Aristotle on Distinguishing Between Phantasia and Memory
R. A. H. King
University of Glasgow
Aristotle was the first to devise a theory of memory using phantasia. For the Aristotelian scientist it is straightforward to distinguish between the two. Phantasia is a kind of change remaining from an actual perception. Memory is taking a phantasia as the copy of that of which it is the phantasia. On one reading, this will mean that a phantasia is merely something which may float through your mind; remembering something requires doing something – namely taking this as a copy (eikon) of the original perception’s object. They are defined differently, hence they are different objects.
But this can only be an opening gambit: for even the Aristotelian scientist relies on a basic recognition of the distinction. Aristotle is committed to a methodology which consists in making precise what is held to be the case – by the wise or the many - about the explanandum. How could the investigator distinguish something that is any way not clear? Aristotle in fact starts his investigation from the way we talk about memory: we say that we are active with memory when we say we have perceived or thought something before. Thus he is committed to saying that we do distinguish between memory and phantasia. But this is not a phenomenal distinction: it is not vividness, for example, that allows us to distinguish between the two. Rather it is a matter of what we are doing. In other words, there is non-transitional awareness of what we are doing when we remember something. Phantasia itself is distinguished by A from the activity of imagining something (putting it before the eye of the soul). Here too one could argue that the work of distinction is not phenomenal, but one drawn by awareness of what you are doing. So, one could argue, when you imagine something it may well be phenomenally identical to a memory, but when you are saying what you are doing, you would not say: I remember such and such, but I imagine such and such. Since memory is an activity of phantasia, and phantasia an activity of perception, this line of thought is rooted in Aristotle’s view that perception itself is responsible for our awareness of perception.
But what does it mean to take a phantasia as a copy of that which it is the phantasia of? The problem Aristotle starts from is how something that is absent – the past experience – can be present: all that is present is the phantasia. Most of the explanatory work is done by a comparison with a painting, and with different ways a painting can be taken. This suggests that what is doing the work is the phenomenal nature of the painting.