Amnesty without amnesia

Memory, History, Forgetting
October 21, 2005

Paul Ricoeur explains at the start of this book that its investigation grew out of his awareness of a lacuna in the problematic of his previous major books, Time and Narrative and Oneself as Another . Both place temporal experience and the narrative operation in direct contact; this book explores a sort of missing link, memory in its excess and in its lack. At the same time, he returns to some of the themes of those books, such as the hermeneutics of historical consciousness, and revisits them in a new, more humane, way.

The book, translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, contains three parts. The first, inspired by Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, is on memory. The second, on history, focuses on the epistemology of the historical sciences. The third presents a hermeneutical approach to the questions around forgetting. Each part is set in the framework of the history of Western thought, from Plato to Augustine, to Descartes and Kant.

What I mean by "more humane" can be made clear by an example. At the end of the first part - which covers crucial contemporary problems such as artificial, manipulated and abusively controlled memory and also reviews the classical position of Maurice Halbwachs on collective memory - Ricoeur reminds us that between the living memory of individuals and the public memory of the community an intermediate level of reference exists: our close relations, composed of "those who approve of my existence", a level that occupies the middle ground between the self and the "they". This threefold attribution of memory is not only relevant in a philosophical sense, because it links memory with daily emotions, it is also important for practitioners of memory. Here the concept of collective memory loses its abstraction and becomes a useful tool for investigations of the present and the recent past, offering questions that researchers and historians must and can pose to themselves and their sources - or their interviewees, if we think of oral history.

Indeed, the background to these reflections by Ricoeur is a double horizon: of daily life observed phenomenologically, and of vast historical processes such as the genocides of the past century. This dual horizon circumscribes and justifies the efforts of those who deal with memory and history and the relationship between the two. One would have liked more attention given to work on memory and the thought it has engendered in the practice of recent historiography.

The second part of this book does deal with the historian and follows "him" in the archive - the first of the three moments of the epistemological procedure, the other two being explanation/understanding and historical representation - with some interesting discussion of the transformation of oral into written history. This is accompanied by a most useful reconstruction and assessment of the shift from the idea of mentality to that of representation in the vocabulary of historiography during the last third of the 20th century, which includes the acknowledgment of the role of "the historian's actual reflection on the moment of representation included within the historiographical operation" in the understanding that social agents have of the world as representation.

But it is in Ricoeur's criticism of Hayden White that the incomplete attention to some practices of historians appears. The doubts cast by White on the type of narrative that historians believe expresses their search for historical truth are the same doubts that have pushed many historians to try to write new types of history, for instance the new cultural history and subaltern historiography, intending to reflect the fragmentation of both evidence and reality.

The most stimulating part of the book is the third part, which concerns forgetting. Now we come to the hermeneutical mode, the exploration of existential presuppositions. Among the most interesting sections are the ones on the being-toward-death and the question of historicity in Heidegger; this brings to mind the use made by historians such as Dipesh Chakrabarty of these concepts as guides to a critique of historicism and to the introduction into history of subaltern subjects, such as Indian widows.

Suggestive, too, is the subtle analysis of the shift in Pierre Nora's attitude from the first (1984) to the third (1992) volume of his Les Lieux de Mémoire , a shift from assurance to irritation in the face of the appropriation of his theme by the increasing vogue for commemoration. But the most moving pages are to be found in the epilogue, which contains striking passages on the links between forgetting, forgiving and promising.

Forgiveness "should release the agent from his act", so that the guilty person can be considered capable of something other than his fault. It is a necessary and fragile recognition that parallels the Kierkegaardian praise of forgetting with the liberation of care, and it provides strong ethical advice for today as official commemoration brings the memory of some European genocides to the fore while maintaining a persistent silence on others.

Ricoeur's closing words on the link between amnesty and amnesia are the legacy we can take from this book. The boundary between the two can be preserved, he writes, through the work of memory, complemented by the work of mourning, invoking a type of forgetting understood not as silence but as a statement in a pacified mood, without anger - an enunciation to be understood not as a commandment, but as a wish.

Luisa Passerini is professor of cultural history, University of Turin, Italy.

Memory, History, Forgetting

Author - Paul Ricoeur
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 642
Price - £28.00
ISBN - 0 226 71341 5

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