Say someone asks if you know the time. You say yes and then look at your watch. Did you really know the time?
Say someone asks you how to get downtown to the museum. You say yes. They ask you to write down directions. You can’t, but you offer to drive them there instead. If you can see the landmarks, then you’ll know where to turn. Did you really know how to get there?
Say that, walking past a bakery, you’re struck by the smell of a pastry and then vividly recall a time when, six years-old, you made those same rolls with your grandmother. You can feel again the weight of her hand on your shoulder as she helps you roll the dough. This is the only time you’ve thought of that event in the past thirty years. Did you remember this? Or did the pastry?
Who is doing the knowing in these examples? Who is doing the remembering? You? The watch? The landmark? The cinnamon roll?
In the first full essay in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer recommends that we distinguish between recollection and memory. “Reading and teaching philosophy,” he says, “I have learned to distinguish between recollection and memory. The former is a psychological phenomenon that is a subset of the latter. Memory includes the things I can recollect, but is not limited to it” (4).
Recollection is the visible tip of memory’s iceberg. Where recollection has to do with our local, conscious experience of mind, memory extends out into that vast, non-conscious infrastructure of body, language, habit, and things that makes our minds wide.
Recollection is essential, but brains need infrastructure in order to be mindful. Memory is a collaboration between me and the world. My brain may pretend to autonomy but mind is, by its very nature, prosthetic. To mind is to borrow. To think, I have to borrow words. To navigate, I have to borrow landmarks. To remember, I need that scent.
Jim reflects at length on the prosthesis of his wedding band. The material autonomy of his band widens recollection into memory.
My wedding band is a memorial of our relation because it does something for me in spite of myself. Even if I am not thinking of my marriage, the ring demands a certain attitude toward the world, a certain reverence and respect for Janice; it connects me to Janice even when I am not explicitly thinking of her. My wedding ring makes possible certain relations in the world by embodying those relations. (5)
Said another way, my wedding ring gives order to my world: an order that relates me to my wife and the rest of the world, an order that cannot be reduced to an intention to remember my marriage. Though it is odd to say, it is as if my wedding ring remembers my marriage for me. Not only does the ring not usually refer to or represent Janice, it does not take her place. In a very real sense, it takes my place rather than hers. My ring can serve as an explicit reminder because it remembers all the time, while I recollect only sometimes. (5)
This approach to memory gives us another angle on why symbols and rituals matter so much, especially in religion. Symbols and rituals remember things for us. They are the infrastructure of local recollection. They encode and support certain ways of being in the world that would not be possible without them. Without the prostheses of rituals, of objects, of signs, we are condemned to forget.
Memory, in this wide sense, is Spirit itself and there is no life without Spirit: “I have learned that I live not on my own breath but also on that of the Spirit, without which there is recollection at best and no memory” (17).
Note: I’m endebted to Alva Noe’s Out of Our Heads for the essay’s opening examples.