What is so special about episodic memory: lessons from the system-experience distinction

Synthese 200 (1):1-26 (2022)


Compared to other forms of memory, episodic memory is commonly viewed as special for being distinctively metarepresentational and, relatedly, uniquely human. There is an inherent ambiguity in these conceptions, however, because “episodic memory” has two closely connected yet subtly distinct uses, one designating the recollective experience and the other designating the underlying neurocognitive system. Since experience and system sit at different levels of theorizing, their disentanglement is not only necessary but also fruitful for generating novel theoretical hypotheses. To show this, I first argue that accepting the phenomenally conscious contents of episodic remembering as metarepresentational does not necessitate a metarepresentational conception of the episodic memory system. In its stead, I sketch an alternative account on which the metarepresentational character of episodic remembering is generated through the interaction of first-order outputs of the episodic memory system with other neurocognitive components of the brain. Complemented with a first-order account of the memory system, the system-experience distinction further supplies a novel understanding of the human uniqueness of episodic recollection, one that is compatible with there being an evolutionarily conserved episodic memory system. Overall, by distinguishing the two equivocal senses of “episodic memory” in our theorizing, we unearth an opportunity to understand how the distinctive phenomenology of our episodic recollection is related to and implemented in the cognitive architecture.


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Shen Pan
University of Maryland, College Park

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