BMCR 2008.08.19

Aristotle on Memory and Recollection: Text, Translation, Interpretation, and Reception in Western Scholasticism

, Aristotle on memory and recollection : text, translation, interpretation, and reception in Western scholasticism. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2007. 1 online resource (xiii, 276 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9789047421436 €89.00 /$125.00.

The book under review consists of six chapters (or parts, “chapter” being employed somewhat unusually): Ch. 1: Introduction to the Critical Edition (pp. 1-21); Ch. 2: De Memoria et Reminiscentia : Text and Translation (pp. 23-51); Ch. 3: Essay 1: Aristotle on Memory and Recollection (pp. 53-135); Ch. 4: Essay 2: Aristotle’s Theories of Memory and Recollection in the Latin West (pp. 137-228); Ch. 5: Textual Notes on the De Memoria (pp. 229-43); Ch. 6: Bibliography (pp. 245-54).

First a few words about the nature of the book as a whole, and how well its parts hang together: A new critical edition is usually accompanied, and I think better served, by an extensive commentary. In the present case, although the notes to the translation, and especially the textual notes that make up Ch. 5, do some of the work of a commentary, they are not the same thing. Nor is an interpretive essay, no matter how excellent and focused on textual analysis (as this one is). Further, Ch. 4 (Essay 2) does not integrate well with the rest of the volume. As we shall see, the survey presented therein was not included to support Bloch’s establishment of the text1 nor his interpretation of the De Memoria (hereafter δμ and so this chapter seems somewhat tacked on. (At over ninety pages, it might have been better to publish this material as a separate monograph.) These features of the book may reflect the fact that it is a revision of Bloch’s University of Copenhagen doctoral dissertation.2 In any case, this paragraph pretty much exhausts my negative comments on what is a superb book.

Ch. 1 is a useful introduction to the critical edition established by Bloch (hereafter B). It begins with a discussion of the value and especially the deficiencies of the four 20th century critical editions of the text of DM: those of Förster, Mugnier, Ross, and Siwek. This makes clear the need for a new critical edition. B then surveys all of the material that provides the foundation of his critical edition: the 18 extant manuscripts, dating from the 10th to the 14th centuries (which are divided into three families, α, β, and γ); the two Latin translations, made by James of Venice (12th century) and William of Moerbeke (13th century); and, the Greek medieval commentaries, the most important being that of Michael of Ephesus. The principles operative in B’s apparatus criticus are explained in this chapter and a Conspectus Siglorum is provided. (The Stemma Codicum is printed on a separate card, which is included in a plastic sleeve attached to the inside back cover.) B describes his method of editing as follows: “I adopt the archetypal reading in all instances where nothing tells against it. When it is uncertain which reading is the archetypal one, I follow β. If I do not follow β, I always state the reason for not doing so in the notes on the text.” (p. 16) Where the archetypal reading is impossible or implausible, B accepts an emendation of another scholar or makes his own.

The most valuable part of this book is the new critical edition, with its apparatus criticus. It is based on a fuller study of a broader range of sources than any before and should surely become the standard text used by scholars of the DM in the years to come. The apparatus criticus is extensive; among other information included, B always cites the readings of the nine most important manuscripts, the two Latin translations, and Michael of Ephesus (B distinguishing, in this last case, between lemmata, citations, paraphrases, and alternative readings). Ch. 2 also contains a facing English translation with notes. The translation may not be in all aspects as literal or close to the Greek as I would have liked (see B’s description of it on p. 18), but it is serviceable and succeeds well enough in what it was intended to be: “an aid to understanding the Greek text” (p. 18). The translation contains important terminological differences from other translations, based on B’s understanding of DM (defended in Ch. 4), the most significant being the distinction between “remember” ( μνημονεύειν) and “recall” ( μεμνῆσθαι). The notes to the translation are quite good (though I would have liked more frequent pointers to the textual notes).

Ch. 3 contains a detailed presentation (over 80 pages) of B’s interpretation of Aristotle’s views on memory and recollection. B first places the DM in the context of scholarly disputes over (1) the precise nature of Aristotle’s hylomorphism—his conception of the soul-body relationship—as presented in the De Anima and the Parva Naturalia, and (2) the contemporary relevance of Aristotle’s views on the soul and body—whether Aristotle is, for example, a proto-functionalist, or whether, with respect to his philosophy of mind, we ought to (here B quotes Myles Burnyeat) “junk it” (p. 58).3 B’s essay contains a lengthy and valuable analysis of memory-terminology in Aristotle. In contrast to most recent discussions of DM, B takes Aristotle’s conception of memory to be quite narrow and ultimately very different from modern conceptions. He describes his view succinctly as follows: “The state of having an image and viewing it as representing something from the past is all there is to memory!” (p. 83). B further rejects the common view that according to Aristotle memory (discussed in DM 1) and recollection (discussed in DM 2) are both in fact cases of “memory” more broadly understood. I leave the reader to discover B’s arguments for his interpretation of the DM. I’ll simply add that B is also well-versed in the vast secondary literature on both DM and contemporary discussions of memory. In connection with the former, special attention is given to the work of Richard Sorabji and Julia Annas.4

Ch. 4 is a survey of the views on memory—and especially, but not exclusively, on Aristotle’s account of memory and recollection—in the Latin West during the medieval period (with a focus on the 12th and 13th centuries). As I cannot pretend an expertise in medieval philosophy, I shall be brief and merely descriptive. B’s thesis is as follows:

When Aristotle’s theories of memory and recollection became available to Latin schoolmen in the 12th century, they had to compete with more fully developed and more readily understandable Arabic theories . . . , with the earlier Latin tradition, represented in particular by Augustine, and with common Latin usage of the term memoria. (p. 142)

Aristotle’s narrower conception of memory, B goes on to argue, in effect lost the competition, and so did not come to have the influence and authority Aristotle’s philosophy in general had during the same period. The figures B discusses are Augustine, Avicenna, Averroes, Dominicus Gundissalinus, John Blund, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Peter of Auvergne. He also covers the two Latin translations of the DM and two 13th century anonymous treatises on the soul that deal with memory. All excerpts from Latin texts are translated into English. B ends his survey with a discussion of John Duns Scotus, to indicate the late medieval move away from the views of Aristotle and others, and toward a more modern theory of memory.

B describes the textual notes (Ch. 5) as follows: “These…should be used as an aid to understanding the Greek text. Their sole purpose is to explain the reasons when I divert from my regular editorial procedures.” (p. 19) One might prefer that the notes were not so limited in range, but those that B does include are excellent. I found especially useful the long note on the much-disputed passage 452a19-24 (pp. 237-38), in which B accepts, and provides further support for, Sorabji’s interpretation. The bibliography (Ch. 6) is extensive, and is, apart from listing works cited, a good place to start for anyone wanting an overview of the secondary literature, in many languages, on DM. Three indices complete the volume: Greek-English index, index nominum et locorum, and index rerum.

B’s Aristotle on Memory and Recollection is an attractive and well-produced book.5 And although its parts are more thematically connected than well-integrated, it is an important scholarly work indispensible for anyone interested in the DM.


1. For instance, Bloch says that the two Medieval Latin translations (by James of Venice and William of Moerbeke) “are not very important in constituting the text” (p. 14).

2. As the dissertation was submitted and defended in 2006, and the acknowledgements page of the book is dated January 2007, one may assume that this is not a highly revised dissertation.

3. M.F. Burnyeat, “Is an Aristotelian Philosophy of Mind Still Credible? (A Draft)”, in M.C. Nussbaum and A.E. Rorty, eds., Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 26. For an example of the view that Aristotle’s philosophy of mind has contemporary relevance, see M.C. Nussbaum and H. Putnam, “Changing Aristotle’s Mind”, in this same Nussbaum-Rorty volume.

4. R. Sorabji, Aristotle on Memory, (London: Duckworth, 1972; 2nd ed., 2004), and J. Annas, “Aristotle on Memory and Self”, in Nussbaum and Rorty, eds., Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima.

5. I noted few typographical errors: p. xii, l. 29, “centuries” should be “century” (or in any case is awkward); p. 4, l. 11, “yields” should be “yield”; p. 37, l. 23, “the having state of which we call memory” (translating a phrase in 451b3-4), though perhaps not unintentional, is nevertheless very awkward; p. 134, l. 11, “2.300” should be “2300” or “2,300”; p. 138, l. 25, “2.400” should be “2400” or “2,400”; p. 141, l. 16, “transscribed” should be “transcribed”.