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Logic and the Art of Memory: The Quest for a Universal Language (review)

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 36, Number 2, 2003
pp. 168-172 | 10.1353/par.2003.0020

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Philosophy and Rhetoric 36.2 (2003) 168-172

Logic and the Art of Memory: The Quest for a Universal Language. Paolo Rossi. Trans. Stephen Clucas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. xxviii + 333. $32.00 cloth.

Of the traditional five canons of rhetoric—inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and actio—the most circuitous and fascinating history belongs to memoria. From its propulsion of Homeric lore to its grounding of rhetorical invention to its exile under print culture to its recent revival in public memory studies, the promiscuous and perplexing history of memory in the West may be one of the least appreciated, and perhaps least understood, elements of rhetorical and intellectual history. The publication in 1966 of Frances Yates's highly praised The Art of Memory drew the attention of contemporary scholars to the importance of mnemotechnics to the culture of late medieval and early modern Europe. Yates persuasively argued that the art of memory is an integral element of European intellectual history, one that can enrich our understanding of everything from Dominican theology to Shakespearian theater. However, six years earlier, in 1960, the Italian intellectual historian Paolo Rossi published in Italian an important precursor to Yates's work entitled Clavis Universalis: Arti Della Memoria e Logica Combinatoria da Lullo a Leibniz. The book traces the encyclopaedic and mnemotechnical traditions from Aristotle through Cicero and Raymond Lull and into the early-modern period, arguing that the art of memory provides an important antecedent to the advent of method in seventeenth-century philosophy, especially in the works of Bacon, Descartes, and Leibniz. Yates, in her preface to The Art of Memory, acknowledges her debt to Rossi's work, and now this work has been made available in English translation. Stephen Clucas's translation, under the title Logic and the Art of Memory, will no doubt stimulate and supplement research into the mnemotechnical tradition in the English-speaking world, and perhaps lead us to reconsider the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric.

Rossi argues that the neglect of the mnemotechnical tradition in its Ciceronian and Lullian strands has distorted our understanding of the "new" science and philosophy of the seventeenth-century, which is often interpreted as constituting, in a Kuhnian sense, a drastic paradigm shift from a Renaissance worldview that still retained occult elements. Rossi places the work of Bacon, Descartes, and Leibniz within the historical strand of the logico-encyclopaedic and mnemotechnical traditions, suggesting that these figures culminate late medieval and early modern intellectual and cultural ambitions as much as they give rise to new ones. Rossi makes his argument by providing a history of mnemotechnics from Aristotle into the fifteenth century in chapter one; by examining the fascination with encyclopaedism, combinatoria, and memory in the sixteenth century in chapters two and three; by investigating the role of artificial memory in the works of key intellectual figures in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in chapters four through six; and by tracing the impulse toward universal knowledge and its connection to mnemotechnics among seventeenth-century Cartesians, Baconians, and in the work of Leibniz, in chapters seven and eight.

Chapter one, after showing the pervasiveness of Renaissance mnemotechnical literature, surveys its classical and medieval antecedents in philosophy and rhetoric. Rossi argues that Aristotle's De memoria et reminiscentia, Cicero's De oratore, Quintilian's De institutione oratoria, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and the works of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas were each important to the mnemotechnical tradition into the seventeenth century. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century treatises on the ars memorativa and the ars predicandi, drawing on these classical and medieval theories, emphasize the importance of memory places (loci), images (imagines), and order or arrangement (dispositio) in mnemotechnics. Additionally, they intimately link the memory to the imagination, stressing the importance of exciting and stimulating the imagination in memorization. The Italian Pietro da Ravenna, for example, attributed the might of his memory to, in his own words, turning "the images of the most beautiful virgins into memory places" (22). Such imaginative mnemonic techniques were considered to be essential to the bolstering of "artificial memory," that indispensable aid to the fallen and weak "natural memory" that plagues humankind.

Chapters two and three consider the translation...

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