The effort of understanding
By Rob van Gerwen
Memory, and its Base in Farmed out Perception, i.e. in the things perceived
Abstract of the argument on this page.
Intuition has it that memory is an event in one's stream of consciousness. Contrary to this, I argue that, in large part, we farm out our memories to the surroundings that we find our bodies in.
This appears to be important, because perception grounds in association, association grounds in memory, memory grounds in our moving around, in the world. First comes an account of perception. The traditional model takes perception as reception of sense-data which are then processed in the brain. This conception of perception cannot do justice to the real, or its perception.
It is of the utmost importance for people's psychological well-being that a culture be careful when it interferes in people's surroundings as they retain their perceptions for them.
Truth isn't stranger than fiction, it is fiction
"It seems inevitable for the financial crisis to also, soon, touch the real economy", or so it reads in the papers. Plain people with no degree in economics need some time to swallow this, probably: "Isn't the economy the money that keeps the world turning?"
Well, no. And what we see around us is a world that is forced to lay off its mask, its persona, and to show its real face: the financial world consists in the trafficking in representations of representations, and even "futures", expectations concerning the future of these meta-representations, but the real things of themselves are no longer really important--even though that lack of importance is presently taken over by the crisis.
Art, cinema, and aesthetics often meet with contempt, but think again: isn't the present crisis proof that the kapitalist motor of life, free enterprise, consist of a complicate trafficking with fictions: contemporary life has turned into one large Munchausen trick.
Philosophers have seen this before ...
David Hume objected to the rationalist magicians proving the nature of the real by logical analysis of our ideas: Go visit the libraries, pick up any of the books and read it: and if there is nothing in it that is based in the impressions, then "commit it to the flames". The impressions are acquired in the presence of the real objects by real perceivers. These impressions lead to ideas, which allow us to think about the things even when they are not available to perception, i.e. in their absence. Yet, we mustn't assume that our ideas reflect the real, as we are capabler of combining them into new ideas which have nothing to do with the real anymore. There is no guarantee that a logical calculus of our ideas will lead us to real knowledge about the world.
This empiricist resistance against the logically coherent raft of rationalist "knowledge", which lacks an anchor in the real was a warning for the deaf. The sciences found in Hume's compatriot, John Locke, a reason to move on in their negligence of perception. They postulates primary qualities, subatomic particles processes, and waves and decided to quantify over these.
I can come up with only one explication for our tendency to neglect reality as it is perceived, and that is Plato's system, kept alive by Christianity, and revived by Descartes's mehtodological doubting experiment (re the sensuous). That tendency must have a psychological reality---our choices must have a psychological, or biological (?) ground, since we could have opted for any one of the available alternatives, such as Aristotle's analyses, if it weren't for the rather too generalising notion of "the natural place", or, and this I find even more interesting, for John Locke's arguments instead of his conclusions.
The most important argument Locke presented for his dismissal of secondary qualities as illusory is the idea that they present themselves to one of the senses only, and the most important argument for his thesis that the primary qualities are real is the idea that they are perceived by more than one of the senses synchronously. The synchronicity proves their reality.
As if wanting to prove the truth of national poet Lucebert's "All thing's of value are defenceless", we have neglected perception in favour of our representations, thinking that the senses, taken separately, could ever prove real what they purported to be perceiving. Or: because we couldn't prove the correspondence of our theories with the real, we switched to theories' coherence. Logical positivism has given one last pull in the other direction, but without dismantling the separation of the senses, leading us into believing that each of the senses provides us with data that anchor our theories. Well, they don't. What the senses do in contrast, they do in synchronous co-operation. Logical positivism had to crash in the meaningless emptiness of these sense data and Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument.
Hume provided first insights in an alternative phenomenology of perception by introducing terms such as association (of ideas, alas), on the basis of resemblance, proximity in time and place, and relations of cause and effect (of ideas, alas), and by claiming that habits makes us trust our perceptions. Yet he is in too deep in the debate with the rationalists to really try out a phenomenology of the impression. And, as a consequence, with him too, all we get is scepticism.
Post-rationalist, Immanuel Kant, next, gave the impression its death blow by arguing that it is ruled by forms and categories provided by the mind of the perceiver. Yet Kant did not make much of the separation of the senses, so why didn't he put perception's embodied polymodality in the foreground?
After the sputterings of Romanticism regarding the "thing in itself", Nietzsche did a daring proposal to replace the issue of truth as correspondence with truth psychologised, opposing it to lying. But this thought too is concerned only with the side of the mind. The real things did not near us.
Husserl's "Zu den Sachen" has opened the exit from the platonic-rationalist cave/prison. However, he too sought the essences of the things as they appear, and his eidetic reduction betrays his allegiance to a reality-hostile tradition. Roman Ingarden saw through this and argued that we should not bracket reality in a phenomenological analysis and that message (though perhaps not its messenger, Ingarden) has handed us Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
I end this short survey with a quote from the last one mentioned:
"But the idealist will teach his children the word 'chair' after all, for of course he wants them to do this and that, e.g. fetch a chair. Then where will be the difference between what the idealist-educated children say and the realist ones? Won't the difference only be one of battle cry?"
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Zettel. Second edition. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981 (1967) p. 414.
Memories of our bodies
We tend to think that our minds remember events, experiences, facts and propositions, whereas what our bodies 'remember' can best be understood as skills (or, maybe: talents). The body never forgets how it is to ride a bicycle. That's fine, these things indeed do exist.
I wonder, "The world never forgetshowever, whether our memories, strictly speaking, are the mental events they are taken to be; events about which only two sorts of questions are to be asked: epistemological questions about their truth (or metaphysical questions about the reality of what they report, the past), and phenomenologico-aesthetic questions about their very nature as representations. [I leave out cognitive science on purpose, as I don't think it will deliver more than a disappearingly small portion of the answer to the matter at stake.]
Farmed out memory
There is so much memory we farm out to our (social) surroundings, that we coined a different term for it: routine. For instance, when I go visit my parents, it is not until after I sit down behind the wheel that I consider what route to take. Even then, it is like driving from clue to clue. I drive straight on and babble away with my wife and kids, until an exit surfaces in view-no, not just any exit: the one exit I am going to take- and it is at that moment that I remember that this is the exit for me to take, and so on. The next few kilometers to be driven enter my memory just before I am going to take them. I remember the route from clue to clue -yet there is not even the slightest danger of me getting lost.
Should we conceive of my memory of the route to my parents as a skill, and reduce it to a bodily equivalent to real memories that are mental?
Farmed out memory and tactile perception
Perhaps it is merely a matter of us finding our way in reality through the use of all of our senses, not just sight and hearing.
Think of a blind person's room. You may expect that person to want to have everything in fixed places, allowing him or her to walk around without bumping into all sorts of things. Wouldn't we all turn crazy if someone or something kept putting things in different places, say, every other minute?
Think that through and farmed out memory is the concept that explains it.
The route to my parents
Does finding my route to my parents resemble the insect described by biologists in the following experiment? A wasp returns with his nest (a hole in the ground) with his prey. He puts it in front of the entrance, enters the hole, inspects it (as if to establish that it is safe to take his food there), exits the hole, picks up the prey and re-enters. The experiment consists of the biologist taking the prey and putting it fifty centimeters aside. The wasp exits his nest, cannot immediately find the prey and looks for it, finds it, places it in front of the entrance. Even though he has only seconds ago inspected his hole, he will yet again enter the hole to inspect it, and so on, for every time the biologist removes the prey.
Biologists "Are memories atomistic mental events?tend to interpret this as: the wasp does not really remember things. He is just following an algorithm he is born with, and can do nothing to prevent it from being reenacted.
Cartesian myth of the given.
Is a memory in the 'strict' sense like a singular thought that comes up in one's mind and that can be thought through, used in an inference, etc.: an atomistic mental event? Is it vastly distinct from a reenacted algorithm (the insect's inspecting behaviour) or is it, rather, in these questions is pertinent to cartesian dualism that engenders the so-called myth of the given: we are certain only about what is given to our minds at present, so this will be the starting point of whatever concepts we try to set up to describe what happens to us.
I once visited a reunion of my last high school class, some five years after graduation. I had finished my studies in philosophy and film studies, and held a job at the university. I anticipated on meeting with my friends from earlier times: him, and him and her, yes especially her. I really looked forward to maybe even tell them things I never dared tell them 'way back when'. To be honest, I also looked forward to showing them how much I had changed in the meantime, for the better, I assumed.
The reunion was a highlight and a disappointment in one. The disappointment is instructive about the social nature of memory. As soon as I set foot in the room where the reunion took place I was not so much confronted with thoughts and memories of long lost times, I was confronted with that very past reality. I turned into my old self, and so did they. A sudden stasis prevented my telling them how much I had changed. Well, that is not totally correct: I could tell them about it, but I couldn't make them feel it, because I didn't feel it myself. My present day academic life had turned into a distant memory itself.
The more I ponder about this, the more I think that finding the route to my parents is not an exceptional way to remember things, it is the very essence of memory: we remember through the clues we find in our surroundings, and, like in the case of the reunion, these surroundings are grossly social in nature: they depend on our interactions with other people. And, apparently, our identity, too, depends on our memories, and since these are vastly farmed out to our social surroundings, it depends on the social far more intricately then we seem willing to admit.
So, yes, we farm out our memories and no, they are not reducible to the singular moments in which we, temporarily, are conscious of them. Speaking with Wollheim, we might take memory as a disposition and the episode wherein we become aware of some past event, experience or fact as a manifestation of such a disposition. The disposition is localized not just in our minds, but in our psychology. Yet, in correction of this individualistic picture, we now also realize that our psychology has a social history.
19 October 2008: The others retain an aspect of our person. Our person consists in the assembled aspects retained by the others. At a reunion we find our old selves back: the others retained them for us, we farmed ourselves out to the others.
When a significant other dies, we say we miss him, miss the opportunities to interact with him. But we also miss the aspect of ourselves that he retained for us, and which was activated whenever we entered into a context with him. We are still the keepers of the aspect the deceased farmed out to us, which is why we say he lives on in our memories.
New questions surface: what happens if we emigrate and leave behind all these persons who guarded our memory until then? What happens if, through aesthetic surgery we change our appearances, and people (including the rebuilt self) can no longer recognize the person they used to project inside that body because they fail to identitfy its outward clues? What happens if a beloved one dies and he no longer guards the parts of our "Bemembering precedes rememberingmemory we share with him (maybe now these memories turn into the atomistic identifiable types of memories that philosophers and psychologists restrict their debates to)? What happens if certain buildings that held clues to important memories are demolished? What happened when the Twin Towers were destroyed?
We also farm out our memories to the language we learn in the contexts we live in. Wittgenstein's language games, live worlds. Heidegger on Being in the world. I should get back to this.
And to notions such as:
previewing as opposed to predicting.
Bemembering as what precedes remembering.
Fitting the world to perception
Maybe the process by which we preview our near future, as well as the process in which we perceivingly understand our surroundings - maybe such perceptual understanding is how we invest the world with these meanings which in retrospect we can view as farmed out memories. As the world responds in ways expected it and our understanding of the world seem to conform, to fit together. Why remember explicitly the thoughts we had when nearing a traffic light, if our surroundings conform to it as it does? The world and our thoughts about it seem to melt into a whole - at least practically this suffices for us to move through it. And it has this eventual effect of sustaining the associations we need to get our memories going.
A succesful visual experience tells us what vision is.
The modern epistemological project constructs this as: 'A succesful visual experience tells us what is out there'. Hence the predominance in empiricism of our notion of 'observation'.
What does it mean that A succesful visual experience tells us what vision is?
First, it says that we confirm our perceptual powers in each and every perception (in whichever sense modality). When we succesfully see a chunk of bread, we'll seek for confirmation from our other senses, e.g. by picking it up, or by biting into it. But these succesful perceptions too, first and foremost confirm what it is like to (tactilely) feel and taste.
We don't confirm the workings of our senses in general, though. We confirm them relative to our language. We confirm what it is to see 'a chunk of bread', or to feel or taste one. We don't verify the proposition "There lies a chunk of bread".
Perception and farmed out memories
Every succesful perception tells us what that perception is and in this telling lies its norm of correctness--not in its coherence with our other perceptions. The 'telling' proves the perception's reality--it does not prove the perceived's nature. It is in this reciprocity--which is, perhaps, pre-symbolic--that we farm out our memories, i.e. we locate our perceptions out there and leave them lying there, so to speak, ready to be picked up again at any time.
It took Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein to sort out our Enlightenment epistemological project and to show its basis in our being in the world.
Telling perception qua perception
What, according to my thesis [A succesful visual experience tells us what vision is] are we being told by a succesful perception?
My model: we perceive instantly (this is what makes perception a success-term), and in this instant perception something like the model, proposed by Hume and, particularly Kant is at stake: perceptual imagination (so called as to distinguish it from phantasy) structures the input of our senses (both inter-modally and intra-modally) in agreement with our concepts and categories. This structuring is what we must assume for our picture of perception to answer certain philosophical questions; it is a logical, transcendental picture.
The temporal picture of perception I understand as laid out in my thesis: we verify our senses' operations. By perceiving we check the senses in order to corroborate, not in order to critically assess whether we are seeing things aright. The latter would be an empirical activity, not an aspect of perception's success. Only when we feel our perception does not fit the world shall we actively embark on an activity of perceiving-cum-interpreting.
In our instantaneoud perceptions our expectations dominate and they often get away with whatever small projections they produce.
History of philosophy and perception
Kant, in his so-called Copernican move, filled in the details of this picture in wistful manner. He installed our scientific methods. Hastily.
Herder installed our language, instead of the Kantian categories of understanding and the forms of intuition, space and time. And Schopenhauer reduced them to space, time and causality. These were efforts to correct Kant's haste. I am not sure of their success.
The insight that 'A succesful visual experience tells us what vision is', instead of 'what the world is like', calls for a phenomenological approach, i.e. and approach which starts from the nature of the phenomenal.
Hume was close. Yet, he construed the issue as one of the imagination bringing together remembered impressions to construct the world--he turned the issue into that of induction. He, too, was embarked in the same project Descartes and Kant contributed to, of justifying scientific knowledge.
The issue at hand, however, lies before that: it is about how the world acts on us like a mirror, telling us what perception os like--long before providing us with the data we use to build our knowledge. Epistemology is secondary. We don't mirror the world--the world mirrors us. [And see Lacan to understand the hidden dangers of this situation.]
J.J. Gibson got things generally right. John McDowell realizes this, in his "The Contents of Perception".
Perception, Association, and Memory
The logic of associating is such that the context our bodies are in induces certain thoughts we previously had in them. It is no wonder that we keep informing situations in the world with old meanings. Once you have perceived a certain event in some circumstances, whenever these circumstances occur again, we tend to expect the same things to happen. So it is not because we are used to seeing our bicycles when we enter the garage behind our houses, because it is usually there and the world has the tendency to remain the same and not make any developmental jumps - as one could argue who got at this point starting from epistemological doubts about our knowledge of regularities (David Hume's scepticism about causality) or about language (Goodman's Grue paradox) - but because this is how we perceive the world, associating all the time events from the past with circumstances we presently find ourselves confronted with.
Farmed out clues and addictions
One element in addictions is the farmed out clues, spread in the world the addict tramples in. These clues carry our memories for us, irrespective of the narrative we live through whilst encountering the clues. It is the clues which feed back onto our narratives, instead of the narratives determining how we interpret the clues. To fight the clues that remind us of our addictive needs, presupposes a fight against the very mnemonic system and its associative use of farming out.
This can be done by avoiding the clues: don't walk the streets where in previous times you were reminded of your addiction and acted upon this. Such avoidance is risky, though, as the associative system has its ways to revitalize. The alternative is a head-on collision with one's own mnemosis: by re-membering the clues with new, cleaner associations, and permanently rehearsing the process.
What to do with the deeper psychoanalytical structure of introjections and projections which keeps the associations in place? This structure, too, must be faced in the process.
Acquiring a cat's mind
You know how cats can't concentrate on a task; how, whenever something moves in their direct vicinity, that something is their project ... immediately?
We seem to head in that direction. Whenever we sit behind the computer whatever distracts our attention makes us move towards it, inducing us to forget what we were doing in the first place.
The sole difference between us and the cat seems to be that we live under the illusion that somewhere there is a place where our past projects are retained (whether this is our personal memories or the internet). We may be in for a surprise in the longer run.
That goes to show that it is important for philosophy of mind to get to grips with our processes of associations, next to, or rather than with our processes of reasoning.
a Place's expression.
Each time we have a particular experience, say, fear, within a particular context, say, a badly lit desolate viaduct, this experience will mix with that context.
Richard Wollheim thinks we feel the expression of a landscape by projecting onto it a particular type of experience we associate with certain elements in the landscape, on account of a certain correspondence. My account reverses Wollheim's. I think our recognition of a place's expression depends on our farming oyt of our memories.
My account has the extra advantage of enabling us to explain what it means to feel at home, e.g. wen we are at home. At home, life feels safe because things are where we'd expect them and so are our memories, and plans. At home we are allowed to forget a great many details, because things are so very trustworthy.
Compare this with the sheer panic of the autist person when he finds out someone has displaced certain objects which --in his view-- are crucial.
Forgetting a short-term plan.
Time and again, we find ourselves in the situation where we have forgotten what it is we had planned to do. For instance, we climb down the stairs to where the provisions are, but once we are there, we forgot what it was we had planned to get. How do we solve such bewildering cases? Not, by head-on concentrating on the forgotten plan. the best way to proceed is by retreating up the stairs, to find the project we enlisted on, simply, by getting at the place where we conceived of the plan.
Jean Baudrillard thinks there is a semiotic system of things. I think there is no such thing. Instead, there is a measure of people's personal memory in each and every thing: it is directly available to the relevant person only. Only in those cases where many people experienced similar things with regard to the same places and things, can we say these places and things somehow canned the same collective memories.
Predicting is a power of reason; we use predictions in our inferences. Hence the epistemological approach to predictions: the future is not here yet, so how can we predict? We may be able to predict only if we can be sure that events answer to natural laws (and to them only).
Yet, when we move along the streets we know what is coming our way all the time. We know this thanks to our powers of perception to preview. Previewing is not a power of "Time's arrow does not hold in everyday experiencereasoning and it can only turn into an argument - to be used in an inference about the future - if it is first transformed into a proposition stating some predicted fact of the matter.
We preview our nearest future only in contexts continuous with the here and now of our perceiving body. We see where we are headed when riding our bicycle (yeah, sure, or: car). There is information about the world surrounding us which we retain for as long as our consciousness resides in its direct spatial and temporal surroundings. And it is like this with the near future as well: except that we do not retain this information but preview it.
Time's arrow: another of those subtle concepts which does not seem to hold in everyday experience.
Remembering one's dreams
Maybe, the fact that one farms out one's memories along lines of the five modalities of the senses of one's body, is part of the explanation for one's gross failures to remember one's dreams. One remembers a shard of vision, then another image, but there is no physical transition between the two perceptual stages that would explain the two vistas. No turn of the head, or walk between scenes.
Waking up one seems incapable of reassembling one's body by putting the input of its members back in place.
Conceiving of dreams
Of course, this is a metaphor but it seems more adequate than the characterizing dreams as image-like, or, alternatively, as linguistic.
Traditionally, we conceive of dreams as if they are comprised of images. Indeed, sometimes, dreams' imagery is so convincing as to be scary. Yet, this characterization is wanting as to the relations between the images. We wake up knowing for certain that it was our mother who did thus and so, yet we have no recollection of what she looked like. Apprarently, our certainty derives from the conceptual nature of the 'picture'. We don't need to actually, or imaginately, see her to be certain that it is her we are confronted with. This favours a linguistic account of dreams, which, as said, enables us as well to account for the transition between our dreamed 'shots': we find ourselves in our room at one instance, and in a different city in the next without our dreams 'explaining' in any way explaining the transition. In this, the logic of a dream's sequence is compared, better, with a sequence of sentences in a novel, than in one of shots in a film--which latter sequence follows, more or less naturally, the movements of the characters' bodies.
Conceiving of our memory of dreams as a re-membering of sense-based perception parts, points to a vastly different account of dreams, which has its basis in the workings of our perceptual apparatus.
And its non-physical nature
Humans farm out their memories to their surroundings, but internet is not part of this project. We seem to 'publish' our thoughts on the internet, but that isn't comparable to physically laying them down in printed texts, either. In all, we'll loose our past, and as a consquence, future in the next few decades.
Perhaps, we should found an internet library. Say, once a year (at a fixed date) some institute grabs all of the internet, and stores it on a storage device, including all that is necessary to 'read' the data, such as the necessary software. One would put it online, so that everyone will have it available for all times.
Seems like a bad idea. Difficult, expensive, in nobody's direct interest: people will not want just any old versions of their thoughts to stay alive like this, will they? Internet does not select or preserve the best.