, Volume 74, Issue 3, pp 399–424 | Cite as

The Epistemology of Forgetting

  • Kourken Michaelian
Original Research


The default view in the epistemology of forgetting is that human memory would be epistemically better if we were not so susceptible to forgetting—that forgetting is in general a cognitive vice. In this paper, I argue for the opposed view: normal human forgetting—the pattern of forgetting characteristic of cognitively normal adult human beings—approximates a virtue located at the mean between the opposed cognitive vices of forgetting too much and remembering too much. I argue, first, that, for any finite cognizer, a certain pattern of forgetting is necessary if her memory is to perform its function well. I argue, second, that, by eliminating “clutter” from her memory store, this pattern of forgetting improves the overall shape of the subject’s total doxastic state. I conclude by reviewing work in psychology which suggests that normal human forgetting approximates this virtuous pattern of forgetting.


Memory System True Belief Human Memory Recognition Heuristic Objective Interest 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Thanks to Louise Antony, Charles Clifton, Hilary Kornblith, Chris Lepock, Joëlle Proust, Jonathan Schaffer, John Sutton, two anonymous referees, and audiences at an APIC seminar at the Institut Jean-Nicod and the 2010 meeting of the Dutch-Flemish Society for Analytic Philosophy for comments. The preparation of this article was supported in part by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, under the contract ANR–08.BLAN–0205–01.


  1. Anderson, J. R. (1990). The adaptive character of thought. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, J. R. (1991). Is human cognition adaptive? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 14, 471–517.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, J. R., & Schooler, L. J. (2000). The adaptive nature of memory. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), Handbook of memory (pp. 557–570). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (1988). On the adaptive aspects of retrieval failure in autobiographical memory. In M. M. Grueneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues (Vol. 1, pp. 283–288). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  5. Bjork, R. A. (1989). Retrieval inhibition as an adaptive mechanism in human memory. In H. L. Roediger & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), Varieties of memory and consciousness (pp. 309–330). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  6. Bjork, R. A., & Vanhuele, M. (1992). Retrieval inhibition and related adaptive peculiarities of human memory. In J. F. Sherry & B. Sternthal (Eds.), Advances in consumer research (Vol. 19, pp. 155–160). Provo: Association for Consumer Research.Google Scholar
  7. Blustein, J. (2008). The moral demands of memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Boyer, P. (2009). What are memories for? Functions of recall in cognition and culture. In P. Boyer & J. V. Wertsch (Eds.), Memory in mind and culture (pp. 3–28). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cherniak, C. (1986). Minimal rationality. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  10. Dennett, D. C. (1987). The intentional stance. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  11. Fodor, J. A. (1983). The modularity of mind. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  12. French, R. M. (1999). Catastrophic forgetting in connectionist networks. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 128–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gigerenzer, G., Todd, P. M. and the ABC Research Group. 1999. Simple heuristics that make us smart. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Goldman, A. (1992). Liaisons: Philosophy meets the cognitive and social sciences. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  15. Goldman, A. (1999). Knowledge in a social world. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Harman, G. (1986). Change in view: Principles of reasoning. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  17. Kraemer, P. J., & Golding, J. M. (1997). Adaptive forgetting in animals. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 4, 480–491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lackey, J. (2005). Memory as a generative epistemic source. Philosophy and phenomenological research, 70, 636–658.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lepock, C. (2009). Unifying the intellectual virtues. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. (Forthcoming).Google Scholar
  20. Liao, S., & Sandberg, A. (2008). The normativity of memory modification. Neuroethics, 1, 85–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Luria, A. R. (1987). The mind of a mnemonist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Marcus, G. (2008). Kluge. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  23. McClelland, J., McNaughton, B., & O’Reilly, R. (1995). Why there are complementary learning systems in the hippocampus and neocortex. Psychological Review, 102, 419–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. McCloskey, M., & Cohen, N. (1989). Catastrophic interference in connectionist networks: The sequential learning problem. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 24, pp. 109–164). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  25. McKay, R. T., & Dennett, D. C. (2009). The evolution of misbelief. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32, 493–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Metcalfe, J. (1994). Metacognition: Knowing about knowing. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  27. Michaelian, K. (2010a). Generative memory. Philosophical psychology. (Forthcoming).Google Scholar
  28. Michaelian, K. (2010b). In defence of gullibility: The epistemology of testimony and the psychology of deception detection. Synthese. (Forthcoming).Google Scholar
  29. Michaelian, K. (2010c). Is memory a natural kind? Memory Studies. (Forthcoming).Google Scholar
  30. Millikan, R. G. (1984). Language, though, and other biological categories. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  31. Parker, E. L., Cahill, L., & McGaugh, J. L. (2006). A case of unusual autobiographical remembering. Neurocase, 12, 35–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ratcliff, R. (1990). Connectionist models of recognition memory: Constaints imposed by learning and forgetting functions. Psychological Review, 97, 285–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Schacter, D. L. (2001). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. New York: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  34. Schooler, L. J., & Hertwig, R. (2005). How forgetting aids heuristic inference. Psychological Review, 112, 610–628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sosa, E. (1991). Knowledge in perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Suddendorf, T., & Corballis, M. C. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 299–313.Google Scholar
  37. Sutton, J. (1998). Philosophy and memory traces: Descartes to connectionism. Cambridge: Cambrige University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Tulving, E. (1999). On the uniqueness of episodic memory. In L. G. Nilsson & H. J. Markowitsch (Eds.), Cognitive neuroscience of memory (pp. 11–42). Gottingen: Hogrefe and Huber.Google Scholar
  39. Tulving, E., & Pearlstone, Z. (1966). Availability versus accessibility of information in memory for words. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 381–391.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Wixted, J. T. (2007). Forgetting: It’s not just the opposite of remembering. In H. L. Roediger III, Y. Dudai, & S. M. Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Science of memory: Concepts (pp. 329–335). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Zagzebski, L. (1996). Virtues of the mind: An inquiry into the nature of virtue and the ethical foundations of knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut Jean-Nicod (CNRS-EHESS-ENS)ParisFrance

Personalised recommendations