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CHAPTER V I.
SECT. I.-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 might 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
[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."]
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 erents, 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 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 erent without any reference to time, it follows that there is nothing in the ideas or notions which inemory 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 judgments 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 shewn 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
1 it were, a part of ourselves, and, by their accumulations, lay a foundation for our perpetual progress in knowledge. Without pretending to 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 endeavoured 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 meinory. It is also matter of common remark, that the permanence of the impression which anything 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
* 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 passing 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, et ubi deficit memoria, inspiciendo librum."-- Nor. Org. lib. ii. aph. 26.