MPhil Ch4: Nietzsche on Memory: A Collective Memory Type?

Gedächtniß hat Ursachen der Moralität – und wir haben es nicht in der Hand! NB. NF–1880, 6 [344]

4.1 Introduction

The question as to whether Nietzsche recognises a Collective Memory type will be the topic of this Chapter. This is important because commentators – below I will discuss Poole, Margalit, Funkenstein, Gambino, Assmann, Czaplicka and Lattas, Richardson and Staten but there are others – invoke Nietzsche in the context of discussing Collective Memory. There seems to be some conviction that Nietzsche recognises Collective Memory. I will however deny that he does recognise Collective Memory in a meaningful way, which is why this topic has been postponed to a separate chapter. I will argue that when commentators believe that Nietzsche does in fact recognise Collective Memory, it is because they have mistakenly identified his concept that I termed Organic Memory on p. 35. This is a confusion since Organic Memory is not distinctively human while Collective Memory is. By confusing the two, we weaken one of Nietzsche’s main claims which involves drawing a sharp boundary not between humans and animals but between some humans and other humans.

The first point we need to decide on is the definition of Collective Memory. Then we can decide whether Nietzsche recognises it.



4.2 What Is Collective Memory?

Ideas of what Collective Memory is or does tend to be hazy. It might be memories of the second world war. The majority of us, who were not there, nevertheless have ‘folk memories’ of some of the events that took place, and these memories feed into our notions of who we are in what is termed ‘concretisation of identity’. Collective Memory is not the form it is stored in: so it will not be books themselves even though plenty of the contents of Collective Memory, if it exists, could be stored in books. One idea is that Collective Memory is justified because there are certainly memories one must have if one is to be a member of a particular group. There are, certainly, groups of people which may be individuated by a memory that they share. Various items must be remembered to some extent – which does not necessarily mean believed in – in order to be a member of a particular group.

Everyone who claims to be a member of the group of people who support the England football team must remember Stuart Pearce exorcising the ghost of a missed penalty in Euro 96. If they had no memory of this, they would not be accepted as a member of the group by other members. This, for some authors, suffices to establish that there is a useful concept of Collective Memory. However, finding the term useful as shorthand does not suffice to make Collective Memory exist as a unity. Commentators employ the term Collective Memory more often than they define it. It is certainly right, as Poole suggests1 that the term Collective Memory needs to be handled with care, and to note that “there is a genuine question as to legitimacy of the notion of collective memory”.

Margalit observes2 that while there are indisputable cases of individual memory, there are no indisputable cases of Collective Memory; it may just be a “doubtful extended metaphor”. It is then suggested that an ethical treatment of the past requires that Collective memory exist, because “[c]onveying the sensibility of events from the past that should be landmarks in our collective moral consciousness calls for a special agent of collective memory”.3 This ‘special agent’ is some kind of ‘moral witness’. Nietzsche will have a large number of problems with this. He will doubtless begin by observing that even if you are successful in showing that your moral consciousness requires X, this is no security whatsoever that X exists, or will fulfil the role you need. He will be entirely deaf to your pleas that X ‘should’ exist because the world is not arranged for your benefit. Beyond this impressive opening defence, he will if pressed have additional resources to deploy. He may point to the circularity involved in having a moral requirement for the existence of X in order to give moral significance to something else. He may point out that you have not yet done anything at all to convince him that your morality is the right one. All of this produces an initial

1Poole [28, p. 274].
2Margalit [31, p. 15].
3Margalit [31, p. 17].


scepticism that Nietzsche will recognise Collective Memory: what is clear is that he will not allow any weight to an argument for Collective Memory that requires it to exist to fulfil an unfounded moral requirement.

Funkenstein wishes to retain the term, even while admitting that the memories of a particular event will be different for different people who experienced it; to say nothing about the different memories of people who experienced an event and those who were informed of it. Collective Memory is “not a mistaken and misleading term” provided it is “used within clear limitations”.4 An attempt is then made to define Collective Memory by analogy with language. A language is instantiated by speech acts of individuals, and also in writing. We can meaningfully speak of the existence of a language because we can sum over all of the individual occasions when someone speaks or writes English and say: that is the English language. The analogy with memory purports to be that we can sum over all of the individuals involved in what we might term ‘memory acts’ and say: that is Collective Memory. At this point, Socrates of all people will bring the fatal complaint that you are giving him examples when he asked for a definition. This again shows at most the useful nature of the idea of Collective Memory and pragmatic advantage does not suffice as an existence proof.

The obvious question underlying all of this is how can there even be a Collective Memory since only individuals have memories, as we normally understand the term. While Nietzsche has widened our perspectives as to what those individual memories can contain and how dynamic they can and should be, the extent to which these factors apply to collectives rather than the individuals remains to be seen. We have though seen, in §2.3, that Nietzsche allows the apparent commonality of fabricated experience to be a reflection of the way that we will all tend to use similar projections. Then there is also the question as to what these groups are that might have Collective Memory. Candidate groups will include nations, ethnic groups, members of a university and cricket aficionados. These groups will have different qualifying memories. Some groups one will choose to become a member of and some will be a result of biology or history. It will be immediately apparent that any individual would have a large array of overlapping collective memories, so we would be dealing with a diffuse and amorphous phenomenon.

The term Collective Memory, if it is to be meaningful, must not reduce to being a collection of individual memories. It must be greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, it must be non-compositional. If it is not, then it is merely a re-description at a more convenient level of a phenomenon that actually only takes place on an individual level. By analogy, it may be more convenient for me to say that the England cricket team performed well on the field, rather than listing each member

4Funkenstein [56, p. 6].


of the team and stating the same in relation to each. That does not establish that the team has the same mode of existence as the men that make it up. Similarly, if Collective Memory is just a convenient way of describing common influences on individual memory, it is not a separate entity from individual memories.

It now becomes difficult to find a definition of Collective Memory that gives it actual existence – or at least, to place it on a similar footing to individual memory. After all, individual memory is not an object, so we should not set the bar any higher for Collective Memory. ‘Individual memory’ is a useful term because it refers to the observed phenomenon of persons being able to recall events in the past. It is a physical phenomenon, if physicalism is correct; in any case, it is a real ability that persons have. So we need to find what Collective Memory could be to be a real ability that persons have if we are to set the bar at the same level. Again, it cannot be a re- description such that if I and my brother can both remember the same cricket game, that suffices to establish Collective Memory. This seems to be a common influence on separate individual memories – which is not a controversial claim. So Collective Memory must add something to separate memories. Perhaps I have a memory which is incomplete in some way, either in regard to content or to significance, and it can be completed by a memory that someone else has. If we found this, we would have identified Collective Memory, because we would have found something that could not be re-described by listing the contents of individual memories, assuming such an exercise to be possible. Throughout this thesis, I will define Collective Memory as any use of memory or its contents in which the results could not be re-described on the basis of a sum over individual memories.

Poole proposes5 to arrive at an account of Collective Memory by extending Nietzsche’s concept of ‘memory of the will’, or conative will as it is termed. This project will involve the concepts of collective identities, by which can be meant group membership or nationality, and shared responsibilities. The intention is to extend the account of conative memory from the individual to Collective Memory, and argue that if we understand the role of Collective Memory “in terms derived from” Nietzsche (and Locke), we will understand its role in the formation of collective identities and the transmission of collective responsibilities. This may not exactly be a claim that Nietzsche recognises a type of Collective Memory, but it is at least tantamount to one. It tells us that he should have recognised it or that he has provided us with the tools to do so, even if he did not do so himself.

Poole argues6 that “Nietzsche’s insight was to realise that this kind of memory, and the identity associated with it, was not given by nature […] but created by […] social life.” We must here again be careful to avoid concluding that a memory which is created by a collective is ipso facto a Collective Memory. The argument continues by

5Poole [28, p. 264].
6Poole [28, p. 273].


suggesting that this memory may be the type of memory that Nietzsche sees society imposing using pain on the GM account that we have considered at length. It does seem clear that society imposes these memories that I have termed passive memories as a way of enforcing commitments to society, but that does not entail that this is Collective Memory, unless we accept that general memories that are ‘the same’ in different individuals suffices to qualify those as collective memories. There is then a question as whether you and I have the numerically identical memory when we both remember that we have to pay tax; or whether some lesser criterion – perhaps different tokens or instantiations of ‘the same’ memory – will mean that we have (share?) a Collective Memory of tax obligations. I will deny this.

4.3 Does Nietzsche Recognise Collective Memory?

There are two elements in Nietzsche’s work which one might see as Collective Memory. These are the various types of historical sense discussed in UM II and then the GM II notion of societies feeling a sense of being indebted to their founders. I discuss each in turn.

4.3.1 Historical Sense

The first question here is whether Nietzsche is referring to memory at all when he discusses the historical sense. Then we will need to decide on whether we can extend to a Collective Type. I will conclude that the historical sense is indeed a type of memory for Nietzsche, but that he does not intend it to be extended to a collective type.

What Is Historical Sense?

Historical sense is our sense that there has been a past and that we have a place in its narrative. It allows us to “assimilate and appropriate the things of the past”,7 which gives us Nietzsche’s central question: what is it good for? It is the use of past events to aid us in our current purposes.

Historical sense has three types: “monumental”, “antiquarian” and “critical”.8 I will discuss the first below – see p. 68. Antiquarian history is a excessive “scholarliness”9 that leads to the mummification against which Nietzsche warns. Critical history is the use of the past by considering it and condemning it where necessary: it can form something to be usefully overcome: we must “break up and dissolve a part of the past”.10

7Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, pp. 62–63].
8Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 77].
9Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 75].
10Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 75].


Historical sense is “a hypertrophied virtue”.11 So Nietzsche allows that it is beneficial when kept within limits and only its overgrowth creates problems. These problems occur when the Historical Sense “no longer conserves life but mummifies it”.12 The problem is one of incorrect use: inspiration for new ways of life is preferred above slavish reflection of the old. Culture, on Nietzsche’s diagnosis, is obsessed by getting to ‘the truth’ of the past and knows that it is. Nietzsche is surrounded by historians and philologists; he will tire of the latter discipline. One’s historical sense is how interested one is in the past. Nietzsche’s question is whether the level of interest is healthy; his answer is no. We might imemdiately wonder whether his own consuming interest in the ancient Greeks is healthy. He has one ready response – he may well not be an exemplar of health – but less glibly, he may propose that the Greeks were interested in the past in a more mythological way, in the way it could inspire action. Thus Nietzsche can claim that he is doing monumental history in a beneficial way.

Is Historical Sense A Form Of Memory?

I will argue that historical sense is a form of memory. Note that if to the contrary Historical Sense is not memory, it is a fortiori not Collective Memory.

The first indication that Nietzsche is talking about memory comes from his setup of the dialectic. He begins the relevant section by speaking of the happiness of animals who are happy because they are forgetful. This is to be contrasted with the unhappy humans who are unhappy because they cannot forget. The human “clings relentlessly to the past”.13 The animal, by contrast, “lives unhistorically”.14 Thus, the animal lacks historical sense, memory and unhappiness. We might perhaps allow that animals do ‘remember’ certain things, in that they can sometimes retrieve items they have previously hidden, for example. This may just be heuristic behaviour though and in any case, it does not constitute memory of the form that humans have where, essentially, I am part of my own memories: I am in the picture. In contrast with animals, the human has historical sense, memory and unhappiness. So at least, memory and historical sense go together.

Secondly, Nietzsche uses the term ‘incorporate’, which as we saw in §2.3, is one of his code words for memory. The term occurs in his discussion of plastic power, which we will discuss again in the next section. Plastic power is defined to be “the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way, to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign”.15 Plastic power is in fact the power of Active Memory. This again reminds us that active transformation and incorporation is the

11Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 61].
12Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 75].
13Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 61].
14Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 61].
15Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 62].


key to beneficial use of memory. The idea of plastic power is a measure of the amount of activity promotion of which memory is capable; Nietzsche evaluates such power positively and indeed thinks a lack of it will be fatal to individuals and peoples. The repetition of the triad ‘man, people, culture’ seems to be more than a stylistic trope: Nietzsche does agree that there is something like a memory that a culture can have. This is emphasised by the fact that two of the terms in the repeated triad are collective terms.

We then have a further coded but unmistakable reference to the excessive Passive Memory of the men of ressentiment who will “possess so little [plastic power] that they can perish from a single painful event, often and especially from a single subtle piece of injustice”.16 This sounds exactly like the problem of Dostoyevsky’s protagonist, as discussed on p. 33. While Nietzsche does not use the term ressentiment in BT, it is interesting that he is making a reference to something like it so far ahead of GM. As we noted on p. 17, Passive Memory is either Imposed or Inhibitory and this passes both tests. The individual possessed by ressentiment will be able to do little about that situation and also it will have substantial inhibitory effects: were the individual able to act uninhibitedly, they would scarcely be a sufferer from ressentiment. Nietzsche then contrasts these individuals with those possessing more Active Memory, who “possess[] a kind of clear conscience” irrespective of “dreadful disasters [or] their own wicked acts”.17 Thus once again, the Active Memory users remain positive and active via a valuable ignorance of the consequences of their acts.

There is further evidence that the historical sense and memory at least go together, when Nietzsche writes: “[i]t is not at all senseless to think that our memory of the past was lesser and that the historical sense also slept, as it slept in the historical acme of the Greeks”.18 This is best interpreted by agreeing that the historical sense is a type of memory for Nietzsche.

There is a parallel between the facts that there is a typology of the Historical Sense and the claim of this thesis that there is a typology of memory. We might also note the parallels that memory as well as Historical Sense are – only loosely – truth-tracking, in that both ostensibly aim at the truth, and derive their authority from that aim. Nietzsche tells us that monumental history may be inaccurate, but that does not matter: its ability to inspire action is more important. Memory too often falls short of truth-tracking and is even distorted.

We must for all these reasons conclude that Nietzsche is indeed discussing memory, both passive and active, in this section on ‘historical sense’.

16Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 62].
17Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 62].
18Nietzsche KSA [3, NF – 1873, 29(172)]. Nachlaß, my translation.

66 CHAPTER 4. A COLLECTIVE MEMORY TYPE? Is Historical Sense Collective Memory?

I will deny that Historical Sense is Collective Memory. Anyone believing that Nietzsche recognises Collective Memory must either think that Historical Sense is Collective Memory or the indebtedness of societies which I will discuss in §4.3.2 is Collective Memory. I will therefore be denying both supporting claims in pursuit of my overall argument that Nietzsche does not recognise Collective Memory.

Nietzsche certainly sees some analogies between capacities deriving from the memory of individuals, peoples and cultures. He discusses the damage done by excess of ‘historical sense’, and says that a certain ‘plastic power’ is needed to recover from that excess. Nietzsche writes that the determining the degree of the historical sense which is harmful to the “living thing, whether this living thing be a man or a people or a culture” we need to know “how great the plastic power of a man, a people, a culture is”.19 As shown immediately above, plastic power is another term for the power of Active Memory, so here Nietzsche is saying that the amount or strength of Active Memory possessed by an individual or a culture is the key to deciding their strength. Individuals or cultures who are strong in this way will be able to survive the dangers of Passive Memory, being an excess of historical sense.

The second question then is whether we must also conclude that there is a Collective Memory type. So far we know that the plastic power actively to incorporate can be possessed by individuals and groups, and must be if they are to survive. The fact that groups can possess it does not go any distance towards showing that it is possessed by a group per se; it is consistent with the different claim that a group of individuals each possess it. We know also that this plastic power means the ability to ‘incorporate’ the past and the foreign, to transform it to become useful. Yet this addition of the foreignness that must also be assimilated and the use of the incorporation metaphor for memory weakness the claim that purely memory is under discussion here in terms of what the collective should do, because assimilation of the foreign is not a function of memory. This is true whether we use a standard understanding of the term memory or even extend it to Nietzsche’s picture on which there is also a type of Organic Memory.

This is again suggested by how Nietzsche continues his analysis. While he continues to apply his findings both to a man and to society, he constantly actually discusses it in terms of the individual. Nietzsche writes: “the most powerful nature […] would draw to itself and incorporate into itself all the past”; he also states that it is a “universal law” that a “living thing can be healthy, strong and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon”.20 We have here an important distinction. It is true that Nietzsche observes common factors which apply to all living things and that these relate

19Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 62].
20Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 63].


to the memories of those living things. It is also true that similar requirements apply to collectives, who also need boundaries and plastic power for strength. But these points do not entail a Collective Memory type. They do not exclude it either, but the simplest interpretation of Nietzsche here is to allow that he sees that individuals and a collective of individuals will have similar requirements on them in terms of memory, strength and boundaries, but that the Collective Memory may simply be a sum of individual memories rather than a type of Collective Memory. Staten in effect notes this option. He employs21 the term “cultural memory” but later notes that a practice being “the same” across different individuals does not entail “any kind of sameness in the internal representations of those individuals”.22

So for there to be a Collective Memory, there must be something that transcends the individual. If there could be a collective whole that is greater than the sum of individual parts then we would have a true Collective Memory. Otherwise we just have some separate individuals who have similar memories. So now the question becomes: how should we define Collective Memory, in order to decide whether Nietzsche recognises it? This is the question of the next section, §4.2, but first I will look at commentary purporting to link Nietzsche to Collective Memory.


Collective Memory is not what Nietzsche is discussing and that his opaque reference to Organic Memory which we have now elucidated have confused commentators. Nietzsche’s Organic Memory can accommodate the role commentators have allotted to Collective Memory. This is because one key element for Nietzsche of Organic Memory – that it reaches back to previous generations of humans – is sufficient to mean that all humans have it. Recall that we defined Organic Memory on p. 35 as any use of memory in which any of the following markers are present: i). it is physiologically based; or ii). it is stored via experiences of events that did not take place during the lifetime of the rememberer or iii). it is available to humans and also life more generally. Since we defined Collective Memory on p. 62 as any use of memory or its contents in which the results could not be re-described on the basis of a sum over individual memories, two types of memory could co-exist or overlap.

An indication on what we might term the compatibilist side of this question comes from discussion by Poole23 of a late paper of Freud’s. In this, Freud suggests that there is a repressed collective or cultural memory in Jewish people of the murder of the original Moses. On the account, the repression of this memory leads to guilt which is identified as a feature of the Jewish religion. The memory involved here extends back further than individual memory, as Organic Memory does, but also forms part

21Staten [16, p. 575].
22Staten [16, p. 577].
23Poole [28, p. 276].


of a culture, as Collective Memory does. Freud has extrapolated the phenomenon of repression from an individual to a collective level. Since Freud also holds that the transmission mechanism across generations is biological, he is in agreement with Nietzsche, but this again suggests that that the parallel is to Nietzsche’s Organic Memory.

Funkenstein has surprisingly shown24 that Hegel recognised Collective Memory since he used the term in the context of his writings on historical processes. This is significant because we know Nietzsche was familiar with Hegel and in particular was concerned to oppose his historical views. While Nietzsche is free to accept some of Hegel’s views and reject others, to the extent that Collective Memory underpins Hegel’s historical world-process and Nietzsche rejects that, Nietzsche is pro tanto committed to denying Collective Memory also. Funkenstein also allots25 the credit for the first systematic study of Collective Memory to Halbwachs in work first published in 1925, and adds: “Collective Memory is, by virtue of its definition, a “monumental” history in the sense of Nietzsche – and it is nurtured by the “plastic power” of the collective that keeps it alive.”

Since Nietzsche recognises ‘monumental history’, we would have to agree that he recognises a Collective Memory type if the claim can be made out that Collective Memory is a type of monumental history. There are grounds to resist this however. Nietzsche does not use the term Collective Memory; he speaks of monumental history. It is true that his nomenclature is somewhat confusing. The term might suggest the sort of statue or external iconography of memory that we have already discussed, but in fact Nietzsche has more in mind that the study of great personages of the past – surely their deeds not their representations – will be inspiring to those striving to become active today in that they demonstrate that greatness is possible. This might happen via the contemplation of statues but it seems unlikely and in fact Nietzsche is uninterested in the mechanism.

Nietzsche defines monumental history indirectly. Firstly, there is a chain that links “the great moments in the struggle of the human individual”.26 Note how we are speaking of individuals here rather than the collective. The great moments are in fact the great men in history. There is a faith that such men have existed and this faith gives encouragement to the ‘untimely’ in each age who also struggle against society for greatness by allowing them to believe that it is possible. This faith “finds expression in the demand for a monumental history”.27 Thus we are told one of the functions of monumental history, which serves to go some way towards defining it: it is what fulfils that role. We are then told that “greatness goes on living” through the “hard

2424Funkenstein [56, p. 5].
2525Funkenstein [56, p. 9].
2626Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 68].
2627Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 68].


relay-race of monumental history”.28 We may conclude then that monumental history is simply the history or mythology of great, inspiring individuals. This inspiration is to be available to the modern man – singular not plural – and the fact that the same effect may take place on several individuals remains insufficient to show that this is a Collective Memory type in Nietzsche. What would it mean for monumental history to be Collective Memory?

To meet our definition, it would have to mean that these inspiring histories of great individuals are not just shared by many, but that the sum is more than the parts. This does not seem impossible, at first. The myths of the great can grow in the telling. A shared monumental history might suffice to give group membership. But there is nothing here that requires anything beyond a sum over individual memories.

4.3.2 Indebtedness of Societies

Nietzsche discusses indebtedness of societies and guilt in GM II. Interestingly, this is another place in Nietzsche’s work where he closes with an opaque reference to Zarathustra. As with the reference I mentioned on p. 52, the reason seems to be that Nietzsche feels himself to be too decadent to propound the view himself. This is consistent with my claim that Z is an important work of Nietzsche’s and so we will again have to take its claims seriously, including the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence.

The chain of Nietzsche’s argument is as follows. Guilt and bad conscience arise “in the relationship between buyer and seller, creditor and debtor.”29 This guilt must then be expiated and the debt redeemed. Then two forms of creditors are imagined who cannot be satisfied: ancestors and deities. Nietzsche writes that the debt: “requires a huge wholesale redemption, something immense as a repayment to the ‘creditor’.”30 The idea is that societies or tribes owe something unpayable to their ancestors who founded the tribe, and similarly man owes something immense to a creating deity in return for his existence. Richardson misconceives this as Collective Memory when he writes31 that “society makes a collective kind of memory” in discussing GM II.

Memory figures prominently in GM II in relation to indebtedness. As mentioned on p. 19, indebtedness produces memory and requires it. This will be Passive Memory, because it is externally imposed and inhibitory. Society or the creditor imposes it. It is inhibitory in that one of the actions which it prohibits is failing to redeem the debt, even though repayment is impossible. Thus Passive Memory becomes the locus of bad conscience and the excuse for endless self-punishment, which expresses itself in the asceticism Nietzsche objects to. It can also be Organic Memory. In GM, we have a race of Slaves being punished, which creates a memory for them. That will

2828Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, p. 68].
2929Nietzsche GM [2, II.8].
3030Nietzsche GM [2, II.19].
3131Richardson [9, p. 93].


certainly result in Organic Memory formation for the Slaves: we are just like the Mimosa which now moves when touched because it has an Organic Memory of ‘pain’ inflicted on its ancestors. If Nietzsche says that this amounts to a culture creating shared memories, then we might have to allow that he recognises Collective Memory. He does not, and everything adverted to purporting that he does can be explained by bearing in mind his concept of Organic Memory. Memory seems to be for Nietzsche only at the level of the individual, despite the fact that strictly speaking there are no individuals, since the self is illusory, as outlined on p. 19. If there is a problem for Nietzsche here, introducing Collective Memory multiplies the problem rather than solves it, but since he has told us that the drives have memory – see §2.3 – we can see the outlines of the solution.
Nietzsche writes: “[w]hen the human being considered it necessary to make a memory for himself, it never happened without blood, martyrs and sacrifices”.32 We need to be clear here that this is still Passive Memory. This might be unclear because it might seem that in this quotation, Nietzsche is speaking of an individual making a memory for himself. This is the phrasing used, but that interpretation would be inconsistent with the method described. The common link between blood, martyrs and sacrifices is that they are all public spectacles designed to impress spectators. They will be ritual public occasions organised by the authorities to shore up their authority. Thus the term ‘himself’ is not strictly speaking anaphoric. It is the case that humans are referred to in both parts of the sentence, but they are different persons. In the first case it is the authorities, and in the second, the Slaves. Thus by arranging the festivals of blood, the authorities do not make memories for themselves, but for the oppressed group that observes the punishments.

We can see that there might be grounds for commentators to speak of a Collective Memory in relation to these words. There are shared memories which are collectively imposed. However, Nietzsche gives us an indication that he means this only metaphorically, by using quotation marks around the term ‘memory’ only when he speaks of what might appear to be a group’s Collective Memory. He writes: “[t]he worse humanity’s “memory” was, the more terrible its customs have always appeared”.33 The quotation marks are an effective denial that there is any real type of Collective Memory.


I will argue that commentators are mistaken in seeing Collective Memory in Nietzsche. Often they are mistaking his references to his obscure Organic Memory type for references to Collective Memory.

32Nietzsche GM [2, II.19].
33Nietzsche GM [2, II.3].


Following on from the above, Margalit suggests34 that society owes a debt to a deity for having been created in his image. The consciousness of this debt is carried in Collective Memory, and forms the basis for morality. This line is an echo of Nietzsche’s GM claims discussed above that societies feel that they owe a debt to their founders, that there is a further debt to the deity which is unredeemable, and that the unredeemable nature of the debt provides unlimited guilt and an excuse for indefinite self-punishment via asceticism.

Once again, while this is suggestive that Nietzsche may have a concept of Collective Memory, it does not exclude that it is merely an aggregate of individual memories.
Gambino – a commentator we have already discussed in §3.1 – claims that Nietzsche recognises Collective Memory, when he writes35 “[w]hile violence was necessary to form political communities out of an undifferentiated herd, it was not sufficient to generate the Collective Memory necessary for the continued existence of a political community.” This makes two claims that we deny on our picture. It identifies the memory type that Nietzsche contends is socially imposed in GM with Collective Memory. It also asserts that the contest between Dionysos and Apollo which is the central topic of BT is resolved via Collective Memory manufacture via the inculcation of state-sponsored legitimising myths of the origins of the state. On our analysis, this is Passive Memory. It is Imposed Memory because it is not chosen by the rememberer, in accordance with the test we outlined on p. 17. It is added that myth must also be used as well as violence to create Collective Memory. Gambino further claims36 that when Nietzsche described in The Greek State the struggle and horror needed to rejuvenate memory, it is Collective Memory that he means. We may once again note that no primary reference to precisely a Collective Memory type is given and regard this as a further case of conflating acts on collectives of individual memory with individual acts on Collective Memory. This again fails the test of Collective Memory outlined on p. 62.

One indication that writers are confusing Organic Memory with Collective Memory may be seen in a discussion of Collective Memory and cultural identity, where we are told that “[a]ccording to Nietzsche, while in the world of animals genetic programmes guarantee the survival of the species, humans must find a means by which to maintain their nature consistently through generations. The solution to this problem is offered by cultural memory”.37 The reference to previous generations sounds as though the authors have seen some of Nietzsche’s words on Organic Memory which has that property. Why would cultures have any need to maintain consistency? Who would actually see to it that such a thing took place? Is it not true on the contrary

34Margalit [31, p. 72].
35Gambino [49, p. 421].
36Gambino [49, p. 423].
37Assmann and Czaplicka [57, p. 126].


that people frequently think that things were completely different – and much better – earlier during their own lifetimes, let alone generations ago. The memory type operative here is Organic Memory in accordance with the tests we outlined on p. 35. This meets test ii). – i.e. the memory is stored via experiences of events that did not take place during the lifetime of the rememberer – and so we can see that Nietzsche has his Organic Memory concept in mind here. However, commentators would not thereby be licensed to take the two further steps needed for a Collective Memory type, which would be i). Organic Memory can have cultural effects – though this may well be arguable – and ii). it is sufficient for Collective Memory that persons have the same or similar Organic Memories. As per the definition of Collective Memory on p. 62, we want to see a use of memory or its contents in which the results could not be re-described on the basis of a sum over individual memories. This does not meet that test: there is no reason why human nature cannot be made consistent over generations without all of them having Collective Memory; in fact given that Nietzsche claims that just this is the function of Organic Memory, it is much more likely that it is Organic Memory that Nietzsche is referring to. There is no reason for Organic Memory to be Collective Memory.

This ‘cultural memory’ is then divided up by the authors into two types: communicative memory and objectivised culture. The former type is what people say to each other or write down about their own experiences, and will run back perhaps 100 years or more in extreme cases but usually much less.

The latter type – objectivised culture – can operate over much longer timescales because it includes any items such as books, statues, perhaps landscapes that could be seen as external stores of Collective Memory. Objectivised culture has the structure of memory, Assmann and Czaplicka suggest,38 meaning that it has the same ‘concretion of identity’ feature I mentioned on p. 60 with the story about Stuart Pearce. We may understand this by the example of the statues on Whitehall of various second world war military leaders. The culture that is objectivised in these statues says something relevant to the group identity of those who see London as their capital city. Nietzsche it is claimed has recognised that this structure dissolves in historicism.39

Assmann and Czaplicka also invoke40 Nietzsche in the context of his ‘constitution of horizons’. It is held that cultural memory forms group identity, and that Nietzsche believes that setting the limits – or constituting one’s horizon – to what is foreign to oneself arises from this accretion of identity. This would then presumably commit Nietzsche to Collective Memory but no primary citation is given to support this. While the authors are right to point out41 that Nietzsche opposes any dissolution

3838Assmann and Czaplicka [57, p. 126].
3939Assmann and Czaplicka [57, p. 126] cite UM II in support of this claim.
4040Assmann and Czaplicka [57, p. 130].
4141Assmann and Czaplicka [57, p. 132].


of these horizons through an excess of historical sense, that also does not commit him to a Collective Memory type, since nothing he writes requires more than similar memories in separate individuals.

One further common misstep seems to be that from Nietzsche’s agreed recognition of ‘social memory’ – being a memory created in individuals by society in order to make them more malleable – to a Collective Memory type. A memory created collectively need not be a Collective Memory in any meaningful sense. Lattas observes42 Nietzsche’s calls for Active Forgetfulness that I discussed on p. 22 but fails to note that collective forgetting can take place without there being any Collective Memory.

In conclusion: there is no Collective Memory type recognised by Nietzsche.

42Lattas [58, p. 261].



One Response to MPhil Ch4: Nietzsche on Memory: A Collective Memory Type?

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