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  • Response to the Commentaries
  • Andy Hamilton

I am grateful to the commentators for their incisive and stimulating responses, which highlight important areas of contention and allow me to clarify and develop my position. I will treat their comments under the following headings.

The Reliability of Personal Memory Reports

Both Stephen Braude and Madeline Eacott question my presentation of the reliability of personal memory reports (henceforth I will mostly leave “personal” as understood). They will be reassured to know that on re-reading their contributions, I found I had misremembered the detail of some arguments, though not of course the general gist of them. I will address Eacott’s comments directly in a later section, though what I say here has an obvious bearing on them.

Braude, though sympathetic to my position, writes that first-person observation claims and memory reports are not “inherently certain, much less free of cognitive or analytical overlay, distortion, or ‘noise.’” (I take it that testimony and memory are in central respects correlative concepts.) He further claims that our assessment of such reports depends on our beliefs about the capabilities and interests of the observer and conditions of observation, and the context of discussion—courtroom or casual conversation.

I like Braude’s analogy with perceptual reports—a parallel at the heart of direct realist views of memory—but I question the metaphors of “noise” and so on. These are encouraged by focusing on memory-images rather than judgments. Take a personal example: “When I moved to Durham it was an exceptionally mild winter’s day, and when I arrived at my new house the removal van was already there, unloading.” (I need to work out the year by inference—it was about four years ago.) These are distinct memories, which I could back up with considerable further detail as well as information based on inference. Some of that detail—the color of the removal van, just how sunny it was that day—is less distinct and may be inaccurate, but I find it almost inconceivable that the judgment as stated could turn out incorrect even in part.

I suspect that implicit in the thinking of those who dilute the reliability of memory is an incoherent expectation of what accurate recall must involve—that it should “reproduce the original event in all its detail, and wholly objectively,” almost like repeating the experience. This is to treat personal memory as akin to a hallucination. There is a suggestion of this when Braude talks of the first-person viewpoint that inevitably colors my memory-reports. He is thinking of the phenomenology of memory as much as the memory-judgment. Memory-experience is important, as I emphasized. But this “first-person viewpoint” invites the critique Wittgenstein applied to claims such as “Another person can’t have my pains,” or “my experience of red” (Wittgenstein 1967, para. 253). What seemed to be a substantive truth [End Page 311] evaporates into a cloud of dubious Cartesian philosophy.

As Braude says, it may be that psychologists do not mean to imply that memory involves (conscious) “inference-like processes”—though the assumption of such processes at a sub-personal level seems pervasive. But despite Eacott’s assurances, psychologists do often talk in quite paradoxical terms of the unreliability of memory. The psychologist John Morton, in his entry on Memory in the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, writes that memory involves interpretation of

a retrieved Record which contains a selection of an individual’s sensory experience of an external event in the past plus such bits of prior, related memories and default values that happened to get attached in the original process of Record formation or filled in at the time of recall. If it is a conceptual truth that no one can remember that p when p is false, it is a psychological truth that you can never remember.

(1994, 440)

This is an odd way to affirm what Eacott terms the “functional accuracy” of memory. Morton’s article is philosophically naive, and it is strange to find it in a Companion to Philosophy.

Braude’s conditions on our assessment of memory-reports are important, but they do not show that such...

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