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Nonhuman episodic memory, scepticism and psychological kinds

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For around 20 years, a significant research programme in comparative cognition has been investigating whether nonhuman animals have episodic memory – the form of declarative memory involved in remembering past events. This research programme has yielded many apparently confirmatory results, across a wide range of species. Yet there is little consensus on whether animals have episodic memory. Why is this? There are a number of grounds for scepticism, but here I focus on just one family of sceptical views, which I call ‘kind scepticism’. Kind sceptics argue that the evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis that animals have episodic memory, since it fails to rule out that they have a form of memory that, though similar to episodic memory, differs in kind. This raises a difficult question about how to delineate episodic memory as a psychological kind. I suggest that kind sceptics and advocates of nonhuman episodic memory are committed to different answers to this question, and that their disagreement can’t be settled by appeal to the objective structure of the world, but only by appeal to pragmatic considerations. This dispute is in a sense terminological, but significant – since it brings into focus important questions about what the episodic memory research programme aims to, and can, achieve.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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