In recent discussions on memory, a controversial issue has been whether collective memory or repressed memory is indeed authentic calling into question the eminence of memory in general. On the one hand, some argue that both narrative and recovered memories represent undistorted reality, past experiences, either traumatic or dramatic that have been stored in the brain individually and communally. From this perspective, memory can serve to valid one’s beliefs, to propagate communal mores, and to assist in recuperative measures. On the other hand, however, others argue that memories, in general, cannot be trusted. In the words of one of this view’s main proponents, Immanuel Kant, the real world are borne from causal connection. “Real events must… be causally related.” Since memories contain no manifest causal connections, they cannot be real. According to this view, unless memories are met with present day evidence of their causality, they cannot be trusted. In sum, then, the issue is whether memory, both collectively and individually, can be trusted. The issue for us comes down to causal agents. Though it can be conceded that causality is not the only way to gain knowledge of an entity and that empiricism must be employed, it can still be maintained that we can know of a thing by intuition, by gut. For example, Socrates’ Meno and his lesson in basic geometry. Although some might object that knowing something intuitively doesn’t necessarily authenticate memory, a response might be that if by knowing we might, in some occasions, be subjects of a priori, might not memory be a process of similar machination, a mysterious unseen hand or support that has been with us since memory gave birth to Muses.

In the pantheon of the Titans you will find a mention of Mnemosyne, which means memory. She was Zeus’ wife and birthed the nine Muses — Clio the Muse of history; Urania of astronomy; the Muse of tragedy was Melpomene; Thalia of comedy; Terpsichore of the dance; the Muse of epic poetry was Calliope; Erato of love poetry; Polyhymnia was the Muse of songs to the gods and Euterpe of lyric poetry.

John Locke, refuting Rene Descartes’ view of the immaterial soul, reasoned that, “what makes a person at one time the same as a person at another time is memory.” Essentially, remember who we were allows us to be who we are today. We are ourselves, not changed, not differently. This view, of course, assumes there is a “self” to be remembered. It is suffused with holes, however, as we can seldom remember, in totality, our pasts. If we cannot remember an aspect of our own biography, what does this portent for our self-realization now?

Thomas Hobbes, a sensualist, argued that memory is but “decaying” motion, or impact of a sensory experience, impressed on the brain. “This decaying sense, when we would express the thing itself… we call imagination… But when we would express the decay, and signify that the sense is fading, old, and past, it is called memory. So that imagination and memory are but one thing.” In this way thinking is nothing but the linking together of these decaying sensations, or memories, of past experiences — much the way water will continue to ebb and flow to the shore after the water has been disturbed by wind or craft. Memories are not always reliable. Take for example, the relatively recent phenomena of “recovered memories” where individuals, often through therapy, regain forgotten experiences, through their invigorated or awakened memory. The theory goes that a traumatic event, such as the sexual assault of a child, is repressed by the victim and only decades later the memory of this event is recovered. One such believer in this memory recovery is Judie Alpert, a professor of applied psychology at New York University who states, “There is absolutely no question that some people have repressed some memories…” Other disagreed. Repressed and recovered memories do not exist, says Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. “I don’t see any evidence for it. It flies in the face of everything we know about memory.”

Socrates in his inquiry with a student suggested that knowledge is memory of what is already in us. “…[Y]ou should take heart and, whatever you do not happen to know at present — that is, what you do not remember — you must endeavor to search out and recollect.”

Some Kantian “constructivists” (constructivists believe each of us constructs his or her own world) has argue that repressed memories are real, because “recollected memories must provide accurate knowledge of past reality because this past reality is constructed from the memories themselves.” Immanuel Kant, argues Manuel Velasquez, would not agree with the constructivist. Kant believed there was only one real world, the worlds of causal connections. In the present world, causes and effects can be perceived. A bullet fired from a gun will caused someone great harm, presently. A dream where a gun is fired, cannot. One world is real, the other unreal because it lacks causality. Therefore, repressed memories, recollected from mental constructs is not enough. “Real events must, then, be causally related to the actual world around us.” What is required of these memories is causal proof in the present.

There exists a taxonomy: “Common” views of knowledge:

1. Rationalism — knowledge based on reason

2. Empiricism — knowledge based on sensory perception

3. Subjectivism — knowledge of our own ideas, possibly leading to solipsism, where I existed and everyone else is a creation of my consciousness

4. Transcendental Idealism — knowledge that distinguishes between experience of things (phenomena) and the things themselves (noumena).

5. Intuition — knowledge by knowing directly via perceived truths. Others take it further.

Hannah Arendtin her volume on thinking The Life of The Mind states that memory stores for us what is “no more,” and that this is only possible — in a mode of imagination — making present what is absent — by withdrawing “from the present and the urgencies of everyday life.” She quotes St. Augustine as saying, we perceive through our senses and an impression is made upon our consciousness and is stored in memory, “ready to become a vision in thought the moment the mind gets a hold of it.” But, “what remains in memory… is one thing, and…something else arises when we remember.” Arendt sums up memory stating: “[Memory] is the most basic thinking experience; it has to do with things that are absent, that have disappeared from my senses. Yet, the absent that is summoned up and made present to my mind… cannot appear in the way it appeared to my senses, as though remembrance were a kind of witchcraft. In order to appear to my mind only, it must first be de-sensed, and the capacity to transform sense-objects into images is called imagination. This makes present what is absent in a de-sensed form, and no thought processes and no trains of thought would be possible at all. She says this kind of thinking then is a withdrawing from the immediate, to a land invisible to everyone but the thinker in a most important process, “of which I would know nothing had I not this faculty of remembering and imagining.”

Mystic and physician Deepak Chopra takes — oddly given his penchant for highly speculative theories — a pragmatic view about memory being somehow implanted in the brain. “The notion that we store memory the way a computer stores it, by imprinting microchips with bits of information, is not supported by the evidence; when neurologists try to prove it, they soon hit a wall.” That wall is the neuron. He reasons that since neurons are not solid an impression would be impossible. But he is less than pragmatic when he suggests that while neuron makes lousy storage units because they’re so porous, he goes further and deeper into the virtual level of the brain of “ghostly vibrations and then into nothing,” to suggest that indeed memories can be held here. The nothing: It’s not in the brain. “When you remember anything you move from world to world, maintaining the illusion that you are still here…” It, an energy doppelganger, might be out there in the “zero-point field” — a vast “ocean of microscopic vibrations in the space between things,” where “everything [is]… connected to everything else like some invisible web,” writes Lynne McTaggart in The Field.

Another explanation, in quantum physics, which today advocates the belief in multiple universes. A most interesting theory about memory– K-Lines — is advanced by Marvin Minsky in his book The Society of Mind. Minsky, professor emeritus at MIT suggests that, “we keep each thing we learn close to the agents that learn it in the first place.” The agent is a knowledge-line or K-Line. Minsky, by way of a visually astute student Kenneth Haase, came up with the following way to describe how K-Lines work: Say you are about to fix a flat bike tire. Before you begin you smear your hands with red paint. Every tool (agent) you touch fixing the bike tire will be marked with the red paint. Every time you want to fix a bike tire, the theory goes you know that red paint smears means good for fixing bike tire flats. Use different colors to mark different jobs. So a memory is a K-Line reactivated. It helps to solve a problem presently that in the past you fixed and impressed upon your consciousness and its agents. Now, today a new problem arises and your memory recalls a similar problem in the past, and so this new problem is solved or attempted with present agents (tools) to be solved using this other K-Line (former tools or agents) as assistance. “If everything goes well, perhaps both sets of agents will work together to solve today’s problem. And that’s our simplest concepts of what memories are and how they’re formed.” A distinction remains however.

The difference between and importance of collective memory Pierre Nora, professor of History at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in France, states the difference between memory and history is profound: Memory is life, it remains in permanent evolution, whereas history, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer, whereas memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, in difference to history, which is a representation of the past, and so clearly separates from memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, and only accommodates those facts that suit it that in which history, in comparison calls for analysis and criticism, in this way then memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual and history, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority — memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative.