized multiples who never reach the doctor's surgery. Part of our inclination to admit or to reject the apparent evidence for MPD will rest on our experience of apparently similar conditions outside the surgery.

Can anything outside the surgery really compare with the extreme descriptions? Alters, it is said, may "vary with regard to voice quality, handedness, color blindness, the need for eyeglass prescriptions, tolerance to drugs or medication, and allergic responses." This does, if true, seem to go beyond "mere role-playing" or the task of bracing oneself for action--except that what it demonstrates is that beliefs and desires affect our bodies to a surprising degree. How much do the roles we play affect us ordinary citizens? We do not need to suppose that we are constructed out of those pre-existent roles or personalities, even if, as in the extreme cases, they begin, as it seems, to quarrel with each other. Recent literature on the subject speaks little of "primary personalities": there is no good reason to think that either the presently best-known alter, or the oldest, is "primary" in any deep sense. As Braude points out, we should not assume that any of the many alters "existed" before their emergence ("the principle of compositional reversibility"), any more than the fragments of a broken plate reveal the parts from which the [End Page 22] plate was made, or even any pre-existing fault-lines. The soul, as Aristotle said, can be divided in infinitely many ways: it is not therefore constructed from infinitely many parts. So the "colonial" view of the self is not supported by the evidence: rather the reverse, as different alters may employ many of the same capacities and memories, and cannot be equated with simple subsystems, let alone different areas of the brain. It seems that, in the end, Braude suspects that in mediumship, possession, multiple personality disorder alike it is more likely that there is one self with many strategies of coping rather than any fashionably diverse set of selves, though there may be "indexically and autobiographically discontinuous apperceptive centers." And that conclusion, though I shall approach it rather differently, and perhaps to slightly different effect, seems to me to be correct (except that I shall reserve the title "center" for the Self itself).

For maybe all this is more familiar to the philosophical tradition--and more helpfully described--than we commonly suppose. Descartes may have supposed that the mind was simple and transparent (though I doubt it): his predecessors didn't.

"'Know Yourself' is said to those who because of their selves' multiplicity have the business of counting themselves up and learning that they do not know all the numbers and kinds of things they are, or do not know any one of them, nor what their ruling principle is, or by what they are themselves" (Plotinus, Ennead VI 7. 41, 22f). Those who seek to follow the Delphic instruction--so Hesychios was to say--find themselves, as it were, gazing into a mirror and sighting the dark faces of the demons peering over their shoulders (Palmer, Sherrard, Ware 1979, 123). Descartes left us with the impression that self-knowledge was our normal and necessary condition: the earlier tradition makes it clear that such knowledge is difficult, and our "single-heartedness" a distant, luminous goal. We are the conduit for gods, the battleground of competing spirits, the multiply refracted, broken images of a single soul. The art of meditation in many different traditions is to learn to distinguish oneself from the ordinary objects and the ordinary affects that afflict us. "It is not one and the same Goodness that alwaies acts the Faculties of a Wicked man; but as many several images and pictures of Goodness as a quick and working Fancy can represent to him; which so divide his affections, that he is no One thing within himself, but tossed hither and thither by the most independent Principels and Imaginations that may be." 2

So though I am persuaded by the evidence that Braude cites that there is a real condition, MPD, I am not altogether persuaded that we need to abandon the tradition. In one sense, Sidis and Goodhart are correct that "multiple consciousness is not the exception, but the law. For mind is synthesis of many systems, of many moments of consciousness" (1909, 364). So what could be less surprising than the discovery that "I who address you am only one among several selves or Egos which my organism, my person, comprises. I am only the dominant member of a society, an association of similar members" (McDougall 1926, 546f), or an occasionally symphonic chorus of ordered parts? Most of the thoughts that float across the sphere of my attention are disconnected, or loosely associated, fragments. More powerful thought-complexes emerge periodically, Egos as well as Archetypes, and distract us from other thoughts or thought-complexes. Anyone who doubts this should attempt the simple task of trying to think of one simple thing for the space of ten seconds--or the still more difficult task of not thinking of some named object for that length of time. Our attention--which I shall characterize as light--can sometimes control, constrain and discipline those thoughts to remain present for examination, but only with great difficulty. It is an important step in self-knowledge to be made to realize (most easily perhaps at three in the morning) just how fluid and uncontrolled our ordinary thinking is. "Whence came the soul, whither will it go, how long will it be our mate and comrade? Can we tell its essential nature? . . . Even now in this life, we are the ruled rather than the rulers, known rather than knowing. . . . Is my mind my own possession? That parent of false conjectures, that purveyor of delusion, the delirious, the fatuous, and in frenzy or senility proved to be the very negation of mind." 3

And again: "it [End Page 23] is a hard matter to bring to a standstill the soul's changing movements. Their irresistible stream is such that we could sooner stem the rush of a torrent, for thoughts after thoughts in countless numbers pour on like a huge breaker and drive and whirl and upset its whole being with their violence. . . . A man's thoughts are sometimes not due to himself but come without his will." 4 What we cannot control is not our own: even my mind is not my own (Sangarakshita 1987, 196f), or at any rate no more mine than are the involuntary motions of my body. In distinguishing myself from the body, as was customary long before Descartes, I also distinguish myself from my mind!

Multiplicity is the norm. So also is passivity. It may be exceptional for people to suppose that the thoughts they find themselves thinking are not really "theirs," that these have been put into their heads by Martians, demons or the government. 5 Thinking that one's thoughts, or one's bodily movements, all belong to "someone else" is easily supposed a symptom of insanity. But maybe those who are thus diagnosed have simply noticed, and melodramatically described, what really is, for most of us, the case. They are "our" thoughts in that we are immediately aware of them, but not ours, because we do not actually think them, in the sense that they would vanish if we chose to stop (see Stephens & Graham 1994). The passivity of "schizophrenic" patients, I concede, is not the same as MPD. Though we can easily imagine an invasive voice that takes on greater character and at last assumes control of the victim's body as a full-fledged alter, I don't know if that progression has been observed. Even if it hasn't, both passivity and MPD are closer to our ordinary consciousness than we commonly suppose.

So the discovery that there are people who are afflicted by several quarrelsome personalities is close enough to our everyday condition to be, in principle, believable. But the same experiences which make the stories credible suggest that those stories need not be interpreted as evidence of radically different selves in the one body. 6 Maybe even that is a possibility, but the stories rather suggest that there is one self only, preoccupied or occupied by many different personalities--and perhaps that Sally, so far from being a demon, was Miss Beauchamp's very self.

Mental Microbes

That we are easily infected by ideas, by what Pearsall Smith called "mental microbes," and Dawkins has christened "memes," is a fact of life. 7 But there are still selves to infect which are not memes. Memes are transferable ideas: "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches . . . (which) propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain" (Dawkins 1976, 206). There are obvious difficulties with the analogy between memes and genes: notably that memes, unlike genes, do not occur at loci, and cannot be identified with any biochemical units whatsoever. Nor is it possible, as it is with genes, to distinguish between genotype and phenotype: genes issue in quite different phenotypical characteristics in different conditions, while memes just are those phenotypes (see Bowker 1995). But the story is not unhelpful: that ideas spread like living things, that they may even be living things (called demons) is an idea familiar to the ancients (see Carpenter 1916, 214; Clark 1991a, 85f). But rational souls can mount some resistance by becoming aware of themselves as something other than the invading microbes.

But can we isolate the Self, apart from the thoughts it suffers? David Hume, notoriously, denied that we could, asserting that all he ever found were more impressions and ideas, and never any "subject." This too is an ancient thought: what we take to be ourselves are often, almost always, fictions, "the web of discourses" that compose a self (Dennett 1991, 416). We tell ourselves the story of our lives, complete with our commitments and professions. What counts as Me will vary with my context, and with what I can bear to acknowledge. Was it Me that had that dreadful thought just now? That did that dreadful thing some years ago that surfaces in the dull hours of the night? Is my costume me? Is there a "fact of the matter" here, or are "identities" as conventional as any "moral truths"? Good moderns take it for granted that "we" now realize how shifting, foggy and deconstructible are the boundaries of the self; "we" know that our own motives, feelings and intentions constantly escape us; "I" names only the [End Page 24] current speaker, or the momentarily dominant self among many fluid identities. "To ask what a person is, in abstraction from his or her self-interpretations, is to ask a fundamentally misguided question, one to which there couldn't in principle be an answer" (Taylor 1989, 34). I know myself as the one that ought to be faithful to this woman, serve this Queen and country, pay these debts. If there are no real obligations it is hardly surprising that there are no real selves.

One answer may be the flat assertion that there are real obligations, and real selves. But there is something to be gained by following the other track awhile. Suppose that the narrative self (or selves) is fiction. So fractured memories, discordant motives, concealed causes are not anomalies: they are the ordinary human condition, and only the saint, hero or philosopher has tamed and transformed the squalling horde of impulses so far as to "know herself" as single. The rest of us do not know why we do things, are not "the same" from one foolish moment to the next and constantly misidentify even our most "present" and "immediate" feelings. It does not follow that there is no single self to be uncovered. The Self is not identical with the monologue by which it is absorbed so often.

As I have already suggested, other people than Zen nuns (whose theories Dennett considers), or psychiatric patients, might reasonably doubt that it is they who think, or that all the thoughts that cross their minds are really theirs. That there are many distinguishable thought-lines, moods and memories need not lead us to believe that there are many different selves, nor that there are none. I can move between thought-lines, moods and memories, and even assess some such strands with something like Sally's impatient objectivity (normally characterized as her "childishness"), without admitting to being merely "multiple." MPD is a philosophical theory, not simply a report. It is not--or need not be--that alters notice that there are thoughts and acts that "really belong" to some other alter: rather the enduring self (if there is one) decides not to stand aside from each and all such thoughts, but rather to "identify" with one thought-line or another. Those who feel themselves possessed identify continuously with one thought-line, and experience extraneous thoughts as "not their own." Multiples change their minds. The most enlightened of us, maybe, identify with no such state of mind, and to call that condition "dissociated" is just another prejudice.

When a person is identified with a subpersonality, he only sees through the eyes of that subpersonality, claiming as his self the values and actions of this part of him. When he disidentifies from that part, steps back and is able to appraise the relative merits of this part's action and values, he transcends this part's limited functioning and then is able to operate on it; in other words, he can pick and choose what he would have this part express in his life, exactly what tool this part is in the whole of him. (Sliker 1992, 95, after Wilber)
What is this process of "disidentifying" like? Someone who manages to wipe away irrational desires and passions may come to see the immortal god in himself, or else (equivalently) "self-control and justice . . . standing in itself like splendid statues all rusted with time which it has cleaned." 8 All of us are "here" in the world of our present experience, according to Plotinus, because we have been seduced, as it were, by our own images "in the mirror of Dionysus" (Plotinus Ennead IV.3.12.13). Disidentifying and uncovering the real self is itself a process that can be confused with other images, other self-creating narratives. "Plotinus once noticed," Porphyry says, "that I was thinking of removing myself from this life. He came to me unexpectedly . . . and told me that this lust for death did not come from a settled rational decision but from a bilious indisposition, and urged me to go away on holiday" (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 11.1216). Separating oneself from one's ideas may easily be an extra piece of self-dramatization, infection by another meme. That may be one reason why Buddhist thought has rejected any story that there is a Self, while actually practicing just the same techniques of dissociated attention that believers in a real self advise. The Self, as Berkeley might have said, is not an Idea, nor should we identify that Self with any idea on offer.

Gods and the Soul

I remarked that we are, on ancient testimony, the conduit for gods. Those gods, for my present [End Page 25] purposes, are meme-complexes, ideals, compelling emotions which reside in and often dominate our mortal minds. In earlier days, people devised stories, structures, that could perhaps accommodate those differing ideals. The wicked, remember, have no one goal before them. Moral improvement is a process of prioritizing goals and making most subordinate to good order. The Titans are imprisoned or reborn within the Olympian family, constantly itching to have things their own way, and constantly caught back to serve the proper order of things. The question for us is: what is that order?

Our problem, it can be argued, is that our present society is unusual in human history in that none of us can easily suppose that there is only one career or life available to us. We are confronted by choices, or the mirage of choices, that our ancestors did not need to trouble with. Long ago and far away most people were (are) born into their destinies, and could live single, simple lives. We internalize, imagine all the possibilities (even the spurious possibilities), and somehow have to create our own single lives from chaos. Not surprisingly, we often fail, and so may either intuit a selfhood different from any particular ideal, or else imagine that the many different ideals are really different selves. The truth is probably that this has always been our fate: there are no actual human societies where there really are no choices, any more than there are actual societies where choice is not constricted. Olympian religion is a fabric of stories that provided the Greeks with ways to organize their lives. Metis, who is crafty wisdom, must be reborn as Athena; Aphrodite, daughter of Ouranos, must be reborn as the daughter of Zeus and Dione. The same decree is found in Christianity: all angels must acknowledge the authority of the one Word of God, who is Jesus the Savior. And in Islam: Iblis fell because he would not worship the primordial Adam, the completeness within which all such gods take shape.

In its original form Olympianism probably identified the "right eternal order," justice, with knowing one's proper place out there in the world. In its sophisticated, Platonizing form, it rather suggests that the powers, the moods that weave the world, are Titans, who must be brought together under Cronos (by being swallowed) or under Zeus (by being reborn). Cronos or Zeus, variously, turn out to stand for "Nous": which is to say, for the conscious self itself. One possible interpretation of Platonizing remarks about Nous is that the term identifies our "intellect," our capacity to recognize mathematical or other ideal truths. In concentrating on such objects I distance myself from ordinary, worldly cares, and need no longer be troubled by bodily pains or social reputation. But there is another interpretation in line with the thesis I have been propounding. Nous is that which has itself for object, which becomes aware of itself in contemplating other things, and which may, at its closest to the divine, be aware of nothing but itself. 9

That notion of an Unmoved Mover or a Pure Intellect, which thinks of nothing but itself, has earned a good deal of mockery. But it is only by becoming aware of oneself as something separate from the mental microbes, or the physical and social body, that we can learn to judge "oneself." "I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me which, as it were, is not a part of me, but a spectator, sharing no experience but taking note of it, and that is no more than I or you" (Thoreau 1910, 119; see Clark 1990). Thoreau there suggests what others in the tradition have also wondered: whether the Self that becomes aware of itself in me, in this life here, might not really be the very Self that becomes aware of itself in you as well. The Self that is the same through time, confronted by very different ideas, microbes, emotions, may also be the same even at a time, in many different bodies, although it easily forgets its own identity. It is enough for my present purposes, however, simply to suggest that the individual Self, or Nous, can become aware of itself precisely by distinguishing itself from gods, from memes, from personalities. Putting it another way, we can attend to the quality of our own attention, and thereby become immediately aware that we are not identical with the many voices that compete for that attention. What contemplates in me is conscience, or what Sliker calls the Center (1992, 77ff).

Behold in those fields and caves and innumerable dens of my Memory, innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things, whether they be brought in by images, as all bodies are, or by the presence of the [End Page 26] things themselves, as the arts are, or by I know not what notions or impressions as the affections of the mind, which the memory holds even when the mind feeleth them not, since whatsoever is in the mind is also in the memory, behold, I say, how through all these I run about and flutter on this side and that, and I penetrate into them as deeply as I can, but without finding of any bottom. (Augustine 1923, 285: Confessions 10.17).

Meditative practice is a way of becoming aware of the light which illumines all these fields of memory, precisely by becoming aware how little we can ordinarily control those fields, even if we can, by practice, find our way around in them. So may analytical endeavor be. If "the mind" is a complex of swarming memes and meme-complexes, then we need another expression (say "the Self," or Nous) for the light or space within which these complexes take shape. The Self is not identical with "that parent of false conjecture," or swarming congregation. "Learn therefore, O Sisters, to distinguish the Eternal Human that walks among the stones of fire in bliss and woe alternate, from those States or Worlds in which the Spirit travels." 10 Techniques for doing so differ: ranging from the "sudden enlightenment" of Ch'an Buddhism to the prayerful devotion of Christian monks or the rational inquiry of Platonists. One way of understanding the Cogito itself is as a record of a real experience, the revelation of one's self as something more than any of the thoughts that pass our view. When Bertrand Russell contended that Descartes should only "really" have asserted that "there is a thought," and not that there was a thinker, he was formally correct, but actually blind to the real experience that Descartes was trying to identify and elicit. Of course, "a thought occurs" is often a better description of what happens than "I think": it does not follow that there is no thinker, no abiding Self.

The point is not "merely philosophical." Philosophy here meets with psychotherapy. One way of coping with the apparent onset of MPD, or even with accusing voices, is to draw the victim's attention not to other thoughts or regions of the mind, but to the Self, the Center. By redescribing what she is enduring, by not being trapped into allegiance to one thought-chain or submission to another, she may become aware of her original selfhood (not, I repeat, the personality or mind she had or displayed "before"). Conversely, the point is not "merely psychotherapeutic." One of the best proofs that Descartes and his predecessors were correct to identify themselves with the self, the light, the center is that such willed identification may help to release MPD patients from their real distress. But without some assurance that the theory itself is coherent that "proof" might be no better than pragmatic, and the theory just another fiction. I doubt that its truth can ever be entirely demonstrated: it is at least not disproved by modern or postmodern commentary, and is compatible with the stories told about both MPD, passivity and our ordinary lives.

"Every man is double, one of him is a sort of compound being and one of him is himself." 11 Jung's recollections of his childhood include the thought that he was, as it were, two persons: the ordinary self and its predelictions, and the other in me was the timeless imperishable stone" (Jung 1967, 59). One truth expressible in those terms is simply this: we are, on the one hand, compound, complex beings; on the other, there is one light only which illumines all the different characters we play. Rediscovering the light is at once a philosophical and a psychotherapeutic imperative. Without some sense that the Self is a substance, a real being, we shall be reduced to thinking ourselves mere aggregates of squabbling Titans, occasionally subdued by an overmastering passion. Without a real experience of Selfhood, we shall no doubt continue to misinterpret poor Descartes.

Stephen R. L. Clark, Department of Philosophy, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3BX, United Kingdom.

Notes

1. Versions of this paper have been read to a meeting of the Philosophygroup of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK), to Warwick Univerity Philosophy Society, and to the philosophy departments both of Durham and of Edinburgh University. I owe thanks especially to K. W. M. Fulford, Roger Trigg, Jonathan Lowe, Man Jung, Timothy Sprigge and Dory Scaltsas. I must also acknowledge the influence of Ornstein 1986.

2. John Smith (161852): Patrides 1969, 172. A similar interpretation of MPD is made by Boden 1994.

3. Philo, On Cherubim, 114f: 1929, vol.II, 77.

4. Philo, Mut. 239f: 1929, vol. V, 265f.

5. The fantasy is given an alarming plausibility by the science fictionwriter Peter Hamilton, in Hamilton 1994.

6. Of the kind imagined by Wyman Guin, in Guin 1973.

7. "How is one to keep free from those mental microbes that worm-eat people's brains--those Theories and Diets and Enthusiasms and infectious Doctrines that we catch from what seem the most innocuous contacts? People go about laden with germs; they breath creeds and convictions on you whenever they open their mouths. Books and newspapers are simply creeping with them--the monthly Reviews seem to have room for little else." (Pearsall Smith 1933, 47)

8. Plotinus, Enneads IV.7.10.10, 3132, 4447; see also I.1.12.1217.

9. See Aristotle, Metaphysics 12. 1072b13f.

10. W. Blake, Jerusalem 49.72f: 1966, 680.

11. Plotinus, Enneads II.3.9, 31ff.

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Wilkes, K. 1984. Real People. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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