Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

Chapter VI.


  1. Definition of memory.
  2. The veracity of memory, and how far it can be made matter of proof from experience.
  3. Limited power of memory.
  4. Freaks of memory no disproof of the normal faculty.
  5. Memory contrasted with anticipation.
  6. Incidental use of the fact of memory to refute pure empiricism and rigorous idealism.


1. IT would be a fatal thing for us if we had not what is sometimes called mental adhesiveness, that is, if nothing which we learnt "stuck." But we all recognize a power of retentiveness. Though the amount of knowledge which, at any one time, is actualized in the mind may be small, yet, below the surface of consciousness, and, under many limits, ready at call, is a comparatively vast mass of gathered information, and of skill in its use. Some writers, after Aristotle, distinguish a storing power (mnêmê) from a subsequent recalling power (anamnêsis); but it will be enough for us to include both under the one name, Memory, habitual and actual.

This memory is not so clearly defined a term, even in its wider usage, as we might imagine. A person is rather loth to say that he remembers a road which he is taking almost every day of his life, or the meaning of a word told him only a minute ago. The definition of memory ought to include two elements, the recalling of the past, and its recognition as past. To begin with the first element: if a new thought is sustained in the consciousness for five minutes, we may agree -- and it is partly a matter of agreement -- not to call this memory. But if a thought is allowed once to sink below actual consciousness, and then is resuscitated, no matter how speedily, we may call this Memory, so far as it fulfils the requirement of a recalling of the past. In practice, however, it is often impossible to say whether we have momentarily let go an idea or not; and furthermore, when the interval is very small, as there is no sufficient test of retentive power, men seldom care to distinguish such a revival from the first impression or conception. The second element of memory has its absence illustrated by the man who honestly repeats his friend's epigram or joke as his own, wondering the while at his own readiness of wit; or again, by the old person whose memories are mistaken by him for present circumstances. Though, however, we distinguish remembered from fresh knowledge, we should bear in mind that the adult never discovers anything altogether new: his fresh acquisitions always combine together with a great many old stores. We should at once feel the puzzle of locating an entirely new fact; and in general we may safely affirm of every adult man, that every act of knowledge which he elicits must be largely made up of memories.

2. The veracity of memory, as a general faculty, is made intuitively evident during the course of its use. Even Mill was driven to allow, that we must put an intuitive trust in our power of reminiscences though he forbore to make the handsome acknowledgment that in so doing we are not blindly instinctive. Again, Dr. Ward,{1} in his passage of arms with Mr. Huxley, was undoubtedly triumphant over the Professor when the latter undertook to show, that the validity of memory can be proved empirically by successive trials, overlooking the fact that for the knowledge of the success of these repeated experiences he was relying all the time on memory. Yet we all must admit, it is only in experience that memory shows its powers, and brings them home to consciousness; there is no a priori revelation of its trustworthiness. Allowing a certain intuitive perception of the validity of the faculty given in its first exercise, a man can then go on to test the extent of its ability; and he can confirm his confidence by sundry experiments not difficult to devise. In like manner, it is empirically that some men learn that their memory is very deficient, or has lacunae in it. At times a fact which we directly remember may be further verified by calculating back from present data, and proving that the fact must have been as remembered. These admissions may safely be made about the possibility of putting memory to the proof: all the same, the ultimate guarantee for the validity of the faculty is the immediate evidence brought forth in the exercise of remembering; and this is implied in all our proofs.

3. While, however, memory is undoubtedly a valid faculty, its limited character is equally beyond a doubt. It may fail in either of its branches, either that of recalling or that of recognizing. For practical purposes much that we have once learnt is lost as explicit knowledge; and many facts are so vaguely recollected, that we do not know whether to call them reminiscences or imaginations. The important point in connexion with the weakness of memory, is not to be deceived into taking it as an argument for the radical incapacity of the instrument, but to take it rather as a warning to improve an imperfect faculty by cultivation, and not to spoil it by abuse. Much may be done by orderliness, by strict truthfulness, by careful discrimination of facts from fancies, or prejudices, or desires, and by distinguishing when it is that we clearly remember, and when it is that we are perplexed. Any ordinary man would feel that his life was safe if it were simply staked on his correctness in enumerating one hundred facts of memory at choice: while he would feel great alarm if the one hundred facts were assigned by another, and belonged just to the region where memory began to grow shadowy. A third hundred of events might be assigned which would simply make him despair. Therefore, a real power with limitations -- such is the description of human memory.

4. What inclines some people to speak ill of memory as a faculty, is the very great and striking variety of its abnormal conditions. Diseased or declining state of mind often shows its beginnings by the manifestation of injury done to the power of remembrance. A man's consciousness may be split up into two or more almost completely isolated series, which cannot be brought into union with each other. A person lays in a stock of knowledge duringa number of years, then he has a sickness, which leaves him under the necessity to begin the learning process over again; next, he may suddenly relapse into his first mental condition, and after that, alternate between the two states. Again, a patient may forget all the words beginning with certain letters, or the whole of one language; or he may recognize the spoken, but no longer the written word, though he sees it. Thus memory may fail in departments. Others again more and more lose the discrimination between things remembered and things only fancied. All which proves, indeed, how frail and liable to frustration is memory, depending as it does on the preservation of very complex organic conditions: but as long as a man keeps his mental sanity, he can take account of his pathological state, and make allowances for recognized flaws in memory. Some have bravely doiae this with success under painful circumstances. Cases of aphasia furnish occasionally good illustrations. But unfortunately with disease of the memory there often goes a general disease of the reason; and then the victim is no longer fit to serve as a standard man, from whom to take the measure of the human memory. He cannot become even to himself a disproof of that faculty; for such disproof must always fall into the old vicious circle of disbelieving a faculty in reliance upon the faculty -- a process not so feasible as setting a thief to catch a thief.

5. The subject of memory receives further light from a comparison with the faculty of anticipation, to which it is sometimes too closely likened. Apart from extraordinary processes of foresight, which do not concern us, there is no faculty of immediate anticipation corresponding to what may be called immediate memory. Such a faculty would be quite unaccountable, whereas of memory an account can be given. Impressions abide till positively effaced even in material things: and we are ready to expect that impressions should abide also in the faculties of knowledge. Moreover, the impressions of knowledge were received in a certain order, and of this fact also a trace may fairly be expected to remain. In reliance upon it, we sometimes mentally trace back a fact, link after link, in a chain of associations. What seems immediate memory may be something like the instantaneous retracing of these steps, or at least of some of them. But for anticipation we have no such mental residua to fall back upon; for the experiences are yet to come. Hence at the very most we can reason out a future event from present data, just as we might reason out a past event, which we had not perceived as it past, and therefore could not recall by memory.

6. An incidental use of the fact of memory is, that its inevitable admission is fatal to pure empiricism, and to the pretence of rigorous idealism never to transcend the fact of present consciousness. For first, as we have seen, memory must, at starting, demand an intuitive trust in itself, and can never be guaranteed simply by an inference from accumulated experiences. Secondly, to allow that we know any fact as really an event of past time, is to give up the idealist dogma that no idea can travel beyond its own bounds to an object not itself. Thus our previous conclusions receive incidental confirmation, and the theory of adversaries has to submit to one more iaxhibition of inconsitency. Faculty is proved to be not simply the product of function; only a previously existing faculty can develops itself by functioning. Memory is not the creation of experience, but it manifests itself, grows, and is perfected by experience. And memory, whether primitive or highly developed, always transcends the present, and refutes the first principle of thorough idealism.


(1) Reid{a} has a passage calculated to give rise to some controversy: "I think it appears that memory is an original faculty, given us by the Author of our being, of which we can give no account, but that so we are made. The knowledge which I have of things past, by my memory, seems to me as unaccountable as an immediate knowledge would be of things to come; and I ran give no reason why I should have one and not the other, but that such is the will of my Maker." That memory is more intelligible than foreknowledge has been already argued in the principal text: and against calling knowledge of either past or future, immediate, Hamilton, after the requirements of his theory, enters a protest in a note. But, leaving these points, we may turn to another, and ask in what sense is memory a peculiar faculty? Here it looks as though a caution were needed against the double extreme of making memory too much, and of making it too little peculiar. The intellectual metnorv is one faculty with the intellect, and yet it is a special exercise of that faculty,{b} the peculiarity of which should not be overlooked. Against such oversight Sir H. Holland makes the remark:{c} "We do not gain greatly from these metaphysical definitions, which resolve memory altogether into other phenomena of mind. Among modern writers on the subject, Dr. Brown has gone furthest, perhaps, to merge this faculty in other functions and names." The pith of Brown's doctrines seems to be conveyed in the following sentence:{d} "To be capable of remembering, in short, we must have a capacity of the feelings which we term relations, and a capacity of the feelings which we term conceptions, that may be the subjects of the relations: but with these two powers no other is requisite -- no power of memory distinct from the conception and relation which that complex term denotes." The relation he explains to be one of priority and of subsequence between concepts. Hamilton agrees with Brown so far as to maintain that memory is quite an explicable function of the intelligence; and the precise point needing explanation he makes to be the persistence and the recognition of past intellectual acts: "I think we can adduce an explanation founded on the general analogies of our mental nature."{e} For the retentive part he borrows the account of H. Schmid: "The mind affords in itself the very vainly seek in any collateral influences. of retention are indeed so natural on the ground of self-energy of the mind that we need not stop to suppose any special faculty for memory; the conservation of the action of the mind being involved in the very conception of its power of self-activity. It is a universal law of nature, that any effect endures as long as it is not modified or opposed by any other effect. But mental activity is more than this; it is an energy of the selfacting power of a subject one and indivisible; consequently a part of the ego must be detached or annihilated, if a cognition, once existent, be again extinguished. At most it can be reduced to the latent condition." After so accounting for Retention, Hamilton accounts for Reproduction or Resuscitation by the laws of Association, which he thinks make abundantly clear what was so obscure to the scholastics, that Oviedo called it "the greatest mystery of the whole of philosophy."{f} In materialistic phraseology, Dr. Maudsley{g} describes memory as extending analogously throughout organic life: "There is memory in every nerve-cell, and indeed in every organic element of the body. The permanent effects of a particular virus on the constitution, as that of small-pox, prove that the organic element remembers, for the rest of life, certain modifications which it has suffered; the manner in which the scar on a child's finger grows as the body grows, evinces that the organic element of the part does not forget the impression that has been made upon it. The residua by which our faculties are built up are the organic conditions of memory." What Dr. Maudsley does not labour to explain is, the passage from organic conditions to intellectual memory.

(2) A continuation of the last quotation will lead (is on to Mr. Spencer's theory of memory: "When an organic registration has been completely effected, and His function of it has become automatic, we do not usually speak of the process as one of memory, because it is entirely unconscious." The last phrase is disputable: and in all cases we must protest against memory being set down as a mere transitional stage on the way to bodily automatism. It is constantly the tendency of Mr. Spencer's doctrine to regard the automatic adaptation of organism to material environment as the highest goal; and all stages in consciousness as so many accidents by the way, to be got rid of by higher development. Such is the tendency of his doctrine on Memory:{h} "So long as the psychical changes are completely automatic, memory, as we understand it, cannot exist. There cannot exist those irregular psychical changes seen in the association of ideas. But when, as a consequence of advancing complexity and decreasing frequency in the groups of external relations responded to, there arise groups of internal relations which are imperfectly organized and fall short of automatic regularity, then what we call memory becomes nascent. Memory comes into existence when the involved connexions among psychical states render their successions imperfectly automatic. As fast as these connexions, which we form in memory, grow by constant repetition to be automatic, they cease to be part of memory. We do not speak of ourselves as recollecting relations which have become organically registered. We recollect those relations only of which the registration is incomplete. No one remembers that the object at which he looks has an opposite side; or that a certain modification of the visual impression implies a certain distance; or that the thing he sees moving about is a live animal. To ask a man whether he remembers that the sun shines, that fire burns, that iron is hard, would be a misuse of language." Nevertheless these several items would come under the head of memory, as we have defined that term; nor should we admit, that "the practised pianist can play while his memory is [wholly] occupied with quite other ideas than the memory of the signs before him" -- if indeed he is playing from the signs as his guides. In conclusion Mr. Spencer thus describes the transitional character of memory: "Memory pertains to that class of psychical states which are in the process of being organized. It continues as long as the organizing of them continues, and disappears when the organization is complete."

(3) M. Ribot, whose doctrine, in his volume on The Diseases of Memory, is that "memory is per se a biological fact, by accident, a psychological fact," discusses the position of the latent results stored up in memory, and waiting to be called into actual use. He thinks our best course is to describe these residua as "functional dispositions," not as in any way conscious acquisitions; for "a state of consciousness which is not conscious, a representation which is not represented, is a pure flatus vocis." Hence he asserts "a minimum of conscious memory" in those who "are able to rise, dress, take meals regularly, occupy themselves in manual labour, play at cards and other games frequently with remarkable skill, while preserving neither judgment, will, nor affections." He might in these cases allow some degree of judgment and will, over and above pure unconscious automatism.

{1} See the Preface to his Philosophy of Theism.

{a} Intellectual Powers, Essay iii. c. ii.

{b} St. Thomas, Summa, Part I. q. lxxix. a. vii.

{c} Chapters on Mental Physiology, c. vii. p. 149.

{d} Human Mind, Lecture xii.

{e} Metaphysics, Lectures xxx., xxxi.

{f} "Maximum totius philosophiae sacramentum."

{g} The Physiology and Pathology of Mind, c. ix. p. 209.

{h} Psychology, Part iv. c. vi. § 200, p. 445.

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