Episode 117 – “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”

In the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers found it useful to carve up the mind into different components, which they called “faculties.” Descartes, writing in the 17th century, distinguished between the faculties of sensation, imagination, reason, and memory. He, and other philosophers of the period,  thought that the examination of those faculties would enable us to discover what we know with certainty, and what we merely believe but do not know. Descartes held that the self-examination of one’s reasoning faculty revealed fundamental truths, while in contrast, reflecting on our imagination did not. Further reflection showed that there is a separate faculty of memory, which can play a role in the acquisition of knowledge, but only when that faculty is shown, by the use of reason, to be a source of truth.

In the 18th century, David Hume drew similar distinctions among mental faculties, but was skeptical of the priority of reason over the others.  The difference between imagination and memory, Hume thought, had to do with the way ideas are organized in each faculty. In the imagination, we are free to arrange ideas in any old way. We can imagine a mountain topped with strawberry ice cream, or we can unite the idea of a cow with the idea of the color purple, and think of a purple cow. Memory, in contrast, constrains our ideas to the order in which such ideas were formed in perception. You can remember a black cow grazing in a field, if, in the past, you perceived a black cow grazing in a field. However, you could also imagine a black cow grazing a field. So the imagination and the memory can contain the same ideas. The difference between them is just a matter of how they were formed.

The skeptical question is this: How can you know that the idea in your mind is a memory, which corresponds to something that actually happened, rather than being an idea of the imagination, which is just something you thought up, and isn’t something you know? Hume points out that you can’t go back in time to compare the idea you’re having to the idea you’re having right now to see if that idea was experienced as you’re having now. If we’re to distinguish memory from imagination, there has to be another way.

Horace Ford’s incredible world is the world of his memory and imagination. His problem, though he doesn’t know that it’s a problem, is that he can’t, at least at first, distinguish the two. That’s surprising, because Horace seems to have an extraordinarily sharp memory. Almost everything he experiences or talks about prompts him to remember some person or event from his childhood, and there is nothing he wants to do more than to share that memory with others. He remembers all sorts of childhood games and gags, his grade school teachers, and so much more. Horace seems to have much more interest in the past than in the present. In this respect, Horace is very much like Alex in Young Man’s Fancy. Like Alex, Horace’s preoccupation with his past is a major problem for everyone who knows him in the present.

The skeptical problem of memory can be applied to Horace. Are the ideas he has really accurate representations of the past, or are they creations of his imagination, or some combination of the two? Hume said that we can’t go back to the past to compare them, but what if we could? What if Horace could revisit his past to see if he’s really remembering it or is imagining a past different from what he actually experienced? “Incredible” can mean “special,” but it can also mean “not credible.” Is Horace Ford’s world incredible in the first sense or the second? Like Miss Foley in “Nightmare as a Child,”  Horace has a confrontation with his childhood self.

It’s not that Horace claims to remember things that didn’t happen. The problem is that his memory is selective, and what he doesn’t include in his musings about the past are the less-than-pleasant things that happened to him.  When Horace finally comes face to face with his past, when he confronts it, he realizes: “We remember what was good and we blank out what was bad.” As he says to his wife, “I don’t know what happened to me, Laura. I don’t have any idea. But for one minute…I saw something that made every memory I had a lie.” That may be an overly hard judgment about he veracity of his memory, but what is right is that he now interprets his past very differently.

Accuracy in memory, distinguishing memory from the imagination, isn’t just about what you get right. Horace remembers playing Ringalevio on Randolph Street. What he’s blocked is that he was taunted by his peers.  Horace derived great pleasure in recounting his happy past, just as Charles does in “Kick the Can.” It isn’t surprising that for years he was not motivated to recount his unpleasant past.

Recent work in the philosophy of mind has introduced the idea of “the extended mind.” This is the idea that objects outside the body play such an important part in our mental life, and we should really count them as part of our minds, our extended minds. When you take a list of items to purchase at the supermarket with you on your shopping trip, your memory includes the items on the list. While it is outside the boundaries of your body, it is, part of your memory. Horace’s memories are sparked by the objects around him, and we can see those objects as elements of his extended mind. When Horace returns to the present after his unpleasant encounter with the past, he is physically bruised, representing the real bruising he took as a child, but never confronted, until now.

Further Reading:

Descartes, R., Haldane, Elizabeth S., Ross, G.R.T., trans.(1911)  Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Volume 1.

Hume, David; (Norton, David Fate; Norton, Mary J., eds.), 2007, A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press. Book 1, Part 1, Section 3 and Book 1, Part 3, Section 5.

Malcolm, Norman, [1963] 1975, Knowledge and Certainty: Essays and Lectures, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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