Witnessing, Remembering, and Testifying: Why the Past is Special for Human Beings


Authors
Gergely Csibra
Central European University
Johannes, B. Mahr
Harvard University
Abstract
The past is undeniably special for human beings. To a large extent, both individuals and collectives define themselves through history. Moreover, humans seem to have a special way of cognitively representing the past: episodic memory. As opposed to other ways of representing knowledge, remembering the past in episodic memory brings with it the ability to become a witness. Episodic memory allows us to determine what of our knowledge about the past comes from our own experience and thereby what parts of the past we can give testimony about. In this article, we aim to give an account of the special status of the past by asking why humans have developed the ability to give testimony about it. We argue that the past is special for human beings because it is regularly, and often principally, the only thing that can determine present social realities such as commitments, entitlements, and obligations. Because the social effects of the past often do not leave physical traces behind, remembering the past and the ability to bear testimony it brings is necessary for coordinating social realities with other individuals.
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