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Aristotle and Plotinus on Memory (review)

From: Classical World
Volume 105, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 569-570 | 10.1353/clw.2012.0022

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The aim of the author is to describe and contrast the views of Aristotle, who thinks that residues of sense-perception are preserved physically and may serve as an act of memory, with those of Plotinus, who wants to keep the soul intact from bodily, including perceptual, influences. Each of them, however, defends theories of memory that are forms of indirect realism via representation. King’s overall claim is to establish that the account held by these two authors is not to be understood as an image theory of memory.

In the general introduction, King lists six problems about memory to which the theories under discussion must respond. They are the derivation of memory from other cognitive faculties, the relation of present to past, and of representation to memory, the distinction between recollection and memory, the relation between memory and the self, and, finally, universal memory (exercised in counting, for example).

After discussing Platonic preliminaries, especially in the Phaedo and the Philebus (the wax-tablet model of recognition in the Theaetetus may have received less attention than it may deserve), the author describes the phases of Aristotle’s line of thought. According to the provisional definition, memory is neither sense-perception nor conception but the possession, affection, or modification of one of these, after time has passed. It is reached by the canonical formula which says that whenever someone is active with respect to remembering, then he says in this way in the soul that he perceived or thought it beforehand. This is how we get to the final definition that memory is the possession of a representation as an image of that of which it is the representation. The scheme responds to all of the problems listed at the beginning; for instance, the canonical formula explains the connection between memory and time. The act of remembering comprises two representations, one of content and one of time.

Plotinus’ treatise On Memory and Sense-Perception (4.6.[41]) is a reflection on the first chapter of Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection. On the basis of his views on the nature of the soul, very different from those of Aristotle, Plotinus insists that memory is an activity. He also tries to separate it both from sense-perception and from thought by saying that different people excel in each. King emphasizes that Plotinus makes representation (φαντασία) an independent faculty, responsible for memory. Representation provides a crucial element to make a memory claim insofar as it bridges the gap between past and present moments (218).

There are only two points to raise. We cannot be sure that memory does not appear to require specific material explanation (22). Still, there may be an element in memory that might involve changes in the body. It concerns φαντσμάτα, the products of the process of φαντασία. They are affects of the central organ, the heart (Mem. 1, 450a10–12). Aristotle discusses briefly that such changes can be stored in a moist environment and their retrieval can be blocked by the disruption of bodily fluids around the heart (2, 450a32–b11). If φαντσμάτα serve as the content of memory, then memory must also have physiological implications. In the discussion of Plotinus, one might ask for a description of the perception, or rather the awareness, of time. It seems that Plotinus must dissent from Aristotle’s views since representation contains λόγοι (translated as expressions [113] or formula [178]) originating in the intellect which is timeless.

The book has an extensive bibliography and two indices. Well organized and thoroughly argued, it is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the subject.

REVIEWS in This Issue

  • P. Asso, A Commentary on Lucan, De Bello Civili IV: Introduction, Edition, and Translation. (M. T. Dinter) 555.

  • R. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek. (M. Beckwith) 558.

  • P. A. Butz, The Art of the Hekatompedon Inscription and the Birth of the Stoikhedon Style. (J. W. Day) 556.

  • E. Csapo, Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater. (J. Hanink) 563.

  • G. W. Dobrov (ed.), Brill’s Companion to the Study of Greek Comedy. (E. Scharffenberger) 567.

  • R. A. H. King, Aristotle and Plotinus on Memory. (P. Lautner) 569.

  • L. Van Hoof, Plutarch’s Practical Ethics: The Social Dynamics of Philosophy...


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