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.

What drives Coleman’s analysis is the idea, stated several times but never explicitly discussed, that there is a tension, resolved in different ways in different thinkers, between knowing the past ‘as past and particular’ and ‘as present and universal’. Not all memory is of the past, however. I can remember that e = mc2 if I now know it, and now know it because I knew it in the past. So my present knowledge of e = mc2, if it is memory knowledge, has a relation to the past, namely to my past learning, but it is not knowledge of the past. The question, how what I remember relates to the past, is quite different from the question, how it relates me to my past. We are only even tempted to conflate them in the case where what I remember is in fact something in the past. In that case it is tempting to think that what is going on is, as Coleman says, a past experience which can be in some way used in the present (though I remain unclear as to what could be meant by ‘universal’ here). But there is an obvious ambiguity here in ‘experience’. Experience of what? The past event? Or my learning (seeing etc) the past event? Again, we are not tempted to confuse these when I didn’t myself experience the past event (as when I remember the Treaty of Ghent). It is only in cases of eyewitness memory that the question, what is retained of the experience of seeing (or whatever) the event, directly affects the question of how much I know of the past.

Coleman writes throughout as though what was always in question was eyewitness memory, of the kind where the question can arise, when I remember the past event, of what in the memory is of the past, and what of my past learning of the event. She is concerned with the ‘ideological’ uses of memory and the problems of selective memory and forgetfulness, and the threats that these pose to claims to remember the past objectively (and, hence, to recording it, insofar as history consists of recording this kind of memory). She does not distinguish my reconstruction of the past from the reconstruction of my past, which again raises the problem of how much all this relates to history. She is fascinating on monastic practices of ‘blanching’ personal memory which focus on memorising shared texts and rituals, programmatically ignoring events outside the monastic group activity and forgetting one’s personal past. But the over-dramatic ways in which she describes this (the monks living in differing time from the secular world) only underscore the difficulty of making this relevant to a historian like Bede, who was writing a history of England, not of Bede.

The parts of the book which deal with the Medieval philosophical treatment of memory are by and large independent of historiography. Coleman gives us careful summaries of a large number of texts (indeed this is what makes up most of the book’s length) over a long period and within a large number of different intellectual traditions. The basis for understanding the discussions, and what makes them so different from modern discussions of memory, is Aristotle’s On Memory. It is this which sets the terms of the subsequent debates: in what way does memory require an image? Does memory belong to the perceptive or the thinking part of the soul?

These are philosophical questions, and the whole ancient and Medieval debate is a philosophical one. Coleman, however, has ignored modern philosophical work on memory. She makes claims about materialism which show that she does not care to understand what the term means in the philosophy of mind. She also has no acquaintance with modern work on memory in psychology and cognitive science which distinguishes different kinds of memory as relatively independent abilities – something which might have made her pause before reducing all kinds of memory to one. Most puzzlingly, since Aristotle is the basis of most of the discussions she so carefully records, she pays no attention to recent philosophical work on Aristotle’s philosophy of mind.

Over the last 20 years one of the most encouraging interdisciplinary debates has been between Aristotle scholars, on the one hand, and philosophers of psychology and cognitive science, on the other. To answer a question such as, ‘Is Aristotle a materialist?’ we need to understand materialism, and we need a historically sensitive reading of the texts. This is an area in which we have actually made progress. Over the last decade scholars have come to a much better understanding of the texts, aided by philosophical debates which have distinguished various forms of materialism, functionalism and other theories of the mind. Yet Coleman does not engage with what is surely the obvious starting-point for her enquiry.

As a result, some issues are clouded from the start. For example, Coleman says that it is Aristotle’s view that ‘the distinction between merely having an image in the imagination and having a memory image is that with the latter there is the correct judgment that one has encountered the memory image before.’ Aristotle does not say this, however. In the passage referred to and two others, he says that when someone is actively remembering (mneme and associated verb) ‘he says in his soul that he heard or perceived or thought this before.’ I say in my soul that I have already seen the thing, not the memory image of the thing. And this is not Aristotle’s way of distinguishing memory from imagination. Rather, what these passages underline is that Aristotle in this part of the treatise is talking about the kind of memory where my claim to remember some item is based on my claim to remember learning it. My memory of the item, in other words, relates it to my past.

It is surprising that Coleman misses this point, because it is this kind of memory that she is concerned with throughout her book. At least, she is concerned with one type of this kind of memory – namely, memory of the past. Aristotle is not, in the passage she refers to, actually talking about memory of the past at all: the examples he gives are remembering ‘this white thing’ and remembering that the three angles of a triangle add up to two right angles. For Aristotle, remembering the past is only one way in which my memory relates me to my past, when I say in my soul that I learned this before. Nonetheless, it is clearly among the kinds of memory that Aristotle calls mneme, the memory that relates me to my past via the story of saying in the soul. And this would have formed an obvious path into the Medieval developments of Aristotle’s theme, as well as forming a bridge between philosophical discussions of memory and discussions of the recording of history.

Aristotle also uses mneme in a broader sense, to cover not only memory of the above kind but also what he calls ‘recollection’, a different kind of memory which involves an active search for what one learned before. In modern terms, recollection is the kind of memory one can improve. Aristotle’s distinction of recollection from memory in the narrow sense, and his assigning of the former to the perceptive part of the soul and the latter to the thinking part, is a pioneering step in psychology, especially the recognition that there are fundamentally different forms of memory, and that with some of them we are more active than others. The striking idea that one can improve one’s memory is connected in the ancient world with mnemonic techniques used by public speakers and lawyers. The mnemonic ‘place system’ described by Aristotle has had a long and interesting use: I once found a description of it in a Fifties book for housewives wishing to improve their shopping techniques in the super market. Coleman calls this active use of memory ‘trivial’; she is uninterested in the active/passive distinction and its relation to the continuing debate over locating different remembering abilities in different parts of the mind.

When we approach Aristotle’s account of a phenomenon like memory, especially since it is the theme for a long set of philosophical variations, we have to ask ourselves just what it is that he is talking about. Memory is not a unitary phenomenon, and the curious mixture of activity and passivity that we find raises wider questions about the nature of the mind. We have to be clear from the start about our own ideas of the mind, and its relation to bodily processes. And we cannot do this without first doing some philosophical work.

Sometimes this priority is resisted, on the grounds that it presupposes an objectionable triumphalism. Isn’t this just imposing out own framework on Aristotle? How does this leave us room to learn from him? In any case, why are we so sure that ours are the right questions to ask? In fact, however, we are not assuming that we have got it right and that Aristotle is fumbling towards modern insights. The reason for doing philosophy first is that Aristotle is a philosopher: if we don’t read his texts philosophically we won’t begin in the right place, and may not do good history, For there is no neutral alternative starting-point from which we can sort out the subject before engaging with it philosophically.

It is a commonplace that we do not approach ancient or Medieval texts from nothing, that we bring our own presuppositions with us to the reading. In the case of philosophical texts, those presuppositions are often very substantial. If we do not confront them, we will bring them to the text anyway, but they will affect our reading in ways that we can do nothing about. Only if we are philosophically self-conscious do we have a chance of successfully measuring the distance between ourselves and ancient and Medieval thinkers. Coleman brings some very heavy assumptions to her task. Unfortunately they get in the way of her scrutinising her own philosophical presuppositions. As contemptuous of science as anyone can he (interestingly, she originally trained as a physical chemist), contemptuous to an extent that disables her from engaging with modern discussions of the mind, many of which are influenced by science, she herself is influenced by a variety of ideas about ‘texts’, ‘discourse’ and above all ‘language’ (any thinker who mentions ‘language’ gets lots of attention). These ideas appear scattered throughout an otherwise solidly scholarly work, on which they do not make any structural impact. Although they are never reflected upon, they may explain the strange reluctance to discuss philosophers philosophically. Coleman has done us a service in bringing together a wide range of texts: but they come before us as exhibits rather than as contributions to a debate of which we still form part.