Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Memory


Say someone asks if you know the time. You say yes and then look at your watch. Did you really know the time?

Say someone asks you how to get downtown to the museum. You say yes. They ask you to write down directions. You can’t, but you offer to drive them there instead. If you can see the landmarks, then you’ll know where to turn. Did you really know how to get there?

Say that, walking past a bakery, you’re struck by the smell of a pastry and then vividly recall a time when, six years-old, you made those same rolls with your grandmother. You can feel again the weight of her hand on your shoulder as she helps you roll the dough. This is the only time you’ve thought of that event in the past thirty years. Did you remember this? Or did the pastry?

Who is doing the knowing in these examples? Who is doing the remembering? You? The watch? The landmark? The cinnamon roll?

In the first full essay in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer recommends that we distinguish between recollection and memory.  “Reading and teaching philosophy,” he says, “I have learned to distinguish between recollection and memory. The former is a psychological phenomenon that is a subset of the latter. Memory includes the things I can recollect, but is not limited to it” (4).

Recollection is the visible tip of memory’s iceberg. Where recollection has to do with our local, conscious experience of mind, memory extends out into that vast, non-conscious infrastructure of body, language, habit, and things that makes our minds wide.

Recollection is essential, but brains need infrastructure in order to be mindful. Memory is a collaboration between me and the world. My brain may pretend to autonomy but mind is, by its very nature, prosthetic. To mind is to borrow. To think, I have to borrow words. To navigate, I have to borrow landmarks. To remember, I need that scent.

Jim reflects at length on the prosthesis of his wedding band. The material autonomy of his band widens recollection into memory.

My wedding band is a memorial of our relation because it does something for me in spite of myself. Even if I am not thinking of my marriage, the ring demands a certain attitude toward the world, a certain reverence and respect for Janice; it connects me to Janice even when I am not explicitly thinking of her. My wedding ring makes possible certain relations in the world by embodying those relations. (5)

Or again:

Said another way, my wedding ring gives order to my world: an order that relates me to my wife and the rest of the world, an order that cannot be reduced to an intention to remember my marriage. Though it is odd to say, it is as if my wedding ring remembers my marriage for me. Not only does the ring not usually refer to or represent Janice, it does not take her place. In a very real sense, it takes my place rather than hers. My ring can serve as an explicit reminder because it remembers all the time, while I recollect only sometimes. (5)

This approach to memory gives us another angle on why symbols and rituals matter so much, especially in religion. Symbols and rituals remember things for us. They are the infrastructure of local recollection. They encode and support certain ways of being in the world that would not be possible without them. Without the prostheses of rituals, of objects, of signs, we are condemned to forget.

Memory, in this wide sense, is Spirit itself and there is no life without Spirit: “I have learned that I live not on my own breath but also on that of the Spirit, without which there is recollection at best and no memory” (17).

[Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: A Typology of Readers]

Note: I’m endebted to Alva Noe’s Out of Our Heads for the essay’s opening examples.

8 comments for “Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Memory

  1. This line of thinking certainly makes something like the scriptural admonition to pray always seem a little more within reach.

  2. One thing about memory that is so interesting is the difference between recollection and recognition. Recollection is the ability to recall on demand. Recognition is when we see something and then remember it even if we did bid the memory on demand. What’s most interesting is that vast middle ground where I think so many memories hang out. Remember back in college when studying to a final and all the tricks we’d use to help us remember. Often they involved tokens to remember – either rhymes, abbreviations, or even associating a memory with a part of body. This approach probably was at its peak in the Renaissance (in the days before computers) with the Art of Memory in which creative techniques were developed in order to remember much. Often by creating elaborate mental museums or even playhouses and utilizing extensive metaphors and tokens.

    The other thing, that you mention, which is so interesting is how our more “primitive” part of the brain (evolutionarily speaking) has the strongest memories. A single smell can act as a token to bring back an intense forgotten memory from decades earlier.

    But of all the most fascinating aspects of memory the most interesting is the fact that we don’t purely recall. Even recalling is an act of creating that creates anew an experience – often creatively filling in blanks. And that very act of remembering distorts the original memory. A memory is not like fixed tokens on a page that remain permanet, able to be read over and over again. Rather it is more like a series of gaps — traces of a memory — which we then fill in with our present experiences, distorting that trace before returning the traces back as a kind of symbolic store.

    In effect the most amazing thing about memory is that it is so much like a symbolic ritual. We’re just so accustomed to it and our “filling in” that it’s receded away from our awareness so it appears not symbolic but as a real return of that original experience or data.

  3. Very interesting post, Adam. Another way to relate the two concepts is to start with the fact that recollection is only partial. We recollect scattered points of an earlier experience, to which our present mind then adds whatever is necessary to constitute (or reconstitute) a full experience. Using the terminology of this essay, perhaps it is memory (“a collaboration between me and the world”) that does the filling in.

  4. After reading the first couple of paragraphs, a pretty intelligent comment came into my mind but now that I have sat down to write it, I can’t recollect what it was!

    Guess I’ll go back and read again….

    Just did….

    Nope… can’t remember!

    Fun post.

  5. Good post. I liked the difference between recollection and memory. Clark, you make another good point about recognition.

    One point Faulconer did not make distinct about memory is that it refers only to your own experiences in the past. So while I may be able to remember sharing Joseph Smith’s account of his first vision with people as a missionary, I don’t and cannot remember or recollect JS’s first vision since I was not there. Thus while you may be able to remember or recollect your first experience in a religious ritual, you cannot remember the process of how the ritual emerged (unless you are the one you introduced the ritual). Thus the ritual functions not only serve as a means of making you recollect religious experience within a particular context, but also serve to create and reinforce a collective memory of selective past experiences.

    Yet there is a crucial difference between personal and collective memories. As a person I can remember both experiences when my character showed flaws and where it was strong. My memory doesn’t have an erase function of past flaws. Collective memories, however, do, and they tend to be much more selective than personal memories. Thus the collective memory of Joseph Smith in the LDS institution can in many ways be purely hagiographical, forgetting the many of the flaws and unethical trends that may have accompanied the foundation of the LDS church. Instead it downplays those and highlights mainly only the glories and wonders of JS and how he consistently emerged victorious from trials.

  6. Great stuff Adam (and Jim)! I think your suggestive connection between memory and religious symbolism/ritual is a very fertile one. It’s not merely a matter of brute will and cognitive force (which is so often how we seem to approach the admonition to remember), but about surrounding ourselves with a given environment or dwelling in a way of life. I think this extends to things like our admonitions to love, to cherish, to walk the strait and narrow, to hearken, etc.

    In addition to Noe, I really recommend Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind which is a great introduction to extended theory of mind and an embodied & phenomenological approach to cognition – one that I think is fairly accessible to the non-philosopher.

  7. BTW – in case I’ve not said it enough I’m really loving this series you are doing on Jim’s book. Sadly I just bought a new car so I probably can’t justify to my wife buying Jim’s book just yet when I have a half dozen unread philosophy books beside my beside. Your comments here reminds me of that reading club on Ricouer’s book we did on LDS-Herm last year (which sort of died a quick an unexpected death).

    James, I’ve heard really good things about Clark. I’ve sadly not read any of his works on externalism although I’ve read quite a bit of others both within the cognitive science community as well as within philosophy. I’m quite convinced externalism solves a lot of problems with how we approach quite a few topics.

    One big debate within the externalism debate is of course how to treat tokens in terms of mind. i.e. at what point is a token part of my extended mind. The obvious example to see this in play is Christopher Nolan’s Memento which plays a lot with this (and with the things I mentioned in my prior comment). One thing I really like about the LDS faith is how actions become tokens and can be seen as way of remembering through behavior. You can see this in our rituals (the temple being the obvious example) but also as a practice view of charity and service. That is we remember how to become like God as we act like him. There is a hermeneutic spiral of remembering. It’s nearly the Platonic idea of learning as actually remembering what we already knew. (Almost, not quite of course) What I think is valuable within the Mormon conception is that religion is tied into these almost subconscious acts of remembering. To understand the temple symbolism, for instance, isn’t just to rattle off a series of propositions. Rather it is to become involved bodily in a kind of community narrative.

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