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Why do we remember? The communicative function of episodic memory

  • Johannes B. Mahr (a1) and Gergely Csibra (a2)

Episodic memory has been analyzed in a number of different ways in both philosophy and psychology, and most controversy has centered on its self-referential, autonoetic character. Here, we offer a comprehensive characterization of episodic memory in representational terms and propose a novel functional account on this basis. We argue that episodic memory should be understood as a distinctive epistemic attitude taken toward an event simulation. In this view, episodic memory has a metarepresentational format and should not be equated with beliefs about the past. Instead, empirical findings suggest that the contents of human episodic memory are often constructed in the service of the explicit justification of such beliefs. Existing accounts of episodic memory function that have focused on explaining its constructive character through its role in future-oriented mental time travel do justice neither to its capacity to ground veridical beliefs about the past nor to its representational format. We provide an account of the metarepresentational structure of episodic memory in terms of its role in communicative interaction. The generative nature of recollection allows us to represent and communicate the reasons why we hold certain beliefs about the past. In this process, autonoesis corresponds to the capacity to determine when and how to assert epistemic authority in making claims about the past. A domain where such claims are indispensable are human social engagements. Such engagements commonly require the justification of entitlements and obligations, which is often possible only by explicit reference to specific past events.

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