As Serling notes, David Gurney has lost something he didn’t even know he had, his identity. A special feature of David Gurney’s circumstances is that he hasn’t lost his sense of who he is, or more neutrally, his belief that he is David Andrew Gurney, his crystal clear sense of himself as David Gurney. The problem is that his belief about himself clashes with the beliefs others have about him. He claims to know who he is, but no one else knows who he is. It’s not that they hold beliefs about who he is. It’s just that they don’t believe that he is David Gurney. As the psychiatrist says to him after he’s hospitalized: “You see, this man you think you are, he doesn’t really exist, except in your mind.” The individual who claims to be David Gurney also knows who other people are, and claims that they know him, which others also deny. They also deny that they are who David Gurney says they are.
In what sense, then has the person who claims to be David Gurney lost anything? Everything about himself seems the same to himself. What has changed is his relationship to others. It’s like property. Suppose that your car sits in your garage, but, unbeknownst to you, you’ve just defaulted on your auto loan, and the bank is about to show up to repossess it. Nothing about the car has changed. What has changed are the beliefs about the car and attitudes towards it that others have, which lead them to act in ways that they collectively approve of. If you’re left out of the loop, and don’t realize that you’ve defaulted on the loan, you will find what is about to happen very puzzling.
We readily acknowledge that property is has to do with what actions we can and can’t take, and how we evaluate the appropriateness of the actions of others, but the extent to which this is true of our identity is obscured by our sense that identity is something internal, something that doesn’t depend on conventions or agreements about how we name, identify, and ascribe properties to things. As David Gurney says, as he pushes back against everyone else’s denial of his identity claim: “They can’t get inside my mind.”
Yet, as we’ve already noted, the disparity in identity claims is not limited to those made about the individual who claims to be David Gurney. When David attempts to establish his identity by phoning his best friend and then his mom, he reaches the persons he recognizes as his best friend and his mom, but they don’t recognize him.
The incompatibility of David Gurney’s beliefs about personal identity and the beliefs of others is maintained when he wakes up at the end of the episode, though the identity beliefs completely reverse. He now fails to recognize other people, including his wife, while his wife, and presumably other people, now identify him as David Gurney. (No one else seems particularly bothered by the fact that Gurney has a grasp of some facts that it would be hard for a total stranger to have, such as knowing the bartender’s name.)
While the episode ends here, we can compare the difficulties David Gurney had when no one acknowledged his identity to the ones he will have when everyone recognizes him but he doesn’t recognize anyone else. If he returns to the bank where he works, it will seem to him that no one belongs there. If he returns to his neighborhood bar, Sam the bartender won’t be be behind the bar, even though the person behind the bar will claim to be Sam. Now the fact that David Gurney will be correctly identified by others will be as inexplicable to David Gurney as their failure to identify him was in the first scenario. So it appears that David Gurney has not regained his identity, even when the beliefs of others about him match his beliefs about himself. He won’t regain his identity until his beliefs about others also match their beliefs about themselves.
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1690, Book II, Chapter XXVII.