Remembering by Robert Sokolowski

July 26, 2012

Remembering the Twin Towers

I present here a set of phenomenological descriptions to develop an idea of what what phenomenological analysis is and why it is philosophical. There is, within human experience a role played by the structures of parts and wholes, identity in manifolds, and by presence and absence. We can amplify all these themes by examining perception, memory and imagination. These essays come from a precious little book titled Introduction to Phenomenology by the philosopher Robert Sokolowski. I featured four of them earlier in these posts that begin here.


Perception directly presents an object to us, and this object is always given in a mixture of presences and absences. When one side is given, others are absent. Some parts of the object conceal other parts: the front hides the back, the surface hides the inside. If the object is one that we hear, then hearing it at one place excludes the aspects of sound that would be available at another.

We can overcome such absences, but only at the cost of losing presences we have, which become absent. Throughout this dynamic blending of presence and absence, throughout this manifold of presentation, one and the same object continues to present itself to us. The identity is given in a dimension different from that of the sides, aspects, and profiles; the identity never shows up as one of the sides, aspects, or profiles.

But the identity can also be given when the object is remembered.  Remembering provides another set of appearances, another manifold through which one and the same object is given to us. Memory involves a much more radical kind of absence than does the coin-tending of absent sides during perception, but it still presents the same object. It presents the same object but with a new noematic layer: as remembered, as past. [Vocab: Husserl distinguishes between the noetic--that which experiences, the experiencing--and the noematic--that which is experienced, being experienced.]

We might be tempted to think of memory in the following way: when we remember something, we call up a mental image of the thing and recognize this picture as presenting the same thing we once saw. In this view, remembering would be not all that much different from looking at a photograph of someone and recognizing who the person is and the setting in which the photograph was taken. The only difference would be that the photograph is in the “extramental” world, while the memory image is in the “intramental” world.

This interpretation of remembering is very wrong. It confuses remembering with another kind of intentionality, picturing. It is not surprising that we tend to confuse these two types; it does seem that we have inner images in the mind’s eye, and once we learn about the brain it seems inevitable that we are going to postulate some sort of projection of some sort of image on some sort of screen in the brain. But the incoherence of this interpretation becomes obvious when we consider the type of identity that occurs in remembering.

In picturing, we look at one object that depicts another. We look at this piece of colored canvas or that piece of paper, and in it we see something else: a woman, a rustic scene. In remembering, we do not look at one object that depicts another. We simply “see” or visualize the object directly. Remembering is more like perceiving than like picturing something. In memory I do not see something that looks like what I remember; I remember that object itself, at another time. If we are pestered by a memory that will not leave us, we should, strictly speaking, not say, “I can’t get that image out of my mind!” Rather, we should exclaim, “I can’t stop visualizing that thing!”

Suppose we are willing to say that we do not look at internal pictures when we remember; what else are we supposed to say? How can we express, from the transcendental viewpoint, what happens in remembering? If we do not look at inner pictures, why does it seem that we do, and how can we account for what seems to show up in our mind’s eye or our mind’s ear?

Our reply to such questions can be put this way: what we store up as memories is not images of things we perceived at one time. Rather, we store up the earlier perceptions themselves. We store up the perceptions we once lived through. Then, when we actually remember, we do not call up images; rather, we call up those earlier perceptions. When these perceptions are called up and reenacted, they bring along their objects, their objective correlates.

What happens in remembering is that we relive earlier perceptions, and we remember the objects as they were given at that time. We capture that earlier part of our intentional life. We bring it to life again. That is why memories can be so nostalgic. They are not just reminders, they are the activity of reliving. The past comes to life again, along with the things in it, but it comes to life with a special kind of absence, one that we cannot bridge by going anywhere, as we can bridge the absences of the other side of the table by going over to another part of the room and looking at it from there.

A new blend of presences and absences arises through memory, a new manifold of appearance through which one and the same object can be given in its identity. In memory we reactivate not just an object but an object as presenting itself there and then, and yet presenting itself again here and now, but only as past. This is the noematic form that remembered objects take on, a form different from that of perceived objects, which are only here and now, not there and then.

We could put the difference between picturing and remembering in the following rather tricky way: when we see a picture, we see something that seems to be something else; but in remembering, we seem to be seeing something else. This cryptic formulation catches the difference between the two forms of intentionality.

Someone might object, “This sort of thing is nonsense. How could I relive a past perception? How could the very same thing, there and then, be given to me again here and now? This is impossible; there must be a picture of it that I look at.” But such reliving of an experience is just what remembering is. It is quite marvelous, but that is how we are wired. We can relive an earlier part of our conscious life, we can reactivate an intentionality. Clearly, there must be some sort of neurological basis for this.

The neural activity that is involved in perception is somehow reactivated, the conscious perception is reenacted, and it presents the very same object it had at its original venue. If we are to be faithful to the phenomenon, we have to describe it as it is and not project our wishes onto it. We do stretch into the past through memory; we bring back an elapsed world and a situation in it. We can live in the past as well as in the present. In fact, unless we had the general sense of the past that comes to us through memory, how could we interpret a “mental picture” as an image of something we saw in the past? How would the sense of pastness ever arise for us? The very dimension or horizon of the past is given to us through remembering, as we have described it phenomenologically.

In memory the object that was once perceived is given as past, as remembered. Moreover, it is given as it was then perceived; if I saw an automobile accident, I remember it from the same angle, with the same sides, aspects, and profiles, from which I saw it. One and the same accident is given to me again, and if I have to testify about the accident, I may have to rerun the event a few times to try to bring the details back to mind. (“Try to remember: Did the pedestrian step into the street before or after the traffic light changed?”) When I do rerun the event, I do not inspect an inner picture; I try to exercise again the perception I had then and bring back the thing I saw, and I do this the way it is done when we remember things.

Of course, errors do creep in; often I project things into the remembered event that I want to see or that I think I should be seeing. I oscillate between memory and imagination. Memories are notoriously elusive; they are not tamper proof, but such are the limitations of memory. Because memories are often wrong does not mean that they do not exist or that they are always wrong. Only because there are memories can they be sometimes deceptive.

Furthermore, their way of being right and their way of being wrong are different from the ways of being right and wrong in perception. A new manifold, a new possibility of identity, is introduced by memory, and new possibilities of error arise as well. It is the task of phenomenology to bring out the structures in question and to distinguish them from those at work in perception and in other kinds of intentionality.

So far in this treatment of remembering we have been focusing on the noematic side, on the object remembered. We have mentioned the noetic side when we said that remembering is not the perception of an image but a revival of a perception. But we must move a bit farther to the subjective and talk about the self who is the agent of remembering. New dimensions of the object arise through memory, but new dimensions of the self arise as well.

When remember something past, I also displace myself into the past. A distinction arises between me here and now, sitting in a chair in a room in a room and perceiving the walls, windows, and sounds around me, then watching an accident occur on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Macomb Street yesterday, or me involved in a painful farewell last week. The revival of my earlier perception involves a revival of myself as perceiving at that time. Just as the past past object is brought to light again, so my past self as an agent of that experience is brought to light again. Through memory a distinction is introduced between the remembering self and the remembered self.

We might be tempted to say that my “real self” is the one here and now, the one doing the remembering. The reactivated self is only an image of some sort. But this would be inaccurate. It would be more appropriate to say that my self is the identity constituted between myself now remembering and myself then remembered. My self, the self, is established precisely in the interplay that occurs between perception and memory. This displacement of myself into the past introduces a whole new dimension into my mental or inner life. I am not confined to the here and now; I can not only refer to the past (and to the future, as we shall see), but I can also live in it through memory.

Sometimes this living in the past can be troublesome. If we have done things we are deeply ashamed of, or if we were caught up in traumatic incidents, we may be unable to rid ourselves of the experiences in question. They help constitute my self, and I cannot cut loose from them; no matter how far away we travel, we take them with us. We are glued to them.

The mountaineer Peter Hillary, speaking of brushes with death he experienced in the Himalayas, says, “Surviving is sometimes the most painful role to play in this life. You … re-enact in your mind those closing scenes again and again and again” (“Everest is Mighty, We Are Fragile,” New York Times, Saturday, May 25, 1996, p. A19).

A man involved in the killing of prisoners says, “I have spent many nights sleeping in the plazas of Buenos Aires with a bottle of wine, trying to forget. I have ruined my life. I have to have the radio or television on at all times or something to distract me. Sometimes I am afraid to be alone with my thoughts” (“Argentine Tells of Dumping `Dirty War’ Captives,” New York Times, Monday, March 13, 1995, p. A1).

A man who had been in an automobile accident is quoted as saying, “For months, I relived the crash in slow motion.” We are something like spectators when we reenact things in memory, but we are not just spectators, and we are not like viewers of a separate scene. We are engaged in what happened then. We are the same ones who were involved in the action; the memory brings us back as acting and experiencing there and then. Without memory and the displacement it brings we would not be fully actualized as selves and as human beings, for good and for ill. Identity syntheses occur on both the noetic and the noematic side of memory.

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