Observer memory and immunity to error through misidentification


Are those judgments that we make on the basis of our memories immune to error through misidentification (IEM)? In this paper, I discuss a phenomenon which seems to suggest that they are not; the phenomenon of observer memory. I argue that observer memories fail to show that memory judgments are not IEM. However, the discussion of observer memories will reveal an interesting fact about the perspectivity of memory; a fact that puts us on the right path towards explaining why memory judgments are indeed IEM. The main tenet in the account of IEM to be proposed is that this aspect of memory is grounded, on the one hand, on the intentionality of perception and, on the other hand, on the relation between the intentionality of perception and that of memory.

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  1. 1.

    The focus of this paper will be on episodic memory (as opposed to semantic memory). For that reason, I will use the expressions ‘memory’, ‘episodic memory’ and ‘memory experience’ indistinctly. On the difference between episodic and semantic memory, see Tulving (1972). Furthermore, I will use ‘memory’ and ‘remembering’ non-factively. Thus, on the use of these expressions that I will adopt here, it is possible to remember falsely, and to have a false memory.

  2. 2.

    In what follows, I will use ‘IEM’ to abbreviate both the noun ‘immunity to error through misidentification’ and the adjective ‘immune to error through misidentification’. Hopefully this will cause no confusion.

  3. 3.

    The scope of the negative part of the paper will therefore be quite modest. The aim will not be to address all possible challenges to the IEM view, but only the challenge involving observer memory. This challenge is original, and it is illuminating with regards to the positive part of the paper. Accordingly, I will not discuss, for example, objections to the IEM view based on the notion of ‘quasi-memory’ here. For a discussion of quasi-memory and IEM, see Fernández (2014).

  4. 4.

    In (1970, pp. 269–270).

  5. 5.

    In (1970, p. 270).

  6. 6.

    There are other varieties IEM which are not specifically concerned with truth. Thus, Shoemaker has also characterised the notion of IEM in terms of knowledge (1968, p. 557), and in terms of rationality (1996, p. 210). In addition, there may be other interesting notions of IEM involving epistemic justification to be found in Shoemaker’s work. James Pryor, for example, distinguishes two such notions in (1999).

  7. 7.

    In what follows, for the sake of brevity I will be referring to both actions (such as shouting that Johnson should be impeached) and experiences (such as seeing John) as ‘properties’.

  8. 8.

    The distinction between ‘de facto’ and ‘logical’ IEM is introduced by Shoemaker (1970).

  9. 9.

    This is true of logical IEMτ, but not of de facto IEMτ: If one’s memories always originate, in the actual world, in properties that one had in the past, then memory judgments will be de facto IEMτ. But this result will be neutral on whether, in memory, one is only conscious of the fact that certain properties were instantiated in the past or, more strongly, one is conscious of who, in the past, was the bearer of those properties.

  10. 10.

    Gareth Evans’s discussion of self-identification in his (1982, pp. 205–267), for example, seems to be part of this sort of project.

  11. 11.

    I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing out the importance of condition (ii).

  12. 12.

    Sydney Shoemaker discusses the possibility of using identification criteria of this sort in chapter 4 of (1963) as well as in (1987, p. 111).

  13. 13.

    For the purposes of our discussion in this paper, I will be assuming that scenes are best construed as facts, or states of affairs, though nothing in the discussion that follows should hinge on that assumption.

  14. 14.

    For seminal work on this distinction, see Nigro and Neisser (1983). Further research on the distinction between field and observer memories has suggested that a subject is more likely to have a field memory of some fact when the remembered fact has a strong emotional significance for them (Talarico, LaBar, and Rubin 2004). It seems that facts surrounding traumatic events, for example, tend to be remembered from the field perspective (Porter and Birt 2001). For a discussion of the philosophical significance of observer memory, see Sutton (2010).

  15. 15.

    An anonymous referee has raised the objection that there is no need for self-identification in observer memory because, when one has an observer memory, there is no open question as to who is being visualised as being part of the relevant episode. It is certainly true that, most of the time, when one has an observer memory, one believes that the visualised episode happened to oneself. One may believe this for a number of reasons: One may be trying to remember an episode in one’s own life, for example. In that case, it is the nature of the recollective project in which one is engaged that makes one think that one is visualising an episode that happened to oneself. Alternatively, many details of the visualised episode may cohere well with beliefs that one possesses regarding one’s past. In that case, it is colateral information about one’s past that makes one think that one is visualising an episode that happened to oneself. Thus, it is true that, when one has an observer memory, one usually believes that the person being visualised is oneself. In those (admittedly frequent) cases, there is no need for one to identify oneself in the visualised episode. The question of who is being visualised is not open because the question of whom the visualised episode happened to has already been settled. But notice that the IEM view is a modal claim. For that reason, in order for observer memory to provide us with a prima facie counter-example to the IEM view, we just need to focus on a possible case in which one has an observer memory and, when one visualises a subject (who is, in fact, oneself), the question of who is being visualised remains open for one. It remains open because the question of whom the visualised episode happened to has not been settled yet. Cases of this kind do seem to be possible. I may have, out of the blue, an observer memory of being on a boat, for example, while being unsure as to whether I have ever travelled on a boat or not. In such cases, it seems plausible to claim, as the opponent of the IEM view does, that one needs to identify oneself by using, as clues, some intrinsic properties of oneself which can be perceived from the third-person point of view; properties which concern the apperance of the person being visualised.

  16. 16.

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

  17. 17.

    On representationalism, see Dretske (1995) and Tye (1995), for example.

  18. 18.

    On this view, see Searle (1990). On the more qualified view that there is a particular type of intentionality which is grounded on consciousness, see Horgan and Tienson (2002).

  19. 19.

    The label ‘separatism’ originates in Horgan and Tienson (2002, p. 520). On separatism, see Peacocke (1983).

  20. 20.

    On this point, see Chalmers (2004).

  21. 21.

    The classical version of the causal theory is due to Charles Martin and Max Deutscher in their (1966). Martin and Deutscher’s formulation of the theory applies to memory for physical objects, to memory for events, and to memory for mental states such as sensations or emotions (1966, p. 166). For the sake of this discussion, I will assume that the theory is also a theory of propositional memory.

  22. 22.

    For criticisms to the causal theory of memory, see Michaelian (2016). For a defence of a modified version of it, see Bernecker (2010).

  23. 23.

    See Debus (2010) for one version of this objection.

  24. 24.

    The idea that the connection between a memory and the belief that its content took place in the past is constitutive of memory can be found, for example, in Reid (1997, p. 27).

  25. 25.

    For a discussion of the metaphysics of memory, and a defence of a view which accommodates the objection to the causal theory discussed above, see Fernández (2018).

  26. 26.

    For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the paradigmatic case of visual experience. The view about the intentionality of perception to be offered below, however, should generalise to other perceptual modalities.

  27. 27.

    The idea that perceptual experience involves a sense of immediacy is not new. David Chalmers, for example, compares the experience of virtual reality with our experience of our perceived environment partly by reference to a sense of ‘presence’, that is, the sense of being present at the relevant environment, in (2018).

  28. 28.

    The view is similar to James Gibson’s ‘ecological optics’ in (1979). To be precise, the view offered here is that if a subject has a perceptual experience that they would express by saying that they are perceiving a certain scene, then the intentional object of their experience is their being related in some way to an object which is part of that scene. For the sake of convenience, however, I will sometimes talk of the properties which, according to the extrinsic view, are the intentional objects of our perceptual experiences as relations to scenes, or facts, and I will sometimes talk of those properties as relations to objects which are parts of those scenes. Hopefully this will cause no confusion.

  29. 29.

    Notice that the extrinsic view of perception is different from the 'relational' view of perception defended, for example, in Brewer (2007), Campbell (2010) and Martin (2004). The relational view of perception is the view that perceptual states are relations to objects and properties of the perceived environment (Campbell 2010, p. 202), whereas the extrinsic view of perception is the view that perceptual states represent those relations. To illustrate the contrast, suppose that there is in fact no small cup of coffee on my hand. Then, according to the relational view of perception, I do not perceive such a cup at all whereas, according to the extrinsic view of perception, I perceive it incorrectly. Notice that perceptual experiences are perspectival, they are immediate, and they directly feeds into action whether they are correct or not. Thus, if the extrinsic view of perception can in fact account for these three features of perceptual experience, then it seems that this aspect of the extrinsic view will constitute a reason to prefer it over the relational view of perception.

  30. 30.

    I am grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this question.

  31. 31.

    Why ‘in its simplest formulation’? The need to account for the content of perceptual experiences in hallucination scenarios may require existentially quantified contents instead. For discussion, see Chalmers (2004).

  32. 32.

    One motivation for introducing modes of presentation is to accommodate cases in which two subjects may be perceiving the same object having the same property, but from different perspectives. See, for example, Burge (1991).

  33. 33.

    The main challenge for the Fregean view is to specify what modes of presentation are exactly. For this challenge, see Thau (2002). In the context of putting forward the extrinsic view of perception, this challenge is especially pressing. For the Fregean advocate of the extrinsic view is committed to the claim that, in perception, there is such a thing as a mode of presentation of oneself.

  34. 34.

    Descartes is often portrayed as having endorsed the former view while reflecting on the nature of introspection. Gareth Evans, by contrast, seems to endorse the latter view while reflecting on the nature of proprioception in (1982, p. 224).


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I am very grateful to Kourken Michaelian, and to two anonymous referees for this journal, for their helpful feedback on previous drafts of this paper.


Funding was received by Australian Research Council (Grant No. FT160100313).

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Correspondence to Jordi Fernández.

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Fernández, J. Observer memory and immunity to error through misidentification. Synthese 198, 641–660 (2021).

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  • Memory
  • Perception
  • Immunity to error through misidentification