This week I am writing a series of posts about my new book Memory: A Self-Referential Account (Oxford University Press, 2019). My first post, today, concerns the metaphysics of experiential, or episodic, memory.
In chapter two, I address the question of what it takes for a subject’s mental state to qualify as an episode of remembering. My proposal is that a mental state qualifies as an episode of remembering just in case it has a certain functional role within the subject’s cognitive economy. I motivate this view by highlighting the shortcomings of the main alternative views.
There seem to be two main views about this issue. One of them is popular within philosophy, whereas the other one is popular within psychology. The first view (the so-called ‘causal theory of memory’) is that a subject’s mental state qualifies as an episode of remembering just in case that mental state has a certain causal history. Specifically, if a subject represents a certain fact in the past in virtue of having some mental state, then the subject is remembering the fact in question just in case their mental state causally originates in the subject’s past experience of that fact.
This view has a number of difficulties, but I will concentrate on just one, having to do with the possibility of misremembering. We routinely misremember things that we correctly perceived in the past. I may correctly perceive an apple to be red today, and misremember it as having been green tomorrow. It must be possible, therefore, for our memories to be, so to speak, embellished with details that were not part of our past experience. And yet, this is impossible if the causal theory is correct. The moment an extra detail is added, the relevant mental state no longer counts as an episode of remembering and, hence, it does not count as an episode of remembering falsely.
The second view (we may call it the ‘narrative theory of memory’) is that a subject’s mental state qualifies as an episode of remembering just in case it contributes to a narrative of the subject’s life. More specifically, if a subject represents a certain fact in the past in virtue of having some mental state, then the subject is remembering the fact in question just in case they are using their mental state to construct a smooth and robust story of their life.
This view has a number of difficulties, but I will concentrate on just one, having to do with the demand for a narrative. Sometimes, subjects remember things that took place in their past, even though they are unable to relate the relevant fact to anything else that they remember about their lives. I may remember scratching my knees badly while playing in some playground as a kid, and yet I may be unable to relate that fact, temporally, to any other fact that I remember about my childhood.
My suggestion is that if a subject represents a certain fact in the past in virtue of having some mental state, then the subject is remembering the fact just in case their mental state is of the type which tends to be caused by an experience of that fact, and tends to cause the subject to believe both that they experienced the fact, and that the fact took place in the past. The backward-looking part of this functional role is meant to preserve the main idea in the causal theory, while allowing for the possibility of misremembering. If I visualise the apple as having been green, for instance, I am not occupying a mental state that originates in my past experience. But it is the kind of mental state that I would normally have if I had perceived a green apple, which is why it counts as an episode of remembering (remembering falsely, as it happens).
The forward-looking part of the functional role is meant to capture the main idea in the narrative theory, while allowing for the possibility of remembering facts which are, in our mental lives, isolated from anything else we remember. If I visualise falling in a playground, for instance, I cannot tell a story about what happened before, and after, that episode. But I am inclined to think, in virtue of visualising my fall, that it happened to me, and that it happened in the past. And this is, partly, why it counts as an episode of remembering.
The functionalist proposal, however, is neutral on the kinds of contents that memories have. It is neutral on the kind of phenomenal features that memories have as well. And, finally, it is neutral on the kind of knowledge that memories afford. Those issues require independent investigations which are the subjects of the remaining chapters in the book.