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23.03.17 Decaix/Thomsen Thörnqvist (eds.), Memory and Recollection in the Aristotelian Tradition

23.03.17 Decaix/Thomsen Thörnqvist (eds.), Memory and Recollection in the Aristotelian Tradition

Memory and Recollection in the Aristotelian Tradition is a ten-chapter edited volume on the reception of Aristotle’s De memoria et reminiscentia in the Middle Ages across Latin, Arabic, and Byzantine traditions. Aristotle’s short, two-chapter De memoria text is mysterious in many senses, including its tangled manuscript tradition, debated position within the Aristotelian corpus, and, perhaps most of all, in its tantalizingly enigmatic accounts of the faculties of memory (mnēmē) and recollection (anamnēsis) that are its subject. Aristotle tells us that these faculties are “common to body and soul” and entail a mediation of images and thinking via imagination (phantasia) with respect to time. Hence, the text is significant for our understanding of many central Aristotelian notions, including hylomorphism, the composition of the soul, the nature of time, and the relationship between perception and cognition. Because the accounts of these entities and relations are textually elusive, generations of readers have been tasked with extensive interpretive work.

Edited by Véronique Decaix and Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist and with chapters by an international group of scholars, this new volume represents significant progress toward understanding the difficult Aristotelian text in two senses: it deepens our ability to reconstruct the history of the text’s reception, and furthermore contributes to that very history by offering persuasive and insightful new interpretive argumentation. Thus, the book will be of value to philosophers and historians, and particularly those interested in Aristotle and his reception, as well as those engaging with the histories of the philosophies of mind, science, and medicine. Perhaps most of all, the book is a substantial contribution to the small body of contemporary work on Aristotle’s De memoria.

Nearly all chapters in the book entail dialogue with the semi-recent volume by David Bloch, Aristotle on Memory and Recollection: Text, Translation, Interpretation, and Reception in Western Scholarship (Philosophia Antiqua: A Series of Studies on Ancient Philosophy; Leiden: Brill, 2007). Bloch’s study broke new ground in accounting for Aristotle’s text and its influence in the Latin and Arabic medieval worlds. While the new book edited by Decaix and Thomsen Thörnqvist does not presuppose knowledge of Bloch’s text, it is particularly welcome as an engagement--and occasionally a critical one--with Bloch. It is furthermore a development of Bloch’s research, drawing persuasively on commentaries like those of Adam of Bockenfield and John Buridan that Bloch generally does not cover, as well as numerous unedited or recently edited medieval texts that heretofore have not factored into contemporary research.

Decaix and Thomsen Thörnqvist’s volume roughly divides into four sections along historical lines. (These “sections” are my extrapolation of the layout of the chapters, not explicit divisions by the editors.) The first concerns the ancient context of Aristotle’s text. After Thomsen Thörnqvist’s preface, Decaix speaks to this context in the book’s introduction by providing an overview of De memoria and the main philosophical issues to which it gives rise (along with the history of its Arabic, Latin, and Byzantine receptions). In “Aristotle’s Three Questions about Memory,” Mika Perälä persuasively shows that scholars have been misguided in assuming that Aristotle in De memoria does not resolve the question concerning to which part of the soul memory belongs. Perälä’s chapter offers helpful insight into the methodology of the De memoria with respect to principles of inquiry Aristotle describes elsewhere, and thus will be of value to Aristotle’s readers first approaching the De memoria. The ancient section of the volume concludes with Alexandra Michalewski’s “Writing in the Soul: On Some Aspects of Recollection in Plotinus.” Michalewski’s chapter is distinct in the volume in at least two senses: it is the only chapter focused specifically on recollection and not memory, and it surprisingly contains only brief and parenthetical reference to Aristotle and De memoria (59), focusing instead on recollection in Plotinus. It is nevertheless one of the volume’s strongest and most exciting chapters, accounting for a multi-vocal understanding of recollection in Plotinus that at its deepest level is a kind of “living logos” of the soul that is not dependent on the contents of the material world. I strongly believe that Michalewski’s excellent chapter indicates, albeit implicitly, the need for further comparative work on this Plotinian understanding and the faculty of recollection as described in Aristotle’s text.

The book’s second section comprises three chapters on De memoria’s Arabic reception, which derives from adaptation (i.e., not faithful translation) that integrates Neoplatonic and Galenic thinking into the Aristotelian text and originated in the circle of Al-Kindi. In “Retaining, Remembering, Recollecting: Avicenna’s Account of Memory and Its Sources,” Tommaso Alpina speaks to the Aristotelian background in Avicenna’s understanding of the faculty of memory as one of the “internal senses.” An added bonus is an appendix containing Alpina’s translation of Avicenna’s Kitāb al-Nafs, IV, 1 (86-92), in which memory and recollection are discussed in the context of common sense and its various faculties. In “Mémoire, représentation et signification chez Averroès: Une proposition de lecture,” Carla Di Martino embarks on a comparative consideration of memory and representation in Aristotle’s text and Averroes, including the latter with critical respect to Avicenna. Next, in “Memory, Avicenna, and the Western Medical Tradition,” Joël Chandelier discusses Avicenna’s theory of memory in his joint capacities as philosopher and physician, focusing particularly on the ways in which the Avicenna’s medical work yields insight into the view of memory in the medieval Western medical community.

This leads to four chapters on De memoria’s Latin reception. “The First Latin Reception of the De memoria et reminiscentia: Memory and Recollection as Apprehensive Faculties or as Moving Faculties?” by Julie Brumberg-Chaumont is an important comparative study of the interpretive influences of early English commentator Adam of Bockenfield and the anonymous author of the newly discovered Sententia libri De memoria et reminiscentia. Brumberg-Chaumont’s chapter is significant to historians in its helping us to untangle the separate transmissions and philosophical influences of Adam of Bockenfield and theSententia master in the subsequent tradition. In “What Is Memory of? Albert the Great on the Proper Object of Memory,” co-editor Decaix offers a particularly exciting discussion of the problem of the object of memory with respect to time. The problem, as has been noticed by everyone from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, is as follows: if memory presences the past, then it is only the present that memory presents, and memory’s connection to the past is therefore aporetic. Decaix’s provocative thesis, developed with respect to a wide range of historical sources, is that we find in Albert the Great a view in which memory allows us to return to the “things themselves”: by distinguishing between a picture (i.e., mere image) and an image (i.e., a memory), Albert introduces a modal distinction concerning the formal, intrinsic structure of the object that allows the soul to reconvene with the past objects themselves (see especially 162-167). As Decaix’s use of Wittgenstein implies, the reconstruction of Albert’s view will be of significant interest to philosophers of memory beyond this ancient and medieval context. In “Memory Is of the Past,” Sten Ebbesen further addresses the meaning of Aristotle’s assertion that memory is “of the past” by considering Aristotle’s assertion and several aspects of its Latin interpretation, with particular attention paid to John Buridan’s commentary. Concluding the discussion of the Latin reception, co-editor Thomsen Thörnqvist in “Aristotle and His Early Latin Commentators on Memory and Motion in Sleep” speaks to some views of memory that arise in the Latin commentaries about Aristotle’s discussions of sleep.

The final section of the book comprises its tenth chapter, “The Byzantine Reception of Aristotle’s De memoria” by Dafni Argyri. Argyri’s chapter is a helpful overview of the little-discussed commentaries on and paraphrases of De memoria in the Byzantine world, which lacked access to commentaries from other interpretive traditions and thus yielded original and frequently unorthodox interpretations. Argyri begins by considering Michael of Ephesus and Sophonias, both of whom worked at the intersection of paraphrase and commentary, before considering surviving material by Theodore Metochites, George Scholarios and George Pachymeres. In accounting for this tradition and, for example, its distinct interpretation of recollection as a sub-function of memory that follows active searching for what one has forgotten, Argyri offers some inroads into a neglected historical subject. The book concludes with an index locorum and index nominum.

I find no major faults with this engaging, well edited, and well packaged book. Although its wide scope among traditions and languages may seem daunting, all chapters are accessible to non-experts (aside from some untranslated Latin in a few chapters) while also of significant value to experts. If anything, I suspect that some readers like me who are particularly interested in Aristotelian recollection might have liked to read more about this elusive notion in a volume that is perhaps lopsidedly, though certainly not exclusively, engaged with memory. Nevertheless, the book highly recommends itself as an exemplary piece of scholarship.