Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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3. Contemporary work: causal connections and traces
The initial conceptual analysis of the language of memory concentrated on the everyday contexts in which we learn and use our language of memory, and centred on remembering as successful present performance. But the picture which emerged of remembering as simply getting it right about our own past is unsatisfactory. After all, we may describe events from early childhood, not from memory of them, but from having been told by others. Different aspects of our past, in contrast, may come to mind from our own recall. No one else might have been in a position to tell us of certain details which subsequent evidence corroborates. Hence, to remember something is not simply to represent it correctly later on. Nor can memory be defined by the idea of (Hume‘s) lively belief about one’s past. Sometimes we are recalling something when engaged in what we think of as pure imagination. We might intend to write a fictional story, and others may point out that it matches, incident for incident, some episode of which, hitherto, no one had informed us.
Remembering cannot be defined, either, as the representation of one’s past without the need for prompting. After all, quite without assistance, we might merely invent something which, coincidentally, did happen. Conversely, we may not remember something and then, upon being prompted, remember the event for ourselves. A reference to some connection between the past event and the present recall seems to be needed – someone suffering amnesia, but hypnotized to recount a traffic accident which, coincidentally, did happen to them is not thereby remembering it. If they now recount something, not in any way because it happened to them, but simply because of the hypnotist’s suggestion, they are remembering only what the hypnotist told them.
This idea of a causal connection between the event and its subsequent recall involves its own difficulties, however. The hypnotist might think of the story only because they recall hearing about the accident from the subject before the subject suffered amnesia. So the subject’s original experience of the accident plays a crucial causal role in the subject’s now coming to recount the event. The causal connection requires more exact definition. The subject’s original experience is causally relevant only for the hypnotist’s suggesting the story to them subsequently. Assuming that the hypnosis does not actually revive the memory of the accident, it is causally irrelevant to the subject’s accepting the story upon its being suggested to them by the hypnotist.
Alas, complication follows complication. It is easy to imagine that the trauma of the accident might have made the victim more highly suggestible to hypnotists’ stories about accidents. So the subject’s having been in the accident they subsequently describe might still be relevant to their acceptance of the hypnotist’s suggestion, and not only relevant to the suggestion being made to them. It seems one must reinvoke the ancient idea of a memory trace which encodes the information the person gains from an experience. Only where there is an activation of such a trace is there the highly specific causal connection required for true remembering. Such an idea appeals both to common sense and to some contemporary scientific theories of how both general information and specific events might be stored – cortically, and also as conditioned reflexes, making possible muscle memory, as musicians and sports professionals speak of it.
This idea of memory is not universally accepted. Not enough is known about the physiological processes required for the memory of specific events, to say that we can insist upon the presence of such a strict trace. In reply, it will be insisted that while memory may be highly dispersed in alternative neural networks rather than encoded in specific brain cells, it is hard to imagine any alternative to a neural, or neuro-muscular process which would preserve the highly specific information about individual events which makes it possible for us to recall them with all the sensual and emotive feel which they commonly carry.
It has also been objected to such a causal analysis of remembering that memory is a power or disposition to recount things about one’s past. Is it not absurd to suggest that some past event should continuously cause the continuation of such a power of recall? Is this not like saying that the capacity of one’s living room curtains to keep their colour, day in, day out, is continually held in place by their originally having been dyed? In reply, a causal theorist will point out that it is not the power of recall which is continually upheld by an event in the past. What is required, more simply, is that the trace established by the event remembered should encode all the information genuinely recalled, and that if prompting is necessary (as normally it is), this prompting should activate that encoding trace.
Deutscher, Max. Contemporary work: causal connections and traces. Memory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/memory/v-1/sections/contemporary-work-causal-connections-and-traces.
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