Defending Discontinuism, Naturally

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The more interest philosophers take in memory, the less agreement there is that memory exists—or more precisely, that remembering is a distinct psychological kind or mental state. Concerns about memory’s distinctiveness are triggered by observations of its similarity to imagination. The ensuing debate is cast as one between discontinuism and continuism (Perrin, D in Seeing the Future: Theoretical Perspectives of Future Oriented Mental Time Travel, 39–61, 2016). The landscape of debate is set such that any extensive engagement with empirical research into episodic memory places one on the side of continuism. Discontinuists concerns are portrayed as almost exclusively conceptual and a priori. As philosophers of memory become increasingly interested in memory science, this pushes continuism into an apparent lead. The aim of this paper is to challenge this characterization of the (dis)continuism debate—namely, that a naturalistic approach to the philosophy of mind and memory favors continuism. My response has two components. First, I argue for weakening the alignment between naturalism and continuism. Second, I defend a naturalistically oriented, empirically-informed discontinuism between memory and imagination. I do so by introducing seeming to remember, which I argue is distinct from other mental attitudes—most importantly, from imagining.

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  • 09 July 2020

    In the published article a reference to the author���s prior work remained redacted in the final version.


  1. 1.

    Following the convention set by others who have written on this issue (e.g., Michaelian 2016b), I will use the shorthand “(dis)continuism” instead of repeatedly referring to “discontinuists and continuists” or labeling the debate in terms of one position or the either (e.g., “the continuism debate”).

  2. 2.

    (Dis)continuists will likely take issue with the claim just made. In jointly-authored work (i.e., continuists and discontinuists writing together), presentation of the debate is often divided into two forms: metaphysical and epistemological (dis)continuism (Perrin and Michaelian 2017; Michaelian and Sant’Anna forthcoming). There are versions of the debate concerned with fundamental differences in mental states and other versions concerned with fundamental differences in epistemic achievements, respectively. This may look like precisely the sort of differentiation I just claimed was missing. While sorting (dis)continuism into these two forms is helpful, it is only a first step in the direction of methodological explicitness that I am urging. Going forward, I focus on metaphysical (dis)continuism. Even once it’s been established that the question about the relation between memory and imagination is a metaphysical one—concerning the kinds of mental states memory and imagination are and how they’re related—more needs to be said about how these mental kinds are being individuated. This is the discussion I am claiming is absent from the (dis)continuism debate.

  3. 3.

    Seeming to remember, as used throughout the remainder of this paper, should be understood as shorthand for seeming to remember episodically.

  4. 4.

    A careful reader might note that my initial definition of seeming to remember included reference to the content, but also to a target of the representation. In adding this element, I was drawing inspiration from Cummins’ (1996) account of mental representation (though not wholesale endorsing it). The target is the aim of the mental representation, what the person intends to or understands themselves to be representing and/or how it is represented. Including this element is important for remembering, I argued, because it helps set the correctness conditions for each instance of seeming to remember (i.e., it’s not enough for the content to accurately represent some particular past event in the person’s life; it must accurately represent the event her seeming to remember targets). I am not abandoning that component of the view here, only setting it aside to focus on the aspects most relevant for distinguishing seeming to remember from imagining.

  5. 5.

    Langland-Hassan (2015) defends an account of imaginative attitudes in keeping with this “imagistic” understanding of imagination, where the set of imaginative attitudes are defined by their inclusion of content that is imagistic (in part or in total).

  6. 6.

    In this way, it could be possible to blur the distinction between attitudinal imagining and the third category in Van Leeuwen’s taxonomy, “constructive imagining”, which he argues is distinct because it is an activity that can be truth-focused rather than fictional.

  7. 7.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection.


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Many thanks to audiences at Washington University in St. Louis, University of California-Davis, and the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University of Antwerp for helpful feedback on earlier versions of this paper. I also seem to remember receiving very helpful feedback from Corey Maley on several previous drafts.

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Correspondence to Sarah Robins.

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Robins, S. Defending Discontinuism, Naturally. Rev.Phil.Psych. 11, 469–486 (2020).

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