Memories are made of this and that

Julia Annas

  • Ancient and Medieval Memories: Studies in the Reconstruction of the Past by Janet Coleman
    Cambridge, 646 pp, £50.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 521 41144 0

The past may be another country, but when we try to study it the problem seems to be not so much that they do things differently as that they give such a different account of what they do. To understand past intellectual activities, in particular, we often have to divide up what for us is a single concern, or bring together issues which we treat as distinct. Coleman’s is an ambitious unifying project of the latter kind; its problems come from the nature of the two issues she yokes together.

Inside this large volume, in fact, are two distinct books. The shorter one is a discussion of historical understanding and attitudes to the past. Coleman writes about Medieval historiography with sympathy, aiming to explicate what is different about Medieval ways of writing about the past, and to deny that there was a radical break in assumptions about historical writing at the beginning of the Early Modern period.

The longer book is a study of Medieval philosophical theories of memory which begins with ancient texts, for the Medieval tradition Started from and built on some central texts form the ancient world: in particular, Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection, part of the Parva Naturalia, short works on psychological phenomena which follow up the general study On the Soul (De Anima). By far the greater part of the book consists of Cole-man’s paraphrase and discussion of the numerous Medieval texts which study memory. She traces the intellectual influences forming the traditions of Medieval discussions of memory, extensively based on Aristotle but also displaying the waxing and waning fortunes of influences like Neoplatonism. Cole-man’s scholarship is stunning; her research does a great service to scholars in a variety of disciplines, for whom she opens up and makes accessible an unexpectedly large number of philosophical accounts of memory.

For all that, the question of what these two topics have to do with each other presses on the reader. It’s a question Coleman never addresses, and the nearest we get to an answer is found in passages such as: ‘It has been one of the main contentions of past chapters that epistemological theories, and the role given to the memory faculty within such theories, affected the way men wrote about the past. A theory about how the memory faculty or the capacity to remember processes experiences leads to assertions about what, if anything, of a past experience can be recovered in the present for present understanding and use.’ Now it is plausible that one’s attitude to history is affected by one’s views about what is going on when one remembers, but it is hardly the only factor. History-writing is affected by a number of other commonsense elements, such as what the author takes to be worth remembering; the desire to explain evidence that nobody has memory of, and so on. Coleman develops both her themes at great length, but there is no discussion of their relationship, of just what difference was made to historiography by theories of memory, most of which were developed in a philosophical context by people who did not themselves write history.

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