Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Maria Michela Sassi, Tracce nella mente. Teorie della memoria da Platone e i moderni. Seminari e Convegni, 9. Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2007. Pp. x, 265; ills. 12. ISBN 978-88-7642-222-5. €30.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Anna Marmodoro,

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume is a collection of essays edited and with an introduction by Maria Michela Sassi, on the topic of memory. The eleven original contributions to the volume span different accounts of memory offered in ancient and modern times, whose trait de union is the recurrent use of the metaphor that memories are "traces [left] in the mind [by the external world] ". The metaphor of memories as impressions in the mind was famously introduced to Western thought by Plato. Aristotle may be credited as the first to give an extended treatment of memory as a faculty of the soul; but he too is deeply indebted to Plato (as Sassi emphasizes in her own essay) and so are many later thinkers.

Sassi considers one of the primary aims of the volume to be "giving Plato his due", that is, showing how Plato's conception of memory influenced so many future generations. This is an original contribution of the volume as a whole to the current scholarship on historical studies of memory. The conclusion is reached by examining whether the frequent use of Platonic metaphors connecting memories and images (and in particular the metaphor of the wax tablet) in subsequent authors is to be interpreted as an intentional reference to Plato's own doctrines or as simply a widespread traditional understanding that memory has some privileged connection with the sense modality of seeing. Most of the volume's contributors deal, explicitly or implicitly, with this question, and argue that there is indeed an intentional reference to, and a heuristic use of the Platonic metaphors in later accounts of memory. The overarching line of argument of the volume is that the heuristic use of Plato's insights allowed a fundamental shift from Plato to the modern authors, from understanding memory as passive reception of the impressions of the external world, to understanding memory as an active power and a type of perception. The overall conclusions of the volume are convincingly argued and well documented in the individual essays.

The eleven essays are chronologically ordered and their themes are strongly connected. They are all written in Italian (with the exception of Ierodiakonou's essay) and all have helpful English abstracts. A very brief account of the content of each essay follows for information's sake, but for reasons of space it will not be possible to pay justice in full to the authors, or to engage with their arguments.

The volume opens with an essay by Cambiano introducing Plato's account of memory. Cambiano focuses on key metaphors in Plato's works and on their contexts: the wax-block and the aviary in the Theaetetus, and the writing and the painting in the soul in the Philebus. In his analysis of the metaphors, Cambiano draws attention to Plato's understanding of mnemonic processes as intentional processes with propositional content. Sassi's essay, which follows, brings out what is specific about mnemonic representation for Aristotle, that is, the essential link with the notion of time which was not part of Plato's account. Remembering for Aristotle is an intentional process whose content is distinguished from other mental contents by a temporal tag: the (past) moment in which perception of the thing registered in memory has taken place.

In the third essay Ierodiakonou discusses the dialectics between Stoics and Sceptics on the topic of memory, identifying three interesting points of departure from the original Platonic account. First, while the first generation of Stoics follows Plato in considering memory a storehouse of impressions like signs on a wax tablet, Chrysippus argues that memories are more abstract alterations of the soul. That is, for Chrysippus "the soul as a whole, in coming to have an impression, becomes disposed differently than it was disposed before . . . it is made to change in such a way as to think of what the impression is an impression of differently from before"(53). Second, the Stoics think that memory is essential to knowledge, for it "guarantees the formation of appropriate conceptions, which are indispensable for the acquisition of knowledge. . . like that of white, man or animal" (61). (A fuller explanation by Ierodiakonou of how the formation of such conceptions takes place would be valuable, especially in view of the recurrence of the same theme in later thinkers.) Finally, Ierodiakonou observes that the Stoics were the first to think that memory involves not only storing information but also actively recalling it. But as we learn from the following essay by D'Ancona, it is Plotinus who offers arguments explaining why memory cannot be a passive storage of impressions. For Plotinus memory is rather an active power of the soul, like any other power for other types of knowledge, including perception. The reason that memory needs to play an active role is, in D'Ancona's words, that "access to the real nature of things is achieved when the rational soul concentrates on the intelligible structure of things . . . the soul knows the real being of things by (re-) finding them in itself (81-2) . . . thus we must conclude that there is a part of the function of the soul which directing attention on the intelligible forms becomes aware of what was already there before, but of which we had no awareness . . . memory consists in this awareness" (90).

In the following essay Cillerai demonstrates that by Augustine's time it is assumed without further arguments that memory is an active power of the soul. Augustine holds that memory is a necessary condition for the conscious operations of the soul since it is responsible for the following two functions in relation to bodily action. At the actual moment when the intention to act is formulated, memory allows the soul to "recompose" within itself into a single image the series of movements the moving body will be in in its successive acts of movement. Also, once the action has been started by the agent, memory guarantees and regulates its happening in accordance with the series of movements intended by the soul. Cillerai's essay is followed and well complemented by Di Martino's. Di Martino focuses more broadly on the contributions from Medieval and Arabic philosophy to the understanding of memory. Among her other interesting points, she observes that Augustine and Avicenna alike hold that one of the functions of memory, conceived as an active power of the soul, is to be crucially involved in perception. Both Augustine and Avicenna, contra Aristotle, think that there is a memory of the present which accompanies perception while it happens. (This type of memory is what in modern psychology is known as short term memory or working memory. It is very interesting to learn that it was studied as early as medieval times.)

Tirinnanzi's essay discusses the value and role of the intellect in Bruno's new art of memory. The intellect is actively involved in interpreting, and writing on our wax-block memory, the images we receive from the external world. Memory is for Bruno inner writing guided by the intellect. The inner writings so achieved are "seeds", and memory is the "hothouse" where intellect grows thoughts out of them. Memory and intellects mutually need each other and strengthen each other.

The following three essays by Ferrarin, Mignini, and Mugnai concern imagination and memory: in Hobbes and Descartes, in Spinoza, and in Leibniz, respectively. I will limit myself to mentioning a few highlights on memory from these authors. Ferrarin argues that by contrast with Hobbes, Descartes thinks memory and imagination are different faculties; but his views of the functions they perform change over time. At an earlier stage in Descartes' work imagination appears to be the indispensable mediation between the intellect and our knowledge of extension. Later in the Meditations memory becomes essential for any mediated knowledge: the criterion that, we are told, distinguishes sleep and being awake is the interconnection of our representations made possible by memory. Turning to Spinoza, he offers two formal definitions of memory in two of his works, the Tractatus de intellectus emendatione and the Ethics. Mignini offers an analysis and an assessment of the two definitions, and concludes by attributing to Spinoza the following account: our memory of something is a concatenation of images corresponding to the affections of our body produced by the external thing we register in our memory. Memory obeys universal laws of nature and is outside the domain of free will. Memory is essential to the operations of intellect and reason, essential to language, and hence essential to our social and political life. Finally, the modern philosophy section of the volume concludes with Mugnai's essay on Leibniz. He believes that the intrinsically feeble nature of our memory does not allow us to have direct access to the highest possible stage of development of human knowledge. This is so because our memory is not naturally strong enough to grasp complex ideas beyond a certain level of complexity, nor can we maintain a firm control of long and complicated inferences. Leibniz assigns to the faculty of imagination the role of creating a "thread of thought" which can help memory and warrant control of the most complex reasoning.

The last essay, by Pogliano, contributes an interesting, different viewpoint to the volume's study of historical accounts of memory, and is accompanied by eye-catching illustrations. Pogliano draws our attention to the fact that the memory (however differently it has been conceived) has always been thought to be located somewhere in the brain. Its location has from time to time changed, "albeit a constant topographical attitude" remained unchallenged until the second half of the 19th century. Pogliano discusses some of the major turning points in the history of what he calls "cerebral migrations" of memory, from Galen's times onwards.

To conclude, Sassi's volume is a multifaceted and yet very coherently organized study of historical accounts of memory from Plato's time onwards, which will be of interest to philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists alike who want to be informed about the history of the subject. The volume is a study in the history of epistemology and in the history of the philosophy of mind, and as such is excellently done. The philosopher reader may wish for further explanation and development of the theory of memory distinctive to each of the thinkers examined in the essays, and feels at times left with only a description rather than an analysis of the various accounts of memories presented. But possibly these further goals could not have been achieved within the volume's limits. The historian of philosophy will find the volume a very rewarding and instructive reading, and unique in its subject matter.

Table of contents

Maria Michela Sassi "Presentazione"

Giuseppe Cambiano: "Problemi della memoria in Platone"

Maria Michela Sassi: 'Aristotele fenomenologo della memoria'

Katerina Ierodiakonou "The Stoics and the Skeptics on memory"

Cristina D'Ancona: "Plotino: memoria di eventi e anamnesi di intellegibili"

Beatrice Cillerai: "Agostino: La memoria al centro dell' actio animae "

Carla Di Martino: "Memoria dicitur multipliciter. L'apporto della scienza psicologica araba al medievo latino"

Nicoletta Tirinnanzi: "L'occhio e la pagina scritta. Aspetti della riflessione di Bruno sulla memoria tra il De umbris idearum e il De magia naturali"

Alfredo Ferrarin: "Immaginazione e memoria in Hobbes e Cartesio"

Filippo Mignini: "La dottrina della memoria in Spinoza"

Massimo Mugnai: "Immaginazione e memoria in Leibniz"

Claudio Pogliano: "Topografie e migrazioni celebrali della memoria"

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