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Recitations of oral poetry, oral history, legends, epics and religious incantations always made heavy demands on memory. In ancient Greece, poets and bards would appeal for divine inspiration to help them with their performance. But they did not leave it at that: they also had other means of helping their memory along. The poet Hesiod, as we saw in the last chapter, may have appealed to the goddess of remembrance, but there is no mention of her by Homer, who is not likely to have lived all that long before Hesiod (where ‘Homer’ stands for the person or persons who collected the texts we know as the Homeric epics). Perhaps ‘he’ found the other memory aids at his disposal quite adequate without additional divine help. These aids consisted first of the rhythmic strumming of a musical instrument together with regular variations in intonation, and second of a plethora of mnemonic devices built into the text, such as metre, alliteration, rhyming, repetitive phrasing, formulaic word patterns and so on. However, there is no indication that these aids were ever thought of collectively and explicitly as a mnemonic art. They were ad hoc practical devices that were automatically acquired as part of the training of a bard.
Whereas we have to infer the operation of these mnemonic devices from the practice of oral recitation, explicit didactic texts on mnemonics become available after the advent of literacy.
Throughout its history, memory discourse has provided a rich field for the play of metaphors. This continued to be the case even after memory became a topic for scientific psychology. In fact, this area of psychology is unusual in the frankness with which the role of metaphor has been widely recognized. Little more than a decade ago a discussion of metaphors in memory research in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences drew in some twenty-five contributors, the great majority of them experimental psychologists. Yet well over two thousand years ago metaphor already played a major role in the first sustained discussion of memory in Europe, that of Plato. Nor is it difficult to find numerous examples of memory metaphors during the intervening centuries. What accounts for this amazing persistence? Any answer to that question requires a closer look at the nature of memory metaphors.
First of all, it is necessary to remind ourselves that, when one speaks of ‘metaphors’ in this context, one is not referring to isolated figures of speech used as a literary device. It is rather a question of interconnected ‘metaphoric networks’, whose members are linked by ties of analogy and resemblance. There is often a convergence of meaning on a so-called ‘root metaphor’ that is felt to define something essential about the field to which it is applied. Such formations encourage the production of new metaphorical variants and extensions that exploit the implications of the core metaphor.
Several of the late nineteenth-century developments described in the last chapter attest to a growing belief that the way to unlock the mysteries of human memory was to subject them to the procedures of medical and natural science. Although the scientific context for modern memory discourse was by no means homogeneous, and ‘science’ could certainly mean different things at different times and in different places, there was a shared commitment to systematic observation and public reporting of empirical data, to sharp distinctions between fact and theory and to naturalistic, preferably materialistic, explanation. Not all of these commitments were important for all examples of memory science, and there were significant differences in their concrete instantiation, but there was sufficient commonality to distinguish this new type of memory discourse from its predecessors. Beyond all their differences, those who personified the scientific approach to memory relied on special skills of investigation available only to accredited members of certain professions who shared the conviction that there was a natural knowledge about memory waiting to be discovered by the procedures of science.
Different versions of memory science looked for this knowledge in different places and by means of different practical procedures. One version, to be discussed in chapter 8, concentrated on the neuro-anatomical study of memory defects resulting from brain injury. Another version, already discussed in the last section of chapter 4, involved a psychopathologically orientated practice of exploring the disturbed relationship between past and present in individuals' personal lives.
Unlike some other capabilities of the human soul, memory has been assigned its own place in the body for a very long time. Aristotle believed it resided in the heart, but a medical tradition systematized by Galen located it in the brain. This tradition, which dominated European medical speculation for well over a thousand years, located the powers of the soul in the ventricles, conceptualized as chambers of the brain filled with fluid. Three such ventricles were commonly distinguished, located in the front, middle and back of the brain respectively. Memory was regularly allocated to the posterior ventricle. Whereas medieval Christian authorities tended to favour a location in a cavity of the brain, the Arabic–Aristotelian tradition allowed that memory's place might be in the brain tissue.
Physicians had cause to reflect on the powers of memory, not only because of the role it played in their own training and practice, but also because they were occasionally faced with cases of memory failure that seemed to be associated with disease or physical injury. In his Natural History Pliny the Elder, for example, mentions the case of a man struck by a stone who forgot how to read and write but nothing else, and another who fell from a high roof and forgot his mother, relatives and friends. If one already thinks of memories as inscriptions it is easy to accept that these inscriptions are locatable in some specific part or parts of the body.
Memory is one of the few psychological concepts with a truly ancient lineage. Presenting a history of the interrelated changes in memory tasks, memory technology and ideas about memory from antiquity to the late twentieth century, this book confronts psychology's 'short present' with its 'long past'. Kurt Danziger, one of the most influential historians of psychology of recent times, traces long-term continuities from ancient mnemonics and tools of inscription to modern memory experiments and computer storage. He explores historical discontinuities, showing how different kinds of memory became prominent at different times, and examines these changes in the context of specific themes including the question of truth in memory, distinctions between kinds of memory, the project of memory experimentation and the physical localization and conceptual location of memory. Daniziger's unique approach provides a historical perspective for understanding varieties of reproduction, narratives of the self and short-term memory.
So far from being inherently linked, questions of testimony and questions of memory arose in different institutional and discursive contexts. In the context of judicial institutions and jurisprudence the value of testimony was seen to depend on the trustworthiness of witnesses as persons who were defined by their social relations. The trustworthiness of persons involved in legal proceedings depended on factors that were public and social, such as self-interest, age, gender, relationship to other persons involved in the proceedings and, not least, social standing. Memory remained a largely taken-for-granted aspect of legally implicated persons. The reliability of testimony was tested in recognized court procedures, but until relatively modern times this remained an overt, public matter that did not involve much questioning of what was going on inside people's minds. There might be passing remarks about the unreliability or the special trustworthiness of this or that individual's memory, but there was no systematic attempt to address the issue in this context.
The ancient discourse on memory arose mainly in the context of dialectical argument (see chapter 2) and in the context of rhetoric (see chapter 3). Only in the former case was it linked to questions of truth; and then not necessarily truth in the sense of factual accuracy. Rhetoric was a matter of persuasion, not of truth. In striking contrast to this situation, an important thread in the twentieth-century history of memory involves issues of testimony.
All human societies remember their ancestors but they do so in very different ways. Where there is no writing, memory of one's forebears is evoked by shared reminiscences, mementos or ceremonies, but never by rereading their letters or obituaries. In some places, ancestors are recalled by donning masks, by imitating their gestures and by going into a trance. We remember our dear departed when we pay a visit to the cemetery. But cemetery visits, as we know them, are essentially a nineteenth-century innovation. Memorial practices change through the ages. The role played by monuments and processions, for example, has varied historically, not only in commemorating one's immediate ancestors, but also in the way the collective memory of societies is mobilized.
Historical change in social practices of recall is not limited to ancestral memory. Among non-literate people, rules and regulations cannot be recalled by consulting written documents, though consultation of elders is common. There may also be specialists in memory whose services may be required even after the introduction of writing. Ancient Greece had the institution of the mnemon, a person whose job it was to remember religious or legal matters relevant to decision-making and jurisprudence. Roman politicians and lawyers were known to own graeculi, ‘little Greeks’, who were intellectually trained slaves that were also required to memorize social and technical information so that they could prompt their masters during court sessions and political or social events.
The language of everyday life has many ways of referring to the activity of memory. Not only do we speak of remembering an appointment, we also recollect what was said at yesterday's meeting, reminisce about that vacation in the Alps, recognize the face of a friend not seen for many months, memorize the text of a favourite poem, are reminded of a scene in a film and so on. Moreover, each of these memory words can be used in several different senses, as a glance at any good dictionary will show.
What this seems to tell us about ‘memory’ is that it is essentially an abstraction, a convenient but rather loose way of referring to a large array of activities that are all felt to have something in common. What that something might be is not so easily said. Is it that they all refer to the past? Aristotle thought so. But what about remembering tomorrow's appointment? I may have forgotten making the appointment, but still remember that tomorrow there is this appointment. Philosophers have not found it easy to pinpoint the essence of memory – St Augustine frankly threw up his hands and proclaimed it a mystery.
Attempts at solving the mystery have generally followed one of two paths. One path is that of scepticism: if we cannot pin down the essence of memory, no matter how hard we look, this probably means that there is no such essence, that ‘memory’ and its associated words are just that, words.
Memory is not something we can see, touch or smell. What we observe and experience directly are human activities, our own and those of others. As we acquired our first language we learned to apply the appropriate labels to various kinds of experiences and events. We learned what counted as being surprised, being disappointed, lying, showing-off and, of course, remembering. In other words, we learned the categories currently used to make sense of human experience and human interaction in our cultural milieu. Common psychological categories all exist in everyday usage before they become a target for any philosopher's thought or any scientist's experiments.
The world would surely be pretty close to William James's ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ without the sense-making categories that enable us to identify any phenomenon as belonging to a certain kind. But where do these categories come from? For the individual, there is no mystery, because he or she is born into an environment in which they already exist. How they came to be there is a more difficult question. There are two extreme possibilities: One is that these categories are accurate representations of the way the various characteristics of human nature divide up. What argues against this view is, first, that there are huge differences between human cultures in the categories they use to represent human characteristics, and second, that these representations are subject to profound historical changes.
If one compares a sixteenth-century and a twentieth-century work on memory one soon realizes that they are not really concerned with the same topic. An eighteenth-century text would seem less strange to a twentieth-century reader, yet the differences would still be immense. What accounts for these impressions? Let us leave aside the differences that would exist between any texts separated by centuries and focus on differences peculiar to the way the topic of memory is handled. Certainly, the older writings contain unfamiliar terms and concepts relating to memory, but even when each of these has been explained there remains a pervasive strangeness that signals another age. This strangeness, I would suggest, has much to do with the profound changes that occurred in the meaning of knowledge about memory.
One thread can be detected in an otherwise very diverse literature between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern period. It is formed by an implicit conviction that there is a special kind of knowledge to be obtained about memory if one adopts the right approach. Conceptions of what constitutes the right approach change completely during this period, but the idea that there certainly is such an approach remains. With the exception of the Platonists, to whom I will return presently, earlier memory discourse had had a somewhat pragmatic flavour. It addressed memory largely in terms of its usefulness in various contexts, rhetorical, dialectical or religious.
For some time I have been trying to make sense of the history of psychological discourse. When I first began to occupy myself seriously with this task, I assumed, along with just about everyone else, that a historical account of psychological discourse would have to focus primarily on the concepts and theories that seemed to form the essential content of this discourse. Of course, I knew that, at least since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, psychologists had been quite busy doing other things than contributing to theoretical discourse. They had fervently embraced laboratory activity and become increasingly involved in an array of technologies for the production of psychological knowledge. But as experimental and other techniques supposedly related to theory as means to ends, they presumably played only a subsidiary role in the history of psychological discourse. Certainly, the traditional histories of the discipline, as much as they addressed themselves to theoretical problems, tended to treat the realm of methodology as relatively unproblematic, as being governed by self-evident principles of instrumental rationality and linear technical progress.
It soon became clear to me, however, that it was only possible to cling to this received view if one steadfastly closed one's eyes to a barrage of historical evidence. For example, the way in which the topics of psychological discourse were consistently redefined so as to fit the Procrustean bed of a very limited range of allowable procedures suggested that it was often the procedures that dictated theoretical formulations rather than the other way around.