Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Insight
Part I

So what was the new insight into the nature of the m'komot as well as memory and learning that Rabbi Sacks helped me see? Due to the length of this piece I will present it in two separate posts - additionally, I believe each part is worth considering on its own (I hope to hear the results of your consideration in the comments - thank you very much).

The Question

First I will restate the question. Why does the Ralbag call his methods m'komot? When the scholar told me that he is just using the Hebrew translation of the appropriate Aristotelian term, topica/topoi I should have asked the same question on Aristotle: why does Aristotle call an "argumentative scheme which enables a dialectician or rhetorician to construe an argument for a given conclusion" a topic? The following is written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The word ‘topos’ (place, location) most probably is derived from an ancient method of memorizing a great number of items on a list by associating them with successive places, say the houses along a street one is acquainted with. By recalling the houses along the street we can also remember the associated items...

Aristotle himself compares his topics with this memory technique:

For just as in a person with a trained memory, a memory of things themselves is immediately caused by the mere mention of their 'places', so these habits too will make a man readier in reasoning, because he has his premisses classified before his mind's eye, each under its number. (163b:28-31 trans. W.A. Pickard-Cambridge)

What exactly is the analogy? Learning different schemes of argumentation certainly will improve one's ability to argue well, making him "readier in reasoning". But how is this at all similar to the 'place' technique? I believe the key is the following phrase: "because he has his premisses classified before his mind's eye, each under its number." However, let us first consider why 'places' are useful to memory.

Places and Memories

First, one does not just use any 'places'. One uses a familiar place and preferably a place that can easily be associated with what one needs to remember. For example one might imagine the different places within one's cupboard and refrigerator to memorize a shopping list or the houses on one's block to remember the phone numbers of each family in each respective house (take a look at this excellent article to see how this method can be extended).

Additionally, and more importantly, the 'place' technique works because it is in line with the natural function of our imagination/psyche. Thought progresses from sensory experience of particulars to a general mental image. From that general mental image the intellectual faculty abstracts out the true universal nature that was embodied in the in the original sensory experience. For example, one sees, hears, feels and feels things about a dog; a general mental representation of the dog is formed which combines the different sensory experiences; after many such experiences the mental representation becomes more refined; the mind abstracts a universal formula of 'dog' out of the refined mental representation. These are the steps, in brief:

1) sense;

2) represent;

3) refine;

4) abstract.

Of course, every step must be checked by all the previous steps; i.e. one must make sure that their formula for 'dog' does not equally describe people.

As one progresses along the path of abstraction one's memory of particulars improves. In other words, at first it is difficult to remember all of the different kinds of dogs, the anatomy of dogs, all the varied behaviors of dogs, etc.; but, the more I study dogs the simpler it gets to remember all of the varied details. What once seemed like a mess of random details suddenly gains coherence, now that my "mind's eye" has 'dog glasses'. Another way of saying this is: everything has found it place. Our memories do not work well with chaos, when our thoughts become "classified", "each under its number" what was once difficult to remember becomes simple.

The purpose of Aristotle's topics is to give one familiarity with general schemes of reasoning to improve one's skill to, as he writes in the beginning of the Topics, "reason from reputable opinions about any subject presented to us, and also... when putting forward an argument, avoid saying anything contrary to it" better known as dialectic or argumentation. The more one familiarizes oneself with these topics - the more each one falls into its mental 'place' - the greater one's facility at argumentation.

In my next post I will discuss: 1) why these dialectical schemes should be called places more than any other thinking skill and 2) what this teaches us about Ralbag's Makomot.

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