Fall on WashU campus

Mental time travel, transparency, and the distinctiveness of episodic memory

WIPS with André Sant'Anna, Washington University in St. Louis

Abstract: The idea that episodic memory is a form of mental time travel (MTT) is now prominent in philosophy and psychology. According to what I will call the MTT view of memory, episodic memory is the capacity we have to relocate ourselves in subjective time so as to “re-live” or “re-experience” past events. The MTT view has been motivated on both intuitive and theoretical grounds. Intuitively, it has been argued that it provides an accurate characterization of the conscious experience of episodic memory: i.e., that it involves an experience of “reliving” or “re-experiencing” the past. Theoretically, it has been argued that the MTT view allows us to distinguish between episodic and semantic memory in terms of the conscious experience that is characteristic of the former; namely, that it involves MTT. In this paper, I argue that viewing episodic memory as a form of MTT provides an inadequate characterization of the conscious experience of episodic memory. In particular, I will argue that while some occurrences of episodic memory can be plausibly viewed as involving MTT, various other occurrences of remembering that are clearly episodic do not involve MTT. As a result, the MTT view fails as an account of the distinction between episodic and semantic memory. Building on the limitations of the MTT view, I propose a novel account of what makes the conscious experience of episodic memory distinctive from semantic memory. On this view, what distinguishes episodic from semantic memory is the fact that episodic memory is transparent. In other words, episodic memory makes us directly aware of past events as events in the world, as opposed to events represented in our minds. In addition to providing a more comprehensive characterization of the conscious experience of episodic memory, the transparency view is also able to make sense of the key theoretical motivation driving the MTT view, thus making it a more viable option.