On Memory and Reminiscence

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


Next comes the subject of Recollection, in dealing with which we must assume as fundamental the truths elicited above in our introductory discussions. For recollection is not the ’recovery’ or ’acquisition’ of memory; since at the instant when one at first learns [a fact of science] or experiences [a particular fact of sense], he does not thereby ’recover’ a memory, inasmuch as none has preceded, nor does he acquire one ab initio. It is only at the instant when the aforesaid state or affection [of the aisthesis or upolepsis] is implanted in the soul that memory exists, and therefore memory is not itself implanted concurrently with the continuous implantation of the [original] sensory experience.

Further: at the very individual and concluding instant when first [the sensory experience or scientific knowledge] has been completely implanted, there is then already established in the person affected the [sensory] affection, or the scientific knowledge (if one ought to apply the term ’scientific knowledge’ to the [mnemonic] state or affection; and indeed one may well remember, in the ’incidental’ sense, some of the things [i.e. ta katholou] which are properly objects of scientific knowledge); but to remember, strictly and properly speaking, is an activity which will not be immanent until the original experience has undergone lapse of time. For one remembers now what one saw or otherwise experienced formerly; the moment of the original experience and the moment of the memory of it are never identical.

Again, [even when time has elapsed, and one can be said really to have acquired memory, this is not necessarily recollection, for firstly] it is obviously possible, without any present act of recollection, to remember as a continued consequence of the original perception or other experience; whereas when [after an interval of obliviscence] one recovers some scientific knowledge which he had before, or some perception, or some other experience, the state of which we above declared to be memory, it is then, and then only, that this recovery may amount to a recollection of any of the things aforesaid. But, [though as observed above, remembering does not necessarily imply recollecting], recollecting always implies remembering, and actualized memory follows [upon the successful act of recollecting].

But secondly, even the assertion that recollection is the reinstatement in consciousness of something which was there before but had disappeared requires qualification. This assertion may be true, but it may also be false; for the same person may twice learn [from some teacher], or twice discover [i.e. excogitate], the same fact. Accordingly, the act of recollecting ought [in its definition] to be distinguished from these acts; i.e. recollecting must imply in those who recollect the presence of some spring over and above that from which they originally learn.

Acts of recollection, as they occur in experience, are due to the fact that one movement has by nature another that succeeds it in regular order.

If this order be necessary, whenever a subject experiences the former of two movements thus connected, it will [invariably], experience the latter; if, however, the order be not necessary, but customary, only in the majority of cases will the subject experience the latter of the two movements. But it is a fact that there are some movements, by a single experience of which persons take the impress of custom more deeply than they do by experiencing others many times; hence upon seeing some things but once we remember them better than others which we may have been frequently.

Whenever therefore, we are recollecting, we are experiencing certain of the antecedent movements until finally we experience the one after which customarily comes that which we seek. This explains why we hunt up the series [of kineseis], having started in thought either from a present intuition or some other, and from something either similar, or contrary, to what we seek, or else from that which is contiguous with it. Such is the empirical ground of the process of recollection; for the mnemonic movements involved in these starting-points are in some cases identical, in others, again, simultaneous, with those of the idea we seek, while in others they comprise a portion of them, so that the remnant which one experienced after that portion [and which still requires to be excited in memory] is comparatively small.

Thus, then, it is that persons seek to recollect, and thus, too, it is that they recollect even without the effort of seeking to do so, viz. when the movement implied in recollection has supervened on some other which is its condition. For, as a rule, it is when antecedent movements of the classes here described have first been excited, that the particular movement implied in recollection follows. We need not examine a series of which the beginning and end lie far apart, in order to see how [by recollection] we remember; one in which they lie near one another will serve equally well. For it is clear that the method is in each case the same, that is, one hunts up the objective series, without any previous search or previous recollection. For [there is, besides the natural order, viz. the order of the pragmata, or events of the primary experience, also a customary order, and] by the effect of custom the mnemonic movements tend to succeed one another in a certain order. Accordingly, therefore, when one wishes to recollect, this is what he will do: he will try to obtain a beginning of movement whose sequel shall be the movement which he desires to reawaken. This explains why attempts at recollection succeed soonest and best when they start from a beginning [of some objective series]. For, in order of succession, the mnemonic movements are to one another as the objective facts [from which they are derived]. Accordingly, things arranged in a fixed order, like the successive demonstrations in geometry, are easy to remember [or recollect], while badly arranged subjects are remembered with difficulty.

Recollecting differs also in this respect from relearning, that one who recollects will be able, somehow, to move, solely by his own effort, to the term next after the starting-point. When one cannot do this of himself, but only by external assistance, he no longer remembers [i.e. he has totally forgotten, and therefore of course cannot recollect]. It often happens that, though a person cannot recollect at the moment, yet by seeking he can do so, and discovers what he seeks. This he succeeds in doing by setting up many movements, until finally he excites one of a kind which will have for its sequel the fact he wishes to recollect. For remembering [which is the condicio sine qua non of recollecting] is the existence, potentially, in the mind of a movement capable of stimulating it to the desired movement, and this, as has been said, in such a way that the person should be moved [prompted to recollection] from within himself, i.e. in consequence of movements wholly contained within himself.

But one must get hold of a starting-point. This explains why it is that persons are supposed to recollect sometimes by starting from mnemonic loci. The cause is that they pass swiftly in thought from one point to another, e.g. from milk to white, from white to mist, and thence to moist, from which one remembers Autumn [the ’season of mists’], if this be the season he is trying to recollect.

It seems true in general that the middle point also among all things is a good mnemonic starting-point from which to reach any of them. For if one does not recollect before, he will do so when he has come to this, or, if not, nothing can help him; as, e.g. if one were to have in mind the numerical series denoted by the symbols A, B, G, D, E, Z, I, H, O. For, if he does not remember what he wants at E, then at E he remembers O; because from E movement in either direction is possible, to D or to Z. But, if it is not for one of these that he is searching, he will remember [what he is searching for] when he has come to G if he is searching for H or I. But if [it is] not [for H or I that he is searching, but for one of the terms that remain], he will remember by going to A, and so in all cases [in which one starts from a middle point]. The cause of one’s sometimes recollecting and sometimes not, though starting from the same point, is, that from the same starting-point a movement can be made in several directions, as, for instance, from G to I or to D. If, then, the mind has not [when starting from E] moved in an old path [i.e. one in which it moved first having the objective experience, and that, therefore, in which un-’ethized’ phusis would have it again move], it tends to move to the more customary; for [the mind having, by chance or otherwise, missed moving in the ’old’ way] Custom now assumes the role of Nature. Hence the rapidity with which we recollect what we frequently think about. For as regular sequence of events is in accordance with nature, so, too, regular sequence is observed in the actualization of kineseis [in consciousness], and here frequency tends to produce [the regularity of] nature. And since in the realm of nature occurrences take place which are even contrary to nature, or fortuitous, the same happens a fortiori in the sphere swayed by custom, since in this sphere natural law is not similarly established. Hence it is that [from the same starting-point] the mind receives an impulse to move sometimes in the required direction, and at other times otherwise, [doing the latter] particularly when something else somehow deflects the mind from the right direction and attracts it to itself. This last consideration explains too how it happens that, when we want to remember a name, we remember one somewhat like it, indeed, but blunder in reference to [i.e. in pronouncing] the one we intended.

Thus, then, recollection takes place.

But the point of capital importance is that [for the purpose of recollection] one should cognize, determinately or indeterminately, the time-relation [of that which he wishes to recollect]. There is,- let it be taken as a fact,- something by which one distinguishes a greater and a smaller time; and it is reasonable to think that one does this in a way analogous to that in which one discerns [spatial] magnitudes. For it is not by the mind’s reaching out towards them, as some say a visual ray from the eye does [in seeing], that one thinks of large things at a distance in space (for even if they are not there, one may similarly think them); but one does so by a proportionate mental movement. For there are in the mind the like figures and movements [i.e. ’like’ to those of objects and events]. Therefore, when one thinks the greater objects, in what will his thinking those differ from his thinking the smaller? [In nothing,] because all the internal though smaller are as it were proportional to the external. Now, as we may assume within a person something proportional to the forms [of distant magnitudes], so, too, we may doubtless assume also something else proportional to their distances. As, therefore, if one has [psychically] the movement in AB, BE, he constructs in thought [i.e. knows objectively] GD, since AG and GD bear equal ratios respectively [to AB and BE], [so he who recollects also proceeds]. Why then does he construct GD rather than ZH? Is it not because as AG is to AB, so is O to I? These movements therefore [sc. in AB, BE, and in O:I] he has simultaneously. But if he wishes to construct to thought ZH, he has in mind BE in like manner as before [when constructing GD], but now, instead of [the movements of the ratio] O:I, he has in mind [those of the ratio] K:L; for K:L::ZA:BA. (See diagram.)

When, therefore, the ’movement’ corresponding to the object and that corresponding to its time concur, then one actually remembers. If one supposes [himself to move in these different but concurrent ways] without really doing so, he supposes himself to remember.

For one may be mistaken, and think that he remembers when he really does not. But it is not possible, conversely, that when one actually remembers he should not suppose himself to remember, but should remember unconsciously. For remembering, as we have conceived it, essentially implies consciousness of itself. If, however, the movement corresponding to the objective fact takes place without that corresponding to the time, or, if the latter takes place without the former, one does not remember.

The movement answering to the time is of two kinds. Sometimes in remembering a fact one has no determinate time-notion of it, no such notion as that e.g. he did something or other on the day before yesterday; while in other cases he has a determinate notion of the time. Still, even though one does not remember with actual determination of the time, he genuinely remembers, none the less. Persons are wont to say that they remember [something], but yet do not know when [it occurred, as happens] whenever they do not know determinately the exact length of time implied in the ’when’.

It has been already stated that those who have a good memory are not identical with those who are quick at recollecting. But the act of recollecting differs from that of remembering, not only chronologically, but also in this, that many also of the other animals [as well as man] have memory, but, of all that we are acquainted with, none, we venture to say, except man, shares in the faculty of recollection. The cause of this is that recollection is, as it were, a mode of inference. For he who endeavours to recollect infers that he formerly saw, or heard, or had some such experience, and the process [by which he succeeds in recollecting] is, as it were, a sort of investigation. But to investigate in this way belongs naturally to those animals alone which are also endowed with the faculty of deliberation; [which proves what was said above], for deliberation is a form of inference.

That the affection is corporeal, i.e. that recollection is a searching for an ’image’ in a corporeal substrate, is proved by the fact that in some persons, when, despite the most strenuous application of thought, they have been unable to recollect, it [viz. the anamnesis = the effort at recollection] excites a feeling of discomfort, which, even though they abandon the effort at recollection, persists in them none the less; and especially in persons of melancholic temperament. For these are most powerfully moved by presentations. 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 and ’hunts’ [after an idea] sets up a process in a material part, [that] in which resides the affection. Those who have moisture around that part which is the centre of sense-perception suffer most discomfort of this kind. For when once the moisture has been set in motion it is not easily brought to rest, until the idea which was sought for has again presented itself, and thus the movement has found a straight course. For a similar reason bursts of anger or fits of terror, when once they have excited such motions, are not at once allayed, even though the angry or terrified persons [by efforts of will] set up counter motions, but the passions continue to move them on, in the same direction as at first, in opposition to such counter motions. The affection resembles also that in the case of words, tunes, or sayings, whenever one of them has become inveterate on the lips. People give them up and resolve to avoid them; yet again and again they find themselves humming the forbidden air, or using the prohibited word. Those whose upper parts are abnormally large, as is the case with dwarfs, have abnormally weak memory, as compared with their opposites, because of the great weight which they have resting upon the organ of perception, and because their mnemonic movements are, from the very first, not able to keep true to a course, but are dispersed, and because, in the effort at recollection, these movements do not easily find a direct onward path. Infants and very old persons have bad memories, owing to the amount of movement going on within them; for the latter are in process of rapid decay, the former in process of vigorous growth; and we may add that children, until considerably advanced in years, are dwarf-like in their bodily structure. Such then is our theory as regards memory and remembering- their nature, and the particular organ of the soul by which animals remember; also as regards recollection, its formal definition, and the manner and causes of its performance.


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Chicago: Aristotle, "Chapter 2," On Memory and Reminiscence, trans. J. I. Beare Original Sources, accessed July 18, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WU6P78GHSM7XA7.

MLA: Aristotle. "Chapter 2." On Memory and Reminiscence, translted by J. I. Beare, Original Sources. 18 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WU6P78GHSM7XA7.

Harvard: Aristotle, 'Chapter 2' in On Memory and Reminiscence, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 18 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WU6P78GHSM7XA7.