Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Remembering Events

Christoph Hoerl
I'm Christoph Hoerl, I work in the Department of Philosophy at Warwick University, and my research is mostly in the Philosophy of Mind. One topic I am particularly interested in is memory, and I have recently published a paper in which I discuss an example taken from C. B. Martin and Max Deutscher's 'Remembering' (Philosophical Review 75, 1966, pp. 161-96), which is still one of the most frequently cited articles in contemporary philosophical discussions of the nature memory.

The example runs as follows: "Suppose that someone asks a painter to paint an imaginary scene. The painter agrees to do this and, taking himself to be painting some purely imaginary scene, paints a detailed picture of a farmyard, including a certain colored and shaped house, various people with detailed features, particular items of clothing, and so on. His parents then recognize the picture as a very accurate representation of a scene which the painter saw just once in his childhood. The figures and colors are as the painter saw them only once on the farm which he now depicts. We may add more and more evidence to force the conclusion that the painter did his work by no mere accident. Although the painter sincerely believes that his work is purely imaginary, and represents no real scene, the amazed observers have all the evidence needed to establish that in fact he is remembering a scene from childhood. What other explanation could there be for his painting being so like what he has seen?" (Martin & Deutscher 1966, pp. 167f.)

Call the person in this example 'the painter'. I take it everybody would agree that the painter is exercising his cognitive resources in an imperfect way. He has been asked to paint an entirely made-up scene, but fails to do so. But how exactly should we construe the example?

When philosophers discuss this example, they typically characterize it in the way Martin & Deutscher do: that is, in terms of the idea that the painter does remember a particular past event - that he has what psychologists call an episodic memory of it - but that he is not aware that he does so.

In 'Remembering events and remembering looks' (Review of Philosophy and Psychology, forthcoming), I argue against this way of characterizing Martin & Deutscher's example, and against the associated idea that episodic memory can come in two varieties - unconscious as well as conscious. Instead, I advocate a distinction between two different forms of conscious remembering: remembering events (i.e. episodic memory) and remembering looks. One kind of knowledge we acquire through experience and can retain over time is knowledge of what certain kinds of things look like. The painter makes conscious use of such knowledge in painting the scene on the canvas. However, it is precisely because he does not remember the particular past event which that scene so resembles that he fails to realize that the picture isn't entirely the product of his imagination.

At first, it may look as though the disagreement here is merely a terminological one. Whereas I want to reserve the term 'episodic memory' for a conscious form of memory, others want to allow that it can also apply to an unconscious form. However, as I argue in my paper, there is a more substantial disagreement in the background. In particular, I suggest that the view that episodic memory can come in unconscious as well as in conscious form has trouble accounting for the difference between the two. It requires the existence of what is sometimes called a 'memory indicator' as an ingredient of conscious remembering - that is, an element in the phenomenology of conscious remembering by which we can somehow tell that we are remembering. Yet, the history of attempts to make the idea of such a memory indicator plausible (e.g., Hume thought that it was the 'vividness' of the memory image, Russell talked about its 'familiarity') is arguably one of failures.

On the alternative view of episodic memory I develop, when we consciously remember a particular past event, we know that we do so not because of the presence of a memory indicator. Rather, our knowledge is a form of practical knowledge. Remembering past events is a conscious activity (that's why, on this view, there is no such thing as unconscious episodic memory), and when we engage in this activity, we know what we are up to. I connect this view with the idea that, in remembering past events (rather than just remembering what something looks like) the subject must somehow be able to make concrete to herself that what is being remembered lies in the past or is completed. I suggest that doing so requires recruiting some causal knowledge and a particular form of causal reasoning. When we remember episodically, we have an idea of some concrete way in which things have changed since the events or situations we remember, providing for a sense in which those are events or situations that won’t occur again. But, in so far as it mobilizes causal reasoning of this sort, there is an important sense in which the subject herself is actively involved in episodic remembering.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Christoph and thank you for a very thought provoking post. I found your view very appealing.

    I am wondering what you think about those cases in which the person seems to remember a past event, and gets most of the details right, but does not attach to the event the right "time tag" (as in some cases of dementia where the person has a vivid recollection of a childhood event and believes it occurred earlier that day rather than several years before).

    Would you say that the person has an episodic memory of the event?


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