Memory as Skill

Review of Philosophy and Psychology 14 (3):833-856 (2022)
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The temporal structure for motivating, monitoring, and making sense of agency depends on encoding, maintaining, and accessing the right contents at the right times. These functions are facilitated by memory. Moreover, in informing action, memory is itself often active. That remembering is essential to and an expression of agency and is often active suggests that it is a type of action. Despite this, Galen Strawson (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103, 227–257, 2003) and Alfred Mele (2009) deny that remembering is an action. They claim that memory fails to admit of control. Remembering is automatic—once remembering starts, the process can neither be stopped nor intervened on. Moreover, the agent does not initiate remembering. An agent has control over an event or process if and only if she has the capacity and opportunity to initiate and intervene on that event or process. Actions are events over which an agent has control. Since it is automatic, we fail to have control over remembering. Thus, remembering is not an action. In this paper, I draw out an assumption of Strawson’s and Mele’s accounts: an event-type whose tokens exhibit automaticity cannot, for that reason, be an action (§2). Against this assumption, I draw parallels between skilled bodily action and memory. I show that memory exhibits two defining features of skill: it can be learned with practice and it admits of attributions of excellence (§3). These features reveal how intelligent control is exerted in the exercise of skill despite apparent automaticity—control is gained over time (§4). Since exercises of skill are by definition actions and since memory exemplifies the defining features of skill, memory is a skill and instances of remembering are actions too.

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