Nietzsche On Memory: Outline

Much more on this topic available in my free Ebook/iBook at:


1 Thesis

Nietzsche has interesting and unusual insights into the nature of memory which I will elucidate and also use as a way in to an examination of many of his central projects. [The genesis of my interest is work on forgetfulness in Nietzsche, in relation to which he has unusual insights, seeing that it is active and positive, contrary to common and philosophical understanding. This alone suggests that his picture of memory will be of similar interest and import.]

2 Research Question

Part of my interest in this topic derives from the fact that this is not a well covered area: there are no Jstor papers with both `Nietzsche’ and `memory’ in the title. [There are though 197 papers which have `Nietzsche’ in the title and `memory’ in the text of which I have identified 31 as of special interest.] So there is not currently a major debate on exactly what account of memory Nietzsche gives. The papers which mention the topic do so on their way to further objectives; sometimes the discussion is quite substantial, as in [1]. The material I cover in S3.4 shows that Nietzsche has a special account of memory.

Many research questions could be derived from these discussions; each of the subsections of the following Overview section could do so, and this is derived from only a small selection of the interesting papers. For example, the evolution material in S3.4 could be seen as showing that Nietzsche has a poor understanding of Darwinian evolution in that he makes the Lamarckian error of believing that acquired characteristics can be inherited. I will claim however that if we understand Nietzsche’s view of memory correctly { for one thing, that there is a species of collective memory across times and persons { we can see that he has not made such an error. Indeed without such understanding, we will fail to understand his views. I will however use these various area of interest more as motivation of the central project: they are to be discussed without allowing them to sidetrack the central project of understanding what Nietzsche means by memory.

Nietzsche believes, in response to Aristotle’s slogan [`Man is the rational animal’], that man is the remembering animal. So memory is central to who he believes we are. This lends yet more importance to the project. As I discuss in S3.6, there are also links to other important doctrines of Nietzsche, such as the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Memory is the boundary condition between animal and human. Similarly, eternal recurrence (or accepting the thought thereof as a test of affirmatory strength) is the boundary condition between human and Ubermensch.

There are further links between memory and the doctrine beyond this similarity of roles in that some response must be given as to why we do not have a memory of previous lives if eternal recurrence is the case. [I remain interested in the general area of `useful errors’ in Nietzsche and elsewhere, and I will be looking for opportunities to extend the analysis into that type of area, but not at the expense of the main project. Similar remarks apply to the analysis of [2].]

3 Overview

3.1 Memory Created Via Pain And Punishment

◊ Memory is created by pain experienced in prehistory: ` “One burns something in so that it remains in one’s memory: only what does not cease to give pain remains in one’s memory” ‘ [3, II.3, orig. emph.]

◊ It seems that `one’ does the burning to `oneself’, in tension with the understanding where The Masters punish The Slaves

◊ This is a reference to ressentiment { the masters need only punish some for the others to punish themselves. [Deleuze [4, p. 108] notes that Nietzsche describes the memory of the man of ressentiment as like a `festering wound’, [5, `Ecce Homo’, I.6] used mostly to record injustices and sufferings.]

◊ Keeping image of terrible punishments in mind permits negative promises of waiving rights to natural violence to be made

◊ “With the help of such images and processes one finally retains in memory five, six \I will nots,” in connection with which one has given one’s promise within the advantages of society,– and truly! with the help of this kind of memory one finally came to reason […] mastery over the affects.” [3, II.3]

◊ The apparent strangeness of feeling indebtedness to ancestors may be compared with the odd way in which moderns feel themselves bound by Acts of Parliament passed in the 19th century — despite the fact that all of the legislators and electors of that era are long-dead:

◊ “Calling to mind these contract relationships admittedly awakens various kinds of suspicion and resistance towards the earlier humanity […] Precisely here are promises made; precisely here it is a matter of making a memory for the one who promises”. [3, II.5, orig. emph.]

◊ Richardson [6, p. 541] suggests we “[c]onsider his famous account in [3, Part II] how a \memory” was \burned into” pre-civilized humans: this memory is fixed not by selection of those who can remember, but by the acquisition of pain-associations that are inheritable”

◊ Clearly we cannot remember actual events in prehistory. But Nietzsche thinks we can inherit the capacities to feel guilt, to expect punishment

◊ Those individuals who evolve memory will be selected because it provides them with a mechanism that enables them to live in social groups — but see `Evolution’ below

◊ Memory is intimately linked to the use of violence to enforce conformity — branding both literally and figuratively the obligations of humans to each other in early society

3.2 Indebtedness, Society, (False) Belief In A Continuing Self

◊ Indebtedness predates and produces our memory

◊ Memory is a prerequisite for indebtedness; and pain and punishment are used to create memory when debt have not been repaid

◊ Persisting personal identity is also necessary; without that — and without remembering who I used to be — I will not repay my debts because I will not recognize the previous individual as myself. [Hales [7, p. 832], in the course of arguing that logic is a `useful error’ for Nietzsche, notes that Nietzsche sees indebtedness as being responsible for “instilling memory in humanity”. He also argues that Nietzsche sees persistence of identity as an illusion; if so, then it would be another `useful error’.]

◊ Thus through memory we create ourselves; Nietzsche also believes we map this onto objects thus creating them where there is only flux

◊ Memory is instrumental in the construction of community values

◊ Memory created by punishment, the pain-avoidance behavior thereby inculcated can be remembered and inherited

◊ It remains only for The Masters to set punishments for certain forbidden actions so as to promote harmonious society; released prisoners have `paid their debt to society’ [7See Aspers [8, p. 483] for this point.]

◊ There is also a sense of inter generational repayment owed; note that `debt’ and `guilt’ are the same word in German (die Schuld)

◊ Society considers that it is in the debt of its founders, who have selflessly invested the time and effort needed to create the society and allow the `benefits’ thereof to flow to its members.

◊ And then these `benefits’ can be spread to others outside the initial boundaries of the proto-state by means of war and conflict

◊ War is one means of repayment of the inter-generational debt. [Gambino [9, p. 421] discusses this variety of repayment, and also includes war as one of the methods of repaying the ancestral founders of society. He also identifies the sense of inter-generational debt with collective memory.]

3.3 Religion, Pain, State

◊ Suffering in religion a result of an unredeemable debt to the creator — the ultimate `redeemer’

◊ Religion is one chosen tool of the authorities, which suggests that The Priests are here allied with The Masters

◊ Aspers [8, p. 487]: \[b]y using the collective narratives of religion, a community can create and maintain customs by punishment. This is also the way memory is maintained, and the reason why those in power can impose certain customs on other members of society”

◊ So there is also a role for collective memory in the production of political and social stability

◊ Contrast between fragile poetic memory, which would also not clearly serve the needs of the state, and what might be termed coerced collective memory employed as a means of state repression. [Gambino [9] observes this contrast between memory types while arguing that the ancient Greek state needed memory to add mythology to violence and create stability.]

◊ Gambino [9, p. 429] links Dionysian instincts to memory and the state via observing that the cult-driven liberation of the individual asks the question as to legitimacy of the origins of the state

The Dionysian was linked not only to forgetfulness, but to the restoration of memory: it recalled the deeply concealed truth about the criminal origins of the state and thus stirred up feelings of guilt”
From this perspective, political memory becomes the memory of guilt and politics an ultimately futile attempt for redemption”

3.4 Evolution, Cultural Memory, Memes

“There are analogies, for instance our memory may suggest another memory, which makes itself felt in heredity, development and forms. Our inventive and experimentative powers suggest another kind of inventiveness in the applications of instruments to new ends etc”. [See WP646 (1885) [10]. NB Nachlass citations are to be used with care.]

◊ Two kinds of inventiveness: of new tools and then of new uses for them

◊ Two kinds of memory: ordinary and one with new uses invented for it

◊ Only past fitness can explain the current presence of something (cultural, conceptual, moral, physiological, valuational…) { also errors because truth subordinated to usefulness, and there are useful lies

◊ It is always difficult to disentangle Nietzsche’s pro and con attitudes. [11Richardson [6] sees antipathy in Nietzsche as sympathy. Hales [7, p. 820] goes so far as to describe “an apparent obliteration of a position, followed by withdrawal to partly embrace it” as being Nietzsche’s “favorite rhetorical style”, supplying several examples.]

◊ Nietzsche sees Darwinism as `true but deadly’ though his understanding is poor; development of the individual is important, not species survival. [This point is made by Aspers [8, p. 478] who also states that Nietzsche `in no way’ adheres to Darwin’s theories.]

◊ Clear parallels to Dawkins’s [11] idea of memes, being the cultural equivalent of genes

3.5 Value Of Memory

◊ Nietzsche sees both value and disvalue in memory

◊ Positive value derives from the way that memory permits the making of promises and the resolve that can come from fixity of willing

◊ The disvalue comes from its role in inhibiting action. [We learn in [12, `On The Uses And Disadvantages Of History For Life’] how an excess of historical sense is overwhelming and paralyzing.]

◊ The health of a people depends on its ability to x “limits to the memory of the past;”[Gambino at [9, p. 438] cites [12, `On The Uses And Disadvantages Of History For Life’, S7] in this connection.]

◊ Inversion of the common understanding in which memory is an active force with forgetfulness its failure: forgetfulness on the contrary is the healthy drive which allows action and memory a paralyzing lapse

◊ Only the strong need memory for only they will be permitted to make promises: “this necessarily forgetful animal in whom forgetting represents a force, a form of strong health, has now bred in itself an opposite faculty, a memory, with whose help forgetfulness is disconnected for certain cases, namely for those cases where a promise is to be made”[3, II.1, orig. emph.]

◊ Memory of the promise actively retained, unlike passive absorption or inscription upon the weak of adventitious events; these last cannot be actively recorded since they do not have their cause within us

◊ But generally, memory is to be considered with consciousness as being essentially reactive, in contrast with being active. [Deleuze [4, p. 38] claims that consciousness and memory are essentially reactive, by which he means they do nothing which is not in some way a response to the environment. He supports this claim by noting that it explains why we cannot know what consciousness or memory are capable of, since we cannot specify current or future environments.]

3.6 Links To Other Themes In Nietzsche

◊ Loeb [1] draws parallels between GM [3] and Z [13] using memory

◊ GM: conscience allowed emergence of human animals from animals; this occurred by the use of memory which granted `power’ over time

◊ Z: calls for the Ubermensch to emerge from humanity as the next step; the thought of eternal recurrence is to grant humans the necessary and parallel power over time

◊ Loeb notes Nietzsche’s claim that all his later works including GM are `fish hooks’ to draw readers to Z, which contains his most important ideas

◊ If this is true, then understanding memory in Nietzsche is the key to understanding what he means by the doctrines he himself regards as his most important

◊ Loeb: `memory is made possible by society and its morality of custom’; so memory key to Nietzsche’s ethical project: revaluation of all values


[1] P. S. Loeb, \Finding the Ubermensch in nietzsche’s genealogy of morality,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 30, pp. pp. 70{101, 2005.

[2] B. Williams, Truth & truthfulness: an essay in genealogy. Princeton University Press, 2004.

[3] F. Nietzsche, M. Clark, and A. Swensen, On the genealogy of morality: a polemic. Hackett Classics, Hackett Pub. Co., 1998.

[4] G. Deleuze, Nietzsche and philosophy. Continuum impacts, Continuum, 2006.

[5] F. Nietzsche, A. Ridley, and J. Norman, The Anti-Christ, Ecce homo, Twilight of the idols, and other writings:. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[6] J. Richardson, \Nietzsche contra darwin,” Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research, vol. 65, no. 3, pp. pp. 537{575, 2002.

[7] S. D. Hales, \Nietzsche on logic,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 56, no. 4, pp. pp. 819{835, 1996.

[8] P. Aspers, \Nietzsche’s sociology,” Sociological Forum, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. pp. 474{499, 2007.

[9] G. Gambino, \Nietzsche and the greeks: Identity, politics, and tragedy,” Polity, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. pp. 415{444, 1996.

[10] F. Nietzsche and A. Ludovici, The will to power: an attempted transvaluation of all values. No. v. 2 in Complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gordon Press, 1974.

[11] R. Dawkins, The selsh gene. Oxford University Press, 2006.

[12] F. W. Nietzsche and R. J. Hollingdale, Untimely meditations / Friedrich Nietzsche ; translated by R.J. Hollingdale ; with an introduction by J.P. Stern. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York :, 1983.

[13] F. Nietzsche and R. Hollingdale, Thus spoke Zarathustra: a book for everyone and no one. Penguin classics, Penguin Books, 1961.

O’Keefe On Action And Responsibility In Epicurus


• Main question: how can free human agency/responsibility be retained in a deterministic universe consisting solely of atoms and void?
• Epicurus introduces `the swerve’ in response; also allows composite objects
• O’Keefe argues that freedom has three variants: agency; character formation; moral responsibility → Epicurus wants to retain all three

Determinism, Effective Agency And Bivalence

• Atoms naturally fall straight downwards, so would not be capable of forming composites other than in one dimension; deterministic universe
• The swerve is a random deviation sideways by one spatial minimum
• Argument: P: atoms swerve; Q: free volition exists: $\neg$P $\rightarrow$ $\neg$Q; Q; $\therefore$ P
• Lucretius: racehorses in a stall exit it with a delay whereas they move instantaneously if bumped from behind; delay is effective agency in action
• O’Keefe: 1). effective agency ≠ 2). free will because animals have 1) and not 2); and animals not morally responsible
• Popular view: determinism → inability to do otherwise so no free will; free decisions constituted by swerves; preserves ability to do otherwise
• O’Keefe contra that view: Lucretius does not include swerves in description of volition and random swerves get you random action not free will
• `Lazy argument’

• PB = Principle of Bivalence: all propositions true or false
• Leads to fatalism; was always T or F that the patient would recover

• The swerve avoids the necessity of fate; also Chrysippus responds that determinism is compatible with effective agency because actions `co-fated’
• Objections: O’Keefe accepts this but how are fated actions free; why are T counterfactuals relevant?; moreover Chrysippus is a Stoic

Atomism And Self-Formation Of Character

• Epicurus wants swerve + freedom to avoid making us dependent on chance to achieve our desires: believing that would not lead to ataraxia
• Hedonism: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain at root of all actions
• No threat to freedom because beliefs subject to reason → asceticism
• This sets us apart from animals; we can overcome `atomic constitution’
• So Epicurus wants to preserve efficacy of our reason within atomism
• Epicurus holds:

• (A): atoms and void only make up the world
• (B): atomic clusters make up real macroscopic objects inc. our minds
• (C): properties of atomic aggregates are real (inc. relational properties like health and \textbf{enslavement

• (C) differs from Democritus, who is accused of skepticism about knowledge, objects, the mind: `by convention x, in reality atoms and void’
• Allows Epicurus to affirm the reality of the mind; it is `emergent’
• O’Keefe: Epicureans can have real emergent minds and still be physicalists: they identify the mind with an atomic aggregate
• Psychological `products’ — not atomic constituents — drive personalities (tension with previous view that fire atoms in psyche make lions irascible)
• O’Keefe appeals to a nature/nurture type debate here — genes influence but do not control who we become — in attempt to resolve this

Reason And Responsibility

• Epicurus wants to justify our practices of blame and praise
• Criticism of others requires causes of actions are `in us’, `depend on us’
• Epicurus argues it is self-refuting to deny we are responsible for our actions
• One cannot criticize an opponent of this thesis if everything is necessitated because then the opponent’s opposition was necessitated
• O’Keefe correctly observes this is weak: a necessarily expressed position can still be wrong
• Epicurus’s variant: we rebuke each other as if we are responsible
• Assumes we are responsible for reasoning correctly; claimed contradiction
• Centrally, Epicurus is claiming we are responsible because we are rational
• All concerns about PB, determinism are subordinated to that → ataraxia