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Thomas Reid on Memory
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Thomas Reid on Memory

this paper is a discussion of Thomas Reid’s views on memory as an “avenue of knowledge.” Part 1 deals with various remarks Reid makes concerning memory, knowledge, and belief which he holds to be “obvious and certain.” Part contains a more detailed discussion of Reid’s thesis that “memory is unaccountable.” Part 3 inquires how Reid’s critique of the Way of Ideas fits with his own views on memory.

Reid’s dealings with memory are part of his broader inquiries into the intellectual faculties of the human mind. In the Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man Reid discusses not only memory, but other avenues of knowledge as well, such as perception and reasoning. In these essays Reid is doing straight epistemology. This is not to deny that Reid addresses other topics as well. In the essay on memory, for instance, Reid criticizes John Locke’s account of personal identity. But even then his discussion focusses on epistemological matters; one of his conclusions, for example, is that Locke confounded personal identity with the evidence we have of our personal identity, a thesis, Reid points out, that is bristled with absurd consequences. Although, then, Reid’s views on memory are related with his views on personal identity, I will abstain from a discussion of the latter. His epistemology of memory, I think, warrants attention in its own right.1

1. memory, knowledge, and belief


In Essay III of his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man [1784],2 entitled “Of Memory,” Reid writes: [End Page 117]

It is by memory that we have an immediate knowledge of things past. The senses give us information of things only as they exist in the present moment.

(EIP 339)

Memory, says Reid, gives us knowledge of things past, whereas sense perception gives us knowledge of things present. Reid takes it to be “obvious and certain” (as the title of the first chapter of Essay III indicates) that “The object of memory, or thing remembered, must be something that is past; as the object of perception . . . must be something which is present. What now is, cannot be an object of memory; neither can that which is past and gone be an object of perception” (EIP 340).

These remarks may, however, occasion some doubts. One way of explaining Reid’s remark that the object of memory is something that is past, is that whenever someone, S, remembers something, viz., that p, p will be a proposition about something that is past.3 This explanation gives the right result for such propositions as there was snowfall in late August, and she once visited Finland4 But, as Norman Malcolm has observed, it does not always give the right results.5 For, he says, there are cases of S remembering that p, where p is not a proposition about the past. Let p be his telephone number is 2 79-289-59 75, or his car is in the garage. What is remembered, in these cases, is a proposition about something that is not past, but present (or: about what is presently the case). It is, so it seems at least, possible for S to remember the present.

It even seems possible for S “to remember the future” (something Aristotle deemed impossible).6 S can remember, for instance, that the game starts at 8:00 P.M., or that there will be elections next year.

No doubt some will find these suggestions preposterous. Still, we say such things as “I remember my telephone number” and “I remember the game starts at 8:00 P.M.” Someone who balks at the suggestion that we can remember present and even future things, therefore, has to find a way of dealing with these quite common modes of saying. One way would be to argue that these manners of saying are incorrect, another that they are elliptical. Since the first thesis is unconvincing (it is, after all, correct, i.e., correct English to use the expressions under consideration), we are left with the second, viz., that these modes of saying are elliptical. Can this be made acceptable? Let us see.