Sensory memories and imagistic content
University of Sheffield
The sensory mental images which form part of our sensory memories often seem to us to capture the subjective nature of sensory episodes from our pasts. But not all of our sensory memories seem to be of that internal type. So, sensory memories commonly take the form of ‘observer’ memories, ones whose accompanying sensory mental images explicitly display the memory’s subject; but observer memories do not generally involve its seeming to the subject that she saw herself at the recalled time.
Philosophers studying memory commonly take it, though, that either all sensory memories are internal or none are. In particular, numerous philosophers (e.g. Locke and, more recently, Owens and Martin) have held that all sensory memories are internal. And that thesis has some initial plausibility. For the contents of sensory memories derive, in part, from the contents of their accompanying sensory mental images; the images show us how things once looked or sounded or otherwise stood sensorily. But how could the sensory mental images accompanying a sensory memory perform that function without characterising sensory episodes from our pasts?
To answer the previous question, we need an account of the nature of the contents belonging to sensory mental images. The paper presents an account of the nature of the distinctively sensory contents belonging to a vast range of representations, one which includes sensory mental images as a special case. The resulting theory distinguishes two different ways in which distinctively sensory representations may show how things stand sensorily, where distinctively sensory contents of both of the relevant kinds are alike in certain crucial ways.
The paper then uses its account of the contents of sensory mental images in describing two different functions which sensory mental images may serve in sensory memories. Sensory mental images may, first, serve to show us how things once looked from one or more perspectives. And they may, second, serve to show us how things once looked in the course of one or more visual sensations. The two different functions for sensory mental images lead to correspondingly different kinds of sensory memories: the first leads to non-internal sensory memories, including ‘observer’ memories; while the second leads to internal sensory memories. The common but counterintuitive presumption that either all sensory memories are internal or none are may therefore be rejected.
The paper concludes by responding to an objection. Many philosophers have held that sensory memories have an irreducibly de se element, in that the contents of their accompanying appearances of pastness relate to the very subject of the memory. It might be suspected that the paper’s characterisation of a putative range of non-internal sensory memories neglects that point; more strongly, perhaps we will be unable to acknowledge the de se aspects of sensory memories unless we recognise that sensory memories are always internal. The paper blocks that objection, by noting that domains of past perspectives may be characterised in an irreducibly de se fashion.