Nietzsche On Memory: Introduction

An introduction to a general discussion of Nietzsche’s remarks on memory and a synthesis of his overall position on the topic. This article is based on the first chapter of my MPhil thesis.

Chapter 1 Introduction

“Die Entstehung des Gedächtnisses ist das Problem des Organischen. Wie ist Gedächtniß möglich? Die Affekte sind Symptome der Formation des Gedächtniß-Materials”

Nietzsche, NF–1884, 25 [514]

This thesis has three substantial Chapters, apart from this Introduction. These three Chapters will conduct the following three tasks. Firstly, I will outline the different types and roles in Nietzsche’s conception of memory. Secondly, I will use these tools to examine how they illuminate Nietzsche’s key themes. Thirdly, I consider the topic of Collective Memory. I will now outline this Chapter breakdown in more detail.

In Chapter 2, I show how there are two types of memory for Nietzsche, discussing each in turn. The first type – Individual Memory – is closer to what we commonly understand as memory. It has two aspects. Firstly, there is a passive/reactive, externally imposed, inhibitory and negatively evaluated aspect. I will further divide this passive aspect into two subtypes: imposed memory and inhibitory memory. On the other hand, an active element has the opposite characteristics: it promotes activity and so is not inhibitory, it is internally chosen and so not imposed and it is positively evaluated. The second major type of memory is Organic Memory. This is different to what we commonly understand by memory. We know this because Nietzsche applies it to plants as well as animals and it reaches back to previous generations of humans. Nietzsche’s view of memory is thus at variance with the common view of memory which I term the ‘photograph’ model.

In Chapter 3, I examine two of Nietzsche’s themes and their links to memory. I discuss Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence and show why we need this pluralistic understanding to grasp it. This discussion will involve the distinction between types of memory and in particular the way in which memory which is active may be used to affirm the Doctrine, which represents a key element of Nietzsche’s central ethical project. I will also discuss the early theme of Dionysos vs. Apollo from the perspective of memory typology.

In Chapter 4, I discuss the topic of Collective Memory. Many commentators cite Nietzsche when discussing Collective Memory, believing they find evidence that he recognises the phenomenon in various places, including when he discusses the ‘historical sense’ and the ancestral indebtedness of societies. This discussion is postponed to a separate Chapter, because I conclude that commentators are mistaken when they believe that Nietzsche recognises a Collective Memory type. They are confused by failing to understand that Nietzsche is sometimes referring to the obscure Organic Memory type.

The thesis presented here is of a survey character, since the topic of Nietzsche’s views on memory is largely unexplored. There is no sustained discussion of Nietzsche on memory in the literature. There are no Jstor papers that include both of the terms ‘Nietzsche’ and ‘memory’ in their title. There are 238 papers listed on Jstor that include the term ‘Nietzsche’ in their title and ‘memory’ in their full text. I believe I have considered and cited here all papers within the 238 that are of significance to the topic. In the primary material, there are 176 occurrences in 136 textual units of either ‘Gedächtniß’ or ‘Gedächtniß’. I find this by a search in the Digitale Kritische Gesamtausgabe, covering both the published material and the Nachlaß. However, many writers have valuable insights into memory that they give in the course of a Nietzsche discussion with another end, and I have profited from those brief discussions. All of the significant references I have found are cited here.

I will close this introductory material by giving some motivational arguments as to why memory is important for Nietzsche.

1.1 Importance Of Memory To Nietzsche

There are four general reasons to think that memory is important to Nietzsche, which I will outline in this section. They are as follows.

1. Memory is definitional of being human.
2. Forgetfulness, the other side of the coin, is significant and unusual because it is active and beneficial.
3. Memory is a precondition for the current constitution of society.
4. Memory is the key to Nietzsche’s central ethical project.

Firstly, man is the “remembering animal”.1 Nietzsche thus describes memory as what distinguishes humans from animals. This has been confirmed by several commentators. Luft notes2 that for Nietzsche the ‘memory of the will’ which enabled promise making was what turned animals into a human herd. Nietzsche’s claim that memory created humanity and also every kind of human community. Nietzsche’s slogan is a deliberate echo of the Aristotelean tag that ‘man is the rational animal’; it shows that memory is of the first importance for Nietzsche since it is for him definitional of what makes us human. For this reason alone, it is surprising that the topic of Nietzsche on memory has received little specific attention in the literature. My main aim in this thesis is to supply this lack.

Secondly, we may derive reason for thinking that memory is an important phenomenon for Nietzsche, and one worth investigating, from the fact that his unusual view of forgetfulness as active and positive suggests that he will have a unique conception of memory as well. Choosing what to forget is crucial to maintaining psychic order and also effective self-creation – which is also the creation of an effective self. I will illustrate this further in §2.2.2.

Thirdly, for Nietzsche, memory allows the creation of society as it is currently constituted, which we may understand as involving a constant tension between the natural desires of humans to use violence in their own ends and the need for society to restrain those desires. He describes how memory is created by pain and punishment; Nietzsche writes: “only what does not cease to give pain remains in one’s memory”.3 Memory is then a device for avoiding those outcomes. This reactive, imposed aspect of memory is a precondition for society with its web of agreements not to use violence, or

1Nietzsche UM II [1, ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, §1]. Note: I will use standard abbreviations for Nietzsche’s works such as are to be found at Nietzsche GM [2, p. xxxvii], preferring ‘UM’ for ‘Untimely Meditations’. I will also use ‘KSA’ for Kritische Studien Ausgabe [3] and ‘WP’ for ‘The Will to Power’ [4].

2Luft [5, p. 135]. 3Nietzsche GM [2, II.3].

to delegate the right to use violence to the state. Nietzsche describes these contracts as follows: “contract relationships […] [p]recisely here are promises made; precisely here it is a matter of making a memory for the one who promises”.4 Society needs to restrain violent individual impulses because otherwise it would dissolve in conflict. The creation of society is what leads to the processes Nietzsche describes in GM as leading to morality. So a passive, imposed form of memory is important to Nietzsche in his project of explaining morality. Here we see socially-bred, externally imposed memory. Prehistorical societies led to current societies via the nexus of memory and pain.

Fourthly, memory is the key to the ethical project which we may term ‘revaluation of all values’. Luft argues5 that GM describes the process by which a ‘memory of values’ is created by metaphor and society so we can see how memory is directly implicated in the prevalence of groundless values which Nietzsche attacks. It is also responsible for various moral illusions which Nietzsche wishes to dispel. For one thing, people do not generally tell the truth because of a moral stricture to that effect. They do so merely since memory is a limited resource, and “because it is more convenient, as falsehood requires invention, deceit, and memory”.6 Nietzsche tells us that memory is the space in which acts are given their moral colour, and we will later see that the valuable activity of the active and the strong consists in using memory actively to apply the moral colour they choose to their acts. Moreover, success or failure in a project is the way to apply the desired moral character to a deed: “That the witnesses of a deed often only measure the morality or immorality of it after the fact: no, the culprit does this himself. Because the motives and intentions are seldom clear […] even the memory of the deed is clouded by success, so that one imputes to the deed false motives or treats unimportant motives as important. Success often gives a deed the full honourable sheen of a good conscience; failure lays the shadow of bad conscience on the most respectable action.”7 We also learn here that morality of acts is and should be judged only by the actor in the case of the strong; this is another call for us not to look outside for the source of values. The final message is that motives will be ascribed and adjusted post facto in order to obtain the desired result for moral valency: all of this serves Nietzsche’s purposes in attacking the idea that morality – and the morality we have now – is in any way absolute and beyond question.

4Nietzsche GM [2, II.5].
5Luft [5, p. 139].
6Nietzsche HA [6, ‘On the History of Moral Feelings’, §54].
7Nietzsche HA [6, ‘On the History of Moral Feelings’, §68].

Next Chapter: Types And Roles Of Memory In Nietzsche

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

Leave a Reply