Memory, “Alternative Facts,” and the Political Philosophy of Cognition, #4–The Political Philosophy of Memory, & Conclusion.

By Robert Hanna

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

This final installment contains sections 4 and 5.

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

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

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

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4. The Political Philosophy of Memory

It is clearly true that all memory, insofar as it contains a conceptual component, is somewhat fallible and unreliable. See, for example, the famous study on the unreliability of “flashbulb memories” done in the early 1980s by Ulric Neisser, and many other studies on misremembering done since then, cited by De Brigard. But those facts should be no more likely to make us skeptics and constructivists/irrealists about memory than the fact that all sense perception, insofar as it contains a conceptual component is somewhat fallible and unreliable, should make us skeptics and constructivists/irrealists about sense perception.

Nevertheless, obviously, just like sense perceptual illusions and hallucinations, concept-driven misremembering and non-veridical, fake memories can be manipulated. A prime mechanism of thought-control in coercive States, especially totalitarian ones, is inducing misremembering (“illusions” of memory) or non-veridical, fake memories (“hallucinations” of memory) for coercive political purposes — as per the terrifying heyday of the Inquisition, as per the Nazi/fascist era of the 1930s and early 40s, and as per Orwell’s 1984, which is of course a dystopian sci-fi allegory of the late 1940s that comprehends both the totalitarian Nazi/fascist era and the post-World War II totalitarian Stalinist/communist era.

But the ideological manipulation of memory also fully applies to contemporary neo-Hobbesian, scientistic, technocratic, big-capitalist neoliberal democratic States. For example, suppose that you are exposed hour after hour, day after day, to movies, TV, music, social media, etc.,etc., that were subtly or not-so-subtly Statist, anti-communist/socialist, racist/anti-Arab, ultra-capitalist, ultra-patriotic, etc., etc., and suppose that this started when you were very young. Then, almost inevitably, you would have all sorts of misrememberings and/or non-veridical, fake memories, say, about 9–11, about various US invasions of other countries, or about the crowd size at Trump’s Inauguration — “we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there” — just as if you were living in a media-created version of The Matrix:

“Are we at war with Russia (or North Korea, or Syria, etc.), or not? Dang. I can’t remember now.”

“I don’t know either! Better check Facebook and our Twitter feeds.”

Indeed, I believe that a great many Americans have all sorts of ideologically-manipulated misrememberings and/or non-veridical, fake memories with significant political content and implications, about themselves, about history, and about the world in general. And, of course, not just Americans. In the larger context of contemporary neo-Hobbesian, scientistic, technocratic, big-capitalist neoliberal democratic States, and of course paradigmatically in classical totalitarian States like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia or neo-totalitarian States like contemporary China, the ideological manipulation of human memory for economic and political purposes is virtually a universal phenomenon. If you have ever gone to school, read a popular magazine or popular book, read a newspaper, looked at a billboard advertisement, watched TV and especially a newscast, watched a movie or streamed a video to your personal computer, listened to a radio, or to an iPod or MP3 player, downloaded podcasts to your handheld mobile device, used the internet, or used any kind of social media, then you have been exposed to it.

Moreover, not merely misremembering and non-veridical, fake memories but also perceptual illusions and perceptual hallucinations can be (and are constantly being) manipulated for political purposes, as per the Inquisition, as per classical or neo-totalitarian States like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and contemporary China, and as per the contemporary political situation in neo-Hobbesian, scientistic, technocratic, big-capitalist neoliberal democratic States. That is a direct entailment of the “cognitive penetration” thesis — indeed, it is simply a direct entailment of the role of concepts in human cognition, interacting with contemporary social institutions, especially States and State-like institutions — even if most cognitive-science-oriented work on memory and sense perception that contemporary philosophers of mind pay any serious attention to, generally presents itself as completely innocent of social and political implications.

People who have had serious ideological disciplining start to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the world, and to experience their own bodies, and other people’s bodies, and to remember or seem to remember, in ideologically-determined, sociopolitically expedient ways. For example, perceptually stereotyping/framing people with a certain non-Hungarian ethnicity and social history as “dirty,” perceptually stereotyping/framing young men who have dark skin and are wearing hoodies as “threatening to the police,” or perceptually sterotyping/framing refugees who have swarthy complexions and are wearing vaguely foreign-styled clothing as “potential terrorists” or “potentially threatening to women.” And then of course there’s that “alternative fact” about the crowd size at Trump’s Inauguration.

For all these reasons, I strongly believe that we can all significantly learn, and also individually and collectively benefit, from the political philosophy of cognition. Moreover and above all, any emancipatory political philosophy — for example, existential Kantian cosmopolitan anarchism[ii] — is also going to have to develop and deploy a serious, critical political philosophy of cognition.

Strong Non-Conceptualism and radically naïve realism about memory and about sense perception are uniquely theoretically well-suited for providing an adequate explanation of such ideological manipulation, and also for developing phenomenologically robust and agentially effective strategies for cognitive resistance, ideological self-deprogramming, and cognitive self-liberation. This is for two reasons.

First, mainstream theories of cognition, like De Brigard’s, are either content-monist, constructivist/irrealist, or functionalist/mechanistic, or any two of the above, or all three, and therefore cannot accommodate or account for

either (i) first-person, conscious or self-conscious cognitive resistance to cognitive penetration,

or (ii) first-person, conscious or self-conscious veridical cognition, as a realistic and in-principle epistemically discriminable standard against which misremembering (illusions of memory) and perceptual illusions, and non-veridical, fake memories (halluications of memory) and perceptual hallucinations can always be directly and first-personally, as well as intersubjectively, tested,

or (iii) first-person, conscious or self-conscious normatively-guided, free volitional control of cognitive activities.

In short, these mainstream theories cannot account for phenomenologically robust and agentially effective strategies for cognitive resistance, ideological self-deprogramming, and cognitive self-liberation that we can freely try out and repeatedly practice ourselves, in public contexts, in a process of critical, radically enlightening, mutual self-education in which students and critical educators are reciprocally learning from and teaching each other.[iii]

Second, and sharply on the contrary, it follows that the Strong Non-Conceptualist, radically naïve realist approach to memory and sense perception is in a uniquely good position to explain the foundations of contemporary empirical research about cognitive bias, the persistence of misinformation, and the effectiveness of cognitive de-biasing. For example, diagrammatically represented, here is what Stephan Lewandowsky and his co-researchers propose:[iv]

To repeat: in view of the Strong Non-Conceptualism and radically naïve realism about memory and sense perception, it follows that we can freely try out and repeatedly practice these techniques ourselves, in public contexts, in a process of critical, radically enlightening mutual self-education in which students and critical educators are reciprocally learning from and teaching each other.

Therefore, sharply unlike what is entailed by mainstream theories of cognition like De Brigard’s, according to the Strong Non-Conceptualist, radically naïve realist theory of memory and sense perception that I have just been arguing for, we don’t need Government-funded or corporate capitalist-funded and Government-monitored or corporate capitalist-monitored men in white coats, cog-sci labs, machines, or drugs to be able to do this. We can do it ourselves, without the funding and without the technocracy. That is: we don’t need a little army of neo-Hobbesian, scientistic, technocratic, big-capitalist neoliberal democratic, university-based O’Briens in white coats to reverse-manipulate what some other O’Brien did to us. We can do it ourselves, without being told what to do by the O’Briens.

Moreover at this point, the more or less covert, significant social and political commitments of mainstream theories of cognition, including De Brigard’s, should be self-evident: follow the funding!

5. Conclusion

Indeed, the Wikipedia article on “Mind Control,” and J.A.M. Meerloo’s Mental Seduction and Menticide are good starting-places for learning about these techniques.[v]

An important and illuminating irony here, of course, is that the most practically-useful, hands-on accounts of these techniques have been recorded in classified, publicly-unavailable US security agency, military, and foreign service handbooks that have themselves been designed and written in the larger context of powerful, politically-expedient ideological cognitive manipulation, by the US government, of the very people who are required to study and master those handbooks as part of their highly demanding, rigorous, and thought-controlling training.[vi]

But this is only one of many important, illuminating ironies in the political philosophy of cognition.

NOTES

[ii] 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, Vo. 4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview, HERE.

[iii] See, e.g., P. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. M. Ramos (New York: Continuum, 2007); and P. Freire, e, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Seabury Press, 1973).

[iv] S. Lewandowsky et al., “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13 (2012): 106–131, at p. 122; available online at URL = <https://dornsife.usc.edu/assets/sites/780/docs/12_pspi_lewandowsky_et_al_misinformation.pdf>.

[v] Wikipedia, “Mind Control,” (2020), available online at URL= <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_control>. See also J.A.M. Meerloo, Mental Seduction and Menticide: The Psychology of Thought Control and Brainwashing, London: Jonathan Cape, 1957.

[vi] See, e.g., J. Schmidt, Disciplined Minds (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), chs. 14–15.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.