Preface to philosophy and memory traces: Descartes to connectionism

In [Book Chapter] (1998)
Philosophy and Memory Traces, the book to which this is the preface, defends two theories of autobiographical memory. One is a bewildering historical view of memories as dynamic patterns in fleeting animal spirits, nervous fluids which rummaged through the pores of brain and body. The other is new connectionism, in which memories are ‘stored’ only superpositionally, and are reconstructed rather than reproduced. Both models depart from static archival metaphors by employing distributed representation, which brings interference and confusion between memory traces. Both raise urgent issues about control of the personal past, and about relations between self and body. The book’s historical argument is anchored by a reinterpretation of Descartes’ dynamic physiology of memory and strange philosophy of the body. English critics of Descartes’ view of memories as motions complained that mechanistic neurophilosophy could not guarantee order in memory, and instead sought techniques for controlling the brain. In a new account of 18th-century philosophers’ fears of confusion in remembering, the author demonstrates the role of bizarre body fluids in moral physiology, as philosophers from Locke to Reid and Coleridge struggled to control their own innards and impose cognitive discipline on ‘the phantasmal chaos of association’. Finally, in a defence of connectionism against Jerry Fodor and against phenomenological and Wittgensteinian critics of passive mental representations, the author shows how problems of the self are implicated in contemporary sciences of mind. The book is an experiment in historical cognitive science, based on a belief that the interdisciplinary study of memory can exemplify the simultaneous attention to brain, body, and culture towards which psychological sciences must aim.
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