On Memory and Reminiscence

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


WE have, in the next place, to treat of Memory and Remembering, considering its nature, its cause, and the part of the soul to which this experience, as well as that of Recollecting, belongs. For the persons who possess a retentive memory are not identical with those who excel in power of recollection; indeed, as a rule, slow people have a good memory, whereas those who are quick-witted and clever are better at recollecting.

We must first form a true conception of these objects of memory, a point on which mistakes are often made. Now to remember the future is not possible, but this is an object of opinion or expectation (and indeed there might be actually a science of expectation, like that of divination, in which some believe); nor is there memory of the present, but only sense-perception. For by the latter we know not the future, nor the past, but the present only. But memory relates to the past. No one would say that he remembers the present, when it is present, e.g. a given white object at the moment when he sees it; nor would one say that he remembers an object of scientific contemplation at the moment when he is actually contemplating it, and has it full before his mind;- of the former he would say only that he perceives it, of the latter only that he knows it. But when one has scientific knowledge, or perception, apart from the actualizations of the faculty concerned, he thus ’remembers’ [that the angles of a triangle are together equal to two right angles]; as to the former, that he learned it, or thought it out for himself, as to the latter, that he heard, or saw, it, or had some such sensible experience of it. For whenever one exercises the faculty of remembering, he must say within himself, ’I formerly heard (or otherwise perceived) this,’ or ’I formerly had this thought’.

Memory is, therefore, neither Perception nor Conception, but a state or affection of one of these, conditioned by lapse 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 which perceive time remember, and the organ whereby they perceive time is also that whereby they remember.

The subject of ’presentation’ has been already considered in our work On the Soul. Without a presentation intellectual activity is impossible. For there is in such activity an incidental affection identical with one also incidental in geometrical demonstrations. For in the latter case, though we do not for the purpose of the proof make any use of the fact that the quantity in the triangle [for example, which we have drawn] is determinate, we nevertheless draw it determinate in quantity. So likewise when one exerts the intellect [e.g. on the subject of first principles], although the object may not be quantitative, one envisages it as quantitative, though he thinks it in abstraction from quantity; while, on the other hand, if the object of the intellect is essentially of the class of things that are quantitative, but indeterminate, one envisages it as if it had determinate quantity, though subsequently, in thinking it, he abstracts from its determinateness. Why we cannot exercise the intellect on any object absolutely apart from the continuous, or apply it even to non-temporal things unless in connexion with time, is another question. Now, one must cognize magnitude and motion by means of the same faculty by which one cognizes time [i.e. by that which is also the faculty of memory], and the presentation [involved in such cognition] is an affection of the sensus communis; whence this follows, viz. that the cognition of these objects [magnitude, motion time] is effected by the [said sensus communis, i.e. the] primary faculty of perception. Accordingly, memory [not merely of sensible, but] even of intellectual objects involves a presentation: hence we may conclude that it belongs to the faculty of intelligence only incidentally, while directly and essentially it belongs to the primary faculty of sense-perception.

Hence not only human beings and the beings which possess opinion or intelligence, but also certain other animals, possess memory. If memory were a function of [pure] intellect, it would not have been as it is an attribute of many of the lower animals, but probably, in that case, no mortal beings would have had memory; since, even as the case stands, it is not an attribute of them all, just because all have not the faculty of perceiving time. Whenever one actually remembers having seen or heard, or learned, something, he includes in this act (as we have already observed) the consciousness of ’formerly’; and the distinction of ’former’ and ’latter’ is a distinction in time.

Accordingly if asked, of which among the parts of the soul memory is a function, we reply: manifestly of that part to which ’presentation’ appertains; and all objects capable of being presented [viz. aistheta] are immediately and properly objects of memory, while those [viz. noeta] which necessarily involve [but only involve] presentation are objects of memory incidentally.

One might ask how it is possible that though the affection [the presentation] alone is present, and the [related] fact absent, the latter- that which is not present- is remembered. [The question arises], because it is clear that we must conceive that which is generated through sense-perception in the sentient soul, and in the part of the body which is its seat- viz. that affection the state whereof we call memory- to be some such thing as a picture. The process of movement [sensory stimulation] involved in the act of perception stamps in, as it were, a sort of impression of the percept, just as persons do who make an impression with a seal. This explains why, in those who are strongly moved owing to passion, or time of life, no mnemonic impression is formed; just as no impression would be formed if the movement of the seal were to impinge on running water; while there are others in whom, owing to the receiving surface being frayed, as happens to [the stucco on] old [chamber] walls, or owing to the hardness of the receiving surface, the requisite impression is not implanted at all. Hence both very young and very old persons are defective in memory; they are in a state of flux, the former because of their growth, the latter, owing to their decay. In like manner, also, both those who are too quick and those who are too slow have bad memories. The former are too soft, the latter too hard [in the texture of their receiving organs], so that in the case of the former the presented image [though imprinted] does not remain in the soul, while on the latter it is not imprinted at all.

But then, if this truly describes what happens in the genesis of memory, [the question stated above arises:] when one remembers, is it this impressed affection that he remembers, or is it the objective thing from which this was derived? If the former, it would follow that we remember nothing which is absent; if the latter, how is it possible that, though perceiving directly only the impression, we remember that absent thing which we do not perceive? Granted that there is in us something like an impression or picture, why should the perception of the mere impression be memory of something else, instead of being related to this impression alone? For when one actually remembers, this impression is what he contemplates, and this is what he perceives. How then does he remember what is not present? One might as well suppose it possible also to see or hear that which is not present. In reply, we suggest that this very thing is quite conceivable, nay, actually occurs in experience. A picture painted on a panel is at once a picture and a likeness: that is, while one and the same, it is both of these, although the ’being’ of both is not the same, and one may contemplate it either as a picture, or as a likeness. Just in the same way we have to conceive that the mnemonic presentation within us is something which by itself is merely an object of contemplation, while, in relation to something else, it is also a presentation of that other thing. In so far as it is regarded in itself, it is only an object of contemplation, or a presentation; but when considered as relative to something else, e.g. as its likeness, it is also a mnemonic token. Hence, whenever the residual sensory process implied by it is actualized in consciousness, if the soul perceives this in so far as it is something absolute, it appears to occur as a mere thought or presentation; but if the soul perceives it qua related to something else, then,- just as when one contemplates the painting in the picture as being a likeness, and without having [at the moment] seen the actual Koriskos, contemplates it as a likeness of Koriskos, and in that case the experience involved in this contemplation of it [as relative] is different from what one has when he contemplates it simply as a painted figure- [so in the case of memory we have the analogous difference, for], of the objects in the soul, the one [the unrelated object] presents itself simply as a thought, but the other [the related object] just because, as in the painting, it is a likeness, presents itself as a mnemonic token.

We can now understand why it is that sometimes, when we have such processes, based on some former act of perception, occurring in the soul, we do not know whether this really implies our having had perceptions corresponding to them, and we doubt whether the case is or is not one of memory. But occasionally it happens that [while thus doubting] we get a sudden idea and recollect that we heard or saw something formerly. This [occurrence of the ’sudden idea’] happens whenever, from contemplating a mental object as absolute, one changes his point of view, and regards it as relative to something else.

The opposite [sc. to the case of those who at first do not recognize their phantasms as mnemonic] also occurs, as happened in the cases of Antipheron of Oreus and others suffering from mental derangement; for they were accustomed to speak of their mere phantasms as facts of their past experience, and as if remembering them. This takes place whenever one contemplates what is not a likeness as if it were a likeness.

Mnemonic exercises aim at preserving one’s memory of something by repeatedly reminding him of it; which implies nothing else [on the learner’s part] than the frequent contemplation of something [viz. the ’mnemonic’, whatever it may be] as a likeness, and not as out of relation.

As regards the question, therefore, what memory or remembering is, it has now been shown that it is the state of a presentation, related as a likeness to that of which it is a presentation; and as to the question of which of the faculties within us memory is a function, [it has been shown] that it is a function of the primary faculty of sense-perception, i.e. of that faculty whereby we perceive time.


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Chicago: Aristotle, "Chapter 1," On Memory and Reminiscence, trans. J. I. Beare Original Sources, accessed February 25, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HD9W9GKBJYL5DGH.

MLA: Aristotle. "Chapter 1." On Memory and Reminiscence, translted by J. I. Beare, Original Sources. 25 Feb. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HD9W9GKBJYL5DGH.

Harvard: Aristotle, 'Chapter 1' in On Memory and Reminiscence, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 25 February 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HD9W9GKBJYL5DGH.