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SINGULARISM about Episodic Memory

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In the philosophy of memory, singularism is the view that episodic memories are singular mental states about unique personally experienced past events. In this paper, I present an empirical challenge to singularism. I examine three distinct lines of evidence from the psychology of memory, concerning general event memories, the transformation of memory traces and the minimized role temporal information plays in major psychological theories of episodic memory. I argue that singularist views will have a hard time accommodating this evidence, facing a problem of transitional gradation. I then look at some potential consequences for the larger debate, highlighting the way in which singularism has featured in three important recent arguments in the philosophy of memory.

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  1. 1.

    Cf. Perrin & Rousset (2014) for an excellent ‘compte rendu’ of the major philosophical and psychological theories/conceptions of episodic memory and ‘episodicity’.

  2. 2.

    I will use ‘event’ and ‘episode’ interchangeably in the main text. While there are some theorists who distinguish the two notions, the justifications they offer are not relevant for our purposes.

  3. 3.

    This feature was most clearly discerned by Quine (2013 [1960]) in his classic analysis of the function of singular terms. Quine noticed that what mattered for singular reference was not the number of objects the term actually referred to, but the ‘purport’ to refer to just one particular object: “For ‘Pegasus’ counts as a singular term though true of nothing, and ‘natural satellite of earth’ counts as a general term though true of just one object” (p.87). For him, talk of purport was just a metaphorical way of alluding to the different grammatical roles that singular and general terms play in sentences. Crane (2011), in the paper introduced in the main text, develops this view and applies it to singular thoughts, taking the ‘purport’ of thoughts to be constituted by the distinctive cognitive role they play in the mental economy of subjects. In introducing singularity via the notion of ‘purport’, I do not mean to endorse the Quine/Crane view of singular reference. I am only using these notions to put a finger on a phenomenon of considerable complexity. This phenomenon, as I attempt to show in the main text, can be analyzed in a myriad of distinct ways.

  4. 4.

    Depending on how one carves things, there may be non-singular thoughts that are not general (cf. Fitch & Nelson 2018). To avoid additional controversy, I will not use ‘general’ and ‘non-singular’ interchangeably.

  5. 5.

    Indeed, the first may refer to a single individual as well.

  6. 6.

    The majority of contemporary philosophers take the singularity of a thought to be determined by some feature of its content. On one, historically dominant, view, the content of a singular thought is a proposition which has an individual object, or a relevant object-dependent sense, as a constituent. A singular thought is, then, ‘directly’ about an individual in virtue of literally having it as part of its content (e.g. Russell 1912; Kaplan 1989; Evans 1982; McDowell 1984). As we will see, some singularists about episodic memory pursue this explanatory strategy (Martin 2001; Debus 2008, 2013). Yet, this traditional view is not the only one on the philosophical menu. In fact, there are now a number of competing views about the nature of singular thought. One notable shift in strategy sees the singularity of thoughts characterized in terms of features of their vehicles, and not (only) of their contents. Hence, on a popular family of theories, singular thoughts constitutively involve the tokening of a particular kind of vehicle: a “mental file” (e.g. Recanati 2012, 2014; Jeshion 2010, 2014; Crane 2011). On these non-traditional accounts, singular thought is not taken to be constitutively ‘object-dependent’.

  7. 7.

    In singular thoughts of this kind, a particular past event (or a corresponding experience) will be the individual object the thought purports to refer to. Accordingly, an event such as “having one’s wallet stolen by a ‘team of pickpockets’“(Crane 2011, p.23) could be the object of a singular purport memory. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for prompting me to add this clarification.

  8. 8.

    E.g. in virtue of being products of a cognitive system that utilizes information about such events.

  9. 9.

    The difference may be significant. As we will see below, the singular purport of episodic memories is typically taken to involve more than the existence of ‘singular’ contents/objects of memory. Thus, being about a unique past event/experiences may not be sufficient for having singular purport. At the same time, on some conceptions of singularity, it may be possible for mental states to purport to be about unique past events/experiences without succeeding in being about them. If my analysis is correct, the singularist theories examined in this paper do not leave space for such possibility. See also note 18.

  10. 10.

    Thus, I may know that this event occurred if you tell me that this is the case, even if I don’t have a sensory (experiential) memory of it. See below for what this ‘experiential’ aspect of episodicity may amount to.

  11. 11.

    According to McCormack (2001), “what makes it the case that I am remembering a certain specific event is that I remember the event as having occurred in particular unique, temporal context” (p.293, emphasis added).

  12. 12.

    A number of other theorists, including some whose contributions I’ll examine below, hold relevantly similar views about the objects of episodic memory.

  13. 13.

    Bernecker (2010) defends a related, but importantly dissimilar, view. He argues that remembering allows us to directly experience past events, in the sense that the events are the primary intentional objects of memory. Unlike Debus and Martin, however, he believes that memory involves representation of the past.

  14. 14.

    That is to say, the past events themselves - and not representations of them - feature as direct constituents of these memories. Consequently, to individuate an episodic memory, we must reference the specific event that is remembered (and its relevant components). See Debus (2008, pp.415–420); Martin (2001, pp.275–280)

  15. 15.

    cf. Martin (2001, p.276): “When one in fact recalls someone’s throwing a ball at one, then one is recalling some specific episode of having a ball thrown at one, given that one’s recall is genuine, and the ball which is represented before the mind is whichever ball it was that was then thrown. Memory imagery has a specific or particular content intrinsic to it.... one realizes that it is indeed that particular event which is now again before the mind.”

  16. 16.

    See the discussion in section 4.1

  17. 17.

    For Martin (2001), episodic recall constitutes a kind of “retained acquaintance”. Debus (2008, p.428f), similarly, characterizes the episodic relation as direct “acquaintance with the relevant [past] object”. See also Campbell (2002, p.180).

  18. 18.

    An important clarification bears repeating here. Despite my characterization of singularism in terms of the notion of purport (mainly for expository purposes; see also notes 3 and 9), there are a number of relevant conceptions of singularism that do not take the singularity of mental states to be constitutively tied to intent. Indeed, if my analysis is correct, intent doesn’t play a role in the relationalist accounts of singularity discussed in the main text. On these accounts, the singularity of a memory consists in its direct relation to object-involving singular content. That said, the relation has a phenomenological aspect, allowing rememberers unmediated experiential access to the particular past event (the ‘targeting’). The event, in other words, is experienced as being spatiotemporally singular. For relationalists, unlike for e.g. Quine and Crane, there are no empty singular memories (while less clear, I believe this is also the case for Perrin 2018, 2019). As far as I can see, the arguments against singularism in sections 3 and 4 are not affected by the choice to introduce singularism via the notion of purport. Thanks to an anonymous referee for helping me clarify this point.

  19. 19.

    e.g. Debus (2008, p.410): “Whenever S stands in a recollective relation to x, the relevant recollective relation supervenes on (a complex relation that consists of the conjunction of) the spatial, temporal and causal relations that obtain between S and x.”

  20. 20.

    cf. Perrin 2019, p.479: “La singularité est. une propriété nécessaire du contenu des souvenirs dits épisodiques.” [Singularity is a necessary property of the content of so-called episodic memories]”

  21. 21.

    For Perrin, the mental image (representation) is the ‘immediate’, but not the ‘intentional’ object of the memory. In this sense, his position is importantly different from the neo-Russellian one, on which the past event is the immediate (and intentional) object of the memory. Perrin argues that the mental image can function as a description of an event, which can be used to set the reference to a unique past event. The content of the memory will then be singular, yet the meta-semantic machinery making this possible will employ (non-singular) descriptions. See 2019, pp. 493–497

  22. 22.

    To my knowledge, the terms ‘continuism’ and ‘discontinuism’ were introduced to the literature by Perrin (2016).

  23. 23.

    Similarly, Hopkins (2018) takes episodic memory to be a kind of imagination, yet insists that “Episodic memories always have singular content. For how can you be having an episodic memory unless there is an answer to the question which episode you are remembering?” (p.60).

  24. 24.

    More precisely, Tulving considers these “memory claims… based on mnemonic information stored in episodic memory” (1972, p.386). As I argue in the main text, this difference is of key importance. See section 3.3.

  25. 25.

    e.g. Schooler & Hermann (1992)

  26. 26.

    Barsalou (1988) defines an ‘extended event’ as a single event lasting longer than a day. According to him, extended events are typically “not continuous, being frequently and systematically interspersed with other kinds of activities” (p.201). ‘Alternative events’, on the other hand, are “events that (a) had not occurred... (b) were alternatives to what actually occurred, or (c) might occur in the future” (ibid).

  27. 27.

    For the attributes of such “self-defining” memories, cf. Singer and Moffitt, 1991, p.242).

  28. 28.

    Indeed, the vast majority of very recent memories (i.e. memories from the same day) seem to be about particular episodes. This may be of some explanatory importance. An anonymous referee points me to the proposal of Conway (2001, 2009) who suggests that we should reserve the term “episodic memory” exclusively for such memories of recent particular events. This is an intriguing idea, yet it should be noted that it is quite revisionary. On Conway’s account, the number of genuine episodic memories will be much smaller than many theorists expect. Moreover, some of the memories that are taken to be paradigmatically episodic in the philosophical community may turn out not to be episodic (e.g. my memory of my 11th birthday). This revision may not appeal to the sensibilities of many singularists. I am thankful to the referee for bringing Conway’s ideas to my attention.

  29. 29.

    Neisser (1981) introduced the term ‘repisodic’ in order to describe the peculiar quality of the famous testimony of John Dean before the Senate Watergate Investigating Committee. According to Neisser, Dean’s testimony was “accurate at a level that is neither ‘semantic’ (since he was ostensibly describing particular episodes) nor ‘episodic’ (since his accounts of the episodes were often wrong)” (p.1)

  30. 30.

    Two issues are worth mentioning here: (a) there may be multiple (related) spatial settings that constitute the basic context of the concatenated memory, (b) the memory may indeed have a third-personal perspective (just as many ‘pure’ episodic memories ostensibly do; cf. McCarroll 2018).

  31. 31.

    ‘Memory representation’ is used more or less synonymously with ‘memory trace’. Importantly, such representations are not to be equated with actual memories (cf. Tulving 1983; Dudai, 2012).

  32. 32.

    This is so-called systems consolidation. It is to be distinguished from synaptic consolidation, which is a property of individual neurons and synapses across the brain. How the two processes are related is a difficult theoretical question; cf. Dudai 2012, 2015; Squire et al. 2015.

  33. 33.

    For systematic reviews, cf. Winocur & Moscovitch 2011; Moscovitch et al. 2016

  34. 34.

    This idea is widely shared in the contemporary psychology of memory (cf. Trakas 2019, pp. 66–73). For example, Conway (2009) argues that so-called “complex episodic memories” (CEMs), composed out of several distinct (but related) episodic representations, constitute the most common form of long-term experiential memory. Despite their composition, CEMs are typically experienced as being about a single past event with unique spatiotemporal coordinates (cf. 2009, pp. 2308–2312). See also note 28.

  35. 35.

    cf. Tulving (1983, Ch.3) for an extended discussion of the similarities and differences between episodic and semantic memory.

  36. 36.

    An anonymous referee raises an intriguing question, asking whether Tulving (2002, 2005) genuinely rejects the necessity of W-W-W information, as I claim in the main text. While it is true that Tulving often highlights only the insufficiency of W-W-W information in his presentation (e.g. 2002, pp.3–4), I believe a case can be made that he considers W-W-W to be unnecessary too. I take the proof to be in the pudding here: temporal coding/information simply does not appear among the elements of the episodic memory system in 2002 and 2005. I take this as at least prima facie evidence for the claim that temporal information is unnecessary on this new account (as it is on the other major systems theories). Answering this question definitively, of course, would require further analysis and a careful exegesis.

  37. 37.

    Compare to Barsalou (1988)‘s ‘alternative’ events.

  38. 38.

    See footnotes 6 and 9

  39. 39.

    An anonymous referee brings my attention to the phenomenon of “belief in occurrence” - the subjective feeling subjects have that a particular past/future event genuinely occurred/will occur, demonstrated by Ernst & D’Argembeau (2017) and Scoboria et al. (2015, 2019). While this is a very important phenomenon that warrants careful attention, I would like to suggest that the presence of a “belief in occurrence” is independent of the temporal specificity (the coding and organization of temporal information about a specific event) that I investigate in this section. Thus, one may believe that something has happened (or will happen) without having temporal information about the event or even taking it to be singular. Interestingly, this is reflected in the methodology of these theorists. Thus, Ernst & D’Argembeau (2017, p.1047) restrict the relevant events to specific ones, occurring in a unique spatiotemporal context. Scoboria et al. (2019, p.6) do the same. Intriguingly, despite the explicit instructions to the subjects to produce only specific events, only 71% of them managed to produce three specific events. This is particularly interesting in the context of our discussion of generalized memories. I am thankful to the referee for pointing me to this fascinating research.

  40. 40.

    Cf. Hassabis & Maguire (2009, p.1269): “In humans, the use of this constructive process goes far beyond simply predicting the future, to the general evaluation of fitness for purpose... This allows humans to be limitlessly creative and inventive even though constrained by a basic set of raw component elements gleaned over a lifetime of experiences”.

  41. 41.

    And, indeed, like Schacter and Addis, 2007; Schacter et al. (2008, 2012) and Hassabis & Maguire (2007, 2009). For De Brigard’s position, see his (2017)

  42. 42.

    Manning (2019) offers some intriguing neuroscientific evidence to argue that Tulving’s notion of mental time travel is actually best understood in this non-singularist way. For him, the notion of “mentally revisiting any specific moment of our past is at best incomplete and at worst misleading” (p.1)

  43. 43.

    See 5.1

  44. 44.

    Debus (2008, 2014), similarly, takes “recollective memories” - i.e. those memories which have experiential characteristics - to essentially involve relations to object-involving particular content (see especially 2008, pp. 405–415). See section 5.1 for the relevance of this commitment to her argument for discontinuism.

  45. 45.

    Consider this, quite illuminating, passage: “Tulving and Russell would seem to give us a direct answer to why we should be resistant to [the view that there is no essential difference between episodic and semantic memory]: in episodic memory we have experience or acquaintance with the past; we lack such acquaintance in mere semantic memory” (2001, p.59). If my analysis in the main text is on the right track, the assimilation of Tulving’s project to Russell’s is a fundamental mistake.

  46. 46.

    See next section for a systematic challenge to singularism, developed along these lines.

  47. 47.

    An anonymous referee suggests that singularists have long noticed non-singular experiential memories, indicating that the existence of such memories is not incompatible with the existence of singular experiential memories. My response is two-tiered. First, I am not entirely sure that singularists have dealt with non-singular experiential memories in much detail. In fact, I see Martin’s (2001) discussion of the case of John Dean as one of the very few treatments of this interesting issue. Second, it is the wager of this essay that singularists haven’t noticed the implications of the evidence (presented in section 3) for their views. I outline the case for this claim in section 4.2.

  48. 48.

    See note 27 for one such possibility

  49. 49.

    For excellent recent discussions, cf. Michaelian, 2016a; Held 2017; De Brigard 2017

  50. 50.

    E.g. ‘Species rings’ (Buckner 2016, pp.1092–1094)

  51. 51.

    A referee points out that the problem of transitional gradation arises only for singularist accounts that consider episodic memory to be a distinct psychological/natural kind. While I believe this is correct, I want to emphasize two related points. First, the main proponents of singularism do talk of episodic/experiential memory as constituting a distinct kind (e.g. Martin 2001, pp.260–267; Debus 2014, pp.336–345; see also Perrin 2016). Hence, the problem of gradation does seem to arise for these accounts. Second, singularists may give up this view of episodic memory, but at the steep price of abandoning the idea that the category of episodic/experiential memory contributes to our inductive and explanatory practices. If my analysis is on the right track, proponents of S-EM would be reluctant to pay this price.

  52. 52.

    To be clear, the existence of gradually decreasing patterns of neural activity doesn’t by itself establish the existence of underlying representational gradation. As an anonymous referee correctly points out, there may indeed be important discontinuities at the representational level (e.g. qualitative thresholds). It is important to point out, however, that in the study referenced above (Levine et al. 2004) - see also Maguire et al. 2001, Maguire and Frith 2003 and Renoult et al. 2016 - the neural gradation was modulated by the behavioral context - i.e. the active manipulation of the specificity and remoteness of recollections. Renoult et al. (2012, 2016) take the behavioral, imaging and neuropsychological findings to constitute convergent evidence for the existence of representational ‘continua’ in declarative memory. While this is an important perspective, the referee is quite right to note that we should be careful about how we frame and interpret these findings.

  53. 53.

    An important clarification is in order here. As specified above, the continuum in declarative memory may be multidimensional, with variation in values for different, explanatory important, properties. Hence, even for relationalists, it is not only variation in content that will matter; at the very least, the variation in the causal/cognitive/experiential processes that support the relationship of ‘acquaintance’ with the past will also be relevant. To that extent, one may not be able to estimate whether the distinction between singular and non-singular memories is ‘fuzzy’ simply by focusing on their content (or experienced ‘purport’). I am grateful to a referee for prompting me to add this clarification.

  54. 54.

    Importantly, as an anonymous referee correctly points out, this does not imply that all memory representations become gradually semanticized. This is very likely not the case. However, semanticization may still present a challenge to singularist views. Compare to the case of speciation: not all individuals will be modified by the relevant transformational processes, yet the existence of these processes matters for the prospects of categorizing the individuals into distinct biological kinds. I am thankful to the referee for helping me clarify this point.

  55. 55.

    Cf. Buckner 2016, p.14

  56. 56.

    I am thankful to an anonymous referee for bringing this possibility to my attention.

  57. 57.

    I have altered the wording of the premises slightly, following Michaelian (2016b). As far as I am aware, this does not affect the validity or soundness of the argument. Cf. Debus (2014) for the original formulation.

  58. 58.

    For a clear presentation of Debus’ disjunctivism, see her (2008, pp.414–415)

  59. 59.

    “When Anna [episodically] remembers yesterday night’s dinner with her friend, she is experientially aware of yesterday night’s dinner, which is a past particular event… Past events are actual particulars.” (2014, p.342)

  60. 60.

    For a criticism of Debus’ disjunctivism, see Michaelian (2016b, pp. 76–77)

  61. 61.

    See Martin (2001) on the case of John Dean, for example.

  62. 62.

    For expository purposes I am altering Aronowitz’s “Origination Principle” slightly. See (2018, p.15) for the original version of the principle.

  63. 63.

    See Martin & Deutscher (1966, pp.161–166).

  64. 64.

    On CTM, the individuation of a particular memory is not only dependent on the content of the memory representation(s) at recall, but also on the relevant content-preserving causal process, connecting the memory to the past event. Thanks to a referee for helping me clarify this point.

  65. 65.

    This condition is brought to the fore by Robins (2016a). She argues that memory traces need to have distinguishable causal histories to perform the role the classical causal theory assigns for them (distinguishing genuine remembering from cases of relearning and nonmemorial retention). Martin & Deutscher’s (1966) conceive of memory traces as structural analogues of the remembered events; structural analogues do have distinguishable causal histories.

  66. 66.

    S-EM* pertains to the contents/objects of episodic memories. On the singularist conceptions we have examined in this essay, S-EM* is entailed by, but does not entail, S-EM. See section 2.

  67. 67.

    In distributed memory systems, memory traces are stored as patterns of connections between units in neural networks. Since these units participate in the representation of many different events, traces of different memories will be superposed in the same set of connections. Cf. Clark (1993) and Sutton (1998) for comprehensive accounts of superpositional storage.

  68. 68.

    Superpositionally stored memory traces don’t have distinguishable histories in virtue of their superposition. Since traces of different memories are not stored independently, the details of particular events will fade out as composite representations are formed (see section 3.2). Moreover, even if (upon retrieval) the original pattern is reconstructed in full, there will be no content-preserving causal process that connects the past and present memory representations. Since superposed memory traces don’t have unique content-preserving causal histories, then, they cannot play the role specified by the theory. They can anchor neither a criterion of mnemicity nor support the individuation of memories (cf. Robins 2016a).

  69. 69.

    Indeed, Robins (2016b) herself rejects premise (5) of the argument. For more empirical support for the existence of non-superpositional memory traces, see Josselyn et al. (2015).

  70. 70.

    With this assumption in hand, he goes on to argue for a proceduralist causal theory, on which it is the processes responsible for the production of episodic memories that are (appropriately) causally connected to the ones producing the original experiences of the remembered events (p.38). There is a lot to be said about such a proceduralist theory, especially in the context of the evidence for transformation, documented in section 3.

  71. 71.

    Indeed, we arguably need to appeal to some form of content transmission to account for processes of transformation of the kind discussed in 3.2 (cf. Robins 2016b; Poo et al. 2016).

  72. 72.

    This is as it should be. Seen from this perspective, we can think of “general event memories” as providing a window into the machinery of content transformation operating beneath the surface of everyday remembering.

  73. 73.

    This is the case for Perrin’s procedural theory as well.

  74. 74.

    See Michaelian & Sant’Anna (2019, p.20, emphasis added): “Contents originating in experiences of multiple earlier events may contribute to the content of a single retrieved representation, whether because they make their way into the trace resulting from the experience of the remembered event (during encoding, consolidation or reconsolidation) or because they result in distinct traces that themselves, along with a trace originating in experience of the remembered event, directly contribute content to the retrieved representation (during retrieval). When this occurs, a single present representation is ‘appropriately’ causally connected to multiple earlier experiences.”

  75. 75.

    At the least, they take episodic memories to always refer to single past events (i.e. to endorse S-EM*; see 5.2)

  76. 76.

    A referee helpfully points out that Martin & Deutscher (1966), for example, are not committed to the sufficiency of appropriate causation if the ‘appropriateness’ is understood as only involving the existence of a relevant memory trace. If we factor in the other relevant conditions for ‘appropriateness’, on the other hand (cf. 1966; pp.178–186), it may be, pace Michaelian & Sant’Anna, impossible for a present mental state to be appropriately related to multiple past events. I am bracketing this issue here.

  77. 77.

    Interestingly, if premises (1) and (2) are true, the ‘anti-sufficiency’ argument may be an argument against a version of singularism.

  78. 78.

    This conclusion leads us to a particularly interesting issue, which I can only briefly mention here. Namely, Michaelian & Sant’Anna use the anti-sufficiency argument as a “negative argument” for their favorite non-causal theory: the simulation theory of memory (2019, pp.20–22). The simulation theory, however, makes much of the centrality of information-processing systems in the individuation of psychological kinds (cf. Michaelian 2016a). Indeed, in light of the developments described in 3.3, the theory sees episodic remembering as an operation of a general “episodic construction” system, whose function is not uniquely mnemonic. This opens up an interesting dilemma for simulationists. If they reject S-EM - and/or opt for a ‘systems’ individuation of memory kindhood (à la Tulving) - then they cannot rely on the anti-sufficiency argument in its current form. If they accept S-EM, on the other hand, they will owe us a systematic defense of their singularist commitment. What, to put it bluntly, motivates the separation of singular purport memories as a distinct kind?


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Many thanks to Steven Gross, Ian Phillips, Palmer Gunderson, Maegan Kaczmarek, David Lindeman, Kelso Cratsley, Angela Hvitved, Jesse Prinz, Sarah Robins, Robert Davies, Iva Apostolova, three anonymous referees, and to audiences at the Ernst Mach Workshop VII (2018, Prague), Issues in Philosophy of Memory 2 (2019, Grenoble) and the Hammond Society at Johns Hopkins University.

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Andonovski, N. SINGULARISM about Episodic Memory. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2020).

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  • Episodic memory
  • Singularism
  • General event memories
  • Transitional gradation