The Sense Memory

The last faculty of the internal sensorium to be considered is the sense memory (vis memorativa). Textually, Aquinas is explicit about the cognitive use of this faculty. A few introductory remarks might help avoid needless confusion. In ordinary linguistic usage, memory often means a ‘calling to mind of an image’. In other words, memory is a mental visualizing about something that is not here and now present. Aquinas, however, has a much narrower meaning for the sense memory. In effect, it is not only the faculty that has the capacity to recollect images, because the imagination also performs this intentional function. The sense memory is the internal sense by which the human knower recollects an image of a particular thing in a certain past time. The imagination is the storehouse of sensations; i.e. the concrete wholes synthesized by the sensus communis from the discrete data of the external senses in the form of a collection—a heap—of proper and common sensibles. The sense memory, on the other hand, is the storehouse of perceived individual things or objects. The sense memory is to the vis cogitativa as the imagination is to the sensus communis. On this relation, Aquinas writes: ‘Furthermore, for the apprehension of intentions that are not received through the senses, the aestimative power [or vis cogitativa] is appointed; and for their preservation the memorative power, which is a storehouse [thesaurus] of such intentions’ (Summa Theologiae, I q. 78 a. 4). In order to illustrate this point further, it is worthwhile noting again that Aquinas uses the same term, thesaurus, in referring to both of these sense operations; often translated as ‘storehouse’ or ‘treasure house, the word covers both the imagination and the sense memory. The same role for the sense memory is found in the Summa Contra Gentiles: ‘Some of the sensitive powers only receive—the external senses, for instance; while some retain, as imagination and memory, which are therefore called storehouses’ (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk II, ch. 73, no. 34). In the Summa Contra Gentiles, one finds another similar passage: ‘The imagination, which is the storehouse of forms apprehended by the senses, and the memory, which [...] is the storehouse of intentions apprehended without the senses, as when the sheep apprehends the enmity of the wolf’ (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk II, ch. 74).

In addition to storing the mental objects of the vis cogitativa, which would be the various experiences of incidental objects of sense, the sense memory in human per- ceivers also has the ability to ‘reminisce’. The following passage brings out this point: ‘As to the memorative power, a human knower has not only memory, as other animals have, in the sudden recollection of the past, but also reminiscence, by seeking syllogis- tically, as it were, for a recollection of the past by the application of individual intentions’ (Summa Theologiae, I q. 78 a. 4). What Aquinas appears to account for here is the pre-analytic data that human knowers have the ability to search with their memories of individuals in order to discover a fact. For example, Aquinas argues that this mental activity is undertaken when a person tries to think of a name or a person whose ‘memory image’ is quite clear and distinct. This is what a person does in trying to recall the name of a person when one cannot think of it right away. When, for example, an individual begins to advance into middle age, all too often one hears—‘Her name is on the tip of my tongue!’ Reminiscence is, therefore, the ability to attempt to locate within one’s past experiences of individuals some particular piece of knowledge. This ability is part of the sense memory.

These considerations underline the crucial fact that the sense memory has for its object individual ‘intentions’ that had been perceived by the vis cogitativa. This particular note of ‘at a particular or specific past time’ is crucial, as Aquinas notes in De Memoria et Reminiscentia: ‘memory is of past things’ (I, no. 307). In this same work, Aquinas considers further how this faculty functions: ‘The memorative power retains, about which a thing is to be remembered not in any way whatsoever, but only in so far as it has been apprehended by a sense in the past’ (no. 321). This point is reiterated in the Summa Contra Gentiles: ‘Now the memory is located in the sensitive part of the soul, because its scope is limited to things subject to determinate times; there is memory only of what is past. Therefore [ . . . ] the memory does not abstract from singular conditions’ (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk II, ch. 74, no. 17). The sense memory, therefore, is that faculty by means of which a human knower is aware of individuals previously experienced. In effect, it serves as the storehouse for the awareness of the incidental objects of sensation.

If this analysis of the role of the sense memory is correct, then this explicatio textus should explain further Aristotle’s remarks in the Posterior Analytics about the universal’s ‘coming to be’ in the soul. A principal part of that account is the role of experience and memory. In commenting on the Posterior Analytics, Aquinas agrees with Aristotle on the role of the memorative faculty in discussing the process of concept formation.

Aristotle shows in the foregoing how the knowledge of first principles comes about within us. He concludes from what has been said that memory arises out of sensation; that is so in the case of those animals in whom the sensible impression endures, as was said above. Then, out of memory, that has been produced many times concerning the same thing [under a variety of different individual conditions, however], there comes experience; for experience is obviously nothing but the taking of something from many instances retained in memory.

Nonetheless, experience requires some reasoning about particulars, by which it relates one item to another, and that is characteristic of reason. For instance, when it is remembered that a certain herb has many times cured many people of fever, we say that it is our experience that there is such a remedy for fever. (Commentary on the Posterior Analytics, II, lect. 20)

MacDonald in his account of Aquinas’s theory of knowledge refers to these passages in the Commentary on the Posterior Analytics. Here, Aquinas refers to knowing ‘Callias.’ These are the examples Aristotle use in the De Anima and Aquinas in his Commentary on the Soul. MacDonald translates this passage as follows: ‘It is clear, strictly speaking and perse, one senses a particular. Nevertheless, in a certain respect sense perception is on the universal itself, for it cognizes Callias not only insofar as he is Callias but also insofar as he is this particular human being.’[1]

What is interesting, however, is that MacDonald does not appear to pick up on Aquinas’s arguments about the human perceiver knowing the individual directly. This is, of course, the role for the vis cogitativa. It is the vis memorativa, as a storehouse or thesaurus, which keeps the perceptions of the vis cogitativa ready to undergo the process of abstraction through the intellectus agens.

Memory, therefore, functions as the storehouse of experienced ‘individuals’, not of experienced ‘bundles of sensations’. This is important because Aquinas, like Aristotle before him, suggests that the universal comes to be in the ‘soul’ by repeated experience of individual things. ‘Soul’ here refers to the intellectuspossibilis. If human persons do have experience of things, then there must be some way to distinguish this experience from the experience of bundles of sense qualities, which, of course, would be the ‘concrete wholes’ composed of discrete proper and common sensibles. For if the only object of experience were the proper and common sensibles, then this type of experience would seem much too fleeting for an ‘universal’ ever to come to be in the soul. Aquinas postulates the epistemological machinery necessary to explain the possibility for a human perceiver to be aware of individual things, which are the primary substances in his ontology. In other words, a human perceiver does have a ‘thing consciousness’. This unique mental awareness is had by means of the vis cogitativa, whose objects are stored intentionally in the sense memory. With the stored repertoire of ‘individual intentions’, i.e. intentions of individuals and of individuals of a kind, from these individuals, it is more readily apparent how the mind can ‘form’ or ‘make’ the species intelligibilis from such individual intentions by means of the intellectus agens. Often in the texts Aquinas refers to the intellectus agens as an ‘efficient cause’. In other words, the sense memory is the foundation for the many individualized intentions from which the mind ‘makes’ the universal. If the perceiver were not aware of individuals but merely of bundles of sensations, then it would be quite difficult for Aristotle and Aquinas to explain the possibility of the universal’s ‘coming to be’ in the mind.[2] That the sense memory is concerned with individualized intentions is substantiated by the passage considered above from Aquinas’s Commentary on the Posterior Analytics. There the object of the sense memory is the ‘herbs’—the individuals of a natural kind— and not a bundle of sense qualities, which were observed by the external senses in conjunction with the sensus communis.

In concluding this extended and extensive discussion, one might recall the passage from the Commentary on the Metaphysics. Aquinas discusses the role of the vis cogitativa, the sense memory, and ‘experience’ in the following manner:

In human knowers, the next thing above memory is experience, which some animals have only to a small degree. For an experience arises from the association of many singular [intentions] received in memory. And this kind of association is proper to a human knower, and pertains to the vis cogitativa, which is also called sometimes the particular reason—this is the faculty that associates particular intentions just as universal reason associates universal ones. Above experience, which belongs to particular reason, human knowers have as their power, a universal reason by means of which they live. (Commentary on the Metaphysics, bk I, lect. 1).

It appears, therefore, that the sense memory is a critical faculty in Aquinas’s philosophy of mind. It is distinguished from the imagination in that it is a storehouse of sensed individuals; it is not merely a storehouse of sense qualities put together as concrete wholes by the sensus communis. This faculty, furthermore, as evidenced by the passage above from Aquinas’s comments on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, serves a most important role in the ‘coming to be’ of the universal in the mind. This suggests the un-Kantian direction of the theory of mind that Aquinas offers.[3]

  • [1] MacDonald, ‘Theory of Knowledge’ 183.
  • [2] Parenthetically, it may be due to Berkeley’s denial of an awareness of an individual as such but only of‘bundles of sensations’ that he found it impossible to talk about ‘abstract ideas’.
  • [3] This latter question is very important for Aquinas, although that exciting epistemological narrative isbeyond the scope of this inquiry. Nonetheless, the last part of the final chapter offers some suggestionsabout how this bit of philosophy-of-mind theory might be articulated.
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