Review of Memory and Mind, by Norman Malcolm. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977; pp. 277;
Notes and Queries, Vol. 25, No. 3, June 1978, pp. 285-6
Professor Malcolm is a Wittgensteinian; so it is not surprising that he attempts, not to explain anything about memory, still less to analyse, but to describe, as far as possible in ordinary language. The deliberate use of ordinary language, and the constant appeal to its usages and its insights, makes his writing easy to follow, and it often enables him to clear a lot of antiquated lumber out of the way. In Wittgenstein's words, his method is one of converting concealed nonsense into overt nonsense. Unfortunately ordinary language has its ambiguities, and to take a metaphorical meaning all too literally leads here also to nonsense. Malcolm quotes A. J. Aver as saying " I remember that the Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815; but I certainly do not remember the Battle of Waterloo. One very good reason why I do not remember it is that I was not alive at the time." Malcolm replies, "It is not true, however, that the use of the word 'remember' restricts us to speaking of remembering only events that occur during our lifetime .... In an appropriate context it is quite correct to speak of remembering an event that occurred centuries before one was born." This is unacceptable. Surely, to put it simply, Ayer is remembering a name and a date and is not remembering an event. Similarly, Malcolm asserts that to say one remembers tomorrow's picnic "is a correct way of speaking ". This obfuscation is not necessary for his argument, since he does not dispute that it is only what has entered past experience that gets remembered.
In his extensive work of demolition, Professor Malcolm disposes one after another of all the main artificial constructs which philosophers, psychologists and neurophysiologists have set up in the attempt to find stepping stones from body to mind and from past to present: the mental image, copy or representation of past experience contained in the memory, the memory‑act or memory‑event, the mnemic datum, the distinction between "true" and not‑" true" memory, the distinction between dispositional and occurrent remembering. He also discusses and finds reason to dismiss the machinery of the neurophysiologist; the engram or memory‑trace that is held to be somehow written into the functional activity of the brain, and the theory of isomorphism, linking the mental state with a "structurally identical" neural state, in the same way as there is a one‑to‑one correspondence between the physical features of the groove in a gramophone record and the music that issues from it. As Malcolm sees it, it is a brute fact that we remember. The attempt to bridge the gap between domains by putting an X between E the experience and M the memory leaves us no better off, since we now have to bridge the gap between E and X, or the gap between X and M, or both.
So far Professor Malcolm. As the monist sees it, there are two main sources of confusion, psycho‑physical dualism, and the attempt to treat past, present and future as conceptually equivalent domains of time. The present is the interface between whathas‑happened and what‑is‑to‑be. Since each instant is instantaneously succeeded by another, since the present itself has zero duration, every new experience is experienced in the past: in the past of the event and in the immediate past of the experient.
The past is always there. The function of memory is to qualify behaviour by the experience of the past. The experience of one moment conditions the experience of the next, and is overlaid by it. Experiences persist from the time of their origin to the time of their re‑embodiment in behaviour and beyond. The mind of a man includes the whole of his past experience, which is never lost. Memory functions are in continuous action in all behaviour, conscious or unconscious; all behaviour is built upon memory. As I write these words my mind remembers how to move the hand in writing, how to find words to express a thought, how to make sentences. The vast mass of remembered experience is deeply overlaid and is beyond the reach of awareness. Some is nearer, preconscious, and attention turned on it may reveal some of its content. Memories so re‑animated are complex patterns existing in a context; continued attention to the context may bring more of it into awareness. What emerges is a complex whole. If some part of it is used to form a sentence or to state a proposition, this will be taken out of context.
It is difficult, indeed probably impossible, to describe with any completeness what it is that is remembered, since we are confined to propositions, sentences and words and these are not enough. For instance, it is impossible to convey in words the nature of, say, a gustatory or aesthetic or transcendent experience. Memory is a function of the whole organism. Not only in animals but also in man it involves non‑verbalizable material from a diversity of sense‑modalities, affective reverberations, contaminating wishes and expectations and beliefs, mental habits, constitution, temperament and personality. Perhaps what we need is to study not how and what we remember, but how and what we forget.