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Memory, History, Forgetting

Why do major historical events such as the Holocaust occupy the forefront of the collective consciousness, while profound moments such as the Armenian genocide, the McCarthy era, and France’s role in North Africa stand distantly behind? Is it possible that history "overly remembers" some events at the expense of others? A landmark work in philosophy, Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting examines this reciprocal relationship between remembering and forgetting, showing how it affects both the perception of historical experience and the production of historical narrative.

Memory, History, Forgetting, like its title, is divided into three major sections. Ricoeur first takes a phenomenological approach to memory and mnemonical devices. The underlying question here is how a memory of present can be of something absent, the past. The second section addresses recent work by historians by reopening the question of the nature and truth of historical knowledge. Ricoeur explores whether historians, who can write a history of memory, can truly break with all dependence on memory, including memories that resist representation. The third and final section is a profound meditation on the necessity of forgetting as a condition for the possibility of remembering, and whether there can be something like happy forgetting in parallel to happy memory. Throughout the book there are careful and close readings of the texts of Aristotle and Plato, of Descartes and Kant, and of Halbwachs and Pierre Nora.

A momentous achievement in the career of one of the most significant philosophers of our age, Memory, History, Forgetting provides the crucial link between Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative and Oneself as Another and his recent reflections on ethics and the problems of responsibility and representation.

“His success in revealing the internal relations between recalling and forgetting, and how this dynamic becomes problematic in light of events once present but now past, will inspire academic dialogue and response but also holds great appeal to educated general readers in search of both method for and insight from considering the ethical ramifications of modern events. . . . It is indeed a master work, not only in Ricoeur’s own vita but also in contemporary European philosophy.”—Library Journal 

“Ricoeur writes the best kind of philosophy—critical, economical, and clear.”— New York Times Book Review

624 pages | 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2004

Philosophy: Ethics, General Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind

Religion: Religion and Society


"This Ricoeur masterpiece is really three independent, closely related books: a phenomenology of memory, an epistemology of the historical sciences, and a hermeneutics of forgetting."


"There is always something more to be discovered in a text by Paul Ricoeur."

Journal of Literature and Theology

"Ricoeur writes the best kind of philosophy—critical, economical, and clear."

New York Times Book Review

"Ricoeur labors as an incomparable mediator of often estranged philosophical approaches, always in a manner that compromises neither rigor nor creativity."

Christian Century

"Ricoeur unpacks and explores the theoretical junctions and disjunctions through which both philosophers and the public have moved as they contemplate and re-experience major ethical events that shape the individual’s self-perception and form the evolving identity of culture. Ricoeur’s style here is both leisurely and comprehensive, opening up each new avenue of theory by explaining which philosophic tenets and texts inform his narrative. His success in revealing the internal relations between recalling and forgetting, and how this dynamic becomes problematic in light of events once present but now past, will inspire academic dialogue and response but also holds great appeal to educated general readers in search of both method for and insight from considering the ethical ramifications of modern events. The epilog turns to the subject of forgiveness, that "horizon common to memory, history and forgetting," and thus out from the self to the world again. Originally published in France in 2000, this work has won various literary and scholarly prizes. It is indeed a master work, not only in Ricoeur’s own vita but also in contemporary European philosophy."

Francisca Goldsmith | Library Journal

"Paul Ricoeur’s book Memory, History, Forgetting, is without a doubt a vital contribution albeit one that fits into a particular mould, namely that of a heavyweight Gallic intellectual in the time honoured tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. . . . This is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read for some time. . . . From the outset Ricoeur displays a breathtaking array of learning with careful and close readings of Saint Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, and Kant. . . . [This book] ranks as a momentous achievement which deserves a wide audience in the English speaking world."

Martin Evans | History Today

"Memory, History, Forgetting is an exceedingly serious study: serious in the . . . sense of being thoughtful, thorough, with a good sense of what is important.”--Times Literary Supplement


Avishai Margalit | Times Literary Supplement

Memory, History, Forgetting is not an easygoing work, and many will doubt its direct relevance to the working practices of historians and social sciences, viewing it rather as an esoteric discussion for philosophers. This would be to neglect an important piece of reflective thinking on the nature of historiographical problems.”

Paul Jackson | Totalitarian Movements and Politcal Religions

"Moving. . . . it provides strong ethical advice for today as official commemoration brings the memory of some European genocides to the fore while maintaining a persistent silence on others. Ricoeur’s closing words on the link between amnesty and amnesia are the legacy we can take from this book. The boundary between the two can be preserved, he writes, through the work of memory, complemented by the work of mourning, invoking a type of forgetting understood not as silence but as a statement in a pacified mood, without anger -- an enunciation to be understood not as a commandment, but as a wish."

Luisa Passerini | The Times Higher Education Supplmenet

Table of Contents

Part I - On Memory and Recollection
Chapter 1. Memory and Imagination
Reading Guidelines
The Greek Heritage
Plato: The Present Representation of an Absent Thing
Aristotle: "Memory Is of the Past"
A Phenomenological Sketch of Memory
Memories and Images
Chapter 2. The Exercise of Memory: Uses and Abuses
Reading Guidelines
The Abuses of Artificial Memory: The Feats of Memorization
The Abuses of Natural Memory: Blocked Memory, Manipulated Memory, Abusively Controlled Memory
The Pathological-Therapeutic Level: Blocked Memory
The Practical Level: Manipulated Memory
The Ethico-Political Level: Obligated Memory
Chapter 3. Personal Memory, Collective Memory
Reading Guidelines
The Tradition of Inwardness
The External Gaze: Maurice Halbwachs
Three Subjects of the Attribution of Memories: Ego, Collectives, Close Relations
Part II - History, Epistemology
Prelude History: Remedy or Poison?
Chapter 1. The Documentary Phase: Archived Memory
Reading Guidelines
Inhabited Space
Historical Time
The Archive
Documentary Proof
Chapter 2. Explanation/Understanding
Reading Guidelines
Promoting the History of Mentalities
Some Advocates of Rigor: Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau, Norbert Elias
Variations in Scale
From the Idea of Mentality to That of Representation
The Scale of Efficacy or of Coerciveness
The Scale of Degrees of Legitimation
The Scale of Nonquantitative Aspects of Social Times
The Dialectic of Representation
Chapter 3. The Historian’s Representation
Reading Guidelines
Representation and Narration
Representation and Rhetoric
The Historian’s Representation and the Prestige of the Image
Standing For
Part III - The Historical Condition
Prelude: The Burden of History and the Nonhistorical
Chapter 1. The Critical Philosophy of History
Reading Guidelines
"Die Geschichte Selber," "History Itself"
"Our" Modernity
The Historian and the Judge
Interpretation in History
Chapter 2. History and Time
Reading Guidelines
Death in History
The Trajectory of the Term Geschichtlichkeit
Historicity and Historiography
Within-Timeness: Being-"in"-Time
Along the Path of the Inauthentic
Within-Timeness and the Dialectic of Memory and History
Memory, Just a Province of History?
Memory, in Charge of History?
The Uncanniness of History
Maurice Halbwachs: Memory Fractured by History
Yerushalmi: "Historiography and Its Discontents"
Pierre Nora: Strange Places of Memory
Chapter 3. Forgetting
Reading Guidelines
Forgetting and the Effacing of Traces
Forgetting and the Persistence of Traces
The Forgetting of Recollection: Uses and Abuses
Forgetting and Blocked Memory
Forgetting and Manipulated Memory
Commanded Forgetting: Amnesty
Epilogue: Difficult Forgiveness
The Forgiveness Equation
Depth: The Fault
Height: Forgiveness
The Odyssey of the Spirit of Forgiveness: The Passage through Institutions
Criminal Guilt and the Imprescriptible
Political Guilt
Moral Guilt
The Odyssey of the Spirit of Forgiveness: The Stage of Exchange
The Economy of the Gift
Gift and Forgiveness
The Return to the Self
Forgiving and Promising
Unbinding the Agent from the Act
Looking Back over an Itinerary: Recapitulation
Happy Memory
Unhappy History?
Forgiveness and Forgetting
Works Cited

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