Wrestling with Memory. Phenomenological relief?


Philosophy — what’s the use?

To a greater or lesser extent, in our everydayness we are constantly facing such fundamental problems, like the nature of our being, the nature and scope of our knowledge, the relationships between truth, belief, perception. More or less consciously we constantly ask metaphysical and ontological questions about the most general features of reality, such as: existence, time and space, the relationship between mind and body, objects and their properties, wholes and their parts, events, processes, and causation. Therefore, Philosophy seems to be something immanent and inherent to the human beings.

I treat Philosophy as a theoretical basis for each human activity, because every time we try to explore and describe a thing or some phenomenon, we ask philosophical questions, whether we like it or not.  When we ask: what is a picture? what are its properties? What are the time and place of taking this picture- we deal with ontology. Asking further questions: what do we see in this picture? whether that, what we see, is reality itself or only a representation of some reality? are we able to recognize and to understand this “materialised” reality using our perception and cognition? – we deal with epistemology.

Memory issue

Scholars are struggling with the concepts of Time, Space, Continuance and Memory from the very beginning. Aristotle perceives Time as cumulative and Memory as a process going from an affectation in the past to a perception in the present.  He doesn’t see a clear distinction between past and present. The subject of the memory belongs to the past while the perception of it belongs to the immediate present.

“… the present is the object only of perception, and the future, of expectation, but the object of memory is the past.”

Aristotle, On Memory and Reminiscence, originally published in Ross, W. D. (Ed.) (1930). The works of Aristotle (vol. 3). Oxford: Clarendon Press

Memory is one of the most important ways by which our histories animate our current actions and experiences. Memory seems to be a source of knowledge and a key aspect of personal identity. We remember experiences and events which are not happening now, so memory differs from perception. We remember events which really happened, so memory is unlike pure imagination. Yet, in practice, there can be close interactions between remembering, perceiving, and imagining. Remembering is often suffused with emotion, and is closely involved in both extended affective states such as love and grief, and socially significant practices such as promising and commemorating. It is essential for much reasoning and decision-making, both individual and collective. It is connected in obscure ways with dreaming. Some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. Much of our moral and social life depends on the peculiar ways in which we are embedded in time.

“Someone will say: what about memory? Is it not a guardian of our selves? Does it not give us the feeling of being us, not someone else? Does it not make us whole, does it not brand us? (…) Well, I would not advise putting trust in memory, since memory is at the mercy of our imagination, and as such cannot be reliable source of truth about us.”

Wiesław Myśliwski, Ostatnie Rozdanie/ Last Deal, 2013

Many problems about memory require us to cross philosophical traditions and subdisciplines, touching on phenomenology, philosophy of psychology, epistemology, social theory, and ethics at once.

Phenomenology and sensation-seekers

Many schools of thought developed over the centuries in different parts of the world, simultaneously, independently, interfluently… In the early years of the 20th century a philosophical movement called Phenomenology was founded by a German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. In Husserl’s conception Phenomenology is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness.

Husserl’s conception of Phenomenology has been developed by himself and by hermeneutic philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, by existentialists, such as Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and by other philosophers, such as Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Luc Marion, Emmanuel Lévinas.

Phenomenologists are motivated by the desire to look at the world afresh from a first-person perspective (Merleau-Ponty 1962). Phenomenologists argue that subjectivity and objectivity are abstract notions that arise out of and are derivative from a far more basic, dynamic and complex unity named being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein, Heidegger 1919).

” Postawa trzecioosobowa i wiążąca się z nią intersubiektywna i powszechnie akceptowana wiedza jawi się współcześnie jako coraz mniej atrakcyjna, jako coraz mniej potrzebna. Dominuje postawa pierwszoosobowa i subiektywne przekonania, angażowanie się we własne przeżycia, świat postrzegany jest jako zbiór narzędzi, które ocenia się pod kątem ich przydatności w ramach Baumanowskiego „kolekcjonowania przeżyć.”

“The third-person perspective and the intersubjective and widely accepted knowledge related to this approach, is seen today as increasingly less attractive, less needed. Dominates the first-person perspective and subjective beliefs, engaging in our own experiences, the world is seen as a set of tools that are assessed for their suitability in the life of the Zygmunt Bauman’s  sensation-collector.”

Maciej Musiał, Intymność i jej współczesne przemiany. Studium z filozofii Kultury, Poznań 2014

Zygmunt Bauman, On Postmodern Uses of Sex, Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 15 Nos 3-4

Many academics, i.a. anthropoligists, archaeologists, sociologist found Phenomenology very attractive, with great cognitive potential, and have tried to apply phenomenological approach to their studies. I agree with Philip Tonner from The University of Glasgow, that Phenomenology can provide the kind of access to consciousness and the mind required for an understanding of “ways of thought and action”, including past ways of thought and action (cognitive archaeology). What is essential to the structure of any experience is its intentionality: the experience’s being about some object or other in the world, like our bodily dealings with the world, our habits, our social and cultural practices, including our natural languages (Tonner 2011).


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