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Preteriception: memory as past-perception


The paper explicates and defends a direct realist view of episodic memory as pastperception, on the model of the more prominent direct realism about perception. First, a number of extant allegedly direct realist accounts are critically assessed, then the slogan that memory is past-perception is explained, defended against objections, and compared to extant rival views. Consequently, it is argued that direct realism about memory is a coherent and defensible view, and an attractive alternative to both the mainstream causal theories and the post-causal and constructivist views.

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  1. I will be using the expression “direct realism” throughout the essay, instead of “naïve realism”, which has established itself in the perception literature, as this is the term theorists of realism (e.g. Bernecker 2008; Michaelian 2016) in the philosophy of memory seem to have adopted, and it is easier to keep things simple and not confuse the reader with different terms.

  2. From the Latin “praeteritum”, meaning “past events”, and “perception”.

  3. Mike Martin’s preferred way of referring to it, which has become standard by now, at least among the UK-based philosophers.

  4. Tim Crane (2006) considers this, in effect, as making direct realism the only theory of perception in which there is a genuine perceptual relation. What Crane really means is that direct realism is the only philosophical theory of perception in which the perceptual relation is essential or fundamental to perception.

  5. See McDowell (1982, 1984, 1986) and Evans (1982).

  6. These are alternative names intentionalist philosophers of perception have used for their doctrine.

  7. Crane (2006: p. 139) goes further (correctly, in my view) and claims that even object-dependent representations will not be good enough for a genuine direct realist to serve as the building blocks or foundation of the nature of veridical states; genuine perception must be completely non-representational. In psychology and in more empirically informed philosophy of mind we do have such examples of genuinely direct realist accounts of perception; for instance, James Gibson’s ecological view of visual perception (1979), or Dan Hutto and Erik Myin’s radical enactivism (2013).

  8. To be fair, he does assert that “indirect realists” are not a monolithic block; however, the way they differ according to Bernecker is based on how much the posited sense data resemble the external objects. This indicates that he is equating indirect realism with views that are committed to sense data. This is not correct—see below.

  9. I should note that I am speaking from the point of view of a direct realist, unimpressed by the representationalists’ own advertisement of their theory as being a form of direct perception. Aa an anonymous referee notes, representationalism is widely regarded as a reaction to sense-datum theories, which are often associated with indirect realism. I follow, however, direct realists (Snowdon 1992, and, more recently, Martin 2017 and Travis 2017) who are critical of this claim by representationalists.

  10. For an extensive criticism of the intentional theory, see Robinson (1994: ch 7).

  11. This denial goes hand in hand with disjunctivism, that is, an analysis of appearance-talk as disjunctive, where the disjuncts are veridical perception and hallucination, and without there being anything reifiable or ontic in common between these disjuncts (the only thing they do have in common is epistemic, namely, phenomenal indistinguishability).

  12. As per Gibson (1966, 1979) on perception of the world as apprehension of invariant structure.

  13. It is also interesting to note Wilcox and Katz, in their argument against representationalism about memory (pp. 236–237), adumbrate a version of Russell’s time-lag argument, insinuating, therefore, that there is always delay and sequentiality, even in the case of perception, not only in that of memory. Bringing such an argument to its true consequences, would really mean that when looking at a long-extinguished star we do not see but remember. As mentioned in the introduction to this essay, I do not want to embrace such a view. I think we should follow common-sense and keep seeing and remembering as separate concepts, with distinct extensions.

  14. There has been disagreement about whether direct realism, with its disjunctivie analysis of ‘looks” sentences, is compatible with the causal theory or not. I follow Snowdon (1981) in thinking that these two theories are rivals.

  15. I explain this below, in Sect. 4.

  16. It was the first and most famous genuine direct realist about memory, Thomas Reid, who made this point about the fundamentality and unanalyzability of the remembering relation: “I think it appears, that memory is an original faculty, given us by the Author of our being, of which we can give no account, but that we are so made.” (1983: 209). Debus takes this as a shortcoming on Reid’s part, namely, as an instance of failing to give an account of memory. But this is not correct. What Reid says is that memory (episodic recall) is primitive and fundamental – just like perception is for us, direct realists.

  17. See, e.g. Derek Parfit’s (1984) theory of personal identity where this circularity of the Lockean memory criterion of personal identity over time is discussed and addressed by positing a neutral and impersonal notion of quasi-remembering, adopted from Sidney Shoemaker (1970).

  18. I will come back to Michaelian’s reasons for this and to his alleged counterexample to the thesis that past experience is necessary for remembering.

  19. Cf. Kit Fine’s (1994) example of Socrates’s singleton and Socrates. Although this singleton necessarily contains Socrates, if he exists, it is, intuitively, not part of Socrates’ essence, nor does it appear to be the ground for Socrates’ existence.

  20. Intentional states are representational, and representations are precisely the kind of states that connect to the concrete world but also enjoy a certain kind of independence from it. Franz Brentano’s notion of intentional inexistence is relevant here, which is the idea that the intentional object is contained within the intentional state without that meaning that it is (always) a thing in the extra-mental reality; it can sometimes be a non-existent item, like when one is thinking of the bogeyman. Similarly, when it comes to memory and its intentional objects, there is no question of anything like a co-temporality objection. Even if the past does not exist anymore, one can easily think about it, remember it etc. See Crane (1998) for a detailed discussion.

  21. Thanks to an anonymous referee for asking me to say more about the potential phenomenology-based argument for direct realis about memory.

  22. For a review of the literature on memory traces, see De Brigard (2014).

  23. Things get even clearer if we go back to rival theories of perception. In that literature, the causal theory is sometimes considered a rival of direct realism. See Child’s (1992) comparative analysis of naïve realism (in guise of disjunctivism) and the causal theory of perception.

  24. There is no counterpart of this problem in perception, in my opinion, where perceiving an object from a different place or at a different time counts as a distinct experience from the original. In this respect perception and memory are disanalogous. See Sect. 8 for more on this issue.

  25. To clarify: the reason there is no such single causal chain connecting the two episodes of remembering is simply that there is no common causally relevant property between the two episodes; it has nothing to so, in other words, with issues related to the temporal order (future-to-past) in objective time of cause and effect.

  26. One could, of course, deny that the two acts are one memory, based on a more precise typing of events, according to which the “carpet color” aspect and the winning numbers” aspect are distinct events in their own right. The idea is, then, that whether there is one event or more depends on how precisely events are typed (i.e. whether they fall under a single or under multiple types, or how fine-grained a conception of events we adopt). I do not deny the coherence of this. But all I need for my argument is that it makes sense to talk about a single event “the lottery draw”, as well as it might also make sense to decompose it into multiple events, and we need to circumscribe and individuate the reoccurrence of the memory of this single event.

  27. Nonstandard representations are de re, that is, object-dependent for their existence. See, for instance, McDowell (1984, 1986).

  28. Vilius Dranseika’s (2020) study is a start. Dranseika’s results contradict some my claims in this paper regarding “common sense”, but the issue ultimately will depend on how robust the findings are when tested in the future in various cultural contexts and with various question sets that subjects are required to answer.

  29. From the Latin “memini”, meaning “I remember”, “I am mindful of”.

  30. A referee asks whether this is not tantamount to asserting that there is a common factor to all these states (viz. mminization), which is contrary to the very idea o direct realism. No. The claim I am making in this paper is and in this section on meminization is that whatever is a common factor to, say memory and confabulation, it is not part of the nature of memory, not what makes a memory a memory. Is this claim supported by common sense? Dranseika’s study, mentioned in a previous footnote, seems to indicate a negative answer to this question. Is it supported by memory science? No, because memory science does not have conceptual analysis as its topic; its topic is meminization, not whether meminization is the same concept as remembering (science assumes they are the same, but science is not the same endeavour s philosophy, though they overlap).

  31. I am aware that there is an emerging critical literature on what armchair philosophers have long assumed to be the case when it comes to various aspects of episodic memory; assumptions include: that memory is factive, that a necessary condition of memory is experience, and that memory is a different faculty and a distinct concept from that of imagination. Filipe De Brigard (2014) has a rich and illuminating critical discussion of the last one, arguing, among other things, that while the thesis that imagination and memory are distinct faculties was assumed as obvious by some philosophers, there were others, like Hobbes and Hume, who thought and argued for exactly the opposite. This paper is not the place to adjudicate the many arguments pro and contra the thesis. I myself intuit that even the fact that we have different names for them shows that imagination and memory are distinct both as psychological faculties and as concepts.

  32. To be more precise or more pedantic: the faculty we would possess would not be very useful since whenever we “meminized” about the future, we would not know whether the content of our meminization matches anything in the future or not. But, in hindsight, when it does, we should say that, indeed, at some point in the past we knew what events some future point in time would contain. Such consequences just further indicate how inadequate simulationism is.

  33. If we did have such foreknowledge, then, yes, memory would be something else than it actually is. Reid makes this point when he says: “We are so constituted as to have an intuitive knowledge of many past things, but we have no intuitive knowledge of the future. Perhaps we could have been so constituted that we had intuitive knowledge of the future but not of the past; and that constitution wouldn’t have been any harder to explain than our actual one is, though it might be much more inconvenient! If that had been how we were built, we would have found no difficulty in accepting that God can know all future things, but much difficulty in accepting his knowledge of things that are past.” (Bennett 2017: p. 136).

  34. For an overview of the debate between those who think there must be an asymmetry between past- and future-oriented mental states in the context menta time travel theory, see Perrin and Michaelian (2017). For my own arguments for the reasonableness of accepting such an asymmetry, see my 2020.

  35. Cf. Gilbert Ryle (1954) on the distinction between verbs of success and “try” verbs.

  36. Martin thinks that this lack of knowledge of the nature of sensory states is a problem for all theories, or at least that “all views must concede that some sensory appearances seem other than they are (…)” (2004: p. 85).

  37. To use a famous and beautiful biblical phrase from Corinthians 13: 12.

  38. And it is isn’t what makes it essentially distinct from imagination—here simulationist constructivists have a point.

  39. Though this feature –viz. the apparent lack of particularity—seems downright antithetical to what I have been arguing for in guise of a genuine direct realist view, there is no special problem here for such a realist: though the phenomenology of remembering does not wear particularity on its sleeve, as a matter of fact, each time I remember my walking routine, I remember particular places, objects, events, except I do not know which ones in terms of the particular occasions that I have been experientially confronted with them. This is what makes the theory externalist, and I don’t see it as a disadvantage.


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I would like to thank audiences at Bilkent University and at the Centre for Philosophy of Memory at Université Grenoble Alpes. I presented parts of this paper at the Centre for Philosophy of Memory, Université Grenoble Alpes, as well as at Bilkent University and Bosphorus University. I am grateful to the audiences, especially To Kirk Michaelian, André Sant'Anna, Denis Perrin, Bill Wringe, Nazım Keven, Sandy Berkovski, Nick DiBella, Lucas Thorpe and Tufan Kıymaz. I am also grateful to three anonymous referees who offered extensive constructive comments that improved the paper.

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Aranyosi, I. Preteriception: memory as past-perception. Synthese 198, 10765–10792 (2021).

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  • Memory
  • Episodic memory
  • Direct realism
  • Perception
  • Constructivism