What Is Remembering?







What is Remembering?




Not much philosophical attention has been paid to the concept of remembering, in contrast to perceiving and communicating (as well as thinking, reasoning, knowing, believing, imagining, willing, intending, acting, feeling, consciousness, and other concepts). How should remembering be conceived? Nabokov entitled his autobiography Speak, Memory: this provides a suggestive starting-point for inquiry into remembering. It suggests that memory works by communicating with the conscious subject—sending messages for conscious recall. Memory speaks to us: that is what remembering is—receiving information transmitted from stored memories. Remembering is hearing messages about the past; it is listening to the past (or information about it). Call this the “communicative model”: the idea is that just as we receive messages from other minds in acts of interpersonal communication, so we receive messages from the part of our own mind known as memory. Remembering is a receptive act, rather like hearing someone speak; but it results from a productive act, like acts of speech themselves. Remembering is listening to a voice within. We should interpret “hearing” and “listening” broadly here, since the deaf can remember but don’t have the power of hearing audible speech. Remembering is a symbolic communicative act, but not necessarily one based on the sense of hearing.

            Perhaps the best way to motivate this theory is to link memory to thought. If we are already predisposed to accept a language of thought, it is no giant leap to extend this conception to memory. Memory clearly interfaces with thought, and if thought is symbolic, then so is memory. Thoughts mingle with memories as they well up from the unconscious, so it is likely that they share a symbolic medium. The mingling is like a conversation between two voices—the voice of memory and the voice of thought. There is a LOT and a LOM and they inter-translate. This theory stands opposed to the theory that remembering is perceiving what lies in memory—that conscious recollection is sensing or apprehending memory traces. Call this the “perceptual model”: memory doesn’t actively communicate its contents; its contents are passively perceived by the remembering subject.  [1] According to the perceptual model, Nabokov should have entitled his memoir Let Me Have a Look, Memory: we scan our memories, as we scan a perceptual scene; they don’t speak to us. Remembering can be modeled either on interpersonal communication or on sense perception. Does memory talk to us or do we gaze at it? Is it an agent or an object?

How can we decide between these two theories? One way is to consider the role of the will in remembering. We can try to remember but we can also try to forget, and we can fail at both. Memory might choose not to speak or it might choose to speak too much: it can either refuse to yield up the information we seek or it can give us information we don’t want. We have limited powers when it comes to accessing our memory, as if we are contending with another agent, possibly with its own agenda. It is hard to square this with the perceptual model: just as we can open or shut our eyes and see or not see, so we should be able to access or block perception of memory at will. Objects of perception don’t actively thwart our will, unless they too have will; but memory appears to have a mind of its own, at least some of the time. It can be cooperative or uncooperative. Consider how memory intrudes into dreams, selecting and trimming, acting like an autonomous agent: it isn’t that dreams are perceptions of memories, driven by the conscious wishes of the dreamer. There is something like a gatekeeper that controls what memories get into the dream and what don’t. It is not so different in waking life: a traumatic memory may insist on making an appearance no matter how much its possessor may try to suppress and banish it. Yet a pleasant or useful memory may remain hidden and inaccessible no matter how hard you try to bring it to awareness. When Nabokov writes, “Speak, memory” he is asking or requesting his memory to speak to him, knowing full well that it may be reluctant to do so; he could equally write, “Don’t speak, memory” if his memory is plaguing him with the past. This is not how we think of a perceptual object—as if it needed to be coaxed into cooperating. We know that memory is active and self-organizing, reconfiguring itself over time, sometimes dramatically so; it is also agent-like in its discretionary powers, sometimes declining to yield up its secrets, sometimes gushing too much. It can be frustrating and infuriating, like a wayward speaker who insists on saying either too little or too much. Nor is its accessibility merely random—there is a method to its disclosures, though it can be hard to divine what that is. This is where we venture into Freudian territory, but there is no need to buy into the whole Freudian apparatus to recognize that what we remember or forget is related to our emotions. Memory is a kind of intentional system, much like a communicating agent; it is not like a passive object of perception, waiting indifferently to be scanned or searched. It speaks or it remains silent, while a perceptual object sits there neutrally.

            It is anyway strange to think of remembering as like seeing a memory—as a brain scientist might see a memory trace in the brain. Surely we don’t literally sense our memories, scrutinize them, view them from different angles. Nor do we introspect them. We are more the recipients of their publications: they speak and we listen, or they remain silent and we hear nothing. The memory system is an active component of the mind, interacting with other components (thought, language, emotion): what is remembered is what is actively delivered to the conscious mind. Memory issues bulletins or keeps its cards close to its chest, according to inscrutable principles (dreams being the clearest example of this inscrutability). It isn’t that it sits there passively awaiting our inspection, playing no role in determining what is remembered. It may even see fit to transmit false memories that deceive the conscious mind—like a speaker who tells lies. Memory can fabricate and confabulate, like the most imaginative and untruthful of speakers, sending us wildly misleading messages. It seems to be doing so on purpose. It isn’t just a storehouse of inert items through which we rummage. It actively asserts that p, truly or falsely, aiming to secure our assent, purporting to be a source of knowledge.  [2] It is more like an orator trying to persuade than a tree standing stiffly before our eyes. One might even come to view one’s memory as a congenital liar, constantly purveying falsity, propaganda, and prejudice. Memory is notoriously susceptible to the promptings of emotion—the original unreliable narrator. It makes things up as it goes along. It can do this only because it operates like a speaker.

            Memory has two jobs: it stores information unconsciously and it transmits information to consciousness. There is not much point in doing the first job if the second is not performed. This duality is analogous to the standard communicator: she contains a store of information (knowledge) as well as the ability to transmit that information to another person. She may be reluctant to transmit the information or she may be enthusiastic about it, as in the case of memory; she may also be good or bad at information transmission, as people have good or bad powers of recall. The structure is the same in both cases. What differentiates them is that we have a full-blown agent in one case but not in the other—an actual person doing the transmitting. In the case of memory we can say that we have a quasi-agent, since memory acts like an intentional system, but it is stretching the point to suggest that memory is a person. Can we find a way to make the analogy complete? Here goes: memory involves a past selfthat speaks to you. At a certain time of your life you had certain experiences and these were laid down in memory, more or less permanently; you later recall them, as your memory communicates its contents. The memories refer back to an earlier time in the life of a person, possibly long ago. Consider a memory that stems from childhood, well before your mature self has formed: isn’t it just as if your childhood self were speaking to you across the years? Doesn’t the memory embed that earlier self in all its innocence and naivety? The memory is saying to you, “I had this experience”. Or rather, your previous self is saying that—sending you a message in a bottle from the past. It is you speaking, or a self that preceded your present self. The memory is a speech act from a previous person. The speech act is delivered by an actual agent—a previous self no less. Such memories have a peculiar charm and magic to them, precisely because they hail from a remote self. In that memory you can hear your old self remotely speaking to you. That self speaks to you through memory. Persons and memories are bound together, so a memory message is connected to a particular past person.

            When I say that memory operates like speech I don’t mean to restrict the means of communication to the standard devices of natural language. The language of memory could take many different forms: it needn’t consist of a pairing of sound and meaning (or a pairing of gesture and meaning in the case of sign language). It could employ sensory materials in the messages it sends—mental images of the past: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory. No doubt many of our memories are clothed in such sensory materials. But that does not invalidate the communicative model or favor the perceptual model (these are not sensory images of memories, but of past events  [3]); it merely tells us that the medium of communication is sensory. Memory employs sensory elements to form the messages it transmits to consciousness—hence their characteristic phenomenology. Its speech acts incorporate pictorial constituents (if that is the right way to view mental images). It need not all be bloodless syntax in an arcane computational language, or insistent voices in the head. Memory can send us messages about the past in the form of visual pictures. The important point is that the means of transmission is like communication (not like perception): it is kind of telling, a letting know, a sharing of information. It is not like the imprinting of an object on a sense organ. Memories speak to us; they don’t present themselves for perceptual inspection. Remembering is like hearing someone talk. It is not like perceiving traces of the past inscribed on a mental parchment.  [4]


Colin McGinn   

  [1] This is sometimes called the “searchlight” theory—remembering by directing a light on the contents of memory. By contrast, the communicative model compares remembering to utterance: memories as reports of the past. 

  [2] Thus knowledge of the past emerges as a kind of testimony-based knowledge: we know about the past because we have heard testimony about it—because memory has spoken to us. We don’t know about it by (currently) perceiving it.

  [3] I am not ruling out a perceptual model of our psychological relationship to past events, just our relationship tomemories of such events. I don’t favor that model of memories of events, but it is compatible with the communicative model of remembering itself: we see past events by being told about them. Memory speaks to us and we thereby become perceptually acquainted with the past. This would be the analogue of perceiving a present object by being told about it—perception by means of testimony. This is a strange idea, no doubt, but not incompatible with viewing memory as speech.

  [4] The classic idea of a memory trace invites the perceptual model—we detect these traces by a process of internal scanning. The trace is like a visible footprint left by the past. But this model is not obligatory and it fails to capture the active and selective nature of memory. No doubt there are states of the brain that correspond to memories, but it is a further step to identify the two. And the existence of such brain states is quite compatible with the idea that remembering is essentially a communicative process (there are obviously correlated brain states in individuals that communicate). The important point is that remembering is a kind of listening: thus the aptness of Nabokov’s title. In remembering your mind speaks to you of the past.  

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