Philosophy and memory traces: Descartes to connectionism

My book Philosophy and Memory Traces defends two theories of autobiographical memory. One is a bewildering historical view of memories as dynamic patterns in fleeting animal spirits, nervous fluids which rummaged through the pores of brain and body. The other is new connectionism, in which memories are ‘stored’ only superpositionally, and are reconstructed rather than reproduced.

Both models depart from static archival metaphors by employing distributed representation, which brings interference and confusion between memory traces. Both raise urgent issues about control of the personal past, and about relations between self and body.

The book’s historical argument is anchored by a reinterpretation of Descartes’ dynamic physiology of memory and strange philosophy of the body. English critics of Descartes’ view of memories as motions complained that mechanistic neurophilosophy could not guarantee order in memory, and instead sought techniques for controlling the brain. In a new account of 18th-century philosophers’ fears of confusion in remembering, I demonstrates the role of bizarre body fluids in moral physiology, as philosophers from Locke to Reid and Coleridge struggled to control their own innards and impose cognitive discipline on ‘the phantasmal chaos of association’.

philosophy-and-memory-traces‘…a fascinating insight into early modern theories of mental and neural activity, and anyone interested in contemporary thinking about mind and memory, or in the history of psychology and philosophy, will find a great deal of value in this engaging and stimulating book.’
The Times Literary Supplement

Finally, in a defence of connectionism against Jerry Fodor and against phenomenological and Wittgensteinian critics of passive mental representations, I show how problems of the self are implicated in contemporary sciences of mind. The book is an experiment in historical cognitive science, based on a belief that the interdisciplinary study of memory can exemplify the simultaneous attention to brain, body, and culture towards which
psychological sciences must aim.

‘seriously provocative scholarship’


          Frontmatter and preface

  1. Introduction: traces, brains, and history

          Appendix: memory and connectionism

Part I—Animal spirits and memory traces


  1. Wriggle-work: the quick and nimble animal spirits
  2. Memory and ‘the Cartesian philosophy of the brain’
    Appendix 1: nerves, spirits, and traces in Descartes
    Appendix 2: Malebranche on memory

Part II—Inner discipline


  1. Spirit sciences, memory motions
  2. Cognition, chaos, and control in English responses to Descartes’ theory of memory
  3. Local and distributed representations
  4. John Locke and the neurophilosophy of self
    Appendix: memory and self in Essay II.27
  5. The puzzle of survival
  6. Spirits, body, and self
  7. The puzzle of elimination

Part III—’The phantasmal chaos of association’


  1. Fodor, connectionism, and cognitive discipline
  2. Associationism and neo-associationism
  3. Hartley’s distributed model of memory
  4. Attacks on neurophilosophy: Reid and Coleridge

Part IV—Connectionism and the philosophy of memory


  1. Representations, realism, and history
  2. Attacks on traces
  3. Order, confusion, remembering