Memory and Expectation

Memory and Expectation

How do memory and expectation differ? For example, I might remember going to the shops yesterday and expect to go to the shops tomorrow—how do these states of mind differ? They concern the same state of affairs, but they are evidently not the same; we never confuse one with the other (“Am I remembering going to the shops or expecting it?”). It might be thought that the answer is simple: memory is directed to the past while expectation is directed to the future—that is the essential and sole difference. This may be backed up by the claim that the same state of affairs that is now remembered was once expected and vice versa: time passes and the mind reflects how the world is at a given time, marking it as past or future. We simply have a different temporal perspective on the world analogous to our varying spatial perspective on things presently seen. You can believe that an event lies in the past or in the future, but the belief element is constant—it is just a belief state with a different temporal content, signified by tense. Beliefs about the past are the same as beliefs about the future except that they embed different propositions. Similarly, memory embeds the proposition that in the past p, while expectation embeds the proposition that in the future p. Memory is a belief about the past and expectation is a belief about the future.  We can call this the “symmetry theory”. If we turn to the dictionary, we receive some confirmation of the symmetry theory: “remember” is defined as “have in or be able to bring to one’s mind (someone or something from the past)”; “expectation” is defined as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case” (OED). We could paraphrase the former as “be able to form an accurate belief about the past” and the latter as “have a belief about the future”. What distinguishes these beliefs is the occurrence of distinct types of temporal reference in their content, either to the past or the future. Crudely, remembering is thinking about the past and expecting is thinking about the future.

But this is too crude. In the first place, when we remember we think with both concepts: we think something was the case in the past but also that this something itself had a future, i.e., what followed the event remembered. We remember the event as occurring in time, with a past and future at that time. In the same way, when we think of a future event, we think of it as having had a past—as positioned in time. We employ this complex of concepts. Second, it is of course possible to have a belief about the past which is not a memory of the past, as with my belief that the earth is over three billion years old; not all knowledge of the past is remembering that which is known. Nor is memory always accompanied by belief: I might be remembering a real event and yet feel unsure about whether my memory is reliable in this instance (compare perceptual hallucinations). Expectation is much closer to belief, though even here I might find myself with an attitude of expectation but question whether it is well founded (some drug keeps causing me to have false expectations). So, what is the difference? What is the essential nature of memory and expectation? How should these concepts be analyzed? Now things become more difficult (as with everything about time). It won’t do to say that we can have knowledge of the past via memory but not knowledge of the future via expectation, because skepticism can be broached in both areas, and knowledge of the future is as extensive as knowledge of the past. We are on fairly safe ground if we observe that memories are caused by past events, while expectations are not caused by future events, though this observation by itself is less than explanatory. How does the attitude of remembering differ from the attitude of expecting, as opposed to the causal history of the attitudes in question? Causation is extrinsic to the inner nature of these attitudes. If in some remote possible world, the causal stories were inverted, would that change the nature of the attitudes? If the future caused expectation and the past failed to cause memory, would the attitudes be inverted, so that we remember the future and expect the past? I don’t think so. We need to find something more intrinsic, definitional, phenomenological.

I can think of two marked differences in the psychology of memory and expectation. The first is that we can fear the future but not the past. Remembering a past event does not evoke fear in us to the effect that the past might hurt us—the past is past, dead and gone. Recollecting a close call with a dangerous animal does not make us afraid of an attack by that animal now. But if we expect an attack, that certainly evokes fear. We are afraid of the future, as of the present, but not of the past. That is a big difference psychologically. Memories of the past might cause us to fear something similar in the future, but we are not afraid of the past as such (those events). The second point is that memory is saturated with detail and specificity, while expectation is etiolated and general. If I remember meeting someone yesterday, I can recall concrete details of our encounter drawn from my earlier experience; but if I expect to meet someone tomorrow, there is no experiential input to the expectation, just a schematic outline. Memory is experientially saturated, but expectation is not, since we have no experience of the future to draw upon. The future is conceived thinly, but the past is conceived thickly. Thus, the past seems to us more real than the future, less conjectural. To remember is to relive, but to expect is not. The past is part of me, but the future isn’t, not yet. My past makes me me, but my future doesn’t make me me (now). The past is bound up with personal identity; not so the future. This is why theorists of personal identity cite memory as crucial but not expectation and the future. I am what has happened to me, not what willhappen to me. I am not so much my plans for the future, which may or may not come to fruition, as I am my past experiences, which have definitely happened and shaped me. When I remember I am confronted with myself, but when I expect I am confronted with the world; I might not even survive into the future, but I sure as hell existed in the past. The past is fullness (Being, as Sartre would say); the future is emptiness (Nothingness). A human life is part Being and part Nothingness: an actual history and a speculative hope (or fear). Phenomenologically, memory is the repository of a lived life, while expectation is a receptacle waiting to be filled by life. Memory is replete with being, but expectation is striving after being. Non-being is the threat posed by the future; being is the accomplishment of the past. Fear is the emotion proper to the future, while regret is proper to the past (or pride and self-satisfaction). The difference between memory and expectation, at the phenomenological human level, is the difference between life as already lived and life as it might or might not be lived. Fact and supposition, reality and dream, the concrete and the conjectural. We remember as creatures of an experienced world; we expect as creatures of a world as yet unexperienced. These are very different attitudes. Human existence in time is suspended between the two attitudes. They are our constant companions. We are expectant memoirists.[1]

[1] I wrote this paper after having read Wittgenstein’s discussion of expectation in Philosophical Remarks (1930). In this work there is no trace of behaviorism. He is concerned with the logical nature of expectation, its specific mode of intentionality (he doesn’t use this term).

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