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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Logic and the Art of Memory

Paolo Rossi

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To purchase Logic and the Art of Memory

Title: Logic and the Art of Memory
Author: Paolo Rossi
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1960, 2nd ed. 1983 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Logic and the Art of Memory - US
Logic and the Art of Memory - UK
Logic and the Art of Memory - Canada
Clavis Universalis - France
  • The Quest for a Universal Language
  • Italian title: Clavis Universalis
  • Translated and with an introduction by Stephen Clucas
  • With ten appendices
  • Includes Paolo Rossi's prefaces to both the first and second edition
  • The English translation is of the second edition of 1983 ("extensively revised both in terms of style and presentation")

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very good, well documented historical survey -- but a specialist work

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Paolo Rossi's preface to the first edition of Logic and the Art of Memory explains the original title of the work:

The term clavis universalis was used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to designate a method or general science which would enable man to see beyond the veil of phenomenal appearances, or the 'shadow of ideas', and grasp the ideal and essential structure of reality.
       The term was a popular title in that time and Rossi sites several works bearing it. His own work seeks less to emulate these or propose yet another theory of universal language than to offer a survey of these earlier efforts. This Rossi does very well. It is a fascinating -- and largely forgotten -- piece of intellectual history that he documents, the pursuit of an ideal that preoccupied some of the foremost minds of the time.
       Rossi finds in the practice of the art of memory -- ars memorativa -- much that is also then used in the search for a universal language. The idea of "artificial memory" was a significant one, as numerous thinkers tried to find (or claimed to have found) ways of greatly expanding the natural capabilities of the mind. They tried to find systematic approaches to facilitate retaining vastly more information -- and, significantly, of developing logical approaches to memory that would make the utilization of the retained information much more practical and efficient.
       Classical thinkers -- including Cicero and Aristotle -- paved the way, but it was Ramon Lull, in particular, who did much of the most significant work regarding the art of memory. There was a revival of interest in his work in the 16th and 17th centuries, and he remains the most influential figure in this field. Lull was extremely prolific, and Rossi does an excellent job of tracing many of his obscurer or lesser-known texts and showing how these were used by later generations.
       Giordano Bruno's belief about the great promise memory-techniques, as summarized by Rossi, is fairly typical of the high expectations had by many thinkers of the time:
Bruno believed that the 'miraculous art' of mnemotechnics would lead to a 'renewal' or reform of knowledge, and bring about an infinite increase in man's capacities, and his dominion over nature.
       The theory, on some level, made sense, as a structured, logically constructed system could be seen as offering a hope of reaching "total knowledge". In practice, of course, Lull and those that followed him were less successful. Rossi traces numerous blind alleys, showing where some lost themselves -- and what new spin the next ones to have a go at it put on it.
       There were also critics, and even some who were sympathetic to aspects of some the ideas didn't take all of the claims very seriously. Francis Bacon though the Lullian method "was not worthy of being called a method", calling it "in reality a method for imposture, which is only useful for swindlers." Cornelius Agrippa said the art of memory "has in itself more impudence than efficacy".
       Eventually the focus shifts from the expansion of memory to the search for a universal language, able to express everything, easily understood by all. The methodology and theory behind the universal languages drew extensively on the memory-arts; not surprisingly, similar problems were encountered in achieving any sort of success.
       Rossi follows the different attempts and the various players, including Descartes and, most notably, Leibniz. Rossi succinctly sums up the various approaches taken, but his focus is less on the actual concepts than their evolution. (He does, however, more than adequately sum up the most significant points of each.)
       It is a very interesting bit of intellectual history -- though more on the actual failed attempts would also be welcome. A tightly written survey, it covers and presents a great deal of material clearly and well.
       There are also ten appendices, offering additional material from many of the main players -- but these are presented in the languages they were written in (including Latin, Italian, and French), limiting the use they might be for some readers. (Rossi also quotes extensively in the text proper, but the quotes are given in translation, with the originals usefully provided in the notes.)
       Logic and the Art of Memory is something of a specialist-book. It is, however, certainly very approachable, even for a layman. For those with a specific interest in the subject matter -- and especially universal language theory, Ramon Lull, Leibniz, Giordano Bruno, and other thinkers of that time -- it is an essential text.

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Logic and the Art of Memory: Reviews: Paolo Rossi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian scholar Paolo Rossi was born in 1923. He is professor emeritus at the University of Florence.

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