A complete system for remembering knowledge: first thoughts

remember knowledge

There is no knowledge without remembering.
(“Knowledge…“, by Sandy Roberts / CC BY 2.0)

My thesis is that what we remember is us. This means we can mould ourselves by choosing what we remember and making a conscious effort for doing so. The Art of Memory provides the foundations for a method; the Great Books, the raw material to work upon. But the Art lacks systematisation, and remembering the Great Books is not just memorising them. The Art of Memory needs to be formalised, and the Art of Reading needs to be operationalised. This post talks a bit about both topics in a very intertwined manner. Further posts will be dedicated to each of the subjects touched upon. For now, everything is still night science, but I can see light gradually spring up in the horizon.

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Yates and the Art of Memory: Method in madness

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << The reversed theatre first)


Memory based on the Names of God, letters and revolving wheels.
(“Ramon Llull” and his “Ars Magna” / CC0 1.0)

Frances Yates admits that trying to describe Lullism is “attempting the impossible”, yet she does her best to at least reach “some sketch” of it. Therefore, I am not so ashamed to admit that my understanding after reading Chapter 8 of The Art of Memory is, at best, sketchy (and, at worst, nonexistent). However, as in Yates’ case, it is important that I try my best, otherwise, the next chapters will be even more abstruse. Trust me; I have peeked at them and I have returned in horror.

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“Mnemoments” with Mom: A huge foot and a rolling melon

dog, rain, house, door

My mother’s dog watching his life passing by… just like she does. I want more for her.

I dream about remembering. I want to populate my mind with knowledge and see life with different, better eyes. It seems to be a noble objective, I think, but it is a pretty individualistic one too. The idea is to eventually be good, and do good, but until then it is about me, alone with my books, in front of my computer, studying and remembering whatever I want. Sometimes, it all becomes hazy and I lose perspective of what I am doing, and whatever vague moral ambitions that drive me get even vaguer. Why am I doing all this? Does it really matter? But in the middle of this fog of doubts and fears, out of the blue, the obvious answer appeared in the guise of a loving smile. I visited my mother one of these days and finally realised why she doesn’t read anymore, even after all my stubborn insistence, even after all my appeals. The answer stroke me like a slap in the face: she simply can’t remember what she read the day before. Again, out of the blue, the fog dissipated and the path appeared clear as never before. If there is any true reason why I should learn the Art of Memory, it is to make her remember.

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Yates on the Art of Memory: The reversed theatre

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << Straight mnemotechnic first)

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre, Greece.

“…all things that the human mind can conceive and which we cannot see with the corporeal eye […] may be expressed by certain corporeal signs in such a way that the beholder may at once perceive with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden from the human mind. And it is because of this corporeal looking that he calls it a theatre.”
(“The Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater.“, by Robert Yeagle / CC0 1.0 / Desaturated from original)

This story is getting really complex. Our protagonist — the Art of Memory — began as an aid for ancient rhetoricians to persuade men and find the truth in arguments, turned into medieval scholastic practices to avoid damnation and find the path to the heavens, and was then reduced to a “possibly useful” technique by the humanists. Now, in another unexpected turn of events, it seems to be adapting to survive like a Darwinian iguana. The problem is that in order to do so, it is combining the classical Art of Memory with neoplatonism, hermeticism, occultism and magic, and, in the process, drowning my mind in a sea of befuddled ignorance. While Frances Yates discourses with great enthusiasm about such arcane topics in Chapters 6 and 7 of “The Art of Memory“, it is hard not feel helpless; there is so much I don’t know that it is impossible to fully grasp the relevance of what she is saying. I understand there is something about a madman, a theatre, and the impossible dream of remembering it all. Who but a madman would have such a crazy idea, anyway?

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Yates on the Art of Memory: Straight mnemotechnic

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << Look with the eyes of memory first)

We are now in the end of the Middle Ages, around the 14th and 15th centuries, and the World is again on the verge of profound changes — and so is the Art of Memory. The Humanist movement is trying to extricate mankind from the Dark Ages by focusing on the ancient knowledge of Classical Antiquity. Cicero is in the center of attentions once more. However, while his importance is unharmed and continue to grow, the connection he represented between the virtues, and thus Scholasticism and God, and the Art of Memory is shaken. The unearthing of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria contributes even more to the weakening of the kind of artificial memory the Middle Ages knew about. Gutenberg’s invention is rendering useless to remember. In the brave new world of Petrarch’s and Erasmus’ Humanism, the age-old art would be just that — aged, old and medieval. Chapter 5 of Francis Yates’ “The Art of Memory” provides once more a looming perspective on the fate of the art. However, yet again, it seems it will be reborn anew.

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flying wingsuit


When a policeman is shot and killed, it is not hard to understand; life in the streets is dangerous, but we know someone must live it if we expect to have a minimum of order and security. So, when that happens, the gossip is about knowing exactly what has occurred: Was it a coward criminal deed? Was it during combat? Or was it the policeman’s corruption that eventually killed him? But we never hear someone questioning the “merit” of such death — policemen and criminals die by the bullet and that’s it. But when someone dies by jumping from a precipice with small wings between the arms, then the gossip is of a different nature.

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The antithesis of combat

Children. ("by skeeze" / CC0 1.0)

(“by skeeze” / CC0 1.0)

I remember the last night of that long trip that began with snow, sweat and altitude and ended with sun, sweat and beer. Everyone had already left the house to go back home, but my flight was scheduled only for the next day. It was a trip that also included children — amazing ones — and it was about them that I reflected alone in the house, trying not to offend the gods by finishing the huge amount of beer bottles left over. And I should say that, above all, it was that last ingredient of the trip (children, not beer) that made it a great life experience and motivated this post.

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Night Science: Musings about books

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << Despair and quit first)

Desk, book, candle, clock, table, study

Indulging in night science: How to remember it all?
(“by Unsplash” / CC0 1.0)

During this time without writing, my night science joyrides introduced me to cognitive science. Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary science of mind, intimately related to psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, linguistics and artificial intelligence. It is an intricate intersection of all these disciplines, focused on the view of mind as an information processor. As such, mind must represent information somehow and store it in a way it can be processed. The problem of “remembering it all” can then be formulated as a knowledge representation one: how should one represent knowledge as to better remember it?

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Night Science: Despair and quit

Night science.

Just night science: ideas that don’t see the light of day.
(“Persistence of Memory“, by tony2016 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

I have failed miserably in one of my unstated underlying objectives in creating this website. I wanted to tame my counter-productive way of thinking and acting towards my objectives. I reasoned that by writing from time to time I could constantly take stock of where I am heading and how much I am actually producing in any given direction. In the process, I would coalesce my thoughts and findings and be obliged to present them in a reasonably coherent way that wouldn’t, at least, embarrass me. Hopefully, these registers would amount to a sort of diary or commonplace book that, looked upon through the god-blessed filtering lenses of time, would resemble something of a path being traveled. I would be able to see patterns emerge from the chaos and respond to them by steering my life towards my goals. Yet, it seems that as soon as I make a decision and commit to it, everything begins to stumble down the road that lead to unfinished projects.

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Yates on the Art of Memory: Look with the eyes of memory

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << From Rhetoric to Ethics first)

Giotto's Seven Virtues: Prudence.

Giotto’s Prudence: a mnemonic image on its locus.
(“Giotto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ” / CC0 1.0 Universal / Desaturated from original)

The Art of Memory was complicating the life of the laymen of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They were probably like any one of us, living on a tightrope between Hell and Heaven, deliberately doing good to compensate for instinctive bad deeds, trying to believe their moral and spiritual balances were still on the positive, asking forgiveness for their mistakes. But it was easier to pretend ignorance when all the preaching was done in boring arcane Latin. Now, things were beginning to change.

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