The Conversion of Memory and Intentionality in St. Augustine’s Confessions

by David Fleischacker

Last night, I met a seminarian who had been reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions and was discussing how much he liked the last section (book 10 and on) on memory, time, and eternity.  It brought to mind some of my own memories about the book and about Saint Augustine’s City of God.  Memory is that by which a person is oriented in the present and toward the future.  Amnesia helps to point this out – without memories we would not know the people around us, or even our own names, or the language that we speak.  A priest friend of mine pointed out another thing that was even more important to Augustine that is linked to memory, namely commemoratio. Notice that it has the word memory in it.  As well it contains “co-“ and “ratio”, which points to living in the truth with each other.  Fr. Matthew Lamb writes on this term. Commemoratio articulates the public nature of truth and how living in that truth as a member of the one human race results in a mutual indwelling.

In the Confessions, it is illuminating to read the first nine books as an account of the conversion of Augustine’s own memories, a conversion that awakens him in a more comprehensive biographical manner to the eternal love and forgiveness and justice of God.  Even the simplest memories that he has, such as stealing fruit (something like Adam and Eve had done) are transformed into forgiven acts by which God’s glory shines upon him and the world, and he is elevated into the light of God’s loving forgiveness as a son of God the Father.  Throughout those nine books, Augustine recalls with God’s help the multitude of memories of relationships with family and friends and teachers.  In each case, these memories are transformed in God’s loving light.  One sees how Augustine discerns the dialectic of sin and grace operative in his life, and how God’s grace was working at every moment, even those that were the result of his own sin as he was tossed or tossed himself into the storms of life.  He came to apprehend God’s pursuit of him even in those dark and descending moments in his life.

For Augustine, after his conversion, recalling every memory as he does in the  Confessions involves a transformation of his presence with the others in his life.  They come to dwell in him as creatures and as part of God’s loving providence, as individuals in a fallen world whom God calls out like He did in the Garden of Eden…. Where are you? Why are you hiding? If you have read the Confessions you know that before Augustine’s conversion, he was in the “out of doors” and enslaved in his disordered desires.  He could not think of God or of other human beings except in material images (God as a kind of infinite matter with an infinity of space).  God allowed him to travel through a multitude of experiences (including his travels into the Manichean religion) that constantly included God’s response — sometimes one of desolation that was a result of his fleeing from God, other times one of consolation in which God was awakening him to the truly good.  These moments, especially those that awoke him to the question of good and evil, eventually brought him to a moment in which his mind was elevated to apprehend reality that was beyond the material (see book 7, chapter 10), and that his sinful state was far from the light above.  Even with that experience, he was not free.  His will had to be liberated from the world of lust and disordered desire, a liberation which he recounted in the details of book 8.  After God frees him,  Augustine is able to join in a new commemoratio with his own Mother before she dies.

These transformed memories allow Augustine to grasp, live, and dwell from the totality of his life, his friends, family, and enemies within a commemoratio of God’s eternity and love. That is the real commemoratio of the human race.  Years after writing the Confessions, Augustine’s City of God expands his commemoratio to include a transformation of how one should live in the totality of history as a dialectic between the city of man and the city of God.

In terms of intentionality analysis, a few notes are in order.

  1. Through the operators of the transcendental notions, intellectual operations (insight), rational operations (reflective insight and judgment), and moral operations (apprehension of value, judgments of value, and decisions) emerge within the subject.  Though these are intrinsically independent of the empirical residue, they are extrinsically dependent in and through motor-sensory conscious intentionality, which in turn operates within a neural matrix all the way down to quarks and primitive forms of energy.  Memory at these higher spiritual levels has a dependence upon these material levels, and so it can be disrupted by damages or disruptions of these lower levels. Destroy the neural matrices and the ability to re-enact intellectual, rational, and moral operations is lost.  In other words, these intellectual and moral habits are lost. To state this another way, images, phantasms, and certain types of symbols are necessary for the emergence in human subjects of insights, reflective  insight, and evaluative insights.  Memories always include this embodied element in the human subject. Once embodied, the transcendental notions are able to generate with greater ease those spiritual operations.
  2. In the human subject, there are not from what I can discern any memories that are purely spiritual and completely independent from the neural and motor-sensory levels.  This simply follows from Lonergan’s point about the relationship of spiritual operations upon the lower sensate operations in all human subjects.  Insight is always into image/phantasm. We need our bodies to have insights, to affirm judgments, and to make decisions.  Likewise, our memories require a re-enactment of our neural matrices involved in phantasms.
  3. Memory is not merely a material act however.  Once one has an insight, “recalling” that insight, and becoming intelligibly present to the object of the insight again is simply to have the same exact insight as the original.  There is no difference.  However, the recollected insight does emerge “easily” or habitually because a change has taken place in the neural matrix (though there is much work to be done, many studies of the biochemistry of memory have been conducted, and reveal some interesting and fascinating processes).
  4. Having the freedom to recall insights, judgments, and decisions, or in more comprehensive ways, systems of thought and scales of value, itself includes a neural matrix of embodied connections. From what I can tell from neurological studies, key parts of the forebrain (or what some call the executive brain) are involved in this liberty.
  5. True direct insights are isomorphorphic with the form that is known by these insights. This allows for an indwelling of the known in the knower, and the beloved in the love.  Thus when mutual intellectual subjects know and love each other, then there arises a mutual indwelling.  This provides the basis and possibility of commemoratio.  When that mutual indwelling is rooted upon the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, along with the entire City of God, then one begins to get a sense of the more comprehensive character of commemoratio.
  6. The transcendental notions are likewise a key in recalling memories as well.  A mere forebrain neural structure is not going to be able to pull forward the proper images needed for insight because it is not capable of seeking a spiritual operation, such as an insight.  The forebrain needs to be sublated within the spiritual operators that we call the transcendental notions (of intelligibility, of being, and of value) which form the comprehensive capacity for self-transcendence.
  7. One final note, from what I have seen in the biochemical studies on neurons, “memory” is not stored in one location while the image/phantasm is located in another. Rather, once one has an insight, the recollection of that insight is simply an enactment of the same neural streams that led to the original insight.  (the same is true when one remembers a sense operation — seeing is not one operation and the memory of seeing another, rather, remembering a seen object is simply activating the neural patterns involved in first seeing the object.

Moving through Conceptuality with Acts of Understanding: Augustine, Aquinas, Lonergan


To understand a bit better what could be meant by saying that acts of understanding, by their very nature, always transcend material variables and conditions, one can verify the meaning of such a claim or, on the other hand, one can discover the meaning of such a claim, if, for instance, as a thought experiment, one moves into the theology of St. Augustine and one carefully reads and studies it in order to locate and identify some of St. Augustine's principal insights (insights as one finds these in the understanding which he evinces in his theology). For instance, if one takes St. Augustine's understanding of moral evil and sin, an understanding is offered which refers to moral evil and sin as the absence of any meaning or significance. Sin, evil is the absence of any kind of intelligibility. Sin, evil exists as a privation, as an absence of being. It is that which should not be. At times, in his texts, Bernard Lonergan refers to moral evil as a “false fact.” Hence, as one encounters understandings of this kind which cut across historical and cultural barriers, one realizes that, by their very nature, acts of understanding possess a degree of ahistoricity. Yes, they are conditioned by their circumstances of origin and emergence but, no, they are not determined by the influence of these same circumstances. An act of understanding is one thing. A proffered conceptualization is another. Acts of understanding exist in a self-transcending kind of manner and this self-transcendence explains why they can be enjoyed by any person who experiences degrees of self-transcendence in one's own life through the acts of understanding which one may happen to have.


In looking back into the theological tradition, it can be admitted that an insight or an act of understanding can be expressed in the words and the language of an inadequate philosophy. The conceptuality which is employed might not be too sound or accurate. Misleading connotations can be suggested. Witness, for example, how St. Augustine speaks about human judgment in a manner which relies on Platonic cognitional conceptions. One knows a truth by contemplating or by looking at a set of higher eternal reasons which, in some way, one sees or beholds from a distance. From the context of a lower viewpoint, one ascends or looks upwards toward some kind of higher viewpoint that is given or beheld by a seeing which now occurs within one's mind. Cf. Lonergan, Verbum, p. 85. In the kind of language which Augustine uses, in our human knowing one does not simply believe or hold to what one's bodily eyes may see since “what is not so seen is more truly seen, for what is [physically] seen belongs to time, but what is seen with the mind and soul belongs to eternity.” Cf. Augustine, Tractatus de Mysteriis, nos. 8-16, as cited by Matthew Lamb, Eternity, Time, and the Life of Wisdom (Naples, Florida: Sapientia Press, 2007), pp. 32-33.


When speaking about his own analysis, Augustine refers to a process of self-reflection which leads him to speak about a cognitional movement which he finds within the depths of his soul (a cognitional movement that takes him from instances of sensible experience to instances of intelligible experience as this is given to him through lightning flashes or quick glimpses that suddenly and unexpectedly reveal the presence and workings of a higher “intelligible and intelligent light.” Cf. Lamb, p. 32. As Augustine had noted in his Confessions: although the mind “generates all images,” it is not itself an image. It possesses a “totally different nature.” It exists as a “spiritual presence or light” which is able to know that what is real is not to be identified with what exists as a body. Cf. Confessions, 7, 1, as cited by Lamb, p. 32; 7, 1-13, as cited by Lamb, n. 16, p. 35. The human mind exercises a specific causality of its own and in a manner which verifies a traditional maxim (in the words which Leibniz uses to express this maxim): “there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses, except the intellect itself.” Cf. Loemker, G. W. Leibniz 556, as cited and quoted by Tim Lynch, “Human Knowledge: Passivity, Experience, and Structural Actuation: An Approach to the Problem of the A Priori,” Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies 17 (Spring 1999): 77.


In the words of Augustine's conceptuality, in the human knowledge of any truth, a “changing mind” is contrasted with what never changes. It is changed by “unchanging, eternal truth.” Tentative acts of understanding, to the degree that they exist as true acts of understanding, are all grounded in eternal reasons which, in Augustine, are to be regarded as first principles although, in the conceptuality of his language, Augustine does not speak about first principles, “first principles” being a designation which Aquinas uses in order to speak (in a more differentiated manner) about grounding acts of sense and intellect (acts of sense and intellect which function as the first principles of one's human cognition in all its subsequent acts). Acts of human reason are normed by fundamental laws of thought that govern how one's mind can rationally move from one proposition or thought to another proposition or thought without risk of contradiction. Through this kind of approach, however, which moves from Augustine to Aquinas, a transposition is effected which allows one to move from the philosophy of mind present in Augustine to the philosophy of mind present in Aquinas (in a manner which transcends what differences may exist). The context is a prolongation or a continuity which is to be adverted to and which exists more profoundly and more deeply than the existence of any difference.


By way of the understanding which Aquinas brings to his discussion, the eternal reasons of Augustine undergo a kind of shift because of how they are being interpreted. In Aquinas, they come to exist as a set of cognitive first principles that one normally observes as fundamental precepts whenever one is engaged in good cognitive praxis in one's human cognition. By an analysis that speaks about first principles and different kinds of first principles, the eternal reasons of St. Augustine receive an articulation which adds to what is known about them as one thinks about how they were understood by St. Augustine. Or, if one wants to speak in another way about the kind of change that is occurring here, one can say that Aquinas's analysis unpacks a meaning for eternal reasons which, perhaps, Augustine had been attempting in vain to identify and to spell out in the context of his theology. He could not do certain tasks too well with the kind of cognitional philosophy which he had inherited and which he was borrowing from the Platonic tradition in philosophy that was then prevalent in his day.


In Augustine's philosophy of mind, one finds that human knowing does not exist as some kind of simple, single act which is to be equated with a philosophy of mind which thinks about knowing in terms of a simple act of intuition. Augustine's distinctions with respect, for instance, to the difference between “understanding and judging, conception and truth” all point to a philosophy of cognition which realizes that human knowing exists as an ordered structure of different kinds of acts which are all necessarily related to each other. Cf. Lamb, n. 12, p. 34. Not only, on the one hand, does the human mind have a nature which differs from that which belongs to acts of sense but, on the other hand, it has to be said that the human mind has a nature which points to a number of different operations that cannot all be reduced to each other. If, for instance, one looks at how, in the De Trinitate 15, 11, n. 20, Augustine distinguishes an inner or mental word (a word which exists as a concept) from words which exist as audible sounds and from words which exist as remembered, imagined audible sounds (an “inner word” is other; it exists as the term of rational or mental operations), then one finds evidence which indicates that, in Augustine, beyond sensible activities and operations, one can find operations that point to a higher level of cognitive activity which is specifically mental, rational, or intellectual. One kind of operation accounts for images; another, for concepts. Cf. Crowe, “Some Background Notes to Lonergan's Insight,” Lonergan and the Level of Our Time, p. 18; p. 25.


In conclusion then, as these examples may well thus illustrate and perhaps demonstrate, acts of understanding function as privileged points of access for anyone who is interested in moving into the understanding and wisdom which has come down to us from earlier developments in philosophy and theology. The intellectuality or the spiritual character which belongs to acts of understanding explains why, through later acts of understanding which other persons can have, a person in one age and time can begin to enter the mind and soul of other human beings who have lived in earlier ages and times and who have yet also truly enjoyed acts of understanding which have united them to a world of real objects – a world which exists whether or not it is known by any given human being through human acts of understanding and judgment.

Lonergan’s Notions of Consciousness Derived from St. Augustine’s Notions of Presence

In the De Trinitate, 10, 3, 12, St. Augustine distinguishes between two kinds of presence (which have been interpreted as two kinds of object). A first kind refers to something which exists as the terminus or term of a cognitional act (whether one speaks about an act of sense or an act of reason). As Augustine notes, this is the kind of presence which exists if one sees one's face in a mirror. One's face, as seen in a mirror, is experienced as an object, an external object. It exists cognitionally as an other. It is other than one's act of cognition although it also exists as the term of one's cognitive act. A second kind of presence or object, however, refers to an experience of self-presence. As Lonergan translates the wording of Augustine’s discussion as he cites Augustine's text in The Incarnate Word, p. 182: “But when it is said to the mind: ‘Know yourself,’ then it knows itself in the very act in which it understands the word ‘yourself’; and it knows itself for no other reason than that it is present to itself.” In his Summa Contra Gentiles 3, 46, 8, Aquinas refers to this insight of St. Augustine: “And so, according to Augustine’s meaning, our mind knows itself through itself, in so far as it knows concerning itself, that it is. Indeed, from the fact that it perceives that it acts it perceives that it is. Of course, it acts through itself, and so, through itself, it knows concerning itself that it is.” On the basis of the kind of wording used, Augustine and Aquinas do not speak directly about consciousness although, if one refers to how Lonergan talks about these two kinds of presence as they were known by Augustine and Aquinas, he refers to presence by way of a transposition which speaks about consciousness and the existence of different theories about consciousness. Presence, the presence of something suggests a metaphysics; consciousness, an understanding of cognition.

Before venturing into a more specific explanation that one might allude to in the context of Lonergan's work and interests, an historical note helps us understand why, for instance, Augustine and Aquinas did not explicitly speak about consciousness and self-consciousness (as we directly speak of these things and as Lonergan also speaks of them). Owen Barfield’s History in English Words (Inner Traditions International, April 1986), pp. 169-171, looks at the vocabulary of the “self” and notes how developments in our concept of the human self (especially since the 16th Century) have had fructifying consequences for developments in language so that we can now speak more precisely about the interior life of the human self in a manner which can distinguish between different parts and elements and which can also speak about the relations which also exist between different parts and elements. Citing one summary that speaks about this development (Fr. John Eudes Bamburger, “Retreat conference given at St. Anselm’s Abbey, Washington, DC,” August 22, 2009, unpublished):

Plato and other Greek philosophers had but a partial grasp of the concept of the self as we know it. Although the first glimmerings of the modern self appear in the High Middle Ages under the form of such words as the individual and the person yet it functions under many occult influences. It is only after the Reformation and especially at the end of the 16th Century that such a series of words as self-consciousness, self-conceit, self-love, self-liking, self-command, self-esteem, self-knowledge, and other hyphenated forms of self appear. Descartes, in 1664, made the thinking self the source of knowledge and most philosophers since his time have assumed the same stance. It was shortly before this date that Locke…adopted the new word “consciousness” and defined it as “perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” Coleridge was the first to use the term “self-conscious.”

In turning then to proximate reasons which can be identified in Lonergan's thought, because consciousness exists as a human experience which all persons can relate to and identify, it can be regarded as a fundamental point of departure for discussions which would want to move through consciousness to whatever can be known about a human subject. But, if Augustine and Aquinas speak about two kinds of presence or two kinds of object, they are referring to a metaphysical difference which translates into a cognitional difference that distinguishes between two notions of consciousness. The experience of one kind of object suggests a particular species of consciousness and the experience of another kind of object, another species of consciousness. But, without a clear understanding of differences, one will not understand how these two notions or two kinds of consciousness are ordered to each other and how one species of consciousness conditions another. One will not understand why one cannot have one species of consciousness without also having the other. Difficulties in this area create problems for theology if an inappropriate notion of consciousness is employed as an analogy to find deeper meanings than that what is initially given through the proclamation of a revealed truth. The unity of God's being is not well understood if the unity of God's consciousness is not adequately fathomed, if its unity finds no echo in how we, as human beings, experience and find unity within the orientations that we find in our own consciousness. In Christology, Christ's incarnation and suffering death cannot be too well understood if it is not possible to argue that Christ's consciousness of self should be regarded as a precondition for a consciousness which refers to a consciousness of objects that is other than a consciousness of self as this is given in Christ's acts. Without this prior consciousness of self as this occurs through specific acts or by reason of specific, no consciousness of objects can be properly attributed to Christ's consciousness. On the cross, it cannot be said that Christ truly knew pain, that he truly suffered from any pains that were inflicted on him by the kind of death he suffered. Without a good understanding of consciousness that we each have as human beings, we cannot so easily join ourselves to Christ's consciousness in a manner which more fully joins us to the life of a divine being. The availability of our consciousness coupled with its malleability or changeability reveals a point of access which encourages forms of self-examination. We ask about the kind of person which we have become through our acts and we also ask about the kind of person which we can become through our acts. Through changes of consciousness, we can draw closer to God. We become more conscious about the depths of our interiority.