Aristotle on Memory

Outline of ‘On Memory’

People with a retentive memory are not identical with those who excel at recollecting; as a rule, slow people have a good memory, whereas quick-witted and clever people are better at recollecting. It is not possible to remember the present, which is the object of perception or knowledge, or the future, which is the object of opinion or expectation, the science of which might be called divination. When one has perception or knowledge apart from the actualisations of the faculty concerned, he can be said to ‘remember’ the object of perception or knowledge, either because he learnt it or thought it out for himself, or because he had a sensible experience of it. Memory therefore is neither perception nor conception, but a state or affection of one of these, conditioned by lapse of time. Consequently, only those animals which perceive time remember, and the organ by which they perceive time is also that by which they remember. The subject of ‘presentation’, without which intellectual activity is impossible, has already been discussed in On the Soul. When one exercises the intellect, one envisages the object as quantitative and determinate. The intellect cannot be exercised on any object absolutely apart from the continuous or even applied to non-temporal things unless in connexion with time. Magnitude and motion must be cognised by the same faculty by which time is cognised, namely, memory, and the presentation involved is an affection of the sensus communis, that is, the primary faculty of perception. Accordingly, memory of both sensible and intellectual objects involves a presentation and belongs directly and essentially to the faculty of sense perception and only incidentally to the faculty of intelligence. Hence not only human beings but also certain other animals possess memory. Memory appertains to that part of the soul to which ‘presentation’ appertains, and all objects capable of being presented are immediately and properly objects of memory, while those which necessarily involve (but only involve) presentation are incidental objects of memory. The process of sensory stimulation involved in the act of perception stamps, as it were, a sort of impression of the percept, just as a seal stamps its impression in hot wax. In those who are very young or very old, or too quick or too slow, or strongly moved by passion, an impression is less readily formed because the condition of their receiving organs is not optimal. When one remembers, does one remember this impression or the objective thing from which it is derived? A picture painted on a panel is at once a picture and a likeness; that is, while one and the same, it is both of these and can be contemplated as either. The same can be said of the mnemonic presentation within us, which by itself is merely an object of contemplation but in relation to something else is also a presentation of that other thing. Thus it is possible to mistake memories for phantasms and phantasms for memories. In summary, memory or remembering is a function of the primary faculty of sense perception, that is, of the faculty that perceives time; it can be defined as the state of a presentation, related as a likeness to that of which it is a presentation.

Recollection is not the ‘recovery’ or ‘acquisition’ of memory, since at the instant of learning or experiencing, one does not thereby ‘recover’ or ‘acquire’ a memory. It is only once the aforesaid state or affection is implanted in the soul that memory exists. To remember, strictly speaking, is an activity that only becomes immanent after the original experience has undergone lapse of time. Even then, it is obviously possible, without any act of recollection, to remember as a continued consequence of the original experience. Only the recovery of the original experience can be said to be ‘recollection’. Although remembering does not necessarily imply recollecting, recollecting always implies remembering. In some cases, a person may twice learn or twice discover the same fact, but this does not constitute ‘recollection’. Recollection, as it occurs in experience, is due to one movement that has by nature another that succeeds it in regular order. As a rule, it is when antecedent movements have first been excited that the particular movement implied in recollection follows. Thus, when a person wishes to recollect, he will try to obtain a beginning of movement whose sequel shall be the movement which he desires to reawaken. This explains why things arranged in a fixed order, such as the successive demonstrations in geometry, are relatively easy to remember or recollect. If a person cannot move, solely by his own effort, to the next term after the starting point, then this is not recollecting but forgetting. In some cases, he may set up many movements until he finally excites one of a kind that will have for its sequel the fact that he wishes to recollect. Thus, remembering is the existence, potentially, in the mind of a movement capable of stimulating it to the desired movement. From the same starting point, the mind sometimes receives an impulse to move in the required direction and at other times otherwise. A person may think that he remembers when he really does not, but he cannot remember and think that he does not, for remembering essentially implies consciousness of itself. Remembering requires that the movement corresponding to the object and that corresponding to its time concur. If, however, the movement corresponding to the objective fact takes place without that corresponding to the time, or if the latter takes place without the former, then this is not remembering. In some cases, the movement corresponding to time may be indeterminate, and yet remembering can still be said to occur. Recollecting differs from remembering not only chronologically, but also in that only man amongst the animals is capable of recollection, which is a mode of inference and therefore belongs alone to those animals with the faculty of deliberation. That recollecting is a searching for an ‘image’ in a corporeal substrate is proved by the fact that people who are unable to recollect may feel discomfort. Melancholics and all those with moisture around that part which is the centre of sense perception feel this kind of discomfort very strongly, as once the moisture has been set in motion it is not easily brought to rest until the sought-after idea has again presented itself. For a similar reason, bursts of anger or fits of terror are not easily allayed, and compulsions are not easily resisted. The very young and the elderly have bad memories because of the large amount of movement going on within them. The very young also have disproportionately large upper parts, as do dwarves, which predisposes to the skewing and dispersion of mnemonic movements.

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