Defending The Motor Theory Of Speech Perception

The Motor Theory of Speech Perception seeks to explain the remarkable fact that people have superior abilities to perceive speech as opposed to non-speech sounds. The theory postulates that people use their ability to produce speech when they perceive speech as well, through micro-mimicry. In other words, when we see someone speaking, we make micro replicas of the mouth movements we see, thus helping us to understand what is being said. A major objection to this explanation has been put forward by Mole (2010), who denies that there is anything special about speech perception as opposed to perception of non-speech sound. In this article I will defend the Motor Theory against Mole’s (2010) objection by arguing the contrary: there is something special about speech perception.


Our speech perception functions very well even in conditions where the signal is of poor quality. These abilities are markedly better than our perception of non-speech sounds. For example, consider how you can fairly easily pick out the words being uttered, even against a background of intense, and louder, traffic noise. This fact makes it seem  that there is a special nature to speech perception as compared to perception of non-speech sounds.

The Motor Theory of Speech Perception (Liberman and Mattingly 1985) seeks to explain this special nature of speech perception. It postulates that the mechanical and neural elements involved in the production of speech are also involved in the perception of speech.   On this view, speech perception is the offline running of the systems that when online, actually produce speech. According to the Motor Theory, motor activation – i.e. micro-movements of mouth and tongue muscles or preparations thereto – are also occurring when perception of speech takes place. The idea is that if you make subliminal movements of the type you would make to produce an `S’ sound, you are thereby well-placed to understand that someone else whom you see making such movements overtly is likely to be producing an `S’ sound. This is how we understand one another’s speech so well.  And so it is key to the Motor Theory of Speech Perception that speech perception is special.

In some ways, the position of the Motor Theory in explaining speech perception is analogous to the position of Simulation Theory (see Short, 2015) in explaining how we are often able to predict and explain the behaviour of other people (so-called Theory of Mind). In both cases, the account seeks to generate a maximally powerful explanation of the phenomenon using the minimum of additional “moving parts”.  The Motor Theory notes that we already have complicated machinery to allow us to produce speech and suggests that that machinery may also be used to perceive and understand speech.  The Simulation Theory account of Theory of Mind notes that we already have an immensely complex piece of machinery – a mind – and postulates that we may also use that mind to simulate others and thus understand them.  I see value in these parsimonious and economical simulation approaches in both areas.

Mole (Ch. 10, 2010) challenges the Motor Theory.  He agrees that speech perception is special, but not that it is special in such a way as to support the Motor Theory.  In this article, I will offer responses on behalf of the Motor Theory to Mole’s (2010) challenge in five ways, as outlined below.

  1. Mole (2010) claims that speech perception is not special.  If that is true, then the Motor Theory cannot succeed because it proceeds from that assumption.  I will first deny Mole’s (2010) claim that other perception also involves mapping from multiple percepts to the same meaning and is therefore not unique to speech perceptionTaking an example from speech, we understand the name “Sherlock” to refer to that detective even though it may be pronounced in a myriad of different ways.  This phenomenon is known as invariance.  Mole (2010) claims that there is nothing special about speech perception, because other types of perception (such as colour perception) also involve mapping from multiple external sources of perceptual data to the same single percept. I will show that the example from visual perception invoked by Mole (2010) is not of the type that would dismiss the need for a special explanation of speech perception provided by the Motor Theory.
  2. Mole (2010) makes another claim which is also intended to challenge the idea that underpins the Motor Theory that there is a special invariance in speech perception.  This special invariance is the way that we always understand “Sherlock” to refer to the detective whichever accent the name is spoken in, or whatever the background noise level is (provided of course that we can actually hear the name).  Mole (2010) claims that invariances in speech perception are not special as similar invariances also occur in face recognition.  Mole (2010) seeks to make out his face recognition point by discussing how computers perform face recognition;  I will show that he does not succeed here.
  3. In the famous McGurk experiment, so-called “cross-talk” effects are seen. These occur where visual and aural stimuli interact with each other and change how one of them is perceived.  For example, subjects seeing a video of someone saying “ga” but hearing a recording of someone saying “ba” report that they heard “da.”  Since the Motor Theory postulates that speech perception is special, such cross-talk effects will support the Motor Theory if they are in fact special to speech perception.  Mole (2010) uses cross-modal data from two experiments with the aim of showing that such cross-talk also exists in non-speech perception.  I will suggest that the experiments Mole (2010) cites do not provide evidence for the sort of cross-talk phenomenon that Mole (2010) needs to support his position.
  4. I will refute Mole’s (2010) claim that Motor Theory cannot account for how persons who cannot speak can nevertheless understand speech by outlining how that could occur.
  5. Finally, I will briefly consider a range of additional data that support the Motor Theory which therefore challenges the position espoused by Mole (2010).  These are that the the Motor Theory explains all three of cerebellar involvement in dyslexia,  observed links between speech production and perception in infants and why neural stimulation of speech production areas enhances speech perception.

Challenges To Mole (2010)

Mole’s (2010) Counterexample From Visual Perception Is Disanalogous To Speech Perception

A phoneme is a single unit of speech.  It can be thought of, roughly, as the aural equivalent of a syllable.  Any single phoneme will be understood by the listener despite the fact that there will be many different sound patterns associated with it.  It is clearly a very useful ability of people to be able to ignore details about pitch, intensity and accent in order to focus purely on the phonemes which convey meaning.  This invariance is a feature of speech perception but not of sound perception, which situation motivated the proposal of the Motor Theory.

It is important to be clear on where there is invariance and where there is lack of invariance in perception.  There is invariance in the item which the perceiver perceives (for example, Sherlock) even though there is a lack of invariance in the perceptual data that allows the perceiver to have the perception.  So we can see that it is Sherlock’s face (an invariance in what is understood) even though the face may be seen from different angles (a lack of invariance in perceptual input).  Similarly, we may hear that it is Sherlock’s name that is spoken (an invariance in what is understood) even though the name may be spoken in different accents (a lack of invariance in perceptual input).   Lack of invariance is of course the same as variance; this discussion however tends to be couched in terms of invariance and its absence.

For supporters of the Motor Theory, this invariance in what the listener reports that they have heard is evidence that the perceptual object in speech perception is a single gesture – the one phoneme that the speaker intended to pronounce.  This single object is always reportable despite the fact that the phoneme could have been pronounced in a wide variety of accents.  The accents can vary a great deal but there is still invariance in what the speaker hears because most accents can be understood.

Mole (2010) denies that this invariance is evidence for the special nature of speech.  Mole (p.217, 2010) writes: “[e]ven if speech were processed in an entirely non-special way, one would not expect there to be an invariant relationship between […] properties of speech sounds […] and phonemes heard for we do not […] expect perceptual categories to map onto simple features of stimuli in a one-to-one fashion.”

Mole’s (2010) argument is as follows.  He allows that there is not a one-to-one mapping between stimulus and perceived phoneme in speech perception.  I will also concede this.  Mole (2010) then denies that this means that speech perception is special on the grounds that there is not in general a one-to-one mapping between stimulus and percept in perception (other than in speech).  He produces a putative example in vision, by noting the existence of `metamers’.  A metamer is one of two colours of slightly different wavelengths that are nevertheless perceived to be the same colour.  Note that colour is defined here by wavelength rather than phenomenology.  So Mole (2010) has indeed produced a further example of a situation where there is not a one-to-one mapping between stimulus and percept.

Mole (2010) has indeed produced a further example of a situation where there is not a one-to-one mapping between stimulus and percept.  However, this lack of one-to-one mapping is not exactly what is cited as the cause of the special nature of speech perception under the Motor Theory. Rather the relevant phenomenon is ‘co-articulation’ – i.e., the way in which we are generally articulating more than one phoneme at a time. As Liberman and Mattingly write (1985, p. 4), “coarticulation means that the changing shape of the vocal tract, and hence the resulting signal, is influenced by several gestures at the same time” so the “relation between gesture and signal […] is systematic in a way that is peculiar to speech”.  So while it is indeed the case that there are multiple stimuli being presented which result in a single percept, it is the temporal overlap between those stimuli that is the key factor, not the mere fact of their multiplicity.  In other words, the Motor Theory argument relies on the fact that a speaker is pronouncing more than one phoneme at a time during overlap periods.

This means that Mole’s (2010) metamer example is disanalogous, because it only deals with the multiplicity of the stimuli in the mapping and not with their temporal overlap.  This is the case because there cannot in fact be a temporal overlap between two colour stimuli.  We can see this using a thought experiment.  Let us imagine a lighting rig that is capable of projecting any number of arbitrary colours and also of projecting more than one colour at the same time.

In that case, we could not say that the perception of a colour being projected at a particular time was changed by the other colours being projected with it.  That situation would simply be the projection of a different colour.  So a projection of red light with green light does not produce a modified red, it produces yellow light.  It is not possible to have a “modified red,” because such a thing is not red any more.  The rig would not be projecting a different sort of red; it would be projecting a different colour that was no longer red.

I will illustrate this further with an example from a different sensory modality: hearing.  The position I am taking about red (more exactly, an precise shade of red) is essentialist.  On essentialist accounts, there are certain properties of an item which can be changed and will result in a modified version of that item.  There are other properties, the essential ones, which cannot be modified consistent with the original item retaining its identity.

For example, some properties of an opera are essential to it being an opera.  By definition, it is symphonic music with singing.  A symphony requires only the musical instruments.  Some properties of an opera can be changed and this will result in a modified opera.  One could replace the glass harmonica scored for the Mad Scene in Lucia di Lammermoor with flute.  One would then have a performance of a modified version of Lucia which would be a modified opera and would still be an opera.

What one could not do is change an opera into a symphony, strictly speaking.  There could be a performance of the first act of Lucia as normal and one would be watching a performance of an opera.  If in the second act the musicians came out and played without the singers, one would not have converted an opera into a symphony.  One would have ceased to perform an opera and begun to perform a symphony, albeit one musically identical to the non-vocal parts of Lucia.

Returning to the lighting rig, we cannot say here that yellow is a modified red without abandoning any meaning for separate colour terms altogether – every colour would be a modified version of every other colour.  This impossible lighting rig is what Mole (2010) needs to cite to have a genuine example, because it would be a case of multiple stimuli being projected at the same time and resulting in activation of the same perceptual category.

In sum, a metamer is an example where there is no one-to-one mapping between stimulus and perceptual category, but also where the different stimuli are not simultaneous.  This is the case because we cannot be looking at both colours involved in a metamer at the same time.  A co-articulation by contrast is an example of where there is no one-to-one mapping between stimulus and perceptual category, but where the different stimuli are indeed simultaneous. As it is that very simultaneity that is the key to the special nature of the systematic relation between gesture and signal under the Motor Theory, Mole (2010) does not have an example here that demonstrates that speech perception is not special.

Face Recognition Does Not Show A Similar Sort of Invariance Of Perception As Speech Recognition

Mole (2010) claims that face recognition is another example of invariance – for example, we can recognise that we are looking at Sherlock’s face from various angles and under different lighting conditions – thereby challenging the idea that invariance in speech perception is evidence for the special nature of speech perception.  His claim is that the invariance in the way we can always report that we are looking at Sherlock’s face despite variance in input visual data is similar to the invariance in the way that we can always report we have heard Sherlock’s name despite variance in input aural data.  If that is true, then Mole (2010) has succeeded in showing that speech perception is not special as the Motor Theory claims.

Mole (2010) allows that we use invariances in face recognition, but denies this could ever be understood by examination of retinal data.  He writes: “[t]he invariances which one exploits in face recognition are at such a high level of description that if one were trying to work out how it was done given a moment-by-moment mathematical description of the retinal array, it might well appear impossible” (Nudds and O’Callaghan 2010, p. 216).  What this means is that it would be difficult to get from the retinal array (displaying a great deal of lack of invariance) to the features we use in recognising Sherlock such as our idea of the shape of his nose (which is quite invariant).

However, this can be questioned as follows.  Since the only thing that computers can do in terms of accepting data is to read in a mathematical array, Mole’s (2010) claim is in fact equivalent to the claim that it cannot be understood how computers can perform face recognition.  That claim is false.  To be very fair to Mole (2010), his precise claim is that the task might appear impossible, but I shall now show that since it is widely understood to be possible, it should not appear impossible either.

Fraser et al. (2003) describe an algorithm that performs the face recognition task better than the best algorithm in a ‘reference suite’ of such algorithms.  Their computer is supplied with a gallery of pictures of faces and a target face and instructed to sort the gallery such that the target face is near the top.  The authors report that their algorithm is highly successful at performing this task.  Fraser et al. write (2003, p. 836): “[w]e tested our techniques by applying them to a face recognition task and found that they reduce the error rate by more than 20% (from an error rate of 26.7% to an error rate of 20.6%)”.  So the computer recognized the target face around 80% of the time.

So we see firstly that the computer can recognize a face.  [It is not an objection here to claim that strictly speaking, computers cannot `recognise’ anything.  All that we require here is that computers can be programmed so as to distinguish faces from one another merely by processing visual input.  It is this task which Mole (2010) claims appears impossible.]  Then we turn to the claim that how the computer does this cannot be understood.  That is refuted by the entire paper, which is an extended discussion of exactly that.  Since this in an active area of research, we can take it that such understanding is widely to hand in computational circles, and should be more wide-spread.

It may be true in one sense that we could not efficiently perform the same feat as the computer – in the sense of physically taking the mathematical data representing the retinal array and explicitly manipulating it in a sequence of complex ways in order to perform the face recognition task.  In another sense, we could, of course. It is what we do every time we actually recognize a face.  The mechanics of our eyes and the functioning of our perceptual processing system have the effect of performing those same mathematical manipulations.  We know this because we do in fact perform face recognition using only the retinal array as input data.

Mole (2010) has indeed provided an example of invariance (i.e., in face recognition) but the example does not damage the need for a special explanation of the speech perception invariances, because the face perception example can in fact easily be explained.  Therefore Mole (2010) has not here provided a further example of a invariance and he has not thereby questioned the specialness of speech perception.  Speech perception continues indeed to exhibit a unique invariance which continues to appear in need of unique explanation.

Experimental Data Do Not Show Cross-Modal Fusion 

Cello Experiment

Mole (2010) argues that an experiment on judgments made as to whether a cello was being bowed or plucked shows the same illusory optical/acoustic combinations as are seen in the McGurk effect.  The McGurk effect (McGurk and MacDonald 1976) is observed in subjects hearing a /ba/ stimulus and seeing a /ga/ stimulus.  The subjects report that they have perceived a /da/ stimulus.  It is important to note that this is not one of the stimuli presented; it is a fusion or averaging of the two stimuli.  So an optical stimulus and and an acoustical stimulus have combined to produce an illusory result which is neither of them.

If Mole’s (2010) claim that the cello experiment shows McGurk-like effects is true, this would show that these illusory effects are not special to speech, thus challenging the claim that there is anything special about speech that the Motor Theory can explain.  Mole (p. 221, 2010) writes: “judgments of whether a cello sounds like it is being plucked or bowed are subject to McGurk-like interference from visual stimuli”.  However, the data Mole (2010) cites do not show the same type of illusory combination and so Mole (2010) is unable to discharge the specialness of speech perception as he intends.

The Motor Theory postulates that the gesture intended by the speaker is the object of the perception, and not the acoustical signal produced.  The theory explains this by also postulating a psychological gesture recognition module which will make use of the speech production capacities in performing speech perception tasks.  Thus the McGurk effect constitutes strong evidence for the Motor Theory by explaining that the module has considered optical and acoustical inputs in deciding what gesture has been intended by the speaker.  This strong evidence would be weakened if Mole (2010) can show that McGurk-like effects occur other than in speech perception, because the proponents of the Motor Theory would then be committed to the existence of multiple modules and their original motivation by the observed specialness of speech would be put in question, in fact as in the McGurk effect.

More specifically, the paper Mole (2010) cites, Saldaña and Rosenblum (1993), describes an experimental attempt to find non-speech cross-modal interference effects using a cello as the source of acoustic and optical stimuli.  Remarkably, Saldaña and Rosenblum (1993) state prominently in their abstract that their work suggests “the nonspeech visual influence was not a true McGurk effect” in direct contradiction of Mole’s (2010) stated reason for citing them.

There are two ways to make a cello produce sound: it can be plucked or it can be bowed.  The experimenters proceed by presenting subjects with discrepant stimuli – for example, an optical stimulus of a bow accompanied by an acoustical stimulus of a pluck.  Saldaña and Rosenblum (1993) found that the reported percepts were adjusted slightly by a discrepant stimulus in the direction of that stimulus.

However, to see a McGurk effect, we need the subjects to report that the gesture they perceive is a fusion of a pluck and a bow.  Naturally enough, this did not occur, and indeed it is unclear what exactly such a fusion might be.  Therefore, Mole (2010) has not here produced evidence that there are McGurk effects outside the domain of speech perception.

Mole’s (2010) response is to dismiss this as a merely quantitative difference between the effects observed by the two experiments.  Mole (p. 221, 2010) writes:  “[t]he McGurk effect does reveal an aspect of speech that is in need of a special explanation because the McGurk effect is of a much greater magnitude than analogous cross-modal context effects for non-speech sounds”.  As we have seen, Mole (2010) is wrong to claim there is only a quantitative difference between the McGurk effect observed in speech perception and the cross-modal effects observed in the cello experiment because only in the former were fusion effects observed.  That is most certainly a major qualitative difference.

Mole’s (2010) claim that the cello results are only quantitatively different to the results seen in the McGurk effect experiment produces further severe difficulties when we consider in detail the experimental results obtained.  The cello experimenters describe a true McGurk effect as being one where there is a complete shift to a different entity – the syllable is reported as clearly heard and is entirely different to the one in the acoustic stimulus.  Saldaña and Rosenblum (1993, p. 409) describe these McGurk data as meaning: “continuum endpoints can be visually influenced to sound like their opposite endpoints”.

The cello data were not able to make a pluck sound exactly like a bow and in fact the discrepant optical stimuli were only able to slightly shift the responses in their direction, by less than a standard deviation, and in some cases not at all.  This is not the McGurk effect at all and so Mole (2010) cannot say it is only quantitatively different.  Indeed, Saldaña and Rosenblum (1993, p. 410) specifically note that: “[t]his would seem quite different from the speech McGurk effect”.

In sum, the cross-modal fusion effect that Mole (2010) needs is physically impossible in the cello case and the data actually found do not even represent a non-speech analog of the McGurk effect, as is confirmed by the authors.  Once again, speech perception remains special and the special Motor Theory is needed to explain it.

Sound Localization Experiment

The other experiment relied on by Mole (2010) was conducted by Lewald and Guski (2003) and considered the ventriloquism effect, whereAs above, the result that Mole (2010) needs to support his theory is an effect that is a good analogy to the McGurk effect in a non-speech domain. As I will show below, the data from the Sound Localisation Experiment also fails to bear out his claim that there are McGurk-like effects outside the domain of speech perception.

The Sound Localisation  Experiment uses tones and lights as its acoustic and optical stimuli.  It investigates the ventriloquism effect quantitatively in both the spatial and temporal domains.  The idea is that separate optical and acoustic events will tend to be perceived as a unified single event with optical and acoustical effects.  This will only occur if the spatial or temporal separation of the component events is below certain thresholds.

Lewald and Guski (2003, p. 469) propose a “spatio-temporal window for audio-visual integration” within which separate events will be perceived as unified.  They suggest maximum values of 3◦ for angular or spatial separation and 100 ms for temporal separation.  Thus a scenario in which a light flash occurs less than 3◦ away from the source of a tone burst will produce a unified percept of a single optical/acoustical event as will a scenario in which a light flash occurs within 100 ms of a tone burst.  Since the two stimuli in fact occurred at slightly different times or locations, this effect entails that at least one of the stimuli is perceived to have occurred at a different time or location than it actually did.

To recap, in the McGurk effect, discrepant optical and acoustic stimuli result in a percept that is different to either of the two stimuli and is a fusion of them.  We may allow to Mole (2010) that Lewald and Guski (2003) do indeed report subjects perceive a single event comprising a light flash and a tone burst.  However, that is insufficient to constitute an analogy to the McGurk effect.  Subjects do not report that their percept is some fusion of a light flash and a tone burst – as with the cello experiment, it is unclear what such a fusion could be – they merely report that an event has resulted in these two observable effects.  [We may note that Lewald and Guski (2003) do not take themselves to be searching for non-speech analogs of the McGurk effect; the term does not appear in their paper or in the titled of any of their 88 citations, throwing doubt on the claim that they are working in the field at all.]

Indeed, the subjects were not even asked whether they perceived some fused event.  They were asked whether the sound and the light had a common cause; were co-located or were synchronous.  As Lewald and Guski write (p. 470, 2003): “[i]n Experiment 1, participants were instructed to judge the likelihood that sound and light had a common cause.  In Experiment 2, participants had to judge the likelihood that sound and light sources were in the same position. In Experiment 3, participants judged the synchrony of sound and light pulses’ ”.  A ‘common cause’ might have been some particular event but it is not the sound and the light and they were the only things that were perceived therefore the instructions do not even admit the possibility that a fused event was perceived.

Since Lewald and Guski (2003) are measuring the extent to which participants agree that a light and a tone had a common cause, were co-located or were synchronous, it is puzzling that Mole (p. 221, 2010) cites them to support his claim that perceived flash count can be influenced by perceived tone count.  We see this when Mole writes (p. 221, 2010):  “[t]he number of flashes that a subject seems to see can be influenced by the number of concurrent tones that he hears (Lewald and Guski 2003)”.

Moreover, neither the Sound Localisation Experiment nor the cello experiment support Mole’s (p. 221, 2010) summation that “[i]t is not special to speech that sound and vision can interact to produce hybrid perceptions influenced by both modalities” in the way he needs.  Unlike with the McGurk effect, there are no hybrid perceptions in either case, where  “hybrid” is understood to be ‘a perception of an event which is neither of the stimulus events’.

There are cross-modal effects between non-speech sound stimuli and optical stimuli but that is inadequate to support Mole’s (2010) claim that speech is not special.  We still need the special explanatory power of the Motor Theory.

Mute Perceivers Can Be Accommodated

One of Mole’s (2010) challenges is that the Motor Theory cannot explain how some people can have the capacity to perceive speech that they lack the capacity to produce.  Mole writes (p. 226, 2010) that “[a]ny move that links our ability to perceive speech to our ability to speak is an unappealing move, since it ought to be possible to hear speech without being able to speak oneself”.  There is an equivocation here though on what is meant by ‘capacity to produce’.  Mole (2010) is reading that term so that the claim is that someone who is unable to use their mouth to produce speech lacks the capacity to perceive speech.  Since such mute people can indeed as he claims understand speech, he takes his claim to be made out.

However, in the article cited by Mole (2010), it is clear that this is not what is understood by ‘capacity to produce’.  In the study by Fadiga et al. (2002) described, the neuronal activation related to tongue muscles is not sufficient to generate movement.  This activation is a result of the micro-mimicry that takes place when people are perceiving speech.  Fadiga et al. (2002) call this mimicry “motor facilitation.”

Fadiga et al. (p. 400, 2002) write: “The observed motor facilitation is under-threshold for overt movement generation, as assessed by high sensitivity electromyography showing that during the task the participants’ tongue muscles were absolutely relaxed”.   Thus the question is whether the subject has the capacity to produce such a sub-threshold activation, and not the capacity to produce speech via a super-threshold activation.   Naturally, since all the subjects had normal speech, they could produce both a sub-threshold and a super-threshold activation, with the latter resulting in speech.

However, someone could be able to activate their tongue muscles below the threshold to generate overt movement but not be able to activate those muscles above the threshold.  That would mean that they lacked ‘capacity to produce’ in Mole’s (2010) sense, but retained it in Fadiga et al.’s (2002) sense.  This would be a good categorization of the mute people who can understand speech they cannot utter.  Those people would retain the ability to produce the neural activity that Fadiga et al. observe, which does not result in tongue muscle movement.  This is a testable empirical claim to which my account is committed.  It is possible that they may not be able to even produce the sub-threshold neural signals. If that turns out to be correct, it would be a problem for the Motor Theory and the defence I have offered for it here.

Similarly, we can resolve Mole’s (2010) puzzle about how one can understand regional accents that one cannot mimic; i.e. I can understand people who speak with an accent that is different to mine.  The capacity to understand a particular accent could result from our ability to generate the necessary sub-threshold activations, but not the super-threshold ones.  If we go on to acquire that regional accent, our super-threshold muscle activation capacities would be of the required form.  This again is an empirical prediction which makes my account subject to falsification by data.

This hypothesis could have interesting implications in the field of developmental psychology.  Mole (p. 216, 2010) outlines how infants can perceive all speech sound category distinctions, but eventually lose the ability to discriminate the ones that do not represent a phoneme distinction in their language.  So it may be the case that all infants are born with the neural capacity to learn to generate super-threshold activations of all regional accents, but eventually retain that capacity only at the sub-threshold level – because they can later understand a wide range of regional accents – and lose the capacity at the super-threshold level – for those regional accents they cannot mimic.

Another implication here of the Motor Theory is to say that a listener’s vocal tract can function as a model of itself, just as a listener’s vocal tract can function as a model of a speaker’s vocal tract.  This means that the sub-threshold activation functions as a model of the super-threshold activation. So, perceptual capacities involve the former modelling the latter exactly as the Motor Theory predicts.  Such an approach does not commit the Motor Theory to the modelling/perception neurons controlling the sub-threshold activations being the same as the production neurons controlling speech production, so the account is not susceptible to falsification on that precise point.

Further Brief Challenges To Mole (2010)

The Motor Theory Explains Cerebellar Involvement In Dyslexia

Mole (2010) challenges the Motor Theory and in doing so, challenges the idea that speech production capacities are involved in speech recognition.  For this reason, any data showing links between speech production capacities and speech recognition capacities will be a problem for him.

Ivry and Justus (2001) refer to a target article that shows that 80% of dyslexia cases are associated with cerebellar impairments.  Since the cerebellum is generally regarded as a motor area, and dyslexia is most definitely a language disorder, we have clear evidence for a link between language and motor areas.  That is naturally a result that can be clearly accommodated by the Motor Theory which links speech production and speech recognition.

It is not open to Mole (2010) to respond that the link is only between motor control areas and writing control areas, because although writing skills are the primary area of deficit for dyslexic subjects, the authors also found impairments in reading ability to be strongly associated with the cerebellar impairments.  This can be explained on the Motor Theory because it says that Motor deficits will result in speech recognition deficits.  Mole (2010) needs to provide an explanation of this which does not rely on the Motor Theory.

The Motor Theory Explains Links Between Speech Production And Perception In Infants

Mole (2010) does not address some important results supplied by Liberman and Mattingly (1985: p. 18) that link perception and production of speech.  These data show that infants preferred to look at a face producing the vowel they were hearing rather than the same face with the mouth shaped to produce a different vowel.  That effect is not seen when the vowel sounds were replaced with non-speech tones matched for amplitude and duration with the spoken vowels.  What this means is that the infants are able to match the acoustic signal to the optical one.  In a separate study, the same extended looking effect was seen in infants when a disyllable was the test speech sound.  These data cannot be understood without postulating a link between speech production and speech perception abilities, because differentiating between mouth shapes is a production-linked task – albeit one mediated by perception – and differentiating between speech percepts is a perceptual task.

The Motor Theory Explains Why Neural Stimulation Of Speech Production Areas Enhances Speech Perception

D’Ausilio et al. (2009) conducted an experiment in which Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (“TMS”) was applied to areas of the brain known to be involved in motor control of articulators.  Articulators are the physical elements that produce speech, such as the tongue and lips.  After the TMS, the subjects were tested on their abilities to perceive speech sounds.  It was found that the stimulation of speech production areas improved the ability of the subjects to perceive speech.  The authors suggest that the effect is due to the TMS causing priming of the relevant neural areas such that they are more liable to be activated subsequently.

Even more remarkably, the experimenters find more fine grained effects such that stimulation of the exact area involved in production of a sound enhanced perceptual abilities in relation to that sound.  D’Ausilio et al (2009, p. 383) report: “the perception of a given speech sound was facilitated by magnetically stimulating the motor representation controlling the articulator producing that sound, just before the auditory presentation”.  This constitutes powerful evidence for the Motor Theory’s claim that the neural areas responsible for speech production are also involved in speech perception.


Special situations require special explanations.  The Motor Theory of Speech Perception is a special explanation of speech perception which, as evidenced by the rejection of Mole’s objections, continues to be needed.  One might say that such “specialness” means the Motor Theory stands in a vulnerable and isolated position, as it seeks to explain speech perception in a way that is very different to how we understand other forms of perception.   Here, I would revert to my brief opening remarks about the similarities between the Motor Theory and Simulation Theory.  Whilst the Motor Theory is indeed a special way to explain speech perception, it is at the same time parsimonious and explanatorily powerful because like Simulation Theory, it does not require any machinery which we do not already know we possess.  This is perhaps what underlies the continued attractiveness of Motor Theory as a convincing account of how people perceive speech so successfully.


D’Ausilio, A et al. 2009  The Motor Somatotopy of Speech Perception.  Current Biology 19: pp. 381–385.  DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.01.017

Fadiga, L et al. 2002  Speech Listening Specifically Modulates the Excitability of Tongue Muscles: a TMS study.  European Journal of Neuroscience, 15: pp. 399–402.  DOI: 10.1046/j.0953-816x.2001.01874.x

Fraser, A M et al. 2003  Classification modulo invariance, with application to face recognition.  Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics, 12 (4): pp. 829–852.  DOI: 10.1198/1061860032634

Ivry, R B and T C Justus 2001  A neural instantiation of the motor theory of speech perception.  Trends in Neuroscience, 24 (9): pp. 513–5.  DOI: 10.1016/S0166-2236(00)01897-X

Lewald, J and R Guski 2003  Cross-modal perceptual integration of spatially and temporally disparate auditory and visual stimuli.  Brain Research. Cognitive Brain Research (Amsterdam), 16: pp. 468–478.  DOI: 10.1016/S0926-6410(03)00074-0

Liberman, A and I G Mattingly 1985  The Motor Theory of Speech Perception Revised.  Cognition, 21: pp. 1–36.  DOI: 10.1016/0010-0277(85)90021-6

McGurk, H and J MacDonald 1976  Hearing lips and seeing voices.  Nature, 264, (5588): pp. 746–748.  DOI: 10.1038/264746a0

Mole, C 2010 The motor theory of speech perception in Sounds and Perception: New Philosophical Essays.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.  DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199282968.001.0001

Saldaña, H M and L D Rosenblum 1993  Visual influences on auditory pluck and bow judgments.  Perception And Psychophysics, 54 (3): pp. 406– 416.  DOI: 10.3758/BF03205276

Short, T L 2015  Simulation Theory: a Psychological and Philosophical Consideration.  Abingdon: Routledge.  URL:

“Rape” At The Royal Opera House

There has been a lot of controversy in old and new media over a scene in a new production of Guillaume Tell at the ROH; cf.

Two preliminaries:.  One: I was there at the first night, in seat W14 at the back of the Orchestra Stalls.  If you weren’t, then you will have to take my word for it in terms of what actually happened.  Two: I am a philosophical psychologist (cf. so if you would like to respond, do so to exactly what I write below and not to something in the vicinity of what I say which annoys you.  If you want to be formal about it, I suppose the proposition for which I am arguing is “the scene was appropriate.”

I will start by outlining the events I saw and then show that all of the objections aiming to show that the scene was inappropriate fail.

A foreign army is occupying Switzerland.  At the point in the libretto of interest, we are told that some soldiers force the local women to dance with them.  One woman is offered champagne, somewhat against her will.  She acquiesces nervously.  She is then doused in champagne.  The leader of the occupying forces, Gesler, molests her by placing a pistol between her legs at around mid-thigh level.  She moves on to the dining table, upon which is placed a large table-cloth.  She disappears behind a group of perhaps 10-15 soldiers.  Shortly afterwards, she reappears naked.  The duration of the nudity was something like half a second.  She partly wraps the table-cloth around her and moves away from the table.  The hero, Tell, appears and ensures that she is fully covered.

That’s it for the stage action. There ensued enormous amounts of booing which interrupted the action.  One man shouted out “one step too fucking far mate” and another shouted “Holten out”.  (Kaspar Holten is Director of Opera at the ROH.)  There were a number of noisy walkouts.

The objections I have seen are as below.

The scene was too long

I don’t really see how this objection works.  People have spoken of a ” five-minute gang rape”.  I do not think you can get to five minutes even if you include all of the events I outline above in your duration.  I would put it at two minutes; perhaps three at the outside.  In any case, the nudity was momentary.  This means at the outset we have to decide what constitutes a depiction of rape.  That is a difficult question.  Naturally, there was no sex or simulated sex on stage by anyone, so a fortiori there was no sex or simulated sex involving multiple men and the woman. However, it was clearly the intention of the director to depict rape in some sense and that intention we may assume was realized, because of the intense audience reaction.  I think that this intense negative reaction meant that the “rape” that was perceived by the audience was too long simply because any duration was too long to be comfortable.  But if we are purely talking about seconds on the clock, then it could not have been shorter and remained what it was.  (You may wish to challenge me here by noting that the scene has now been cut and shortened.  Is it still what it was?)  You will also need to deal with the question as to how fictional objects get their properties; see my Sherlock piece:

The scene was gratuitous

This objection cannot succeed; it gains its initial plausibility by appearing to be the nearby objection “the scene had a negative effect”.  To make out the claim that the scene was gratuitous, you have to show that the scene had no effect.  In other words, the aesthetic impact of the piece would have been identical if the scene had been eliminated.  This is transparently false since the audience reaction to the scene and the reaction of others who were not there was immense.  You may well feel that the aesthetic effect of the scene was undesirable, but that is not consistent with saying that its inclusion was gratuitous.

The scene was unnecessary

I can again respond similarly to what I said to counter the previous objection.  In addition, I can observe that nothing is necessary.  Even claims like “everything is identical to itself” are questionable under certain circumstances.

I do not expect to see that at the opera

Why not?  I will defer to others, notably the Director of Opera, to make a number of valid points in response to this.  The scene is fully justified by the libretto (cf.; perhaps also the purpose of art is to shock, sometimes.  Bear in mind that this is about war, not the marriage of Figaro.  Also, why are we holding opera to a much different standard to those we permit on the theatrical stage, or film (cf., let alone what one can see on the internet.

We need to protect victims of rape from depictions of rape

Was this a depiction of rape?  Do we also need to protect people who have had a family member murdered from depictions of murder?  There were several of those in this piece; they aroused no comment.

The inclusion of the scene condones rape

I don’t understand this objection, so if you share it, you will have to explain it to me.  One question is whether or not it matters that the perpretators of the “rape” were the villains of the piece.  If this is an alleviating factor, then it would have been an aggravating one to have had the hero Tell perpetrate it.  Perhaps that would have been the provocative directorial choice.

The scene was “the last straw”

This is one of the more common objections.  It seems to run approximately as follows: `this was a terrible production full of infantile symbolism, each scene was more offensive and unimaginative than the last, the “rape” scene was one step too far’.  I happened to think that the production was brave and innovative, but that is not actually relevant to the argument.  The problem with this objection is that it seems to entail the following: `this rape scene would have been appropriate in a more traditional production, or a production I liked more.’  That seems unmotivated and hard to argue for.  It seems to be caused by the phenomenon of “moral licensing,” which is not a way to stand up an objection.


I conclude that all of the objections fail and the scene was appropriate.  It is therefore unfortunate that the scene has now been modified by weakening it and shortening it.  We may at least note that the Director of Opera did not insist on this; in fact he apologized for the offense that seemed to have been caused and explicitly did not apologize for the production.  This is right and proper; I do not want what I can see at the Royal Opera House controlled by reactionary prudes who can only stomach totally traditional productions.  The changes were made by the Director; so our regret should be that a courageous and ground-breaking production team have been forced to weaken the impact of their vision.

For me, the most dismaying part of the experience was seeing the change in the countenance of Malin Bystrom, who was superb.  She was quite clearly delighted by the richly deserved approbation she received in her curtain call, but was still there for the booing of the production crew.  This is what I call gratuitous.  In fact, I can’t see any occasion on which booing is appropriate.  Walk out silently if you must, but otherwise why not just stay at home.  The ROH is generally sold out; we can do without your ticket money if you think you are going to decide what is appropriate in a production.

Review Of Soteriou: The Mind’s Construction Ch1 and Ch2


“Not all aspects of mind fill time in the same way. For example, some elements of our mental lives obtain over intervals of time, others unfold over time, some continue to occur” (p. 1)

Aim is to use these as individuation criteria for mental events/states/processes, which means it will be important that they are clearly definable and do not overlap, and then use those distinctions to illuminate `phenomenal consciousness’

Chapter One

(p. 9, p. 23) Distinction between the `manifest image’ of the mind and the `scientific image’ of the mind in Sellars 1962 is a bit like the distinction between folk psychology and scientific psychology. This is unsurprising since Sellars 1956 is credited with opening up the modern ToM debate in some ways. Similar questions arise. Is the former to be superseded by the latter, or is it to provide data for the latter? In other words, is introspection a legitimate means of enquiry?

(p. 9) Soteriou distinguishes between the legitimacy of introspection/phenomenology approaches to theorising about thought and about sensory experience. The idea is that the latter area seems to be more appropriate to the introspective mode of examination, because “conscious sensory experiences” have a “sensuous character” that “is somehow manifest to one”. This seems to approach but not reach a sort of Immunity to Error argument viz. my thinking some conscious states have certain features suffices to make it the case that they do have such features, such as if it seems to me to be raining, then there is something that seems to me to be the case. [Descartes at the root of this, presumably.]

(p. 9) Concession: introspection may not get us anywhere at all with the scientific image; nor will it (p. 11) alone resolve mental ontology

1.1 Introspection, ‘diaphanous’ experience, and the relation of perceptual acquaintance

(p. 12) The step from `you can introspect the sensuous character of a conscious experience’ to `you can introspect the sensuous character of a mental state’ looks innocent but isn’t.

(p. 13) Argument: Moore and diaphaneity. If you try to introspect an experience, you just get straight to the experience: the experience of blue is just the blue not `experience of blue’. Also, experiences of blue are not themselves blue.

(p. 14) A relational model of sensory experience raises more questions than it answers: what are the relata, what is the relation and how do we know introspection is any use for either question, given the Moore problem?

(p. 15) Relational accounts led to sense data theories to account for hallucination/error

1.2 Representational content and the properties of conscious experience

(p. 18) Introspection cuts both ways in the sense data debate. Looks like there is something relational going on; contra that it looks like the relation is between us and objects in the world not internal entities. Fashion dictates the winner; sense data theories not fashionable any more.

COP [Completeness of Physics]: “All physical effects have only physical causes”

P [Physicalism]: “all entities that exist are physical entities”

COP + P look problematic for sense data – are they physical or not?

(p. 18) “thoughts are to be individuated in terms of propositional contents”

(p. 19) “sensory experiences have intentional contents with veridicality conditions” cf. Frege, thoughts. Leads to: illusions are like false beliefs. We don’t think there needs to be anything in the world to correspond to a false belief so the argument from illusion for sense data looks less appealing. [Though of course this is a bit like `the problem is so big that it isn’t a problem anymore.]

(p. 20) Fechner, psychophysics. Wittgenstein!

1.3 The re-emergence of relational views

(p. 25) This new consensus needs a response to questions such as how much of the character of conscious experience is caused by the relatum and how much by the relation [cf. Frege again].


(p. 26) Preview of next chapter: whether there is a stream of consciousness or not will [as promised in Introduction] throw light on mental ontology and also can be investigated using the Fregean framework under which thoughts are differentiated by propositional content.

Chapter Two

(p. 27) Consider: James `there is a stream of consciousness’ vs. Geach `there is not a stream of consciousness’

(p. 27) Mental states obtain and mental processes occur over time; even if the time taken is the same, these two unfoldings are different

2.1 The temporal profiles of thought and experience

(p. 28) Geach’s argument is basically that the stream of consciousness is seen as illusory on the line that thoughts are individuated by propositional contents, because those propositions then pass through the mind sequentially and separately. [But how do we know that this separation is not an artifact or mere consequence of the individuation criterion? Also, this looks a bit like a contest between competing introspections.]

2.2 Geach on the discontinuous character of thought

(p. 30) Geach’s argument: you can’t half have a thought; it must all be present at once. There are no transitions. Therefore you can’t have two at once — two thoughts cannot overlap. Therefore there is no stream of consciousness. Soteriou aims to look at all these steps.

(p. 31) Non-succession basically flows from the propositional content model. Saying `John is tall’ takes time but thinking it doesn’t because you haven’t thought anything unless you think the whole proposition.

(p. 31) “S can’t simply have a belief that ‘John’ ”. Can’t he, in a way, have that? Could it not be that a belief with the content `John exists’ could have that form? Alternatively, imagine hearing someone unknown come in, and wondering who it is, with John being the most likely option. We might express the content of your mental state as being `John?’. When you see him a second later, you know it is him. The two mental states separated by a second are 1). `John?’ and 2). `John’. Soteriou is again assuming a propositional model of thought content — which may be fine — and also it disallows propositions like `John’. Soteriou can probably say here that the account doesn’t mind what sort of propositions are allowed, as long as they can’t have duration. You still have to think the whole proposition at once if you think it at all.

(p 32) `the pack of cards is on the table’ is not thought in order with some bit of thought corresponding to `of’. [OK, but couldn’t there also be an ordering/division like `that’ `there’? Couldn’t you get half way through thinking the pack of cards is on the table when you realise that the thing on the table is a book and the cards are on the chair…?]

(p. 32) Geach: since there is no temporal order, there are also no transitions — because even if two propositions have a shared element, then they would not share a temporal part. [Can we think more than one proposition at once? Propositions entailed by a proposition thought. Subconscious propositions?]

(p. 34) Soteriou: however, there can be transitions between mental states, which is a problem for Geach. [Soteriou will try to fix the problem and adopt a modified version of Geach’s anti-stream of consciousness line. Is this consistent with Soteriou’s later commitment to a stream of sensory consciousness…?]

2.3 The ontology of the stream of consciousness

(p. 34) O’Shaughnessy: it is the necessity of flux that distinguishes the flow of the stream of consciousness, not just the flux itself, so experiences are not mental states

(p. 35) O’Shaughnessy: a mental state is like knowing that 9 + 5 = 14; it obtains

(p. 37) What distinguishes the cognitive from the sensory is not their properties but how they fill time [So that isn’t a property or reducible to one?]

2.4 Representational content and the ontology of experience

(p. 39) If over “t1–t5 S underwent an experience with the content ‘That F is G’, it would be a mistake to think that from t1 to t2 S underwent a conscious experience with the content that ‘That F’, and over the interval of time t3–t5 S underwent a conscious experience with the content that ‘is G’. This is a restatement of the modified Geach anti-stream of consciousness line espoused by Soteriou. [The claim looks phenomenologically plausible. But does it still work if the t1 to t3 etc time-slices become extremely small, of the order of nanoseconds? Soteriou handles this by saying that even so, the parts of the experience cannot be reduced to parts of the proposition.]

(p. 42) “the representational content of conscious sensory experience type-individuates a perceptual state of the subject”

2.5 Representational content and phenomenal character

[Qualia or what it is like to be a mental state need to be accounted for. Since Soteriou is not going with a stream of consciousness approach, then failure of such an account of qualia to be apt for inclusion in mental flow is no disqualification. Soteriou will now go on in 2.6 to outline the proposal he flagged in the introduction: we can categorise mental ontology by looking at the temporal underpinnings of phenomenal character.]

2.6 An ontological proposal: occurrence, state, and explanatory circularity

This will be Soteriou’s first outing of the major novelty in his approach.

(p. 47) The proposal: “individuate the kind of phenomenally conscious state that obtains in terms of the kind of mental event/process in virtue of whose occurrence the state obtains” — not a supervenience relation.

(p. 48) A circularity deriving from inter-dependence: “ interdependent status of event/process and state introduces a certain kind of explanatory circularity” i.e. each depends on the other. [How vicious is this circle, and circles generally…? Later Soteriou will say that the circularity may be not vicious but perhaps use its difficulty to reinforce its plausibility by suggesting it explains the `explanatory gap’. This is clever, because it suggests that the circularity is there because reality is just like that — and we have to get on with it.]


[For Soteriou, there is a stream of sensory consciousness but it will not be made up of a stream of propositions.]

[So — a good start. Soteriou has told us what the background is, what he is assuming, and where he wants to get to.]

Sherlock Holmes as Enemy of Confirmation Bias

Further to my recent paper on Sherlock and the ontology of ficta:

– which was kindly tweeted by Dr Watson:

– I was also pointed by Dr Watson towards some very interesting Holmes quotes aimed at showing that he is a fan of data-driven decision making:

That looked like a decent case, but what struck me more about the five well-chosen quotes is that they really show that Holmes is very well aware of the problem of Confirmation Bias. This is prevalent everywhere in everyone and completely bedevils our reasoning abilities. Given that this is very modern psychology, it is remarkable that Holmes was on to it so quickly.

I will proceed as follows. I will give you the quotes; I will tell you what Confirmation Bias is; I will show how the quotes show that Holmes is aware of the problem, and I will close with some brief remarks as to why Confirmation Bias is a problem.

Quotes from Sherlock

Here are the quotes; again courtesy of the Umbel blog.

1. “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”

2. “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

3. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

4. “I never guess. It is a shocking habit,—destructive to the logical faculty.”

5. “‘Data! Data! Data!’ he cried impatiently. ‘I can’t make bricks without clay.’”

What is Confirmation Bias?

First cut: Confirmation Bias is the tendency to confirm what you already believe.

This of course is the enemy of good hypothesis formation. You should instead attempt to falsify what you believe. That is the only way of proving anything, because attempting to prove what you already believe just gives you an endless series of facts which are consistent with your hypothesis. You can have an infinite series of consistent observations but that proves nothing; whereas a single disconfirmatory observation disproves the hypothesis!

Given the remarkable asymmetry in power of potential observations, it is remarkable that few people ever look where they ought to. Of course, one reason for that is that if you falsify a hypothesis you already hold, you will have to track through the ramifications of that for your whole belief structure. If for instance, you find out that the man in the hot is not Moriarty, you will have to discard a large number of other beliefs. If you saw the man in the hat at the station, you now have to believe that the man at the station was not Moriarty, and so on, with potentially significant consequences for your picture of the world. This takes time and energy so people don’t want to do it.

Confirmation Bias comes in three main forms: a) not looking for disconfirmatory evidence; b). ignoring disconfirmatory evidence if it is pressed upon one; c) discounting disconfirmatory evidence.

Holmes on the Case

The key is quote 3, which is basically a statement of the problem of Confirmation Bias. The facts you actually see are twisted by what you are expecting to find, and so you will ten inexorably to find what you were expecting. For that reason, guessing is a mistake, as Holmes points out in quote 4. Because a guess does not stand in a vacuum. It is formed from currently existing half-beliefs and things you are prepared/want to believe. SO it is biassed. Worse still, the guess becomes a hypothesis which by the twisted magic of Confirmation Bias will now find ways of becoming your truth. Holmes is right to call this a shocking abuse of logic.

Quote 2 speaks to the problem of ignoring data. Many obvious things are unremarkable merely because we have seen them so often. Take gravity. Why do we stick to the earth? Isn’t that odd? No-one thinks so, but how can it be explained? (Incidentally I object to the latest TV version having Holmes say he doesn’t know that the earth goes around the sun because it changes nothing here. We would, for example, be shocked by his failure to expose as an impostor a scientist who claimed the sun goes round the earth. So Holmes needs an excellent theory of the world in order to have the excellent Theory of Mind that he clearly enjoys.)

Quotes 1 and 5 speak to the primary importance of data, which as I have been saying must be impartially collected and not merely what makes it through after Confirmation Bias.

Why is Confirmation Bias a problem?

Think about just two things: religion and politics. Imagine that you have been trained from a young age to believe a set of random hypothesis and have then had a lifetime exercising Confirmation Bias to back up these hypotheses. Some people move on from religious fairy tales, but many do not. Also, have you noticed that most people vote the way their parents did? They seem to know *without listening* that everything that the other political party says is wrong. This sort of factor gives you the political polarisation currently visible in America and elsewhere.

This is not a good thing and Holmes is right to warn us strongly against it. Beware Confirmation Bias!

How can we reconcile the following apparent truths: ‘Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes was created by Conan Doyle’?

Article below published here:

Short, T.L. 2014. How can we reconcile the following apparent truths: ‘Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes was created by Conan Doyle’?. Opticon1826 (16):8, DOI:

Nietzsche on Memory: Conclusion (MPhil Ch5)

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



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.


[1] F. W. Nietzsche and R. J. Hollingdale, Untimely Meditations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983.

[2] F. W. Nietzsche, M. Clark, and A. J. Swensen, On the Genealogy of Morality: a Polemic. Hackett Pub. Co., Indianapolis, 1998.

[3] F. W. Nietzsche, G. Colli, and M. Montinari, Sämtliche Werke. dtv and Walter de Gruyter, Munich, 1988.

[4] F. W. Nietzsche, W. A. Kaufmann, and R. J. Hollingdale, The Will to Power. Vintage Books, New York, 1968.

[5] S. R. Luft, “The Secularization of Origins in Vico and Nietzsche,” The Personalist Forum, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 133–148, 1994.

[6] F. W. Nietzsche and R. J. Hollingdale, Human, All Too Human: a Book for Free Spirits. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.

[7] W. A. Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974.

[8] F. W. Nietzsche and R. J. Hollingdale, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Penguin Books, London, 2003.

[9] J. Richardson, Nietzsche’s New Darwinism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008.

[10] F. W. Nietzsche, M. Clark, and B. Leiter, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.

[11] F. W. Nietzsche, A. Ridley, and J. Norman, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

[12] E. Bertram and R. E. Norton, Nietzsche: Attempt at a Mythology. International Nietzsche Studies, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2009.



[13] G. Deleuze, Nietzsche and philosophy. Continuum Books, London, 2006.

[14] S. D. Hales, “Nietzsche on Logic,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 56, no. 4, pp. 819–835, 1996.

[15] F. W. Nietzsche, R. Bittner, and K. Sturge, Nietzsche: Writings from the Late Notebooks. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003.

[16] K. A. Pearson, A Companion to Nietzsche. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, 2009.

[17] A. Clark, “Intrinsic Content, Active Memory and the Extended Mind,” Analysis,
vol. 65, no. 1, pp. 1–11, 2005.

[18] R. Wollheim, The Thread of Life. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.

[19] J. Sutton, “Memory,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (E. N. Zalta, ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, summer 2010 ed., 2010.

[20] F. W. Nietzsche, B. Williams, J. Nauckhoff, and A. Caro, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

[21] F. W. Nietzsche, R. Geuss, A. Nehamas, and L. Lo ̈b, Nietzsche: Writings from the Early Notebooks. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009.

[22] J. Derrida and R. Beardsworth, “Nietzsche and the Machine,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 7, pp. 7–66, 1994.

[23] A. Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified. SCM Press, Norwich, 1999.

[24] C. D. Acampora, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: Critical Essays. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, 2006.

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[26] H. Staten, “The Problem of Nietzsche’s Economy,” Representations, no. 27, pp. 66–91, 1989.

[27] P. S. Loeb, “Finding the Übermensch in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 30, pp. 70–101, 2005.

[28] R. Poole, “Memory, Responsibility, and Identity,” Social Research, vol. 75, no. 1, pp. 263–286, 2008.

[29] A. Ridley, “Nietzsche’s Conscience,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 11, pp. 1– 12, 1996.


[30] P. Goldie, “Empathy with One’s Past,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. 49,
no. s1, pp. 193–207, 2011.

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[32] N. Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Random House, London, 1988.

[33] M. M. Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. W.W. Norton, London, 2004.

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[46] P. M. Lützeler, “[untitled],” German Studies Review, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 205–206, 1998.


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of Nietzsche Studies, no. 25, pp. 58–77, 2003.

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[50] D. Thomas, “The Articulation of Time in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy: Rethinking Deconstruction Through the Thematic of Temporality,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 9/10, pp. 113–131, 1995.

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[52] R. Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (E. N. Zalta, ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, summer 2011 ed., 2011.

[53] F. W. Nietzsche and R. J. Hollingdale, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a Book for Everyone and No One. Penguin Books, London, 1961.

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Does Nietzsche Support A Collective Memory Type? (MPhil Ch4: Nietzsche on Memory)

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].