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The justification of reconstructive and reproductive memory beliefs


Preservationism is a dominant account of the justification of beliefs formed on the basis of memory. According to preservationism, a memory belief is justified only if that belief was justified when it was initially held. However, we now know that much (if not most) of what we remember is not explicitly stored, but instead reconstructed when we attempt to recall it. Since reconstructive memory beliefs may not have been continuously held by the agent, or never held before at all, a purely preservationist account of memory does not allow for justified reconstructed memory beliefs. In this essay, I show how a process reliabilist account can maintain preservationism about reproductive memory beliefs while accommodating the justification of reconstructive memory beliefs. I argue that reconstructive memory is an inferential process, and that therefore the beliefs it produces are justified in the same way that other inferential beliefs are justified. Accordingly, my process reliabilist account combines a preservationist account of reproductive memory with an inferential account of reconstructive memory. I end by defending this view against objections.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout, unless otherwise stated, I am interested in prima facie justification.

  2. 2.

    Many preservationists claim that knowledge is preserved, but I am focused on the weaker claim about justification. See Lackey (2005) for compelling arguments against knowledge preservation.

  3. 3.

    As we will see, it is somewhat strained to call inferentialism an account of the justification of memory beliefs, per se. Rather, it is an application of a general view of justification to cases of memory beliefs.

  4. 4.

    I am interested in doxastic, rather than propositional, justification. In what follows, I use “basis” to mean causal basis. In the definitions below, believing P on the basis of memory at t means that the subject’s belief that P at t is a result of a memory process. A belief with a particular causal basis will have different justificatory bases depending on which of the views below is accepted. For example, according to inferentialism, the justificatory basis for a memory belief is not memorial at all.

  5. 5.

    Some externalist foundationalists will add a requirement that seeming to remember is a reliable process. See Plantinga (1993).

  6. 6.

    This explication of the view is neutral on what it takes for a subject to have evidence as well as what counts as evidence.

  7. 7.

    This kind of objection is given by Senor (1993), Goldman (1999), and Huemer (1999).

  8. 8.

    A committed foundationalist might bite the bullet here and accept the result that you are justified in these beliefs. For example, Schroer (2008) claims that if you must accept it in order to take the foundationalist position seriously at all. At that point, the argument is at somewhat of a stalemate.

  9. 9.

    Something like: “I have an apparent memory belief that, in the past, most of my apparent memory beliefs have turned out to be true.”

  10. 10.

    The precise number of distinct memory systems, details about their nature, and their realization in the brain are all hotly contested. However, the details I rely on are relatively uncontroversial.

  11. 11.

    Another way of establishing that different brain areas are responsible is by using brain imaging. An examination of that evidence is beyond the scope of this paper, but see Gabrieli (1998) for a review.

  12. 12.

    Of course, one may not believe the output of a reconstructive memory process; however, I will focus only on beliefs here.

  13. 13.

    What kind of content traces have is controversial. I wish to remain neutral on this question. If they have belief-like content, then their justificatory status should be taken into account as well.

  14. 14.

    More precisely, the output beliefs are produced shortly afterward given that processes take some time to complete.

  15. 15.

    Michaelian (2011) suggests process reliabilism as an account of reconstructive memory. His account does not distinguish between synchronic and diachronic belief-dependent processes.

  16. 16.

    By ‘basis,’ I mean psychological basis.

  17. 17.

    Of course, in any actual case, there will be more beliefs used, but as long as they are all justified, the memory belief is justified. Additionally, non-belief factors, such as a memory trace of my experience of the books on the desk might or might not be instrumental in the reconstruction.

  18. 18.

    For the time being, let us assume that the stored representations are not beliefs.


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I wish to thank Alvin Goldman, Preston Greene, Jack Lyons, Susanna Schellenberg, and an anonymous referee for their helpful comments and guidance on drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank audiences at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, National University of Singapore as well as the Rutgers philosophy and cognitive science graduate students for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Mary Salvaggio.

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Salvaggio, M. The justification of reconstructive and reproductive memory beliefs. Philos Stud 175, 649–663 (2018).

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  • Memory
  • Reliabilism
  • Justification
  • Preservationism
  • Inference