Memories can’t wait

Memories can’t wait

I finally got around to cruising my new two-volume Princeton edition of Aristotle last night while unwinding after class. Yes, I find amusement in the strangest places. It dawns on me that it was actually the cause of a few laughs in class. People are of the impression that I find the weirdest scholarly stuff entertaining. They’re right.

Of course, I first looked at On Memory. Aristotle makes some interesting distinctions. Declaring first that in order to remember something, we must have perceived it first, he continues:

Memory is, therefore, neither perception or conception, but a state or affectation of one of these, conditioned by lapses of time. As already observed, there is no such thing as memory of the present while present; for the present is object only of perception, and the future, of expectation, but the object of memory is the past. All memory, therefore, implies a time elapsed; consequently only those animals who perceive time remember, and the organ whereby they perceive time is also that whereby they remember.

This is of course, quite logical, but also in the light of modern science quite wrong. I wrote a while back about the amygdala, which processes sensory inputs through the emotions first, before they are contextualized by temporal ordering. Emotional memory is not temporal, but imagistic. But Aristotle was on to that too.

Without an image thinking is impossible. There is in such activity as affectation identical with one in geometrical demonstrations. . . . Thus it is clear that the cognition of intellectual objects involves an image and the image is an affectation of the common sense. Thus memory belongs incidentally to the faculty of thought, and essentially it belongs to the primary faculty of sense-perception.

The distinction here is fine, but sure. Memory is tied more closely to the senses than thought. That is its primary faculty, its effect on thought is secondary. Separating this out, Aristotle then gets at the core thing that separates the nature of human memory from animal memory, or “soul” memory as he describes it:

If asked of which among the parts of the soul memory is a function, we reply, manifestly of that part which imagination also appertains; and all objects of which there is imagination are also objects of memory, while those which do not exist without imagination are objects of memory incidentally.

Thus, all animal memory would be incidental unless you think that animals share the capacity for imagination. This could be debated, because anyone who has had a pet knows that they seem to dream. But do they experience imagination in the waking state? Clearly, they do not experience the sort of temporal memories humans do, but there is perhaps a core of imagistic memory in there somewhere. Yeah, so I’m easily amused.

However, what really hit me was Aristotle’s constant references to the relationship of forgetting, perception, and the melancholic temperament. Aristotle proposes that humans are the only ones that deliberate on issues, the only ones who concern themselves with the future, but that contemplation of the future is in the now:

That the affectation is corporeal, i.e., that recollection is searching for an image in a corporeal substrate, is proved by the fact that some persons, when, despite the most strenuous application of thought, they have been unable to recollect, feel discomfort, which even thought they abandon the effort of recollection, persists in them nonetheless; and especially in those of melancholic temperament. For those are most powerfully moved by image. The reason why the effort of recollection is not under the control of their will is that, as those who throw a stone cannot stop it at their will when thrown, so he who tries to recollect the hunts sets up a process in a material part, in which resides the affectation.

Or, to put that all in a more modern perspective from Henry Miller:

The mission of man on earth is to remember.

I don’t know where I thought I was going with all this, except to save that notion form Aristotle that memory, once started, is like throwing a stone. It is unstoppable. The remainder of his essay on memory, by the way, deals with such contemporary issues as getting a song stuck in your head. Of course, he blames it all on moisture. He was Greek after all. But also central is the role that imagination plays in the human memory. This is something that seems to have been lost by all the interpreters of Aristotle over the ages. That’s why I like to go to the source. Memory as an affectation? Now there’s a concept!