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The Indulgence and Futility of Reminiscence

Knowledge, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. The painting suggests knowledge is within a book, a view in contrast with Socratic thinking

Whilst researching on the extended mind, I came upon this passage by Plato on writing, knowledge and memory

SOCRATES: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon.


To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.


In this quote, Socrates warns against relying on the written word to externalize one's memories. He suggests that whilst written words offer the opportunity to reminisce, they offer no improvement of knowledge. Side-stepping the thorny issue of the nature of knowledge. It seems that Socrates would agree with me that 'belief' (true, false or hesitant) is something held in biological memory. Not to be confused with the use of writing to prompt our thoughts. By belief I mean something like,

"a belief is a functional state of an organism that implements or embodies that organism's endorsement of a particular state of affairs as actual" (McKay & Dennett, 493)

The combination of beliefs furnished by memory constitute the mind (anima or 'soul' in ancient greek terms) and impact behaviour. This account implies that more memories constitute a better mind. What really intrigues me about Socrates' comment is his contrast of memory with reminiscence.

Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus, Salvador Dalí

The useful memory Socrates is referring to was a faculty somewhat like semantic memory, where as reminiscence was more like episodic memory. Semantic memory enables a person to answer "what is 4 x 7" with "28", but only episodic memory allows a person to revisit an event imaginatively, also known as 'mental time travel'.

Socrates seems rather judgmental of reminiscence. Later in the Phaedrus he speaks of writing down thoughts as merely a pastime, being only for "recreation and amusement". He questions the use of "sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?".

Surely Socrates is being somewhat harsh in his condemnation of the written word and of reminiscence. Still, for the first time I appreciate the normative dimension of the different memory faculties in ancient Greek thought. It makes sense that reminiscence is not seen as a path to knowledge. Reminiscence depends upon imagery (phantasia), a sense assumed to furnish imagination as much as 'memories'. On the other hand, abstracted beliefs--stored and integrated with one another about the nature of reality--were useful to the pursuit of knowledge and critical reasoning. A well-furnished memory is required to define, analyze (divide), understand complex arguments, teach or persuade. However, reminiscence is largely a useless indulgence.

I'm fascinated by the degree of information we record about our lives today and the issues around what use such records will play in our lives at a later stage of life. Perhaps we spend too much time documenting our lives and not enough time improving our abilities to live them.


McKay, R. & Dennett, D.C. (2009) The evolution of misbelief. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32, 493-561


This passage made me think of Luria's Mind of a Mnemonist, where patient S. has such strong and particular imagery associated with a given word that he is unable to appreciate or even comprehend any ambiguity and nuance in language, as in poetry.

So in the terms you use, S. effectively lacked a good deal of semantic memory and its associated abstract skills because his reminiscence was crowding it out! (Luria also describes his difficulty living in the present as hypervivid past memories continually intrude on his present experience.) So I think there is something to Plato's point here.

Everything in moderation. Nothing in excess.

I always saw reminiscence as a tool to exercise memories, so as not to forget. Of course when exaggerated, or concentrated on "non useful" memories, it can be considered a useless indulgence.
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August 2016



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