Source: Thomas Morris. Philosophy For Dummies (1999 1 ed). p. 59.


  How do I know that the mental function of memory is ever reliable? How do I know that it ever gives us true beliefs? Notice that the question here is not whether human memory is always reliable, or even trustworthy most of the time. Most of us will admit that memory is not the dependable thing it purports sometimes to be.

Memory is the thing you forget with. — Alexander Chase

  But our question is not whether memory is infallible or even mostly reliable. The skeptic wants to know whether human memory is ever reliable at all. This may seem like a silly question to ask. But watch what happens when we try to answer.
  How do I know that memory is ever reliable? Well, I might answer that at least I know that my memory is often reliable. How do I know that? Simple. I can recall many times in the past when I seem to remember parking in a particular place and there the car in fact was. I recall many times remembering where I put my watch, and I was right.

This quote feels like a metaphor. Doesn't it self-contradict?

  • The function of memory is something that must exist for us to be able to forget something. It might be more clear if it expressed as "Memory is the thing that enables us to forget". An analogous expression would be "Trust is the thing we get betrayed by". – MichaelK Jun 28 '18 at 7:10

There are many lines of approach to this intriguing quotation. I'll mention just one, namely Freud's. (Because no-one accepts the whole of Freud, that doesn't mean he didn't have insights.)

Freud’s own memory was excellent. ‘‘I am not in general inclined to forget things,’’ he wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (SE 6:135). Yet Freud’s memory was subject to the same failures and mix-ups that everyone experiences. For example, the phenomenon he termed ‘‘cryptomnesia’’— what we might translate as ‘‘forgetting with advantage.’’ With his customary candor, Freud recounted his own commissions of this lapse. For example he described how he had been brought by his friend Fliess to realize that he had completely blotted out the memory that Fliess had introduced him to the theory of ‘‘original bisexuality,’’ a theory that he then later played back to Fliess as if Freud had devised it himself. For most of us, lapses such as these function only as annoyances or embarrassments. But Freud hypothesized that they could be made intelligible. The first significant result of his inquiry into ordinary experiences of memory loss and degradation was his essay on ‘‘The Psychical Mechanism of Forgetfulness’’ (1898), which became the opening chapter of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Freud took many of the analyses of mnemonic lapses in this study from his own experience, including the classic case of his inability to recall the name of the painter of the Orvieto Last Judgment frescoes. The result of his investigations strengthened Freud’s conviction that such mental errors are always purposeful. So when Freud interpreted experiences of ‘‘forgetting,’’ he analyzed them not as simple memory drop-outs, but as blockages of recollection determined by the psyche’s need to not remember something troubling. We could say that these blockages then became memory-substitutes for unwanted recollections. (Richard Terdiman, ''Memory in Freud', Histories, Theories, Debates. ed. S. Radstone & B. Schwarz, Fordham University, 2010.)

Maybe Freud generalised too much from a few examples but I find this passage illuminating even if we don't swallow the entire Fredian account of memory that goes with it. The passage can be read as an explanation of, a rationale for, your quote : 'Memory is the thing you forget with.'


Of course we want to say that memory is the thing we remember with, rather than forget with. But, I think you see the point: if we didn't have any memory in the first place, then how can we forget anything at all?

I am not sure how the quote is related to the point of the passage though ...

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