In this excerpt from William James' discussion, I am not sure I understand what is meant by the last phrase: "snug in its own skin". But I guess it must mean "with its own peculiar qualities", right?

This way of thinking about memory is, in one or other of its slightly updated disguises, still surprisingly common, and yet it is obviously untenable for a diversity of reasons. Take first the case of what are now termed "episodic" or "autobiographical" memories, memories of oneself witnessing things or doing or participating in events or activities. Certainly one might conceivably relive one's original experience, and indeed relive it again and again, because of the changes it had brought about in one's brain. But, as William James (1890b) put it over a century ago (and he was just one of a number who made the same point in their various terminologies):'

The first element which [memory] knowledge involves would seem to be the revival in the mind of an image or copy of the original event. And it is an assumption made by many writers that the revival of an image is all that is needed to constitute the memory of the original occurrence. But such a revival is obviously not a memory, whatever else it may be; it is simply a duplicate, a second event, having absolutely no connection with the first event except that it happens to resemble it....The successive editions of a feeling are so many independent events, each snug in its own skin. (vol. I, pp. 649-650) (E. F. Kelly et al. Irreducible Mind..., pp. 243-4)

  • 2
    I’m voting to close this question because it includes an image of text. Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 13:09

2 Answers 2


The expression "snug in its own skin" is a metaphor used only in psychology and education text books- usually ones that quote or refer to James's original work.

Here is an example that uses the expression in a different context, almost certainly written by somebody who has read James's book: the title of Raymont's book is also an obvious nod at James's book.

the programme for each year in all branches is complete in itself, and lies, so to speak, snug in its own skin - The principles of Education, Thomas Raymont, 1906

James's original phrase is intended to convey the idea that each recollection of an event is unique and separate from both the original event and all previous recollections of it, as if it is wrapped up in a close-fitting membrane.

It is an adaptation of the expression "in my own skin" which first appears in Horace's Satires, published in 35BC, and often quoted in literary works since then, for example:

Generally speaking, every member in society is just as much in his own place, as he is in his own skin. - The moral class book, William Sullivan, 1838


This appears to be a multilayered metaphor. I'm not entirely confident I can interpret it all the levels in the way the author intended, but I'm pretty sure I understand a few parts of the intended meaning and that might help you get on the right track to understanding the passage yourself.

First, lets break down snug. When used of clothing or similar textiles, it means warm and comfortable, or perhaps close or well fitting. You can be snug under a blanket, or have a sweater that is just the right size that fits snugly.

Now, lets look at a first metaphorical meaning of snug in [one's] own skin as it would normally be used, applied to a person. The phrase indicates self-confidence, that the person being described is comfortable with who they are, and that their outwards demeanor (the "skin" being the part of yourself seen by other people) is a "snug" (meaning "close") fit to their internal sense of self. This could be a false sense of confidence (e.g. for a person who is deluded about their place in the world), but the phrase doesn't imply that itself, it is neutral to positive in connotation.

The passage you quote seems to be using this already metaphorical meaning with an additional level of metaphor, since it's describing a memory (or a re-imagining of an event, which it seems to be saying is subtly different than a memory in some way I don't really understand) is the thing that is snug in its own skin. While it's grammatically assigning the "snug"-ness, or self-confidence, to the remembrance, it is probably speaking to how the person recalling the experience feels about it.

I'm not sure that I know what this top-level metaphor is supposed to mean beyond that. It might be a bit more clear with more context, but maybe not. I'd guess it's going to go on to say that the self-confidence it's assigning to the experience of the memory is false in some way, that it's not the same as the original experience, but a distorted version that might have various errors or misremembered details. This would be where the person having the memory comes in. The person may have confidence that it's a true recreation of the original experience, even though it's not.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .