Animal Minds in Time

The question of episodic memory

Authored by: Christoph Hoerl , Teresa McCormack

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Animal Minds

Print publication date:  July  2017
Online publication date:  July  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138822887
eBook ISBN: 9781315742250
Adobe ISBN:


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In his book Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson writes:

When a dog welcomes his master, barking and wagging his tail, he certainly recognizes him; but does this recognition imply the evocation of a past image …? [The] past does not interest the animal enough to detach it from the fascinating present […]. To call up the past in the form of an image, we must be able to withdraw ourselves from the action of the moment, we must have the power to value the useless, we must have the will to dream. Man alone is capable of such an effort.

(Bergson 1911: 93f.) Bergson’s words evoke a trope that can be found in the works of philosophers as diverse as Aristotle (1930: 453a4–13), Friedrich Nietzsche (1983: 60f.), and Daniel Dennett (2005: 168f.). The idea is that there is a deep discontinuity between us and the rest of the animal kingdom when it comes to the role of time in our mental lives: nonhuman animals are, in some sense, cognitively stuck in the present. This idea has recently received fresh attention, and is now typically framed in terms of the question as to whether animals are capable of having episodic memories (Tulving 2001). The thought, in short, is that the human capacity to consciously recollect particular past events constitutes an important way in which we can cognitively transcend the present. As it is sometimes put, it constitutes a form of ‘mental time travel’. And the question is whether nonhuman animals, too, are capable of mentally transporting themselves to another time in this way.

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