Philosophical Reflections on the Ways of Memory and History

Philosopher Jeffrey Barash seeks to clarify the concept of collective memory, which has taken on wide-ranging meanings in contemporary scholarship. Returning to the original insight of sociologist Maurice Halbwachs during the 1920s, he grounds the concept in the living social memory of the present, whose sphere is widened by its capacity to draw upon a past beyond its ken through the symbolization of its remembrance. He offers two preliminary propositions: first, there is a history to the way philosophers have contextualized collective memory through the ages; second, there is a politics in the transmission of collective memory, highly visible in the uses of memory by mass media in the contemporary age. He builds his argument around four interrelated interpretations concerning: the ever more circumscribed role attributed to collective memory in the passage from antiquity into modernity; the dependence of collective memory upon living memory; the rising power of media to mold collective memory to present purposes; and historical understanding vis-à-vis evocation of collective memory as oppositional ways of accessing the past. I close with commentary that places Barash's philosophical interpretation within the context of contemporary historiographical practice, with particular attention to the scholarship of French historian Pierre Nora on the French national memory, and that of German scholars Jan and Aleida Assmann on the preservation and transmission of memorable cultural legacies.