I Remember You Differently…

By Daniel Tippens

If you have ever been to a high school reunion, you have likely had this thought repeatedly throughout the night, “this person seems different from the way I remember them…” Perhaps you voice this thought, and they laugh, saying that they felt the same way. When we see people, after much time has passed, we do so with fresh eyes. Now, I may spend most of my time as an accountant or a businessman, but I only have memories of this person in front of me from my perspective as a high schooler. They seem different, now.

We can also remember people from different perspectives in a manner that doesn’t require physically bumping into them later in life. Sometimes when I token memories of my late father, for example, I do so from the perspective of myself as a child. He looks warm and intimate, his face exuding a wide smile before he booms with laughter, reaching out to embrace me. When I remember him as a child, I feel love.

 But other times I remember him from a different perspective — that of a teenager. In these memories, he has a slightly more authoritative appearance, his face displaying a more stern look. It sometimes feels as though I’m being lectured and disciplined, just by the mere fact of his presence. When I remember him a as a teenager, I feel rebellious.

I also have memories of him from the perspective of a caregiver. I remember his face after surgery, bloated from inflammation, and the smell of him, as he lay in a hospital bed. I remember his facial expressions exuding tragic perturbation, and light quivering in his lips. When I remember him as a caregiver, I feel, among many other things, sympathy and sadness

When I adopt different perspectives, I remember my father differently. What are the rules that govern how we remember people (or things) differently, from different perspectives? It’s not just that we remember their physical appearance differently, we also undergo a different reactive attitude as we undergo the conscious episode. As a teenager I remember my father and feel rebellious, but as a child I remember him with love. 

The kind of memory I’m referring to, it should be clear, is episodic — our ability to remember things in a sensory, autobiographical way, of different people and events, places and times. To remember something autobiographically is to remember it from the foundational perspective of myself, at some time in my life. It is always I who remembers things in episodic memory, even if I do so from different perspectives. To remember something sensorily, just means to remember it with a phenomenology that is strongly perception-like. We can remember how someone felt, smelt, sounded, and looked. If we have shared a kiss, perhaps how they tasted. 

In this essay, I want to explain why we remember people in the ways that we do, when we adopt various perspectives. I will argue that we remember people differently from different perspectives, because each perspective has its own particular common sense — a shared set of rules that structure our patterns of collective reactive attitudes. I argue that we remember someone differently as a child or as a teenager because those particular perspectives have different common senses in which that person registers. As a child, my common sense for what is intimate, but not of what is inspiring, includes my father. As a teenager, my common sense for what is authoritative, but not what is intimate, includes my father. As a result, he will be presented to me as authoritative or loving, and I will  have the reactive attitudes of love or rebellion instilled in me, when I undergo the memory. In the end, I draw out two implications of this view. First, that our memories of people aren’t presented in the way they are so that we can recognize those people, and second that the rules which govern how memories change are strongly determined socially.

I. A Common Sense

On June 11th, 1963, the buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sat down cross-legged in the middle of an intersection in Saigon, South Vietnam, pressed his hands together in prayer-like fashion, and had a fellow monk douse his body in gasoline. Moments later, he lit himself on fire. As the flames grew stronger, he remained in place, his body retaining an unwavering pose of stability as he disappeared into the flames. While this event was one of tragedy, it was also one of heroism. Thích was protesting the brutal persecution of buddhist monks (and nationalists more generally) by President Ngo Dihn Diem, and a New York Times reporter watching the event snapped the photo shown below:

Buddhist Monk

Once he took the photograph, Malcolm W. Browne rushed to get the image to the Associated Press. When it arrived 15 hours later, it was broadcast to the world. The reaction to the photo was dramatic, with U.S President John F. Kennedy later saying, “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion as that one.” Humanity, having a common sense of what is unjust, tragic, heroic, terrifying, and angering, felt the same reactive attitudes of indignation, profound sadness, compassion, horror, and rage, toward the same respective objects — the oppression in Vietnam, the cause of the monks, and Thích himself. Within weeks, waves of people around the world assembled to protest in solidarity with the monks. Kennedy, who had been promoting Diem’s regime, withdrew support. Humanity experienced the same reactive attitudes toward the persecution of the monks, forming a shared goal to end their suffering. Just a few months later, President Diem was overthrown in a rebellion, and the oppressive government was replaced. Humanity coordinated, and accomplished a significant moral aim.

There are too many striking things contained in this event for one to unravel thoroughly, but one which particularly hit me is how people, of all stripes and cultural backgrounds around the world, felt the same reactive attitudes when they viewed the image. This easily could have failed to obtain. Suppose, for example, that Thích had decided on a different method of martyrdom, perhaps using a gun or a samurai sword, instead of fire. Had he used a gun, would the population in the U.S have felt the same reactive attitudes as another nation’s population, given our particular feelings about guns and suicide? Would the people in Japan have experienced the same reactive attitudes as the French, had he used a samurai sword? Moreover, what if Thích hadn’t sat still as he self-immolated, but rather expressed his pain by rolling on the ground? Would the world have reacted with the particular set of unified reactive attitudes that it did?

But things get even more interesting when you contrast this event with the collective reactive attitudes of the population of the U.S, throughout its history. Citizens of all backgrounds, having a common sense for what is tragic and unjust, reacted to the Pearl Harbor attacks with compassion for their fellow citizens and allies around the world, and anger toward the Axis powers. When the Pentagon Papers were released by Daniel Ellsberg during the U.S invasion of Vietnam, the citizens largely reacted in solidarity with him, feeling collective indignation toward the U.S government and the war of aggression. But these things make one wonder: why, when “we the people” were presented with the image of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President in 2016, did we not feel collective disgust, repugnance, and moral outrage? If humanity had a common sense for what is repugnant, ugly, and morally abhorrent — with respect to the situation in South Vietnam — why didn’t our common sense for these things ignite in us the same reactive attitudes during the 2016 election? Why did we not react with unity to the image of Trump, the way humanity did to Thích’s self-immolation? 

P.F Strawson, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas in Philosophical Investigations, popularized the notion of reactive attitudes in his landmark paper “Freedom and Resentment.” Reactive attitudes are our automatic sentimental responses to things we encounter. We laugh at jokes while leaning forward and holding our stomachs, the automatic behavior indicating that we sense that the joke is funny. We cry in movies and shed tears. We grow angry reading literature and clench our fists. We feel wonder, inspiration, and awe at art and dance, and our eyes widen and our mouths hang open, as we sense that the works are beautiful.

Strawson was interested in the question of how we come to hold people morally responsible for their actions, and this led him into a detailed discussion about our moral reactive attitudes — resentment, disgust, compassion, approval, disapproval, etc. — and the conditions under which they are apt. What he was not interested in, however, was the question of how we come to have the patterns of reactive attitudes that we do. How do we acquire a common sense of what is beautiful, such that many of us will feel the reactive attitude of awe, together? 

It is one thing to ask about the general causes of these reactive attitudes I have alluded to; it is another to ask about the variations to which they are subject, the particular conditions in which they do or do not seem natural or reasonable or appropriate; and it is a third thing to ask what it would be like, what it is like, not to suffer them. I am not much concerned with the first question; but I am with the second; and perhaps even more with the third (Strawson, 1962; my emphasis).

What I have been calling a common sense, broadly, is what I take to structure our patterns of reactive attitudes. It is a shared set of rules for which sorts of things are funny, beautiful, infuriating, etc. If you and I cry at the same scene in a play, then we have a common sense of what is sad, and our tears reflect our sense of that property in the object. If we crouch down together and hold each other in fear when a loud noise booms above us, then we have a common sense of what is dangerous; we will sometimes co-react to the same objects — loud booms (even artificially emitted ones). As long as we have at least one object that we co-react to, we share some common sense, with respect to the relevant property. 

Common Sense: A shared set of rules for what is dangerous, beautiful, disgusting, ugly, friendly, etc. which structure patterns of co-reactivity toward the same kinds of objects, in groups of people, from certain perspectives.

   What it means to have a common sense from a certain perspective is something like this. As parents, we have a common sense of what is dangerous: local strains of disease, drunk drivers, online bullying, and perhaps child abduction, etc. We have a perspective as parents, then, insofar as we have our own set of objects that we have acquired a common sense for, as parents.

As citizens of the U.S, we have a very different common sense of what is dangerous — ISIS, police brutality, North Korea, Russia, etc. While we don’t have direct access to these things through perception (most U.S citizens will never see North Korea), mention of them will bring about reactive attitudes of fear in us when we are engaging with the world as citizens.

When we take a perspective as parents — perhaps when playing with our children at the park — we are concerned with sharp objects and bullies, not threats from Russia. When we go as citizens to meet with our congresswoman about climate change reform, we will be concerned with more national issues. The citizens of another country may not share our common sense of what is nationally dangerous, and so they may not manifest any reactive attitude toward these things when they are mentioned. Of course, we also have a common human sense of certain things — remember that, ceteris paribus, all of humanity, when presented with the image of Thich’s self-immolation, felt compassion, fear, horror, anger, and sadness.

II. Developing our Common Senses

How do we acquire these shared rules that structure our collective reactive attitudes. How do we acquire our common senses? I think that a certain aspect of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of art (Tolstoy, 1897) can help to answer our question. Tolstoy recognized art as a means of emotional communication between human beings. For him, if something is to be art, it is necessary that it elicit a reactive attitude in the viewers, which the artist sincerely intended to evoke. 

“Art is not… pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well‐being of individuals and of humanity…. however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it)…. And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another… And therefore the activity of art is a most important one, as important as the activity of speech itself and as generally diffused (Tolstoy, 1897, p. 4)”

Crucially, the artwork is only successful if the audience, upon viewing the piece, undergoes those reactive attitudes together toward the same object, such that they feel what Tolstoy calls “spiritual union,” both with their fellow viewers and the artist. They all co-react, and sense that they are co-reacting, toward that object. Suppose a whole audience of fellow citizens, watching Saving Private Ryan, sobs together, and feels that they are sobbing together (one can hear it), when Tom Hank’s character weeps over the loss of a young, brave, and loyal soldier under his command. All of the audience members who feel this “spiritual union” of sadness in the scene have undergone a reactive attitude toward the same object, and sensed that they were co-reacting. Now they have a common sense of what is sad — the loss of an American soldier. They will feel sadness, together, when they are later informed of American casualties in war, or see similar images, or hear similar sounds. Engaging in the practice of co-reacting with one’s fellow citizens is what instills, maintains, and alters  a common sense of what is sad for us, in this case, qua citizens. 

It is instilled in the following way: Imagine that Dave Chappelle is giving a stand up show at the Comedy Club in New York. In a bizarre event, all of the people who attend the club laugh at the same time, and with the same magnitude of strength, at every joke. What this would mean about the audience is that they have a unified common sense of what is  funny, such that they all co-react with unity to the same jokes. If a stranger to U.S society were to attend the club on this night, and many nights thereafter, he would begin to co-react with the audience, and acquire a common sense with them, of what sorts of things are funny, as a citizen (so long as the jokes are made at that level). We can also maintain a common sense by continuing to co-react in the same way, toward the same objects, and alter it (if I create a great work of art which speaks to a large audience, I may alter their common sense, at some level/perspective). 

While Tolstoy’s theory of art is quite interesting in its own right, my primary interest here is in the idea of “spiritual union,” for it provides us with an answer to the question that P.F Strawson was less interested in — how we come to have the pattern of reactive attitudes that we do, from different perspectives. We must congregate with our fellow group-members — parents, children, friends, etc. — and co-react to objects together, and feel that we are co-reacting, from a perspective. This idea of feeling that we are co-reacting is a hard one to capture, and is a tragically broad term. I think that, as Wittgenstein said, some things can only be shown, and so this is the sort of thing I am getting at:

Sad in theatre
Happy in Theatre
Romantic in theatre
Surprised in theatre

Notice the overlapping behaviors, which indicate co-reactivity.

We laugh at the same things as friends, and feel awe at a beautiful sunset with our siblings, and we know that we are feeling the same things, toward the same objects, together. We put on our work clothes, and co-react with our co-workers, or sit with our spouse, and hold hands after we feel concern, together, maintaining our common sense by undergoing that “spiritual union” toward objects, which we already have brought into our common sense. As we co-react with each other, and feel that we are co-reacting, we acquire a common sense of what is beautiful, ugly, tragic, heroic, and so on, from certain perspectives. This is how we come to share special little sentiments with each other, as friends, lovers, siblings, and co-workers. 

III. Common Sense and Remembering Differently

Let’s recall the cases I brought up at the beginning of the essay. Sometimes when I token memories of my late father, I do so from the perspective of myself, as a child. He looks warm and intimate, his face exuding a wide smile before he booms with laughter, as he reaches out to embrace me. When I remember him as a child, I react with love.

But other times I remember him from a different perspective — that of a teenager. In these memories, he has a slightly more authoritative appearance, his face displaying a more stern look. It sometimes feels as though I’m being lectured and disciplined, just by the mere fact of his presence. When I remember him a as a teenager, I undergo the reactive attitude of rebellious, or defiant.

I also have memories of him from the perspective of a caregiver. I remember his face after surgery, bloated from inflammation, and the smell of him, as he lay in a hospital bed. I remember his facial expressions exuding tragic perturbation, and light quivering in his lips. When I remember him as a caregiver, I feel, among many other things, sympathy and sadness

When I adopt different perspectives, I remember my father differently, in at least three different ways. First, the reactive attitudes I experience in response to conjuring these memories are different. I feel love as a child, and sadness as a caregiver. Second, he appears different to me when I remember him as a caregiver as opposed to as a teenager. Finally, If I remember him 30 years later  as a caregiver — perhaps after I’ve volunteered for hospice and cared for patients — I will still feel sadness and sympathy in reaction to these memories of him, but perhaps his smell will be modified in my memory, or the hospital sheets will have a different color, etc. He will appear differently to me, from the same perspective, as time passes.

Across perspectives, my memories elicit different reactive attitudes in me, toward him. He appears differently to me, when I switch perspectives. If I remember him from the same perspective 30 years later, he will appear differently to me even though I will still feel sympathy and sadness, when bringing him to mind, as a caregiver.

How do we explain this? Let’s first make one claim — my father is an object in my common senses, in many perspectives. I can see him from my young eyes as a child, or from my developing eyes as a teenager, and my worn eyes as a caregiver. I have co-reacted with him and others, from many different perspectives, and he has entered my common senses across perspectives. 

As we mentioned before, each common sense, from a perspective,  has a set of objects upon which there are rules that govern our collective reactive attitudes toward those objects. Each perspective may have a different common sense. As a scientist, climate change issues might make me feel challenged, but as a citizen, it may elicit fear. Climate change falls into both common senses, but the reactive attitude that is “attached” to it, so to speak, varies in many cases.

The same is true of my father. When I was a child, I hadn’t developed and was predominantly being shown warmth and affection through repeated instances of co-reactivity toward me and others. I would hug my mom with him, together. I held hands with my mom and father, and I was held by them. I watched him display affection toward my brothers, and would smile along with them. As a child, I have a common sense of what is loving, and it includes my father.

I contend that the fact that my common sense of loving includes my father, as a child, ultimately explains why I feel the reactive attitude of love, warmth, or affection, when I remember him as a little one. For it explains why he appears loving to me, as a child, and this appearance is what makes me feel love. I remember him reaching out to me, smiling, as I feel his embrace. I remember loving aspects of him, as a child. Because I remember him through these aspects, I feel the reactive attitude of love toward him, just as I would if he were to reach out to hug me in real life, albeit to perhaps with a slightly lesser sentimental magnitude.

This is why, when I remember him as a teenager, the way he appears to me — which aspects of him are conjured up — reflect that he falls into my common sense of authoritative, thereby eliciting the reactive attitude of rebellion or defiance in me. Where my father falls into my common sense (loving, rebellious, etc.), from a certain perspective, determines how he appears to me in memory. This, in turn, elicits a particular reactive attitude, which ultimately reflects how he has been placed into my common sense.

We can now see why I will remember him differently as a caregiver, 30 years from now. My common sense of what is sad and deserves sympathymy shared rules for what counts as tragic or saddening — have changed. I have engaged in all sorts of co-reactivity since his death, regarding what counts as tragic, when I participated in hospice care, and developed my common sense as a caregiver. 

Since my common sense of caregiver has changed, the way he is presented to me in memory will change. I may remember the color of his hospital room differently, his smell in a slightly distorted manner, and perhaps even his facial expressions as he cried will appear differently. When my common sense of what is tragic changes, as a caregiver, the way in which he will appear sad, will change. I will still see sad aspects of him, and react with sadness when I ponder him as a terminal patient, but the way sad aspects are manifested will be different.

IV. Recognition and the Rules Governing Memory Change.

This common sense view of why and how we remember people differently has some interesting implications. Some have thought that memories change so that I can recognize the object. As I get older, my memory of my father may change because I wouldn’t be able to recognize him anymore, if he didn’t. On my view, while it is true that one will always recognize the relevant object when they remember it from a perspective, recognition plays no explanatory role. Our memories change because our perspectives or common senses change — my father is loving to me as a child, and authoritative to me as a teenager. Yes, we will recognize the remembered objects from any perspective we take, but what explains the changes in my memory is the way my father enters into my common senses, from different perspectives. Recognition doesn’t explain the changes, it is just a necessary feature of remembering someone from a common sense. 

This is why, sometimes, it actually may be hard to recognize someone in memory, 30 years later — my common sense of tragic as a caregiver has changed so dramatically that he is presented to me in an almost unrecognizable way. All remembering involves recognition, but since our ability to recognize the person fluctuates to greater or lesser degrees, it suggests that recognition doesn’t explain the changes, but rather is a necessary feature of remembering something from a perspective. 

Another interesting upshot of this is that the rules that govern how memory changes are determined in a strongly social manner. Remember that a common sense is a shared set of rules which I acquire through co-reactivity with my relevant peers. As such, the rules that our memories obey are ones that are shared with others, and created in a strongly contingent manner, in the sense that, had my community placed a different set of objects into its common sense of loving, I may well come to remember my father differently in all sorts of ways. His facial expressions could have been different, his gestures more extravagant, and his voice softer or louder. In a variety of ways, then, I can remember my father differently.


  1. Strawson, P.F (1962) Freedom and Resentment, in Freedom and Resentment and other essays, Routledge, 1974.
  2. Tolstoy, L. What is Art?, Penguin Publishers,
  3. 1995.Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

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