Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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1. History of the interest in memory
It is striking that in two standard compendia of Chinese and of Indian philosophy, there are no entries under memory, remembering, reminiscence or recall. Naturally, there are words used in those cultures which roughly match terms in European languages – any human being will speak of what they did at some time earlier; children begin to speak spontaneously of what they did the day before, and remark with delight or distress at things they have seen earlier. But memory as a philosophical preoccupation is specific to certain cultural periods; memory as our powers of retention is so central to intelligent activity as to be subsumed under intellect.
Within Western philosophy itself, there is no mention of memory in the pre-Socratic fragments. It seems that so long as the poetic history of Homer held sway, memory was not discussed by him or the philosophers. This was not for want of interest in the events of earlier times. Homer aptly and vividly evokes their reality. Then in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, while Homeric poetry is attacked as endangering an interest in truth, concern with the past is displaced by a search into memory itself, and Plato’s dialogues – his own artful contrivances – are presented as if recollections. Within this new myth of a historical anti-poetic Socrates we learn the philosophical values of truth as against poetry, and of strict recollection against mere fancy about the past.
Plato’s Socrates argued initially that all knowledge is recollection. He denied that sensory experience (in the present) produces knowledge, and conjectured that recollection revived knowledge acquired in a life before birth (see Plato §11). Thus not only the Homeric tradition of finding significance in human affairs in a (partly legendary) past is rejected, but also the role of women, those responsible for the child gaining its foundational knowledge, is elided.
In Plato’s later Theaetetus we find the image of memory as an imprint left in the soul by earlier experience, a trace of what has occurred. In place of Plato’s allegory of knowledge as recollection of a state in which knowledge was gained without the impurities of sensory experience we find this more scientific speculation about possible mechanisms of memory, an idea taken up by his student and successor, Aristotle. About eight centuries later these connected concepts of memory and of the past were brought into crisis by the north African Augustine. The present hour consists not only of the present minute, but of past minutes and the minutes to come. In turn, the present minute consists not only of its present second, but of its past seconds and the seconds to come. Thus, successively, the present as an extended period disappears. It remains only as an extensionless cut between the periods of past and future. The picture of present memory as defining the reality of the past is erased (see Augustine §§5, 7).
In the seventeenth century Descartes excepted memory from his radical questioning of the senses, while his notion of instantaneous reasoning was to avoid the reliance of reason on memory in any case. That all understanding of the past rested on personal memory remained unquestioned by Locke and Hume, and yet all arguments for the validity of memory assumed what they tried to prove. While Locke took common sense as a sufficient reply, Hume drew radically sceptical conclusions. Kant tried to show that the forms of knowledge cast into doubt by Hume were conditions of any coherent experience. Memory, as retaining an awareness of what something is like over some finite period of time, for instance, is such a condition of intelligible experience.
This emphasis on the mind’s contribution to the order of things led, however, to an idealism in which the mind knows, not the world itself, but its own forms of representation. Thus the sceptical empiricist tradition set in motion by Descartes, while shaken, was not overturned. The sceptical tradition was empiricist in locating the sources of knowledge within the elements of experience. The emphasis on this experience made it seem that experience itself rather than what we experienced was the primary object of knowledge. Towards the end of the nineteenth century Husserl, inspired by Frege, Brentano and Meinong, created a comprehensive alternative to empiricism – a phenomenology of experience as revealing, not itself but its objects. This phenomenology attempted an unprejudiced study of experience, including memory, as ways in which we grasp the world itself (see Phenomenology, epistemic issues in).
Husserl’s enquiries led him finally to think of the human body itself, acting as part of a socially significant world, as the centre of conscious experience. Remembering is one of the activities by which we hold bodily sway in the world. This approach was developed by Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Alternatives to mind-centred empiricism were also developed during much the same period within analytical philosophy by Wittgenstein, Ryle and J.L. Austin.
Deutscher, Max. History of the interest in memory. Memory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/memory/v-1/sections/history-of-the-interest-in-memory.
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