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Information overload, commonplace books and the backlash against rote memory in the 18th Century

Locke's Common-place book

Between 1500-1700 the amount of available knowledge increased dramatically and the lack of an ordered system for cataloging this information frightened scholars [1]. Initially ideas were grouped together in notebooks by subject, but this system was supplanted by Locke's new method, that indexed memorable ideas via alphabetic order, rather than by relevant heading. This method increased one's capacity to store ideas whilst simultaneously reducing search and retrieval time and promoting lateral thought by grouping semantically decoupled ideas.

Locke also developed his theory of personal identity during this period. Locke suggested that, instead of the body defining the beginning and end of a person's self, identity was co-extensive with memory. Locke's psychological theory first garnered a skeptical reception because of the difficulty reconciling the mind's instability, variability and transience--especially during sleep or altered states of consciousness. However, Locke's theory of identity gradually gained currency at the same time his method of indexing grew popular.

Systematically indexing one's thoughts external to the body supposedly kept the mind clearer and better ordered. It is almost as though externally representing one's memories kept the mind safer from the gusts of consciousness and emotion, thus reducing the sting of philosophical objections against a psychological theory of personal identity.

Externalizing the storage function of memory enabled Locke to push against rote memorization as the primary focus for education.
Locke... criticized the habit to collect and memorize arguments on the grounds that it misguided the understanding, made an individual "a retainer to others" and did not grant any solid foundation to knowledge. He acknowledged that the accumulation of sentences that was "very familiar among bookish men" could bring them "to furnish themselves with the arguments they meet with pro and con in the questions they study." But he maintained that although such "arguments gathered from other men's thoughts, floating only in the memory," could supply "copious talk with some appearance of reason," they did not help scholars "to judge right nor argue strongly, but only to talk copiously on either side, without being steady and settled in their own judgments." Moreover, "the multiplying variety of arguments" cumbered the memory to no purpose. [2]

Here Locke speaks scathingly of peers who simply parrot back information that they have read. Instead he values true understanding, where critical consideration from the reader is required. It's amusing to consider that similar arguments still occur in education debates today.

I find this even more amusing given the obsession of modern psychology (> 1885 post-Ebbinhaus) with rote memory task performance and the ability to remember stimuli verbatim. Whilst remembering facts is a component of memory, the noteworthy job is interpreting the relationship of stimuli with other relevant parts of our lives. I think it may be (ironically) via false memory research that this valuable contribution of memory is finally getting empirical treatment.

Finally, this essential misunderstanding of memory as merely a storage and retrieval device gets to a core of my issue with the way contemporary epistemology deals with mental faculties. Whilst epistemologists are delighted to treat the 'imagination' as an active mental capacity with 'imaginings' as outputs, they still adopt simplistic metaphors when discussing memory. Perhaps Locke's solution to information overload can pave the foundation for a new way of conceiving memory today in a similarly vexed information environment.

[1] Blair, A. (2003) Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload ca. 1550-1700. Journal of the History of Ideas 64, 11-28

[2] Dacome, L. (2004) Noting the Mind: Commonplace Books and the Pursuit of the Self in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Journal of the History of Ideas 65, 611.


Thanks, as a practitioner of GTD and other ways of trying to keep my projects together, that was really interesting!

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August 2016



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