Remembering: Epistemic and Empirical


The construct “remembering” is equivocal between an epistemic sense, denoting a distinctive ground for knowledge, and empirical sense, denoting the typical behavior of a neurocognitive mechanism. Because the same kind of equivocation arises for other psychologistic terms (such as believe, decide, know, judge, decide, infer and reason), the effort to spot and remedy the confusion in the case of remembering might prove generally instructive. The failure to allow these two senses of remembering equal play in their respective domains leads, I argue, to unnecessary confusion about memory externalism, the possibility of episodic memory in non-human species, and the thesis of memory continuism. By distinguishing these equivocal senses of remembering, we thus gain leverage on understanding how the distinctive epistemic norms that define many of our psychologic terms are more plausibly related to the capacities studied by empirical science, given that neither identity nor elimination are possible.

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  1. 1.

    These words, empirical and epistemic, should not be given undue exegetical weight, especially the latter. I chose them as a satisficing gesture toward the set of practices and norms in terms of which these senses of remembering are understood. I do not mean to suggest, falsely, that all and only epistemologists have the epistemic view. I resisted casting the distinction as between philosophical versus scientific views precisely because the dominant view in the philosophy of memory these days is the empirical view. I might have described it as normative versus empirical, but norms in some sense are involved in the empirical as well, as explained below. I might have correctly described the epistemic as factive, but the epistemic as I envision it is more than a claim to factivity but an assertion of epistemic privilege. I might have described it as illocutionary, though I leave it open whether non-linguistic creatures epistemically remember. The contrast is emphatically not between an ordinary use of the concept and a technical one, as both senses under discussion here are perfectly ordinary and marked in everyday speech: “I remember putting my cameo in the drawer, but I guess I might have put it on the shelf” expresses an empirical sense; “But remember, Petty Larceny won in the eighth, so the jockey couldn’t have been in the shop then” expresses the epistemic sense. They are also both deployed in technical contexts (in a laboratory or a court of law, respectively) in ways that admit of and benefit from careful analysis and delimitation.

  2. 2.

    Apologies to Haugeland (1998), who uses this phrase for a different and unrelated phenomenon.

  3. 3.

    I allow below that one might normatively remember without empirically remembering in the way humans typically do.

  4. 4.

    Sarah Robins explores the various constraints at work in this space and their interactions with philosophical theories of remembering in (Robins 2016a, 2016b, 2019)

  5. 5.

    The language here is borrowed from Brandom (1994).

  6. 6.

    Unlike the causal theory of memory (Martin and Deutscher 1966), an epistemic theory need not require that the event as represented now is sufficiently similar to the event as experienced then. One might argue that the causal requirement in the causal theory is an unnecessary empirical contamination from the epistemic stance, one that sends us searching for a well-identified engram encoding the past. Success in remembering might, as an empirical matter of fact, require such a causal structure, and tracing that causal structure might therefore be crucial evidence concerning whether one does or does not remember (drinks at the lounge, pressure at testimony from the gang, or improper interrogation techniques), but success in remembering can be specified completely without mentioning the word cause or appeal to a trace, for that matter, though these may be empirically necessary. The relationship between this commitment-based view and the causal theory requires an extended treatment of its own.

  7. 7.

    The remember/know distinction tracks inner experience thought to correlate with the difference between episodic and semantic memory, but not the distinction between remembering and seeming to remember. Secondly, I allow that norms of remembering can vary across times and cultures, embedding remembering and claims to remember in a different set of commitments and entitlements. This would make a fantastically interesting study. Finally, Philosophers of memory have tended to be interested in epistemology. Sue Campbell (2014) argues rightly that there are normative dimensions of remembering beyond truth; the norms of remembering emotions also deserve full exploration.

  8. 8.

    See Roediger et al. 1990.

  9. 9.

    This is so even if there are success conditions in both cases. The empirical memory capacity, the capacity to construct scenes, let’s say, is something that might fail for one reason or another. One might be unable to generate details, for example. Or one might fail to bind those details into a coherent whole (see Keven 2018).

  10. 10.

    This philosophical thought experiment is no mere idle curiosity to individuals with memory impairments who might hope to scaffold the epistemic functions threatened by their impairments with the use of external devices. In some cases, handheld devices make a qualitative difference to the kinds of life these people, in the fullest sense, can lead (see Craver and Rosenbaum 2018).

  11. 11.

    Piccinini and Craver (2011), for example, are clearly focused on the norms of empirical, not normative, concept revision.


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Craver, C.F. Remembering: Epistemic and Empirical. Rev.Phil.Psych. 11, 261–281 (2020).

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