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  • Loopholes, Gaps, and What Is Held Fast: Democratic Epistemology and Claims to Recovered Memories
  • Nancy Potter (bio)

This paper raises questions about who counts as a knower with regard to his or her own memories, what gets counted as a genuine memory, and who will affirm those memories within an epistemic community. I argue for a democratic epistemology informed by an understanding of relations of power. I investigate implications of the claim that knowledge is both social and political and suggest ways it is related to trust. Given the tendency of epistemology to draw lines that discriminate unfairly against some, it is vital that efforts to create democratic epistemologies be sensitive to the potential for exploitation. Standards of credibility often favor members of dominant groups, and our ontological commitments may intersect with patterns of domination. While acknowledging difficulties in evaluating what counts as credible claims to memories, I argue that one’s engagement with clients must be mapped onto the larger moral and political domain.


memory, knowledge, credibility, ontology, trauma, democratic, trust

In his collection of notes on certainty, Wittgenstein (1969) poses the question, “Is it really right for us to rely on the evidence of our memory (or our senses) as we do?” (§ 201). Must it agree with the world of facts in order to be objectively certain? Wittgenstein answers that, even if everything speaks for a hypothesis and nothing against it, “[a]t the very best it shows us what ‘agreement’ means” [and] “What does this agreement consist in, if not in the fact that what is evidence in these language games speaks for our proposition ?” (§ 203; emphasis mine). Where the language of memories concerns beliefs about past abuse, “agreement” is disrupted by a language game of doubting that is at the heart of deep divisions within our medical and social communities. Within the last ten to fifteen years, the therapeutic practice of recovering memories of child abuse has moved into the forefront as an explanation for mental distress and, as Frederick Crews (1995) says in The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute, when such a rapid shift into prominence occurs, we ought to ask what this phenomenon involves (160). Crews notes that the increased attention to child abuse through attempts to recover repressed memories has had major social effects, and he and many others are [End Page 237] critical of this development. Crews, for example, describes it as a “pernicious” movement that has created a frenzy of deluded patients who falsely accuse their former caregivers of child abuse (4).

One of the criticisms is that the recovered memory movement relies on the concept of repression, which Crews argues is itself in doubt (161). Another criticism is that giving credence to recovered memories results in innocent parents being accused of incest. But others respond that the critics display a bias towards one set of claims that is not empirically warranted—a set of claims that includes a presumption that such accusations are false. Theresa Reid (1995), for example, in responding to reviews that Crews wrote for the New York Review of Books, writes that “the cruel fact for all parties to such accusations is that both the wrongly accused and the rightly accused vociferously and convincingly deny the accusations against them”; Reid goes on to discuss the low prosecution and conviction rates for cases of childhood sexual abuse even when those cases are substantiated (228). Some argue that such statistics suggest a persistent reluctance to attribute criminal behavior to parents. Still others suggest that the public discourse of criticism and suspicion about recovered memories constitutes a backlash against victims of abuse and that the skeptical position represents an effort to silence adults from holding perpetrators responsible for their crimes.

At the heart of this debate are deep and difficult philosophical and scientific questions about consciousness and repression, memory, knowledge, and evidence. What is memory, and how is memory related to reality and to representation? How does the mind store, retrieve, and control access to memories? How reliable are our memories (especially those taken to have been repressed)? When should one doubt or believe a reported memory? What should count as sufficient evidence for a person...