MUSING | The Philosophy of Memory: Uncertainties, Inquiries, and Broad Notions


“As those mysterious beings in ancient tales rise from the ocean’s bed invested with seaweed, so [your innermost thought] rises from the sea of remembrance, interwoven with memories.” – Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Volume I

“Memory is not just something that sustains the [average] of our human experience. It also makes a critical difference to this experience. The situation is such that remembering transforms one kind of experience into another: in being remembered, an experience becomes a different kind of experience. It becomes ‘a memory,’ and, inevitably, the way the past is relived in memory assures us that it will be transfigured in subtle and significant ways.”[1]

In the case of memory, we are always already in the thick of things. For this reason, there can properly be no preface to remembering; no pre-facing the topic in a statement that would precede it and capture its essence or structure in advance. Memory itself is already in the advance position. Not only because remembering is at all times presupposed, but also because it is always at work: it is continually going on, often on several levels and in several ways at once. Although there are many moments of misremembering and of not successfully recollecting, there are few moments in which we are not steeped in memory; and this immersion includes each step we take, each thought we think, each word we utter. Indeed, every fiber of our bodies, every cell of our brains, holds memories – as does everything physical outside our bodies and brains, even those inanimate objects that bear the marks of their past histories upon them in mute profusion. What is memory-laden exceeds the scope of the human: memory takes us into the environing world as well as into our individual lives.[2]

It is precisely through our act of remembering, through memory, albeit incompletely, we recapture the past. By definition, memory is: a person's power to remember things, or the power of the mind to remember things (Oxford English Dictionary). The origin of the word is itself the concept of mindfulness, but it would seem that there must be more to be able to go past the idea of just “memory in mind.”

Aristotle’s definition of memory illustrates Merleau-Ponty’s point when he stated that through our bodies [memories] we live in the state of all three dimensions of time. “But memory is of the past...There is no memory of the present at the present, as has been said. But perception is of the present at the present, prediction of the future, and memory of the past. And this is why memory involves time.”[3] In De Memoria et Reminiscentia, Aristotle begins by defining what sorts of memory he will discuss, including: facts (452b30-453a1), a person (450b30-451a1), what one saw or experienced (451a30), events (452b17-22) or the past (449b15; b28).[4] According to him, when one remembers, the present content of one’s mind is a mental image. A sense-image in the soul, or eikon as he describes it, is an image that is a likeness, but not merely a copy. This affection, or mental image is produced by means of perception in the soul and appears as a sort of picture.[5] This eikon shows itself and repeats itself[6], but that does not mean it is always identical. Comparative to the “year-thick time slices” A.N. Prior refers to, in that they are distinct slices but at no time whatsoever are they identical.[7] Aristotle does not simply mean a copy by this theory; however, it should more be a reproduction of one’s view of the object, though not symbolic. He speaks in 451a4 as if the memory-image needs to be “in accordance, not merely with a past object of perception, but with the past perceiving of it.” This quasi-imprint is not of the sense-object, but of one’s sense-image.[8]

Upon contemplation of this image, we recognize that it is something distinct from the actual being or item and thus recognize that it is a memory or memory-image. It is an image we conjure on our own. Can memories allow for the affection and the image to be one in the same? Can memory only exist through the vehicle of the eikon? Perhaps, consider the example of a figure drawn on a panel.[9] The figure is both a figure as well as a copy in addition to being one in the same and can be contemplated as such. However, in the same way, it can also be considered something in its own right and to be of another thing, an image. When one contemplates the image as being of another thing and as a copy, it becomes a reminder; and it becomes a memory. If this image is not a likeness, we could only contemplate it solely as an image that is something present, not a memory of something absent. Is this image always internal or can this image ever be symbolic or physical in its nature? I wager it can be all three or it can be none.

Thanks to the diligent labors of Aristotle, Edward S. Casey finds a lot of fodder in discussing the secularization of memory, “First, Aristotle effectively undermines the transcendent aspects of memory by simply ignoring them. He distinguishes two forms of remembering ‘memory’ and ‘recollection,’ and in so doing he restricts memorial phenomena to a finite, sub lunar realm. In this realm remembering yields no eternal verities about gods or forms, but only empirical truths about happenings within the compass of an individual’s life. Second, Aristotle’s account insists on the intimate link between memory and the personal past: “Memory is of the past.” Where it is clear that he means a past that I have experienced or witnessed in propria persona. Thirdly, this time-bound; first person past comes contained in an image. Since images belong exclusively to the perceptual part of the soul, any attempt to link remembering and eidetic knowing in the manner of Plato is placed in question. At the same time, any residual claims concerning memory’s liberating influence are undercut, for images are conceived exclusively as copies of past experiences, internal replicas resulting from a mechanism of isomorphic imprinting in the soul. In short, memory is “the having of an image regarded as a copy of that which it is an image.[10] This seems a bit narrow-minded to consider memory only in these finite terms. Instead, memory should no longer be thought of as merely passive, but instead active; where memory involves the creative transformation of experience rather than simply its internalized reduplication in images construed as copies.”[11]

It should also be noted that all reminders are not icons or likenesses, for example, the act of tying a string around a finger. There is no perceived connection between the string, the act of tying the string or what is to be remembered; however, even without any correlation-we can remember whatever the string may signify. This would lead us to question Aristotle’s copy theory and continue to search for a more complete model, including the role of the remindee.[12] Casey provides such a model.

Memory is itself preoccupied with the past. “Persistence in memory is persistence into the present, but that which persists also derives from the past and is itself a persistence off the past. “Pastness” names that quality of what is remembered which places its origin and provenance in a period preceding the present. Without this origin and provenance, it could not be remembered in the first place: we cannot remember the present qua living present or the future qua yet-to-come future.”[13] The past alone truly persists, and only what persists is genuinely rememberable.[14]

Equally “as James says: memory requires more than mere dating of a fact in the past. It must be dated in my past. In other words, I must think that I directly experienced its occurrence.”[15] Merleau-Ponty (when discussing the projection of memories), said there must be something about the present perceptual data that prompts the perceiver to put into play a certain association, or call up a certain memory. The present perceptual data therefore cannot themselves be meaningless; for such neutral ‘building blocks’ could never have any power to evoke others. There must be something about the present data that guides the evocation of memories.[16] So, we can begin to narrow our focus completely and truly think of time (and subsequently memory) only in relation to I and me, and my body and my soul and my mind in the present, affected by my past. Equally, Casey takes us several steps further than just the fundamental definition of memory. He employs the terms remembering, recollection, reminding and reminiscing, and it is worth our efforts to explore how these four modes of remembrance are significant.

Remembering is intentional and is regarded as a mental act. “It is a diphasic act, that while we are engaged in the activity of remembering that what we remember presents itself; and conversely when something emerges in memorial form we are at that moment and to that exact extent involved in an act of remembering.”[17] He elaborates further describing primary remembering as when we remain aware of what has just appeared or happened in our experience; and secondary remembering as memory that has lapsed from consciousness after its initial occurrence. This secondary remembering can be termed as recollection.

Recollection is defined as the act of rescuing former experiences from oblivion, raising no longer conscious experiences that have been made vulnerable to transformations from being held in long-term memory storage. He states, recollection is one of the most obvious indicators of time. I am acutely aware that I am remembering something, acutely aware that I am sitting in my chair thinking about a past event. Here, I am aware of two stages of time within one act. It is the main means by which the present and the non-immediate past rejoin each other in human experience.

This slice of the argument raises an interesting departure. Casey says, “Remembering is itself essential to what is happening, part of every action, here as well as elsewhere: ‘remembering is always now.”[18] It is interesting to consider not only the role that our memories play in our past, but also our present; and how we must relegate ourselves to living in a reality that lies somewhere in between, trying to forecast our future. Hollis Frampton notes this idea in his discussion of photography, stating “Toward that cessation of consciousness that is to be our death, as toward a vanishing point in convergent rectilinear space, an instrument within the mind, which we might call conjecture, maintains incessant attention. Along the same axis, the instrument of memory addresses itself to a complementary vanishing point: the incipience of consciousness that first stirred, as some reason, at the instant of our conception. The confused plane of the ‘Absolute Present’, where we live, or have just seemed to live, brings to irreconcilable focus these two divergent images of our experience of time...the impossibility of resolving, simultaneously, two incompatible systems of perspective upon a single plane, may tolerate or favor our perennial uneasiness at living in the moment, as if we were forever being dispossessed from the few certitudes of our knowledge.”[19]

Can memories put us into a state of confusion, not knowing which reality to place ourselves in? Are we unable to distinguish between them, and is it a choice we can even consciously make? This idea of an indeterminate state becomes more noteworthy if we begin to explore them in the context of traumatic memories, life-changing events, near death experiences, postive life-milestones, and so forth. If our ‘Absolute Present’ is never actually present, but always fleeting into our past the second we recognize its existence – then what if anything is not in the past and therefore, not a memory?

Reminding is concerned specifically with the limits of memory and how they send us backward or forward in time (or both at once). Reminders are expressly designed to draw us back from the edge of oblivion by directing us to that which we might otherwise forget. We grasp to them for the sake of what it evokes. “Precisely because we are at all times threatened by engulfment in forgetting, we have arranged about us an encompassing armamentarium of reminders. It is as if reminders constituted a gigantic exoskeleton of memory, serving to protect it from oblivion by their determinacy, their unique combination of noticeability and reliability.”[20] A reminder can serve as a point of connection between the past and the future; remembering to do something sanctioned by a past action. “Despite its dual origins, reminding brings together and unifies the disjecta membra of human experience: past, present and future, duty and desire, the forgotten and the remembered.”[21] Reminding can take us in and out of ourselves. It is more than our bodies and our minds, and must be if we are to fully understand either. As well, “remindful thinking of the past is itself a basic way in which we remember the past.”[22] By this model not only pure, non-sensuous cogitations or thoughts, but memories themselves, can act as reminders.[23]

Reminiscing casts us back into the past by virtue of trying to relive it, and is most often done in the company of others and language is the medium of which it is conducted. Casey describes reminiscing, as “bittersweet”, an act that encompasses sadness, fear and foreboding. When done wistfully, we begin to cherish and honor a past we might otherwise regret or forget completely. We are trying to go back inside a given experience – to ingratiate ourselves to it to further comprehend it. Is it possible to reminisce by one’s self? Casey says yes, it is called “auto-reminiscing.” And it states that reminiscing can be done in the absence of others,[24] for example, in diaries, artwork, and memoirs; however, it would seem as though these acts in particular are completed alone, but they are never truly meant to remain completely private. So, then would we consider this authentic “auto-reminiscing” when there is concern for an audience, even if it’s subconscious? Does authenticity come into play at all in regards to remembering? And if so, as with all forms of memory, who determines what it is sincere and what is not?

Undoubtedly, memory is a complex topic in philosophy, in art, and frankly, in life. It is a crucial component of our lives: experientially, emotionally, psychologically, creatively. How we gather, store, and activate those memories is as varied as the tokens themselves; however, what is the most interesting aspect to me is how they are translated. Whether it be verbally, visually, lyrically, or physically – it is in this last act that memories gain their permanence. It is here that our lives change, sometimes without our knowledge, in singular and plural ways simultaneously. It is here that our lives become an experience. Artist Louise Bourgeois precisely captured this sentiment when speaking of her own work: “I love to remember. I exist if I remember.”[25]

Images (from top to bottom): Sometimes the goodness flickers on the horizon, 2010, men's shirts, 68 x 112.5 inches; Illan sinisiipi / Evening Butterfly, 2014, men’s jacket, hook, 47.5 x 9.5 inches; Syntynyt hopealusikka suussa / Special personality, 2011, pressed jacket, frames; Olotiloja / Whereabouts, 2014, men's jackets, 93.5 x 61.5 x 6 inches; Are We Still Going On?, two views, 2012

*Author’s note: Artist Kaarina Kaikkonen is a Finnish artist who I believe is conceptually addressing ideas about memory in very interesting and three-dimensional ways and this is why I posted several images of her work with this musing. My thoughts should in no way be interpreted as critique of or description for her work. If you would like to know more about Kaarina Kaikkonen, visit: http://kaarinakaikkonen.com or http://www.galerieforsblom.com/artists/kaarina-kaikkonen

Footnotes: [1] Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) preface, xii. [2] Edward S. Casey, preface, ix. [3] Richard Sorabji, Aristotle on Memory. (Providence: Brown University Press, 1972) De Memoria et Reminiscentia, 449a9 & 449B24. [4] Richard Sorabji , De Memoria et Reminiscentia. [5] Richard Sorabji , De Memoria et Reminiscentia, 450a25 & 450b20. [6] It is interesting to question here whether or not the image loses some of its’ directness each time we conjure it up or does it always remain the same? If it indeed changes, then is it the same eikon or does it even remain to be an eikon at all? [7] A. N. Prior, “Thank Goodness that’s Over.” Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy XXXIV (1959) 16. [8] Richard Sorabji, 8. [9] Richard Sorabji, De Memoria et Reminiscentia, 450b20. [10] Edward S. Casey, 14. [11] Edward S. Casey, 15. [12] Edward S. Casey, 95-96. [13] Edward S. Casey, 40. [14] Edward S. Casey, 41. [15] Edward S. Casey, 42 (referencing James, Principles of Psychology, 1:650.). [16] Monika Langer, A Guide and commentary on The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Tallahassee: The Florida State University Press, 1989).7, see M. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception 13-25 where he discusses ‘association’ and the ‘projection of memories.’ [17] Edward S. Casey, 48. [18] Edward S. Casey, preface, xiii. [19] Hollis Frampton, “Incisions in History, Segments of Eternity.” ArtForum. October 1974: 40. [20] Edward S. Casey, 90. [21] Edward S. Casey, 103. (referencing Plato: this time in returning from the external manifestness of perceived reminders to the tacit realm of recollection within the soul. For in being reminded we are drawn into ourselves by what is outside ourselves. Casey goes on to say, Plato also makes it clear that in the recollection made possible by reminding, we are drawn out of ourselves once more-though only because we have gone so fully into ourselves in the first place.) [22] Edward S. Casey, 94 & 329 (referencing Norman Malcolm, Memory and Mind[Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977], 105). Thus it is misleading to say that “a reminder is that which evokes memory”, but rather; remindings, especially in the form of thinking about the past, does not simply evoke memories-it is itself a form of memory. [23] Edward S. Casey, 100-101. [24] Edward S. Casey, 119. [25] Bourgeois, Louise, Louise Bourgeois (Milan: Fondazione Prada, 1997) 268, citing Fear of the Unknown, in op. cit., 197, note 3 supra (p. 277).

Bibliography: “Aristotle (3840322 BCE): General Introduction.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. 10 April 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/aristotl.htm#H6>.; Apostle, Hippocrates G. (transl.) Aristotle’s Physics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1969.; Bourgeois, Louise. Louise Bourgeois. ed. Jerry Gorovoy and Pandora Tabatabai Asbaghi. Milan: Fondazione Prada, 1997. Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.; Frampton, Hollis. “Incisions in History, Segments of Eternity.” ArtForum October 1974: 39-50.; Golomb, Jacob. In Search of Authenticity, From Kierkegaard to Camus, Problems of Modern European Thought. London, England: Rutledge, 1995.; Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton, 1934.; Langer, Monika. A guide and commentary on The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Tallahassee, FL: The Florida State University Press, 1989.; Madison, Gary Brent. The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Series in Continental Though: V. 3. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981.; McConkey, Lynn. Truth in Memory. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1998.; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, 1962.; Prior, A.N. “Thank Goodness that’s Over.” Philosophy; The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy No. XXXIV (1959): 12-17.; Reynolds, Jack. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. University of Tasmania. 11 February 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/m/merleau.htm>.; Sorabji, Richard. Aristotle on Memory. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1972.

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