MusingsResearch

The roots of remembering

Daniel D. Hutto (below right) is Senior Professor of Philosophical Psychology and Associate Dean of Law, Humanities and the Arts, at the University of Wollongong. and member of the Australian Research Council College of Experts. His recent research focuses primarily on issues in philosophy of mind, psychology and cognitive science. He is best known for promoting enactive and embodied cognition that is non-representational at root, and for his narrative practice hypothesis about folk psychology. Anco Peeters (below left) is a doctoral student and tutor at the University of Wollongong. His doctoral project investigates the compatibility of functionalism and enactivism and compares these frameworks in terms of their explanatory power with respect to mind-technology interaction.

Attempts to accommodate a range of empirical findings about memory have provoked daring new thinking about what lies at the roots of remembering. Our chapter, ‘The Roots of Remembering’ in the New Directions in the Philosophy of Memory collection, develops an enactive account of remembering – one that casts remembering as fundamentally constructive, re-creative, and world-involving.

The position we advance not only rejects standard cognitivist proposals: it goes further than conservative embodied and enactive approaches to memory in denying that the best explanations of remembering ever involves the retrieval of stored contents.

Many regard acts of procedural remembering, such as the favourite example of remembering how to ride a bicycle, as essentially non-declarative. Remembering how is, arguably, like knowing how – namely, both are unlike remembering or knowing that in that they are not intrinsically contentful states of mind. Interestingly, there are a number of memory theorists that also hold that the retrieval of stored contents plays not part in the best explanations of procedural remembering.

Our position is marked out in that it extends this line of thought about the non-contentful basis of procedural remembering and apply it to more sophisticated kinds of remembering, such as episodic and semantic remembering. Despite this, we argue that our account can still accommodate experientially rich forms of contentful declarative memory. This is because contents can be outcomes of acts of remembering even if the retrieval of stored contents plays no part in the basic processes that explain how we remember.

Our chapter shows how theoretically reconceiving the basis of remembering along radically enactivist lines fits with and allows us to integrate three important experimental discoveries about the nature of memory. Firstly, it provides a new way of thinking about successful remembering can involve heavy scaffolding by the environment and other individuals. Consider a case that is prominently discussed in the literature on the extended mind – the plight of the Shakespearean stage actor in Elizabethan times (Sutton 2010). Such actors could be asked to retain command of lines for over seventy different roles (Tribble 2005).

Obviously, the demands on their memory was immense. They would have been forced to make use of mnemonic techniques that depended heavily on the environmental cues and prompts provided by the playhouse and other actors. This an example of so-called distributed or extended remembering. Several theorists have sought to explain such Shakespearean actors memorize by appealing to processes that are not wholly and solely inside the head. However, we propose going further, arguing that such cases of extended remembering can be adequately explained without appealing to the idea that processes in question involve the retrieval of stored information or content that was previously off-loaded onto the environment (Tribble 2005, p. 151). Such extended remembering can be achieved by cleverly rallying environmental clues and prompts that serve to trigger familiar, practised responses so as to generate the relevant lines and appropriate performances.

Secondly, new work on episodic remembering has explored the idea that such remembering may be best understood as a kind of active, creative imagining (Michaelian 2016). Our radical, non-contentful account of remembering agrees. We propose that, instances of episodic remembering are grounded in a reconstructive process. Memories are simulatively imagined, where, again, we argue, that the process that underwrites such imagining does not involve passive recollection or retrieval of stored contents.

Thirdly and more generally, our non-contentful approach to understanding the roots of remembering fits perfectly with a wide range empirical findings that have put pressure on the traditional idea that memory is fundamentally about accurately representing the past (De Brigard 2014). Our account, we contend, much more readily accommodates these empirical results than its traditional cognitivist competitors do.

The chapter has already provoked some interest among memory theorists. At the Naturally Evolving Minds conference in in February 2018, Kourken Michaelian presented his paper ‘Radical enactivism and (post)causal theories of memory’ in response to our position. He investigates how our proposal fits the latest thinking about causal and post-causal theories of memory. Interestingly, if he is right radical enactivist and post-causal theories of memory may both be moving towards a contentless conception of the roots of remembering.

This is a repost of a post we wrote on invitation of the Imperfect Cognitions blog, which is part of an ERC-funded project on the ‘Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts’ (PERFECT) and showcases research of scholars working on ‘imperfect cognitions’ such as delusional beliefs and distorted memory.

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