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Rebecca Copenhaver: Philosophy and Modern Memory


Rebecca Copenhaver
Rebecca Copenhaver

Rebecca Copenhaver, professor of philosophy at Lewis and Clark University, spoke on April 18 about how philosophy, particularly the philosophy of John Locke and Thomas Reid, can help us reform our current ideas of memory. Copenhaver began by distinguishing between how we ordinarily view memory, and how Locke and Reid viewed memory.

Ordinarily, we think of our memories as records of our past experiences, albeit incomplete and sometimes distorted. So with this mindset, memory focuses on the past, rather than the present or future.

In contrast, Locke argued that memory involves more than the recollection of past experiences. In addition to recollection, the act of remembering something involves, dreaming, studying, and contemplation.  In essence, we are remembering whenever we form ideas that are not based on objects in our immediate sensory perceptions.

Copenhaver noted that dreaming is the “clearest case of having ideas absent of the objects which created them.” She referenced Locke who said that people’s inability to tune out “hearing the thunder, or seeing the lightning” of a storm while they’re asleep demonstrates how exercising our memory requires, to some extent, an ability to consciously or unconsciously ignore sensory perceptions which we would normally have.

Locke’s broad interpretation of memory and remembering means that he viewed memory as intertwined with nearly everything we do. Consequently, as Copenhaver argued, memory serves to “make present experiences coherent and future experiences imaginable.”

Reid took a different approach to memory, and argued instead that every time we remember an experience, we’re actually remembering the event itself, and not our perceptions of that event. Copenhaver explained that this view asserts that we have a “direct relation to events we witnessed in the past.” The more times we remember an experience, the stronger that relation becomes.

Taking these two views together, Copenhaver argued that we  should be more concerned with distorting public memory, in other words, the general understanding that communities share regarding important people or events. Distorting public memory becomes problematic when we paint those events or people in solely a positive or negative light, and disregard all contradictory evidence.

She asserted that, if we apply these two philosophers’ works to the issue of public memory, we would find that any distortion of that memory would misguide and mislead us when searching for the common good. Instead, we should use our public memory to inform the present, and help solve issues we may see in the future.

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