MPhil Ch5: Nietzsche on Memory: Conclusion
March 27, 2014 1 Comment
The starting point for this thesis was the claim that memory is of a higher importance for Nietzsche and the understanding of his work than has been hitherto recognised. I made out this claim by arguing initially that for Nietzsche, memory is what makes us human, and by also noting the importance and unusual nature of Nietzsche’s picture of forgetting. Having established the significance of memory, it became clear that we need to understand what exactly Nietzsche means by the term. It became apparent that there were many uses and nuances and do it appeared valuable to separate out the various meanings into different types and subtypes of memory.
This separation generated four different types of memory. I will first recapitulate their definitions before summarising the arguments for their existence. Passive Memory was defined on p. 17 as being composed of two subtypes: Inhibitory Memory and Imposed Memory. Imposed Memory was defined as any memory which is imposed externally; and Inhibitory Memory was defined as any memory which tends to suppress action. Active Memory was defined on p. 21 as any use of memory which is both selected by the rememberer and tends to promote activity. Organic Memory was defined 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 life beyond humanity. Collective Memory was defined 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.
The argument for the first distinction between Passive Memory and Active Memory was driven by the way that Nietzsche sees activity as a major source of value and by his remarks to the effect that some memories were valuable and some were not. In particular, there was an identification in Nietzsche between passive and reactive memory and passive and reactive behaviour, all of which Nietzsche saw as less valuable. This led to the conclusion that some memories tended to promote activity and some
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tended to inhibit it, resulting in the two types. Passive Memory was linked to the phenomenon of ressentiment, a complex theme of Nietzsche’s which is nevertheless seen by him negatively, at least from the perspective of those experiencing it.
Passive Memory was shown to be made up of two subtypes: Inhibitory and Imposed. While they need not be identical, they will overlap quite significantly in the weak and those suffering from ressentiment, for those who have no control over some of what they remember will also have little freedom of action. This argument was primarily driven by the association in GM between the imposition of memories of public punishments and the inhibition of action in those who have such memories.
Active Memory was primarily argued for – see §2.2.2 – by contrasting it with Passive Memory on several axes. As mentioned, the first of these distinctions was by the valuation ascribed by Nietzsche, but distinctions were also shown in terms of power, bad conscience, the memory of the will, contest and competition, and effective self-creation.
There is a third major type of memory for Nietzsche: Organic Memory. While I claim that the first distinction between Passive Memory and Active Memory is true and useful to us today, Organic Memory is perhaps a less useful claim. Understanding what Nietzsche means by it remains an important pre-requisite for reading him however, because it can cause us to mistake useful claims about our memory with the wider concept of Organic Memory that Nietzsche also considers.
We saw that Organic Memory was a new type since Nietzsche extended it to previous generations of humans and also to the non-human world of plants. This contrasts with Passive Memory and Active Memory types in humans. It is probably beyond what we would accept today as falling within the standard meaning of the term ‘memory’ and reflects some of Nietzsche’s interest in biological views which are no longer current.
I argued that understanding this additional memory type could give us fresh perspectives on the important themes of Dionysus vs Apollo and the Übermensch. In the first case, forgetting is part of the value of the drives, while in the second case the special memory abilities of the Übermensch were linked to his ability to affirm the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence.
My final task was to eliminate a misunderstanding. Several authors have claimed or assumed that Nietzsche recognises a type of Collective Memory. I argued that when authors have involved Nietzsche to support existence claims for Collective memory, they were mistaken. Often this occurred because they were confused by Nietzsche’s admittedly rather opaque references to the slightly strange Organic Memory type.
I conclude that understanding to which memory type Nietzsche is referring is valuable and important: it gives us better perspectives on what memory is and what Nietzsche means.
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