“I Forgot What I Was Saying…” The Philosophy of Memory
We all forget things on a daily basis. From our keys in the morning, our lunch in the fridge, the answers for a test or a relative’s birthday. Forgetfulness is just an unfortunate fact of being human. Our brains are highly advanced encyclopaedias that remember huge and expansive types of information about ourselves, the world around us and those seemingly useless facts or song lyrics that stick to our brains like glue. We obviously can’t remember or store every bit of information, we’re not like some sort of “Limitless” Bradley Cooper. We often forget that memory is incredibly important to how we experience and perceive our lives, every moment with our friends, new pet, nasty illness, argument, poor driving lesson and line of poetry is laid out before us in our brain for us to sort through, while some slip away (messy nights out maybe?) never to be seen again. People try all sorts of methods and tricks to force our minds to remember more and more but how do we actually describe the way memories come to us? Is our mind like a dusty archive of information, with lots of hidden nooks? How does the present become the past? In today’s world, should we cut ourselves some slack when we forget things every minute? The 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl attempted to describe how the passage of time and memory need to be analysed in one structured system.
For Husserl, we fundamentally experience time as a sort of flow or movement. In an attempt to characterise and categorise time, we use words such as succession, duration, and divide our days by the rotations of the clock. In a way we try to objectify the passage of time, pluck moments out, hold on to them and plan into the future. For Husserl, the past, present and future is integrally held together by experience, and is experienced as imminent and constantly flowing. Like the string that holds a bracelet together, experience allows for our sense of duration and succession. In order to experience the world around us, objects and other people we must have the ability to experience within this structure of time. We don’t see time like an old film reel of individual shots, that jump and stutter into our minds, but we experience time as a fluid process that shifts the present into the past and our intentions into the future without needing for us to be completely aware of it. This fluidity is completely subjective, exclusively experienced by you, but at the same time this “Stream of Temporal Awareness” as Husserl puts it is an essential feature of all common experience. This topic dives into the field of phenomenology, a long winded word to describe subjective accounts of experience/consciousness and its common elements held by all of us. Essentially the study of how your lived experience compares and contrasts to mine.
Husserl calls the way we hold onto moments that recently came to pass as “retention.” Our minds pluck out this moment in time and designates or modifies it as something that’s just passed. This experience of the present lapsing into the past is often very vivid when its immediately held in our minds. For example, the ability to know that you’ve read the previous lines of this article is called retention. These immediate objects held in consciousness, are structured and stretch into the past, they become hazy and obscure. Like a comet’s tail, these moments are vivid at the source but become less and less bright the further you go out. For Husserl, these more obscure memories are brought back to us by recollection and are altered and coloured by imagination. When you mistake the colour of a house you remember as a child, this is just an accident of recollection an annoying feature of our memory. On the other hand, we all have loose and in-depth plans for the future. We have hopes and expectations of how reality will be in the immediate and far future. Husserl calls this process of anticipation; “protention,” whereby we expect outcomes to happen with an amount of certainty. If I drop this pen, we’re all sure that it will fall to the ground. This process however is often socio-culturally coloured, how we see the wider world of tomorrow or the further future can be determined by those around us. That leaves us with what we describe as the present, which for Husserl is nothing without retention or protention. The present is always changing into the past, and when we take a moment out of this constant flow and label it as the present, it has already become the past. Yet, the point at which something like an action or a loud noise for example becomes the past, is what Husserl would call the space of “primal impressions.” Ultimately, all of these processes can become frustrated, we forget things, remember things incorrectly and things don’t often turn out how we planned.
So in all honesty, we should cut ourselves more slack when it comes to memory. We all forget things by our very nature, and the flow of time is a lot for our minds to deal with so try to remember to look after that little supercomputer inside that skull of yours.
Aaron Collier – Philosophy Columnist