Philosophy Memory
Sven Bernecker, Aaron Bogart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0072


Remembering is a fundamental cognitive process, which is involved in virtually all other important cognitive functions, such as reasoning, perception, problem solving, and speech. Because memory is a central component of the mind, it is not surprising that theorizing about memory is as old as philosophy itself. Contemporary philosophers are primarily interested in the role of memory in various metaphysical and epistemological debates. For example, memory is often discussed in relation to personal identity, epistemic justification, and the experience of time—and to a lesser extent, collective memory, the hypothesis of extended memory, non-conceptual memory contents, and the ethics of memory.

General Overviews

Recent philosophers have typically imposed a tripartite division on the types of memory: habit memory, personal memory, and factual memory (Zemach 1968, Locke 1971). Habit memory is memory for the sort of everyday procedures one experiences and carries out; an example would be “remembering” how to get home from school. Personal memory is memory for events that one has personally experienced; an example would be one’s witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall. Finally, factual memory is memory for facts; an example would be remembering that 2 + 2 = 4. Philosophers discussing the relation between memory and personal identity tend to focus on personal memory, while those who discuss epistemological issues tend to focus on factual memory. This division can raise a worry, however; what if one remembers that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989? Does one remember personally here (because one witnessed the fall of the Wall), or is it factual memory (because one has had this reinforced since)? Locke 1971 is perhaps the best introduction to, or overview of, the philosophy of memory; it covers the metaphysics of memory in an accessible manner, as well as various epistemological issues. Malcolm 1975 also provides an excellent overview of some of the philosophical issues surrounding memory. Warnock 1987 provides a readable introduction to some philosophers’ (e.g., Sartre’s) theories of memory and discusses personal identity and causation. Senor 2005 provides a more updated synopsis of the philosophy of memory, and Sutton 2012 offers useful bibliographies. The most recent book-length treatment of the philosophy of memory is Bernecker 2010.

  • Bernecker, Sven. Memory: A Philosophical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Bernecker offers a general analysis of what it is to remember and discusses several epistemological and metaphysical aspects of memory. An accessible, though not introductory, text. The most up-to-date sustained engagement with the philosophy of memory.

  • Furlong, E. J. A Study in Memory. London: Thomas Nelson, 1951.

    Centered on the question of what right we have to trust our memories. Furlong argues for a position that combines elements of representative and direct realism.

  • Locke, Don. Memory. London: Macmillan, 1971.

    A fairly comprehensive introduction to the philosophy of memory. Should be the starting place for those wishing to engage with philosophical issues involving memory.

  • Malcolm, Norman. “Three Lectures on Memory.” In Knowledge and Certainty. By Norman Malcolm. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.

    Especially paired with Locke 1971, these three lectures will offer a solid overview of philosophical issues having to do with memory.

  • Senor, Thomas. “Epistemological Problems of Memory.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2005.

    Provides a useful overview of the epistemological issues that memory can interface with and contains some discussion of the metaphysics of memory.

  • Sutton, John. Memory.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Winter 2012.

    This page is the index for a bibliography and resource list on the interdisciplinary study of memory.

  • Warnock, Mary. Memory. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

    A good introduction to (some) philosophical accounts of memory and memory causation, as well as memory and personal identity. Warnock dedicates three chapters to the question of what we can learn about the nature of memory by reading poetry and autobiographies.

  • Zemach, Eddy M. “A Definition of Memory.” Mind 77 (1968): 526–536.

    DOI: 10.1093/mind/LXXVII.308.526

    Zemach attempts to reduce all types of memory to factual memory. The article is helpful in many respects. First, it is instructional to see how difficult it is to analyze the concept of memory. Second, it shows (via dialectic with Malcolm 1975) how philosophers have thought about memory’s relation to other areas of philosophy, notably epistemology and metaphysics.

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