The Alleged Circularity of Memory

Colin Mochrie was always my favorite contestant on Whose Line is it Anyway? He once said: “You know, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had memories.” What a funny little circular joke. But is it just a joke? Or does it hint towards something a little more weighty?

As a matter of fact, it is widely assumed by philosophers that it is impossible to justify the reliability of memory without falling into a circle. The idea goes that since appraisals of memory’s reliability depend on examining a track-record of memory’s previous successes, we will necessarily be depending on our memory of those successes to appraise the reliability of our memory.  The circle argument, put formally, goes like this:

  1. The reliability of memory must be determined by appeal to past instances of the successful application of memory.
  2. Past instances can be known only by applying our memory.
  3. Therefore, the reliability of memory can be determined only by applying our memory.

However, little has been said about the circle argument in the light of recent advances in cognitive science, which give us reason to doubt that what has been typically labelled “memory” in these oft-recited arguments is any single, discrete cognitive faculty, which is uniquely devoted to knowledge of the past. Even the earlier work of Henri Bergson developed a picture of a multiplicity of cognitive systems that typically fall under the umbrella term “memory”.

Bergson draws an initial distinction between habit-memory and true-memory. The “memory” that philosophers have so often subjected to analysis, according to Bergson, is actually a combination of at least two different things. Habit-memory is automatic behavior by means of repetition. True-memory, in contrast, is the cognitive faculty whose function is to store representations of past personal experiences. 

Bergson’s introduction of habit-memory revolutionizes the philosopher’s picture of memory as a single, foundational epistemic tool. As Edward Casey puts it, Bergson presents us with “the alarming notion that we can remember the past without reproducing it in any identifiable representational format”.

Bergson’s distinction between habit-memory and true-memory already gives us a little legroom to step beyond the circle. Adopting Bergson’s distinction, A.J. Ayer noted just how spacious the available legroom might be in his Problem of Knowledge:

[Habit-memory] covers not only the instances of knowing how to do things, in which, as we have seen, it is not necessary that one should also know that anything is the case, but also a great many instances in which the knowledge displayed is demonstrated as knowledge of fact.

Taking up the distinction between habit-memory and true-memory, we can reform the traditional circle argument like so:

  1. The reliability of habit-memory must be determined by appeal to past instances of the successful application of habit-memory.
  2. Past instances can be known only by applying true-memory.
  3. Therefore, the reliability of habit-memory can be determined only by applying true-memory.

And hey presto! We have escaped the circle, albeit briefly, and only insofar as the circle may have threatened any independent demonstration of the reliability of habit-memory. You don’t need to use habit-memory to justify the reliability of habit-memory.

Can we do the same again, but in reverse? Can we justify the reliability of true-memory by appeal to habit-memory? I don’t see why not. Consider the case of the amnesiac patient, known as K.C. (pictured), whose memory function has been studied by the cognitive scientist Endel Tulving.

Tulving says of K.C.:

He knows many objective facts concerning his own life, such as his date of birth, the address of his home for the first 9 years of his life, the names of the some of the schools he attended, the make and color of the car he once owned, and the fact that his parents owned and still own a summer cottage. He knows the location of the cottage and can easily find it on a map of Ontario. He knows its distance from his home in Toronto and how long it takes to drive there in weekend traffic. He also knows that he has spent a lot of time there. 

And yet Tulving continues to say, somewhat paradoxically:

The outstanding fact about K.C.’s mental make-up is his utter inability to remember any events, circumstances, or situations from his own life. His episodic amnesia covers his whole life, from birth to the present. The only exception is the experiences that, at any time, he has had in the last minute or two.

Well, which is it?

We ought to conclude that if it is reasonable to say that K.C. knows these facts about his life history while failing to remember them, then it is reasonable to infer that we can justify the reliability of memory by appeal to memory. It seems that K.C. knows by habit-memory facts about his life history which he does not also know by his true memory. So, we just need to be clear about what kind of memory we are talking about at any one time.



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