John Sutton, Philosophy and Memory Traces: Descartes to connectionism. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
N.B. This is a final draft only and is not identical to the published version.

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Philosophy and Memory Traces:
Descartes to Connectionism

One day the soul did not exist,
 neither did the mind,
 as for consciousness,
 no-one had ever thought of it,
 but where, for that matter, was thought,
 in a world made up solely of warring elements
 no sooner destroyed than recomposed,
 for thought is a luxury of peacetime.
   Antonin Artaud

 Cognitive science is a body of research ...
 pathetically out of contact with its own history.
   Jerry Fodor

 Each memory is many memories ...
   Matt Keoki Matsuda


This book describes and defends a set of theories of autobiographical memory, both historical and contemporary, which view memories as dynamic patterns rather than static archives, fragmentary traces to be reconstructed rather than coherent things to be reproduced. It adds historical and philosophical flavour to cliches about the fragility of memory by telling odd tales of the motions and disappearance of fleeting animal spirits, by revivifying fears of "the phantasmal chaos of association", and by defending distributed models of memory against critics' complaints about loss of cognitive discipline. Although I don't here move far in contributing to broader models in cognitive science which are sensitive to context and culture, I clear the ground for so doing by demonstrating that theories of memory don't have to be blind to society and history.

Readers can easily pursue independent, interest-driven routes through the book. After an introductory chapter, it falls into four parts. Parts 1 and 2 are primarily historical, Part 3 deals with historical and contemporary problems about associationism together, and Part 4 is primarily about modern theories of memory. Each part begins with a brief introduction which outlines its contents and motivations.

The shape of the book is historically heavy: it's anchored in Part 1 by a long rereading of Descartes' dynamic physiology of memory, which exemplifies the range of questions about mechanism, self, and body taken up in other contexts in the rest of the book. But this isn't an exhaustive or even continuous narrative history: my studies of neglected early modern neurophilosophical controversies end with Reid and Coleridge, and I deal neither with traditions outside France and England nor with theories of memory between 1817 and the 1980s.

Contemporary debates about interference and order in connectionist models of memory traces, which I sketch in the introduction, are taken up again in detail only in Parts 3 and 4. But those attuned to current concerns about the catastrophic effects of superposition, about truth in memory, and about the difficulties of cognitive control over mental contents will find surprisingly clear resonances in forgotten older contexts. The bizarre detail of historical schemes in moral physiology for the disciplining of the neural fluids which roam the body is quite alien to us: this distance allows sharper vision of the way theories of memory are inevitably entangled in wider problems of self, society, and the past.

I rely on authority throughout, citing experts extensively. The detailed historical studies are my own: but they inevitably build on and twist existing research. Reference in the text is by date, except in the case of a few central texts for which I list abbreviations at appropriate points. Quotations retain original spelling.

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