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Memory and Mind: An Introduction to Augustine's Epistemology

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MEMORY AND MIND: AN INTRODUCTION TO AUGUSTINE'S EPISTEMOLOGY

1. INTRODUCTION

The central point of this paper is to elucidate Augustine's

notion of memory found in Augustine's *Confessions 10*. The

topic is far too complex to do it justice in an hour. Also, the

Augustinian corpus is vast, so of necessity the talk will involve

some oversimplification and glossing. I focus on several themes

Augustine pursues: the imagistic nature of memory, how knowledge

is sometimes achieved without images, the relationship of memory

to mind, skeptical problems that lead to a Christian

epistemology. Along the way I compare, very briefly,

Augustine's views with those of his philosophical ancestors and

with a recent philosopher of mind.

Throughout *Confessions*, Augustine relies on memory; the

work is an example of the functioning of memory. *Confessions*

can be understood as an epistemologically oriented text.

Knowledge of God is sought, and the ostensible route to this goal

is through self-knowledge. The book opens with its author

seeking God and wondering whether God can be sought if God is not

already known. The answer to this initial and central question

of how a mere human can know God lies in memory. That is,

Augustine will find God (and himself), and the answers to all of

his questions, and the font and guarantee of all knowledge by

turning inward and reflecting on his own memory. He writes:

Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery,

my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity.

. . . So great is the power of memory, so great is the

force of life in a human being whose life is mortal

(*Conf. *10.17.26).

Or similarly:

The power of memory is great, very great, my God. It

is a vast and infinite profundity. Who has plumbed its

bottom? This power is that of my mind and is a natural

endowment, but I myself cannot grasp the totality of

what I am (*Conf. *10.8.15).

Leaving aside Augustine's rhetoric of self-effacement and

intentional irony, it is patent that he knows a great deal about

memory and its power.

The faculty of memory in Augustine's broad usage is more

than just the ability to remember or the act of remembering. It

encompasses all cognitive capacities. Memory is the

repository of all of a person's experiences and knowledge.

Memory includes sensations and perceptions, imaginations and

dreams, hopes and fears, emotions and awareness of self.

Memory is the locus of personal identity. Owing to the

transience and mutability of the present, memory is the focal

point of any sense of continuity experienced. Through memory the

past and future both become present. Knowledge resides in

memory. In short, memory is mind.

In his early writings, where his interest is more like what

we today consider purely philosophical, Augustine discourses on

the nature of memory, its role in the acquisition of knowledge,

and the relationship of memory to the mind as a whole. But even

after his conversion and his elevation to the position of Bishop

of Hippo, when he presumably had quieted some of the (what he

considers to be) vain intellectual curiosity of his youth

(10.35.54), he returns to discussions of the nature of memory.

2. AUGUSTINE THE NATURALIST

2.1. Platonist or Aristotelian?

Memory is a philosophically important notion for Augustine

owing to his Platonic heritage. The Platonic doctrine of

recollection and the Platonic notion of the transmigration of

souls figure prominently in his conceptual background as he

develops his epistemology. But Aristotle's explanations of the

nature of the soul and its relationship to mind, and of how

memory proceeds are important for him too. Augustine does

not denigrate sense perception or the physical world as a source

of knowledge. The world is an absolutely beautiful place,

bearing loads of important, interesting, valuable information.

Not only is the ordinary world good, it is intrinsically good and

exactly as good as it ought to be. Things in themselves are not

deceptive. Ultimately, the

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