Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER VI.

OF MEMORY.

SECTION 1.

General Observations on Memory. Among the various powers of the understanding, there is none which has been so attentively examined by philosophers, or concerning which so many important facts and observations have been collected, as the faculty of memory. This is partly to be ascribed to its nature, which renders it easily distinguishable from all the other principles of our constitution, even by those who have not been accustomed to metaphysical investigations; and partly to its immediate subserviency, not only to the pursuits of science, but to the ordinary business of life; in consequence of which, many of its most curious laws had been observed, long before any analysis was attempted of the other powers of the mind, and have, for many ages, formed a part of the common maxims which are to be found in every treatise of education. Some important remarks on the subject may, in particular, be collected from the writings of the ancient rhetoricians.

The word Memory is not employed uniformly in the same precise sense; but it always expresses some modification of that faculty, which enables us to treasure up and preserve for future use the knowledge we acquire, a faculty which is obviously the great foundation of all intellectual improvement, and without which no advantage could be derived from the most enlarged experience. This faculty implies two things—a capacity of retaining knowledge, and a power of recalling it to our thoughts when we have occasion to apply it to use. The word memory is sometimes employed to express the capacity, and sometimes the power. When we speak of a retentive memory, we use it in the former sense ; when of a ready memory, in the latter.

The various particulars which compose our stock of knowledge are, from time to time, recalled to our thoughts in one of two ways; sometimes they recur to us spontaneously, or at least, without

any

interference on our part; in other cases they are recalled, in consequence of an effort of our will. For the former operation of the mind, we have no appropriated name in our language

distinct from memory. The latter, too, is often called by the same name, but is more properly distinguished by the word recollection.

There are, I believe, some other acceptations besides these, in which the word memory has been occasionally employed ; but as its ambiguities are not of such a nature as to mislead us in our present inquiries, I shall not dwell any longer on the illustration of distinctions, which to the greater part of readers inight appear uninteresting and minute.* One distinction only relative to this subject occurs to me as deserving particular attention.

The operations of Memory relate either to things and their relations, or to events. In the former case, thoughts which have been previously in the mind may recur to us without suggesting the idea of the past, or of any modification of time whatever; as when I repeat over a poem which I have got by heart, or when I think of the features of an absent friend. In this last instance, indeed, philosophers distinguish the act of the mind by the name of conception; but in ordinary discourse, and frequently even in philosophical writing, it is considered as an exertion of memory. In these and similar cases, it is obvious, that the operations of this faculty do not necessarily involve the idea of the past.

The case is different with respect to the memory of events. When I think of these, I not only recall to the mind the former objects of its thoughts, but I refer the event to a particular point of time ; so that, of every such act of memory, the idea of the past is a necessary concomitant.

I have been led to take notice of this distinction, in order to obviate an objection which some of the phenomena of memory seem to present, against a doctrine which I formerly stated, when treating of the powers of conception and imagination.

It is evident that when I think of an event, in which any object of sense was concerned, my recollection of the event must necessarily involve an act of conception. Thus, when I think of a dramatic representation which I have recently seen, my recollection of what I saw, necessarily involves a conception of the different actors by whom it was performed. But every act of recollection which relates to events, is accompanied with a belief of their past existence. How then are we to reconcile this conclusion with the doctrine formerly maintained concerning conception, according to which every exertion of that power is accompanied with a belief, that its object exists before us at the present moment?

The only way that occurs to me of removing this difficulty, is by supposing, that the remembrance of a past event is not a simple act

In the French Tongue, there are several words connected with this operation of the mind, marking nice shades of meaning which cannot be expressed in our language, without circumlocution. Such (according to Girard) are the words Mémoire and Souvenir, the former referring to the understanding alone, the latter, to things which also touch or affect the heart. This distinction was plainly in the view of Diderot, in a passage which it is scarcely possible to translate into English without impairing somewhat of the beauty of the original. “ Rapportez tout au dernier moment; à ce moment où la mémoire des faits les plus éclatants ne vaudra pas le souvenir d'un verre d'eau présenté par humanité à celui qui avoit soif.”

of the mind; but that the mind first forms a conception of the event, and then judges from circumstances, of the period of time to which it is to be referred: a supposition which is by no means a gratuitous one, invented to answer a particular purpose ; but which, as far as I am able to judge, is agreeable to fact: for if we have the power, as will not be disputed, of conceiving a past event without any reference to time, it follows, that there is nothing in the ideas or notions which memory presents to us, which is necessarily accompanied with a belief of past existence, in a way analogous to that in which our perceptions are accompanied with a belief of the present existence of their objects; and, therefore, that the reference of the event to the particular period at which it happened, is a judgment founded on concomitant circumstances. So long as we are occupied with the conception of any particular object connected with the event, we believe the present existence of the object; but this belief, which, in most cases, is only momentary, is instantly corrected by habits of judging acquired by experience ; and as soon as the mind is disengaged from such a belief, it is left at liberty to refer the event to the period at which it actually happened. Nor will the apparent instantaneousness of such judginents be considered as an unsurmountable objection to the doctrine now advanced, by those who have reflected on the perception of distance obtained by sight, which, although it seems to be as immediate as any perception of touch, has been shown by philosophers to be the result of a judgment founded on experience and observation. The reference we make of past events to the particular points of time at which they took place, will, I am inclined to think, the more we consider the subject, be found the more strikingly analogous to the estimates of distance we learn to form by the eye.

Although, however, I am, myself, satisfied with the conclusion to which the foregoing reasonings lead, I am far from expecting that the case will be the same with all my readers. Some of their objections, which I can easily anticipate, might, I believe, be obviated by a little farther discussion ; but as the question is merely a matter of curiosity, and has no necessary connexion with the observations I am to make in this chapter, I shall not prosecute the subject at present. The opinion, indeed, we form concerning it, has no reference to any of the doctrines maintained in this work, excepting to a particular speculation concerning the belief accompanying conception, which I ventured to state, in treating of that subject, and which, as it appears to be extremely doubtful to some whose opinions I respect, I proposed with a degree of diffidence suitable to the difficulty of such an inquiry. The remaining observations which I am to make on the power of memory, whatever opinion may be formed of their importance, will furnish but little room for a diversity of judgment concerning their truth.

In considering this part of our constitution, one of the most obvious and striking questions that occurs, is, what the circumstances are which determine the memory to retain some things in preference to others ? Among the subjects which successively occupy our thoughts, by far the greater number vanish, without leaving a trace behind them; while others become, as it were, a part of ourselves, and, by their accumulations, lay a foundation for our perpetual progress in knowledge. Without pretending 10 exhaust the subject, I shall content myself at present with a partial solution of this difficulty, by illustrating the dependence of memory upon two principles of our nature, with which it is plainly very intimately connected ; attention, and the association of ideas.

I endeavored in a former chapter to show, that there is a certain act of the mind, (distinguished, both by philosophers and the vulgar, by the name of attention,) without which even the objects of our perceptions make no impression on the memory. It is also matter of common remark, that the permanence of the impression which any thing leaves in the memory, is proportioned to the degree of attention which was originally given to it. The observation has been so often repeated, and is so manifestly true, that it is unnecessary to offer any illustration of it.*

I have only to observe farther, with respect to attention, considered in the relation in which it stands to memory, that although it be a voluntary act, it requires experience to have it always under command. In the case of objects to which we have been taught to attend at an early period of life, or which are calculated to rouse the curiosity, or to affect any of our passions, the attention fixes itself upon them, as it were spontaneously, and without any effort on our part, of which we are conscious. How perfectly do we remember, and even retain, for a long course of years, the faces and the hand-writings of our acquaintances, although we never took any particular pains to fix them in the memory? On the other hand, if an object does not interest some principle of our nature, we may examine it again and again, with a wish to treasure up the knowledge of it in the mind, without our being able to command that degree of attention which may lead us to recognise it the next time we see it. A person, for example, who has not been accustomed to attend particularly to horses or to cattle, may study for a considerable time the appearance of a horse or of a bullock, without being able a few days afterwards to pronounce on kis identity ; while a horse-dealer or a grazier recollects many hundreds of that class of animals with which he is conversant, as perfectly as he does the faces of his acquaintances. In order to account for this, I would remark, that although attention be a voluntary act, and although we are always able, when we choose, to make a momentary exertion of it; yet, unless the object to which it is directed be really interesting, in some degree, to the curiosity, the train of our ideas goes on, and we immediately forget our purpose. When we are employed, therefore, in studying such an object, it is not an exclusive and steady attention that we give to it, but we are losing sight of it, and recurring to it every instant; and the painful efforts of which we are conscious, are not, (as we are apt to suppose them to be,) efforts of uncommon attention, but unsuccessful attempts to keep the mind steady to its object, and to exclude the extraneous ideas, which are from time to time soliciting its notice.

* It seems to be owing to this dependence of memory on attention, that it is easier to get by heart a composition, after a very few readings, with an attempt to repeat it at the end of each, than after a hundred readings without such an effort. The effort rouses the attention from that languid state in which it remains, while the mind is giving a passive reception to foreign ideas. The fact is remarked by Lord Bacon, and is explained by him on the same principle to which I have referred it.

“Quæ expectantur et attentionem excitant, melius hærent quam quæ prætervolant. Itaque si scriptum aliquod vicies perlegeris, non tam facile illud memoriter disces, quam si illud legas decies, tentando interim illud recitare, ct ubi deficit memoria, inspiciendo librum."-Bacon, Nov. Org. lib. ii. aph. 26.

If these observations be well founded, they afford an explanation of a fact which has often been remarked, that objects are easily remembered which affect any of the passions.* The passion assists the memory, not in consequence of any immediate connexion between them, but as it presents, during the time it continues, a steady and exclusive object to the attention.

The connexion between memory and the association of ideas, is so striking, that it has been supposed by some, that the whole of its phenomena might be resolved into this principle. But this is evidently not the case. The association of ideas connects our various thoughts with each other, so as to present them to the mind in a certain order; but it presupposes the existence of these thoughts in the mind; or, in other words, it presupposes a faculty of retaining the knowledge which we acquire. It involves also a power of recognising, as former objects of attention, the thoughts that from time to time occur to us : a power which is not implied in that law of our nature which is called the association of ideas. It is possible, surely, that our thoughts might have succeeded each other, according to the same laws as at present, without suggesting to us at all the idea of the past; and, in fact, this supposition is realized to a certain degree in the case of some old men, who retain pretty exactly the information which they receive, but are sometimes unable to recollect in what manner the particulars which they find connected together in their thoughts, at first came into the mind; whether they occurred to them in a dream, or were communicated to them in conversation.

On the other hand, it is evident, that without the associating principle, the powers of retaining our thoughts, and of recognising them when they occur to us, would have been of little use ; for

* “Si quas res in vita videmus parvas, usitatas, quotidianas, eas meminisse non solemus; propterea quod nulla nisi nova aut admirabili re commovetur animus. At si quid videmus aut audimus egregie turpe, aut honestum, inusitatum, magnum, incredibile, ridiculum, id diu meminisse consuevimus." --Ad Herenn. lib. 3

« AnteriorContinuar »