- Commentary on “False Memory Syndrome and the Authority of Personal Memory-Claims”
Andy Hamilton does us all a service in highlighting some of the wider philosophical issues which bear upon the heated debate over false memory syndrome, especially those which turn on the important distinction between personal and factual memory. But he ends on a curiously ambivalent note. On the one hand he remarks that “it is doubtful that the debate over false memory will be settled by psychological investigation, so in that sense it is not ‘empirical.’” But on the other hand he concedes that “what I have been arguing may not alter the conclusion that much incautious therapy has resulted in tragic cases of false memory syndrome.” It is unclear, then, quite what implications Hamilton himself thinks his philosophical reflections have for the debate over false memory syndrome. I suspect that this is partly because there is an unresolved dilemma at the heart of Hamilton’s paper concerning the legitimacy of psychology’s claim to be an empirical science.
Central to Hamilton’s position is the thought that it cannot be coherent to query the reliability of personal memory quite generally, because its reliability is “a presupposition of human inquiry,” and therefore has to be assumed by psychologists themselves in the course of their empirical investigations. With heavy irony, Hamilton wonders whether psychologists who seem to think otherwise “are working from psychology departments on the planet Vulcan.” But this kind of point, if valid, can be made to question the credentials of empirical psychological investigation into the whole range of human cognitive activity. After all, psychologists have to make observations themselves in conducting empirical research into the reliability of human perceptual mechanisms, and they have to engage in rational argument themselves in constructing and interpreting experiments into the reliability of human reasoning processes. Does all such research therefore threaten to undermine itself, in the way in which Hamilton suggests that Elizabeth Loftus’s book is “self-undermining, since it . . . is partly dependent on personal memory”? I rather think not. It is true that similar objections have indeed been raised against, for example, empirical research purporting to question the rationality of human beings. But the proper view to take in the latter case, I suggest, is that it is at most only a minimal level of rationality that can be secured against empirical attack by appeal to such global coherence [End Page 309] considerations, leaving plenty of scope for empirical psychologists to discover pervasive and deeply entrenched biases in human reasoning.
There is a potential dilemma for Hamilton here, it seems to me. That global skepticism concerning the reliability of personal memory is doubtfully coherent is certainly a plausible claim. But either Hamilton holds that the truth of this philosophical claim imposes substantive constraints on empirical research into the reliability of personal memory, or else he holds that it does not. If he holds that it does not, then it seems that Hamilton’s criticisms of the psychologists who are his primary targets are largely undercut. On the other hand, if he holds that it does, then it seems that Hamilton is committed, by parity of reasoning, to a much wider opposition to the whole enterprise of empirical psychology, conceived as a purported method of scientific investigation into the mental capacities of human beings which involves an exercise of those very capacities by human beings themselves. But in that case, what began as a philosophically motivated attack on the scientism of a few psychologists engaged in research into human memory will be in danger of turning into an anti-scientific crusade against empirical psychology in general as being an impossible, because self-defeating, enterprise. It would be interesting to know whether Hamilton thinks that there is stable middle ground for him to occupy between these two alternatives.
On a more conciliatory note, perhaps we would be wise to concede that disagreements over many individual cases of alleged false memory syndrome will never be conclusively resolved, simply because adequate empirical evidence is not, or is no longer, available. But it is hard to believe that it is, in the nature of the case, impossible to establish...