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From Medieval Mnemonics to a Social Construction of Memory

Thoughts on Some Early European Conceptualizations of Memory, Morality, and Consciousness

NOEL PACKARD New School University

CHRISTOPHER CHEN University of California–Berkeley

How did human memory activity, conceived of as an activity that helped bring a person closer to God, become affiliated with early sociological conceptualizations of a social con- struction of reality? This article explores one way of answering this question by considering some social conceptions of human memory from medieval times to modernity. In the Middle Ages, a good memory was an important characteristic of the most esteemed scholars. Rheto- ric was enhanced through mnemotechniques. Memory as practiced activity complemented early theological concepts of self-consciousness, or “being” closer to God, and morality and complemented early interpretations of contract law, casuistry, and jurisprudence. These concepts changed when religious belief, educational, and legal systems changed to meet the needs of a modern, capitalistic, and secular society. Capitalism facilitated the development of memory in commodity form, and human memory was claimed from metaphysical dis- course as an object of scientific study by sociologists Emile Durkheim and Maurice Halbwachs.


memory; morality; consciousness; casuistry; forgetting

This article presents one answer to the question, “How did early sociologists come to claim the study of memory as sociological activity?” The discussion begins with the social practices of memorization used in the Middle Ages and ends where theories about collective memory were posited by early sociologists such as Maurice Halbwachs and later, George Mead. Halbwachs and Mead both studied the work of metaphysicians such as Leibniz and Bergson. It appears that medieval and later metaphysical ideas and practices regarding trained human memory as critical for human goodness were incorporated into sociology from its beginning.

AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST, Vol. 48 No. 10, June 2005 1297-1319 DOI: 10.1177/0002764205277010 © 2005 Sage Publications


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