- Commentary on “False Memory Syndrome and the Authority of Personal Memory-Claims”
Andy Hamilton’s approach to the so-called false memory debate is novel, interesting, and in many respects very sensible. I’m sympathetic to his claim that participants in the debate have paid little or no attention to the distinction between personal and factual memory, and to the reasons why (and the respects in which) the former is—justifiably—regarded as reliable. And I agree that Hamilton’s attention to these matters helps to clarify and undermine at least some of the positions taken in the false memory debate. I also share and applaud Hamilton’s cynicism regarding the merits of cognitive science generally, and the information storage and retrieval model of memory in particular. In addition to the sources he cites, I would add Bursen (1978) and Malcolm (1977), on the fatal confusions underlying memory trace theory. I, too, have made a contribution to the small body of philosophical works critical of trace theory (see Braude 1979, 184–210).
However, because I embrace the commentator’s imperative to be curmudgeonly when possible, let me highlight aspects of Hamilton’s paper that I found problematical. First of all, although I concur with Hamilton that there is a respect in which we must presume the reliability of personal memory reports, it is still not entirely clear what Hamilton’s position is. Perhaps the following remarks will elicit some clarification. It seems to me that we have to presuppose the general reliability of at least some first-person observation claims generally, just as we do personal memory reports. But that does not show that those first-person observation claims are inherently certain, much less free of cognitive or analytical overlay, distortion, or “noise” (choose your metaphor). First-person observation reports are inevitably made from a distinctive cognitive and emotional point of view, embracing any number of assumptions, idiosyncratic symbolic preferences, and a personal history that (so to speak) colors everything that happens to us. In some respects this state of affairs is analogous to the way different color transparency films lend their distinctive tints, grain, resolution, and contrast to scenes that might otherwise be identical in numerous details. I suspect that when at least some clinicians and commentators agree that memory is “reconstructive,” they may merely intend to call attention to such tinting or filtering of experiences through one’s idiosyncratic repertoire or conceptual grid of biases, [End Page 299] symbols, etc. They need not be committed to the view that memory requires inference-like processes. But in that case they would not be committed to egregious homuncularist psychological views, and they could still maintain that memory reports are accurate and reliable in many (and probably crucial) details.
Moreover, we should not lose sight of the fact that even though we must take some first-person observation claims (and personal memory reports) to be reliable, just to get any discussion or inquiry off the ground, all such claims are nevertheless conditionally rather than intrinsically or categorically acceptable, and our decision whether or not to accept a particular claim depends on various factors. Some of the most important of those factors are: (a) the capabilities and interests of the observer; (b) the nature of the object allegedly observed; and (c) the means of observation and the conditions under which the observation occurred. In judging the reliability of observation claims or memory reports, we weigh these factors differently in different cases. But in general, it matters: (a) whether the observers are trained, sober, honest, alert, calm, attentive, subject to flights of imagination, fortunate enough to have good eyesight, and whether they have any strong prior interests in observing carefully and accurately; (b) whether the objects are too small to see easily, whether they are easily mistaken for other things, or whether they are of a kind whose existence cannot be assumed as a matter of course (e.g., unicorns, UFOs); and (c) whether the objects were observed close at hand, with or without the aid of instruments, whether they were stationary or moving rapidly, etc., whether the observation occurred under decent light, through a dirty window, in the...