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What role does memory play in our understanding of reality?


Gerrards Cross Memorial Centre, East Common, Bucks, SL9 7AD
and on-line via Zoom

Four speakers presented their answers to the question which is arguably the key for understanding philosophy in general:

What role does memory play in our understanding of reality?

This question has been debated since ancient times. In the late 1990’s, following incorporation of empirical and theoretical developments in psychology and the sciences of memory, philosophy of memory emerged as a distinct branch of philosophical research. Philosophy of memory is now an interdisciplinary subject overlapping with numerous other fields of research, including (but not exclusively) philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of neuroscience, epistemology, and ethics. Indeed, there might be no crisp boundary between philosophy of memory and other off-shoots of philosophy.


10.15    Registration

10.30    Welcome to the Away Day

10.35    Introduction to the Question Fauzia Rahman-Greasley
Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

Our capacity to recollect the past is something with which we are personally familiar. Yet it is one of the least understood phenomena.

Much of our present day thinking about human memory is directed and constrained by a framework of analogies from computer technology. Is this the correct way to think about human memory?

The question ‘What role does memory play in our understanding of reality’ is arguably more difficult to answer than ‘What role does memory play in human behaviour’ or ‘Can machines do what we (as thinking entities) do?’ For whereas the latter questions are seemingly answerable by experimental (“scientific”) research, the former requires conceptual analysis. The answers we give may have far-reaching implications.

10.50    Can memory give us a true picture of who we are? Bob Stone
Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

From Locke onwards, memory has been a prime candidate for what constitutes ‘the self’. I shall argue that a memory-based ‘narrative self’ is probably the best model, but that problems with the way memory works undermine any claim we may make to having an accurate image of ourselves. Memories, like all experiences, arise from a combination of the sensations that come into our brains with the existing state of the brain into which they come. That means that, for both memory and perception, what we experience or remember is limited by (a) what strikes us as important, (b) what we want to perceive/remember, (c) the (socially) constructed concepts under which we categorize our experiences, (d) the group we are in at the time, (e) our past history as we see it through memories formed earlier, (f) our emotional state at that moment or at the moment when we recall the experience. What is more, this is true not only for the individual, but also for the collective memory of a family, society, nation, race, species. Insofar as we try to stand outside all these contexts, the ‘self’ that stands outside cannot be some ethereal disembodied self but the very self that is constituted by them. Yet maybe this doesn’t matter, since our perceptions and memories and concepts have no doubt evolved not to make us dispassionate observers of the world, or of ourselves, but to get us through life with as little existential Angst as possible.

Bob Stone has a degree in classics, specialising in Greek philosophy, but since retiring from a career teaching classics in schools has attacked other areas of philosophy with a vengeance. He loves reading, talking, writing and arguing about all kinds of philosophical topics, and is always keen to get immersed in new ones. Since 2010 he has been a member of Philsoc, which is now his spiritual home!

11.40    Refreshment break

12.10    The problem of validating ostensible memories Alexandra Turner
Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

Is there a means of validating ostensible memories that avoids a question-begging assumption of their reliability? The analytic response to this problem develops two main claims, aiming to show that necessarily, confident memory beliefs are generally true.

The first claim is that an agent who consistently made sincere and confident, yet highly inaccurate memory statements, would be doing so because they misunderstood, or made deviant use of, terms such as ‘remember’.

According to the second claim, it is a ‘logical’ fact (not a ‘psychological’ one) that an agent must regard their own confident memory beliefs as instances of knowledge.

Alexandra contends that, while this analytic response is not sustainable, it suggests fruitful ways of looking at the problem.

Alexandra Turner taught Philosophy, Religious Studies and English in the tutorial college sector. She is currently taking a break from teaching in order to pursue her own philosophical interests, which include topics in the areas of metaphysics, ethics and the philosophy of well-being.

1.00pm    Lunch

2.10pm    How memories shape our understanding David Burridge
Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

An object is not just sensed, but is perceived by our memories. Merleau-Ponty argued that the sensation as a unit of experience is inadequate because our senses are subject to perceptual interpretation. Hume thought ideas are like a heap of waste in our minds and we pick on them, in accordance to what our senses need to recall. I would argue that this is too simplistic. Our perception shapes our understanding of what we sense, and our memories are established in our unconscious in a preordained structure. We make sense of things and order our collation of memories, because of personal belief, experienced facts, or social and cultural values.

Following a successful career in business and employment law, David Burridge now has time to focus on his interest in philosophy and poetry. He has undertaken a range of courses at Oxford OUDCE, from Kant to Heidegger, and as a member of the Philosophical Society has contributed to various Reviews over the years. As a poet, David has so far published three collections: PAUSING FOR BREATH ALONG MY WAY, CHILD’S PLAY, and MAKING SENSE, the latter bringing together what he calls his “philo-poems”. His latest collection, STREETWISE, is due out in the autumn.

3.00pm    What is the role of memory-imagination when dealing with reality? Elena Draghici-Vasilescu

Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

Imagination creates, which means it projects into the future. Imagination also informs the past; ie. it influences memory. For instance, memory and imagination in art (as opposed to artists and model books) are the real agents of the transmission of artistic forms and ideas.

Memory is often affective, which means it retains events which have a strong emotional impact on a person; it also fuels the projection of events people imagine when in an emotional situation.

Elena's paper will elaborate on these reflections.

Elena Draghici-Vasilescu is a Professor of Byzantine and Medieval Studies. She teaches and researches in the fields of Byzantine culture (Philosophy, iconography) for the University of Oxford and also independently. Her work focuses, inter alia, on the texts of Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Among her latest books are Creation and Time. Byzantine and Modern (2021); Heavenly sustenance in Patristic Texts and Byzantine iconography, Palgrave, 2018; Michelangelo, the Byzantines, and Plato, 2021; Visions of God and ideas on deification in Patristic Thought (co-ed. Mark Edwards); Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2017, Devotion to St. Anne from Byzantium to the Middle Ages (ed.), Palgrave, 2018; and Glimpses into Byzantium. Its Philosophy and arts (2021).

3.50pm    Coffee break

4.10pm    Panel Discussion

5.00pm    Close