The Great Conversation: Memory and Imagination

By Matt McKeown

Considering that we use them every time we think, it can be surprisingly difficult to explain what we mean by them.

As the Christmas season tends to inspire both, it seems appropriate to write on memory and imagination before our holiday break. The terms both come to us from Medieval psychology, which ascribed mankind not only five senses but also five wits. The five senses, we have still. The five wits were memory, estimation, imagination, fantasy, and common sense. Estimation roughly equates with what today we call “instinct,” while common sense meant our capacity to unite our sensory experiences into a conscious, coherent whole (e.g. it is by the common sense that we know we are seeing when we look at something). Fantasy meant the ability to construct new ideas out of the material we already have in memory and imagination.

What, then, was imagination? We tend to use the term for creativity today, but its realm was far more modest among the Scholastics. Imagination meant the capacity to retain and recall sensations, not simply as an aspect of memory in general, but in and of themselves—the concept of redness, for example, as distinct from seeing or recollecting an apple. It is from the material of imagination that fantasy is able, for instance, to conjure up a golden mountain or a melting watch. (Surrealism is thus fantastic in a quite technical sense, from the Medieval perspective.)

The transition from this notion of imagination as the raw material of fantasy to imagination as a synonym for fantasy, and from that to a synonym for creativity, is natural enough. A similar process taught us to use, say, drama to mean “emotionally charged situations” of the sort we might find in a play, when before the word referred more specifically to plays. J. R. R. Tolkien (a man exceptionally sensitive to the meanings and histories of words) says in his outstanding essay On Fairy-stories:

The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation.

This introduces a substantial part of Tolkien’s philosophy of æsthetics—which, alas, we have no time to stop for now. But it is interesting and instructive to note that his notion of artistic power, even in crafting his own outlandish universe of elves and dragons and enchanted rings, is rooted not in outlandishness but in careful, consistent attention to the implications of images. Imagination is an essentially rational power.

It is notorious that the memory strengthens as you lay burdens upon it, and becomes trustworthy as you trust it.

The raw material of imagination and fantasy, of course, is original sensory input, retained by memory. Memory itself is a little more challenging to discuss; it is too basic to our experience to be described from the outside, as it were, and from the inside no description feels necessary.  Despite this, or because of it, memory is one of the oldest topics in the Great Conversation. Seeking an analogy to help explain the Trinity, St. Augustine pointed out that every thought involves memory, intelligence, and will, which are all distinct but all functionally identical in the act of thinking, and all of which could claim (each in a different sense) to be the thought.

The problem of forgetting is one that has received both philosophical and scientific attention. Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist of the late nineteenth century, made immense strides in the experimental study of memory (which had widely been believed till then not to be suitable for scientific study). Among other things, his experiments suggested that nothing, once learned, is *ever truly forgotten, but simply moved by the brain to its remote regions, in order to keep the easy-to-access parts available for more urgent or practical uses. Though Ebbinghaus’ research had serious limitations—foremost among them the fact that he had only one subject, himself!—he pioneered the field, allowing the work of fellow psychologists like William James and Sigmund Freud to take root.

Freud too analyzed the process of forgetting, but he was more interested in its causes than its operations. In his view, an important cause of forgetting a fact was a strong desire not to be aware of it. Discomfort with a fact, perhaps caused by internalized social mores, would lead our internal censor to push that fact down into the unconscious mind; but it would not cease to function there. One reason he placed importance on interpreting dreams (as did his disciple Carl Jung) was that in them, the censor had no powers, and the unconscious thoughts and images of the mind could run rampant. In dreams, memory thus reconnects to imagination and fantasy. It is partly thanks to the complicated work of self-knowledge this involves us in that Freud could probably say, with an old proverb, that “truth is the daughter of time.”

Suggested reading:
Plato, Phaedrus
St. Augustine, Confessions Books X-XI
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I.78.iv
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria
J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories


If you liked this piece, you may also enjoy other posts on the Great Conversation, such as our discussion of the virtue of courage or the idea of language. For more on memory, take a look at this reflection on Constitution Day from Dr. Joseph Wysocki, Dean of the Honors College of Belmont Abbey, or student Stephen Priest’s essay on Herodotus; or read Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson’s profile of C. S. Lewis for more about imagination.

Published on 23rd December, 2020.

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