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Renate Bartsch's Memory and
Understanding is the 63rd volume of the series on Advances in
Consciousness Research from John Benjamins Publishing Company after his Consciousness
Emerging, the 39th volume of the same series. Apt to the
orientation of the Series, the present work takes an interdisciplinary approach
(falling under philosophy, psychology, neurology, cognitive science,
linguistics and literature) to consciousness, in general, and memory and understanding
in particular; and proposes the 'practical consequences' by applying the
theoretical outcome to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
As a work in philosophy of consciousness, it presents us
a model of memory based on neurological findings and phenomenological data; it
attempts to explain understanding (conceptualization) and consciousness in
accordance to that model. Bartsch gives primacy to memory over truth, reality,
understanding and consciousness so much so that he says, 'essence of human
being is his/her memory' (p. 107), that the world of our memories is the world
of truth (P. 92), that 'memory makes understanding possible' (p. 86), and that
there is no understood reality without memory. Applying his model of memory to
Proust's Remembrance of Things past, Bartsch endorses to Proust's
explanation of aesthetic experiences, in accordance to what 'aesthetic
experience is the pleasure of re-living the Past' (p. 113) and that there are
instances of remembering which do that peculiar job of re-living of the past.
Bartsch maintains that his model of memory does explain those instances, hence,
explains the re-living of the past, the re-living that constitutes an aesthetic
The above quoted assertions are not the logical
conclusions of some explicitly stated sound arguments, nor do they emerge out
of any rigorous arguments in an epistemological or ontological framework. Those
are some thematic assertions grounded on Proust's work and supported by a model
of memory that rests on the neurological findings and phenomenological data.
Perhaps, reading of a literary work has more impact than the literature
available on neurology and neuro-physiology as far as the expression of those
seemingly metaphysical assertions is concerned. Or that neurology, as a
scientific investigation, prevents us from asserting anything metaphysical
whereas literature, as an art or as an embodiment of aesthetic experiences,
compels us to go metaphysical.
'There are no concepts' (p.2) but there is 'understanding
or conceptualizing, and herewith the ability to conceptualize' (p.6). There is
no hidden mind but brain and its activities expressed in consciousness. There
is no storehouse or box of memories (remembrances) but a capacity to construct
remembrances. These are some of the key assertions made, argued for and well
defended, to develop the model of constructive memory on the model of Dynamic
Conceptual Semantics. Roughly speaking, for Bartsch, it is activity that
matters and not something static; be it concept, meaning, memory or
understanding; none is a mental entity but an activity or a result of certain
activities of the brain.
This work does contribute to philosophy of mind too.
Searle's Chinese Room refutes strong AI, the idea that mind is to brain, as
program is to computer hardware, on the ground that the program of a digital
computer has no semantics but syntax only whereas mind has both semantics and
syntax. Bartsch goes one step ahead; it is not just a semantics but a dynamic
semantics, the Dynamic Conceptual Semantics, that guides human understanding;
therefore, mind is neither a program of a hardware computer nor a hidden static
abstract entity. Also, banking on neurological connectionism, Bartsch explains
how one can maintain the refutation of a hidden mind and yet uphold the
significance of the semantics involved in our mental activities and, more
importantly, the significance of human life that has aesthetic experiences.
How memory and understanding contribute to the emergence
of aesthetic experience is explicated in the 3rd chapter. In this
chapter, Bartsch claims that Proust's novels, particularly, Remembrance of Things
Past, 'conforms to the principles and structures of concept formation and
understanding, and the role of memory in perception and action.'(p.65). Bergson
is the other prominent figure of this chapter. Bartsch considers Bergson's On
Memory and Matter the beginning of today's neuropsychology. For Bartsch,
Bergson's philosophy on memory, perception, action and understanding does have
many things common with the theory of concept formation and understanding
Bartsch has advanced. As Proust's novels conform the theory with what Bergson's
work has many things common, Bartsch argues, the two do not contradict each
other but go together consistently on various points of investigation. An
alternative interpretation of Proust's novel has been criticized in chapter 4.
It is Russell Epstein's interpretation that Bartsch considers an alternative
and wrong. According to Bartsch, Epstein interpretes Prosut's novel to be
having a stream-like dynamics, whereas Proust's novel presents 'a more
developing system of conceptualization, a life-history of concept formation and
growing understanding' (p. 139).
Style-wise: one can learn how to write a book without
giving footnotes and endnotes; one may encounter an odd combination, namely, 'from
out', many a times; also, one can find how lavishly Bartsch quotes Proust. This
book is an enjoyable academic text; even one may obtain certain aesthetic
experiences through remembering one's past in the process of understanding the
text; one may find the true paradise, that is, the paradise lost.
Memory and Understanding is for academics in philosophy, cognitive science,
neurology, literature and aesthetics; particularly, for those who would wish to
look into a model of our mind that integrates the said subjects together.
© 2006 Laxminarayan Lenka
Lenka, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India.