Memory, “Alternative Facts,” and the Political Philosophy of Cognition, #2–Varieties of Memory.

By Robert Hanna



This installment contains section 2.

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


2. Varieties of Memory

Misremembering is a systematic and ordinary occurrence in our daily lives. Since it is commonly assumed that the function of memory is to remember the past, misremembering is typically thought to happen because our memory system malfunctions. In this paper I argue that not all cases of misremembering are due to failures in our memory system. In particular, I argue that many ordinary cases of misremembering should not be seen as instances of memory’s malfunction, but rather as the normal result of a larger cognitive system that performs a different function, and for which remembering is just one operation. Building upon extant psychological and neuroscientific evidence, I offer a picture of memory as an integral part of a larger system that supports not only thinking of what was the case and what potentially could be the case, but also what could have been the case. More precisely, I claim that remembering is a particular operation of a cognitive system that permits the flexible recombination of different components of encoded traces into representations of possible past events that might or might not have occurred, in the service of constructing mental simulations of possible future events.[i]

I have three critical points to make about De Brigard’s essay.

First, although I think that De Brigard’s thesis is ingenious, I do also think it is in effect a skeptical theory of memory. What I mean is that it is basically an analogue of what John McDowell has called “highest common factor” theories of perception that start with the thesis that all perception is open to worries about illusion or hallucination, and then go on to claim perception is essentially an irreal mental construct of some sort. But other things being equal, we should prefer anti-skeptical, non-constructivist, realistic theories of human cognition to skeptical, constructivist, irrealist theories of it, since the former conform better to common sense prima facie a priori rational intuitions about our own cognitive capacities, backed up by refined philosophical theories and corresponding authoritative a priori philosophical rational intuitions,[ii] than do the latter. So that is an important meta-theoretical consideration against De Brigard’s theory.

Second, even apart from that, how can De Brigard’s theory, to the effect that episodic memory is really a mental simulation containing a hypothesis about the future, handle the phenomenon of nostalgia? Nostalgia is a memory-based longing for the past, as past. I’m not talking about mere sentimentalism about the past. What the truly nostalgic person longs for is not to experience, in the future, things that are similar to things experienced in the past, but instead to re-live the actual past. There is a huge modal-phenomenological difference here. There is one and only one actual past, but an indefinitely large number of possible future experiences with relevant similarities to any past experience. Does the nostalgic person want any of those? No. She intensely wants the actual world as she experienced it, again, or as the realist historian Leopold von Ranke put it, wie ist eigentlich gewesen, “as it actually happened.” And how could that ever conform to De Brigard’s future-oriented model of memory-content? So nostalgia is an important counter-example to his theory.

To be sure, De Brigard could respond by adopting a “debunking strategy” and/or “error theory” of nostalgia, according to which nostalgia is actuallya mental simulation containing a hypothesis about experiencing things in the future that are similar to things experienced in the past, that is nevertheless so befuddled and self-deceived by strong emotion that it seems to be an intense desire to re-live the actual past as it actually happened, but really isn’t.

The general problem with debunking strategies and/or error theories about human cognitive capacities — even those as specialized as the cognitive capacity for nostalgia — however, is that they tend towards self-stultification. What I mean is that if it were true that we are systematically self-deceived and mistaken about the nature of one or more of our cognitive capacities, then why would the debunking strategy and/or error-theory themselves, as theories, be any more likely to be correct than any other arbitrarily-chosen strategy and/or theory, given that the debunking strategy and/or error-theory are of course themselves the products of the operations of our cognitive capacities? So, just as, other things being equal, we should prefer anti-skeptical, non-constructivist, realistic theories of human cognition, so too, other things being equal, we should avoid debunking strategies and/or error theories about our cognitive capacities.

Third, I think that it is especially significant that the epigraph for De Brigard’s essay is from Hobbes’s Leviathan:

So that imagination and memory are but one thing, which for diverse considerations hath diverse names. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan 1.2.

The Leviathan, in turn, provides the philosophical foundations of the modern liberal political State; and Hobbes’s theory of memory is an essential feature of that political philosophy. De Brigard’s theory therefore presents itself as highly “scientific” and “disinterested,” and therefore entirely innocent of political assumptions. But in fact, more or less covertly, it is significantly committed to various classical Hobbesian liberal or neo-Hobbesian neoliberal democratic Statist assumptions about human nature in general and about human cognition in particular. I will come back to this critically important point later.

Now back to the human cognitive capacity for memory, as such. I think that Endel Tulving’s classical distinction between

(i) episodic (1st-person indexical, I-remembering ) memory, and

(ii) semantic (fact-based, 3rd-personal or impersonal, remembering-that) memory,[iii]

is basically a good one, well-supported by empirical work in cognitive science and phenomenology alike. But at the same time, this twofold distinction does not exhaust all the basic kinds of memory: there is also “skill-memory,” or “implicit memory,” that is, memory-how, as studied by Daniel Schacter and others,[iv] and this extension beyond Tulving’s breakthrough work has been generally accepted by contemporary memory theorists.

Correspondingly, granting the threefold episodic memory vs. semantic memory vs. skill-memory distinction, there are two other extremely important memory phenomena here.

The first is the phenomenon of my 1st-person remembering things about myself and my life in factual and indeed impersonal/3rd personal terms, as if I were looking at my past self and my life from the outside — see, for example, Kant’s notion of “empirical apperception” in the Critique of Pure Reason, and Sartre’s notion of a reflective/self-conscious conceptually-constructed ego in Transcendence of the Ego. So, I think that Tulving did not sufficiently distinguish between these two sorts of memory-claims:

I remember being at my fifth birthday party. (egocentric episodic)

I remember that I was born in 1957. (allocentric/semantic episodic)

Both of these, in normal cases, have first-person epistemic authority. For example,

I remember where my right hand was just a moment ago.

I remember my own name.

I remember where I live.

And so-on. But in other ways, and above all phenomenologically, they are sharply different. For example, I could correctly remember being at my fifth birthday party, but misremember all sorts of first-personal facts about it — such as the actual location of my birthday party, who actually attended my party, etc. Conversely, I could correctly remember all those facts, but also be remembering a confabulated dream I had about my childhood birthday parties much later in life — say, when I was a teenager — and not correctly remember being at my fifth birthday party.

A second memory-phenomenon that Tulving did not notice is the important difference between

(i) non-self-conscious/pre-reflective memory consciousness, and

(ii) self-conscious/reflective memory consciousness.

During waking life, most people’s everday experiences are suffused with episodic, semantic, and skill-memories about their local environment and about themselves that they do not self-consciously or self-reflectively recognize as memories. Think, for example, about your daily, normal activities as you move around your bedroom and house shortly after waking up. You remember where your slippers and housecoat are, where the kitchen is and how to make coffee, how to brush your teeth, etc., etc., without in any way self-consciously or self-reflectively doing so. Typically, it is only if some special issue saliently arises, that calls for a special self-conscious or self-reflective act of remembering, that you self-consciously or self-reflectively remember something — for example, remembering your home address and telephone number when asked by someone else.

Therefore, to summarize, there is an important distinction to be made between

(i) egocentric episodic memory, and

(ii) allocentric/semantic episodic memory,

and also an important distinction to be made between

(i) non-self-consciously/pre-reflectively conscious egocentric episodic memory, and

(ii) self-conscious/reflective egocentric episodic memory.

Moreover, since skill-memory, implicit memory, or memory-how is also egocentric, there is also an important distinction to be made between

(i) non-self-consciously/pre-reflectively conscious skill-memory/implicit memory/memory-how, and

(ii) self-conscious/reflective skill-memory/memory-how.

Now to take an example that deploys several of these distinctions. I remember that I was born in 1957, that is, I have an allocentric/semantic episodic memory of that event with first-person epistemic authority. But I do not self-consciously or self-reflectively remember being born in 1957, that is, I lack any self-conscious or self-reflective egocentric episodic memory of my being born. Yet, given a plausible view on the nature of real human personhood, to the effect that my own life extends at least as far back as my essentially embodied consciousness reaches,[v] therefore I must also non-self-consciously/pre-reflectively and veridically remember the trauma of being born. This non-self-consciously/pre-reflectively and veridically remembered trauma, in turn, not only affects my entire later life in various ways, but can also, at least in principle, under the right cognitive conditions, be self-consciously or self-reflectively recovered.

Or at least, this is so, if the Strong Non-Conceptualism and radically naïve realism about sense perception and memory that I will spell out in the next section are both correct.


[ii] For much more about rational intuitions, see A. Chapman, A. Ellis, R. Hanna, T. Hildebrand, and H.W. Pickford, In Defense of Intuitions: A New Rationalist Manifesto (London: Palgrave McMillan, 2013); and R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 5) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015) , chs. 6–8, also available online in preview HERE.

[iii] See, e.g., E. Tulving, “Episodic and Semantic Memory,” in E. Tulving and W. Donaldson (eds.), Organization of Memory (New York: Academic Press, 1972), pp. 381–402, also available online at URL = <>.

[iv] See, e.g., D. Schacter, “Perceptual Representation Systems and Implicit Memory: Towards a Resolution of the Multiple Memory Systems Debate,” Annals of the New York Academy of Science 608 (1990): 543–571.

[v] See R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), esp. chs. 6–7, also available online in preview HERE.


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