Objects and memories – evoked or invoked?

When I’ve been thinking about objects and memory, I have often used the verb ‘to evoke’ as in “The object evokes memories that might otherwise not have been recalled.” The word seemed to capture the feeling that this happened without our conscious volition or guidance and that memories are ‘evoked’ which might otherwise not have been. Miles et al. (2013) write about ‘involuntary recall’ to convey this contrast with situations where someone might ask you to deliberately recall something and, indeed, their work indicated that the content of memories evoked in an open-air museum setting are different to those evoked in a reminiscence session in a contemporary setting.

Merleau-Ponty though had other ideas. In his Introduction, he takes issue with the idea of ‘associative force’ – the idea that one impression (sensory experience) has the power to awaken other impressions. Instead, he argues, the present impression is “understood from the perspective of the past experience where it co-existed with the impressions to be awakened” (p. 18). From this point, he argues that there is no projection of memories and that the phrase ‘to perceive is to remember’ is mistaken. Instead, he argues that “the memories need to be made possible by the physiognomy of the givens in order for them to come to complete the perception. Prior to any contribution of memory, that which is seen must currently be organised in such a way as to offer me a scene in which I can recognise my previous experience (p. 20).” Rather, Merleau-Ponty appears to be arguing that “memories do not project themselves over the sensations, but rather that consciousness compares them with the present given only to retain those that fit with it” (p.22). Later, he adds, that to “perceive is not to experience a multitude of impressions that bring along with them some memories capable of completing them, it is to see an immanent sense bursting forth from a constellation of givens without which no call to memory is possible. To remember is not to bring back before the gaze of consciousness a self-subsistent picture of the past, it is to plung into the horizon of the past and gradually unfold tightly packed perspectives until the experiences that it summarizes are as if lived anew in their own temporal space. To perceive is not to remember (p. 23).”

This, I think, messes with the use of ‘evoke’. If I understand it correctly, then (for Merleau Ponty) the object does not evoke a memory rather the object is understood via an appeal to memory. The memories are invoked not evoked.

First the problems:

I find it problematic just to assume that Merleau-Ponty is right just because he’s Merleau-Ponty. It is obvious that he was  frighteningly intelligent and knew both his philosophical and scientific literature very well. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make him right. But, perhaps it make what he wrote the starting point for a set of questions..?

I also find this account problematic because it doesn’t account for the observation that memories that are evoked by objects/perceptual stimuli are sometimes memories that are not evoked purely through conversation. Why, in Merleau-Ponty’s argument, would we resort to a different set of memories to handle a different perceptual ‘horizon’?

Then the advantage:

My dissertation was based on the way that people interacted around contemporary craft objects and the hypothesis that they couldn’t make an associative move from those objects to autobiographical memories. Merleau-Ponty would, I think argue, that there is no associative move. Instead, the participants, having failed to understand the objects in the light of their memories, were obliged to invoke other frameworks to understand the objects. This makes a kind of sense.

What Merleau-Ponty also does is to question the structure of our experience. We experience our memories as being evoked but, as with other aspects of perceptual experience, it ain’t necessarily so and I need to not take experience for granted.


Merleau Ponty, M. (1945, 2014) The Phenomenology of Perception [Trans. D.A. Landes], London: Routledge

Miles, A.N., Fischer-Mogensen, L., Nielsen, N.H., Hermansen, S. &  Berntsen, D. (2013) ‘Turning back the hands of time: Autobiographical memories in dementia cued by a museum setting’, Consciousness and Cognition, 22 (3), 1074-1081

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, memory, Objects, Perception. Bookmark the permalink.

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