Does Aristotle Contradict Himself About Memory?

Does Aristotle Contradict Himself About Memory?
26 November 2021, 5.00pm - 6.30pm

Cole Phelps, University of Cambridge

This Postgraduate-work-in-progress seminar will be held online via Zoom and in person in room 104, Senate House.

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In De Memoria, Aristotle asserts that memory is a hexis. In the Topics, he denies that memory is a hexis. Despite appearances, the two claims are not contradictory. This can be demonstrated by applying the distinction between transitive and intransitive senses of hexis Aristotle develops in the Metaphysics to resolve a grammatical ambiguity in the texts. Whereas in De Memoria, Aristotle uses hexis transitively to assert that memory consists in an agent’s standing in a particular relation to a mental representation, in the Topics, he uses hexis intransitively to deny that memory consists in an agent’s being in a particular affective state. Acknowledging this distinction allows us both to avoid committing Aristotle to a contradiction and to correct the standard reading of how he construes memory’s relation to its objects and other cognitive processes. Because the standard reading takes memory to involve only intransitive hexis, it holds that memory involves a form of direct contact with “past objects” which occasions an affective response to these objects’ pastness. However, since memory is constitutively dependent on a completed process of perception, there is no route via which direct contact with past objects might take place. Moreover, since perception is fundamentally a process of formal transfer, no such contact obtains in the first place. Taking memory instead to consist in transitive hexis allows us to avoid these problems by interpreting it as a process of copying forms received in perception into mental representations stored for affectively neutral future retrospection and retrieval.


Valerie James
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