Memory, “Alternative Facts,” and the Political Philosophy of Cognition, #1.

By Robert Hanna


The essay re-published below was originally published in Borderless Philosophy 1 (2018).

This installment contains section 1.

But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete text HERE.



2. Varieties of Memory

3. Strong Non-Conceptualism and Radically Naïve Realism about Sense Perception and Memory

4. The Political Philosophy of Memory

5. Conclusion


“I am taking trouble with you, Winston,” he said, “because you are worth trouble. You know perfectly well what is the matter with you. You have known it for years, though you have fought against the knowledge. You are mentally deranged. You suffer from a defective memory. You are unable to remember real events and you persuade yourself that you remember other events which never happened. Fortunately it is curable. You have never cured yourself of it, because you did not choose to. There was a small effort of the will that you were not ready to make. Even now, I am well aware, you are clinging to your disease under the impression that it is a virtue. Now we will take an example. At this moment, which power is Oceania at war with?”

“When I was arrested, Oceania was at war with Eastasia.”

“With Eastasia. Good. And Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, has it not?”

Winston drew in his breath. He opened his mouth to speak and then did not speak. He could not take his eyes away from the dial.

“The truth, please, Winston. YOUR truth. Tell me what you think you remember.” ….

O’Brien was looking down at him speculatively. More than ever he had the air of a teacher taking pains with a wayward but promising child.

“There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past,” he said. “Repeat it, if you please.”

“‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’,” repeated Winston obediently.

“‘Who controls the present controls the past’,” said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. “Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?”

Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial. He not only did not know whether “yes” or “no” was the answer that would save him from pain; he did not even know which answer he believed to be the true one.[i]

In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,”[ii] host Chuck Todd pressed Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway about why the White House on Saturday had sent Spicer to the briefing podium for the first time to claim that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts,” she said.

Todd responded: “Alternative facts aren’t facts, they are falsehoods.”

Conway then tried to pivot to policy points. But later in the interview, Todd pressed Conway again on why the White House sent Spicer out to make false claims about crowd size, asking:

“What was the motive to have this ridiculous litigation of crowd size?”

“Your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president. That’s not your job,” Conway said.

Todd followed up: “Can you please answer the question? Why did he do this? You have not answered it — it’s only one question.”

Conway said: “I’ll answer it this way: Think about what you just said to your viewers. That’s why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.”[ii]

1. Introduction

Many or even most recent and contemporary Hungarians have claimed that they can both “remember” and also “see” that the Roma people are dirty, unruly, and dangerous.[iii]

A Roma family in the city of Miskolc in northeastern Hungary/Credit: Photo: Jeneen Interlandi

In 2015 and 2016, in the USA, extremely well-armed policemen who shot a non-trivial number of unarmed young black men to death, have claimed that they “saw” the victims engaging in life-theatening behavior towards them.

In 2016, European and worldwide public sympathy for refugees was seriously compromised by the Paris and Brussels bombings, and by the Cologne New Year’s Eve mob violence against women: since then, many people all over Europe and the rest of the world have claimed that they can “see” that all refugees are potential terrorists and that all young refugee men are potentially threatening to women.

Picture taken on 31 December, 2015 shows people gathering in front of the main railway station in Cologne/MARKUS BOEHM/AFP/Getty Images

And, to top it all off with a breathtaking Orwellian flourish, in 2017, Kellyanne Conway, one of President Donald Trump’s top advisors, in a tense television interview shortly after the US Presidential Inauguration on 20 January, said that “we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.”

In this essay, I do three things.

First, I briefly sketch, and then just as briefly criticize, a widely-held contemporary theory of the nature of human memory, as specifically presented and defended in an influential essay by Felipe De Brigard, “Is Memory for Remembering? Recollection as a Form of Episodic Hypothetical Thinking.”[v]

Second, I present the basics of a radically naïve realist theory of memory,[vi] and indicate its parallels with a corresponding radically naïve realist theory of sense perception,[vii] both of which have a grounding in the Strong Non-Conceptualist theory of essentially non-conceptual mental content.

Third, I apply the radically naïve realist theory of memory and the Strong Non-Conceptualist theory of essentially non-conceptual mental content to what I call the political theory of memory, which in turn is a sub-species of the political theory of cognition.[viii]

For the purposes of this essay, the third thing drives the first and second things. I am deeply and fundamentally interested in explaining how memory and sense perception can be ideologically manipulated for political purposes, and also how the philosophy of cognition can be deployed to indicate and justify practical, effective cognitive strategies for resisting this manipulation and for ideological self-deprogramming and cognitive self-liberation when the manipulation has already occurred. My proposal is that the overall value of those cognitive theories will be made retrogressively manifest through their ability to provide fruitful and robust consequences for political theories and real-world political frameworks that emphasize individual and collective free agency and radical enlightenment.[ix]

Or in other words, I am saying that the fruitful and robust radical political consequences of these cognitive theories provide special good reasons for accepting those theories, over and above the usual reasons for theory-acceptance in philosophy, having to do with the internal intelligibility and coherence of theories, their ability to explain empirical and phenomenological data, and their ability to provide overall better accounts than competing theories.

So in sections 2 and 3, I’ll present De Brigard’s view and my critique of it, as well as my radically naïve realist theory of memory and sense perception, and its grounding in the Strong Non-Conceptualist theory of essentially non-conceptual content, as briefly and simply as I can, without providing either full-dress explications of those theories, or critical defenses of them against all or most possible criticisms, in order to proceed to the main political event in sections 4 and 5.


[ii] Available online at URL = <>.

[iii] E. Bradner, “Conway: Trump White House Offered ‘Alternative Facts’ on Crowd Size,” CNN Politics 23 January 2017, available online at URL = <>.

[iv] See, e.g., J. Interlandi, “What Drives Subconscious Racial Prejudice? A Study of Anti-Roma Bias in Hungary Seeks to Identify the Roots of Subliminal Bias,” Scientific American MIND Guest Blog (11 May 2015), available online at URL = <>.

[v] F. De Brigard, “Is Memory for Remembering? Recollection as a Form of Episodic Hypothetical Thinking,” Synthese 191 (2014): 1–31.

[vi] See also J. Russell, and R. Hanna, “A Minimalist Approach to the Development of Episodic Memory,” Mind and Language 27 (2012): 29–54, also available online at URL = <>.

[vii] See R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015) (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 5), esp. chs. 1–2, also available online in preview HERE.

[viii] What I am calling “the political theory of cognition” belongs to what Suparna Choudhury and Jan Slaby and have called critical neuroscience, and what Slaby calls the political philosophy of mind. See, e.g., S. Choudhury and J. Slaby (eds.), Critical Neuroscience (Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); and J. Slaby, “Mind Invasion: Situated Affectivity and the Corporate Life Hack,” Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016, article 266).

[ix] See R. Hanna, “Radical Enlightenment: Existential Kantian Cosmopolitan Anarchism, With a Concluding Quasi-Federalist Postscipt,” in D. Heidemann and K. Stoppenbrink (eds.), Join, Or Die: Philosophical Foundations of Federalism (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), pp. 63–90; and R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview HERE.


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