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Anamnesis (Greek: ανάμνησις = recollection, reminiscence) is a term used in medicine, philosophy, psychoanalysis and religion.
PhilosophyIn philosophy, Plato uses the term anamnesis in the epistemological and psychological theory that he develops in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo, and alludes to in his Phaedrus.
MenoIn Meno, Plato's character (and old teacher) Socrates is challenged by Meno with what has become known as the sophistic paradox, or the paradox of knowledge:
- Meno: And how are you going to search for [the nature of virtue] when you don't know at all what it is, Socrates? Which of all the things you don't know will you set up as target for your search? And even if you actually come across it, how will you know that it is that thing which you don't know?
In other words, if you don't know any of the attributes, properties, and/or other descriptive markers of any kind that help signify what something is (physical or otherwise), you won't recognize it, even if you actually come across it. And, as consequence, if the converse is true, and you do know the attributes, properties and/or other descriptive markers of this thing, then you shouldn't need to seek it out at all. The result of this line of thinking is that, in either instance, there is no point trying to gain that "something"; in the case of Plato's aforementioned work, there is no point in seeking knowledge.
Socrates' response is to develop his theory of anamnesis. He suggests that the soul is immortal, and repeatedly incarnated; knowledge is actually in the soul from eternity (86b), but each time the soul is incarnated its knowledge is forgotten in the shock of birth. What one perceives to be learning, then, is actually the recovery of what one has forgotten. (Once it has been brought back it is true belief, to be turned into genuine knowledge by understanding.) And thus Socrates (and Plato) sees himself, not as a teacher, but as a midwife, aiding with the birth of knowledge that was already there in the student.
The theory is illustrated by Socrates asking a slave boy questions about geometry. At first the boy gives the wrong answer; when this is pointed out to him, he is puzzled, but by asking questions Socrates is able to help him to reach the true answer. This is intended to show that, as the boy wasn't told the answer, he could only have reached the truth by recollecting what he had already known but forgotten.
PhaedoIn Phaedo, Plato develops his theory of anamnesis, in part by combining it with his theory of Forms. First, he elaborates how anamnesis can be achieved: whereas in Meno nothing more than Socrates' method of questioning is offered, in Phaedo Plato presents a way of living that would enable one to overcome the misleading nature of the body through katharsis (Greek: καθαρσις; “cleansing” (from guilt or defilement), “purification”). The body and its senses are the source of error; knowledge can only be regained through the use of our reason, contemplating things with the soul (see 66 b–d).
Secondly, he makes clear that genuine knowledge, as opposed to mere true belief, is distinguished by its content. One can only know eternal truths, for they are the only truths that can have been in the soul from eternity. Though it can be very useful to have a true belief about, say, the best way to get from London to Oxford, such a belief does not qualify as knowledge; how could the human soul have known for all eternity a fact about places that have existed for less than 2,000 years?
NeoplatonismFor the later interpreters of Plato, anamnesis was less an epistemic assertion than an ontological one. Plotinus himself did not posit recollection in the strict sense of the term, because all knowledge of universally important ideas came from a source outside of time, and was accessible, by means of contemplation, to the soul. They were more objects of experience, of inner knowledge, than of recollection. Despite this, in Neoplatonism, the theory of anamnesis became part of the mythology of the descent of the soul.
Porphyry's short work De Antro Nympharum (ostensibly a commentary on the brief passage in Odyssey 13) elucidated this notion, as did Macrobius's much longer Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. The idea of psychic memory was used by Neoplatonists to demonstrate the celestial and immaterial origins of the soul, and to explain how memories of the world-soul could be recalled by everyday human beings. As such, psychic recollection was intrinsically connected to the Platonic conception of the soul itself. Since the contents of individual "material" or physical memories were trivial, only the universal recollection of Forms, or divine objects, drew one closer to the immortal source of being.
Anamnesis is the closest that human minds can come to experiencing the freedom of the soul prior to its being encumbered by matter. The process of incarnation is described in Neoplatonism as a shock that causes the soul to forget its experiences (and often its divine origins as well).
Religion"Anamnesis" is used in some Christian churches in reference to the Eucharist. This has its origin in Jesus' words at the Last Supper, "Do this in memory of me" (Greek "Τουτο ποιειτε εις την εμην αναμνησιν", and can refer either to the memorial character of the Eucharist itself or to the part of the service where the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus are remembered.
For example, in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the anamnesis begins with the words:
- Remembering, therefore, this command of the Saviour [i.e., to eat and drink in remembrance of him] and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father and the second, glorious coming...
In most western Christian traditions, on the other hand, the anamnesis comes after the consecration of the bread and the wine.
An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church says of the anamnesis: "This memorial prayer of remembrance recalls for the worshipping community past events in their tradition of faith that are formative for their identity and self-understanding" and makes particular mention of its place in "the various eucharistic prayers".
- Plato Phaedo, 1911: edited with introduction and notes by John Burnet (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
- Jane M. Day 1994 Plato's Meno in Focus (London: Routledge) — contains an introduction and full translation by Day, together with papers on Meno by various philosophers
- Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum [edd], An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians (New York, Church Publishing Incorporated)
- Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato's Meno (Chicago, 1989), pp. 103-173.
- Norman Gulley, Plato's Theory of Knowledge (London, 1962) pp. 1-47.
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